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How Do We Earn a Living in a Pandemic?

Coronavirus, Capitalism, and Why That’s the Wrong Question

In America, we determine the value of our lives by the value we provide to to others. Determining that value is usually pretty easy: we work, we get paid, we get to eat, live under a roof, and maybe accumulate some toys and do some things we like. If we don’t work for others, if we don’t create value for some paying customer, we probably don’t eat. We all have to earn a living.

Now somewhere between Eden and history, pay had no part in that process. We didn’t have to work for others; we lived by the sweat of our own brow, by the accuracy of our own flints and the fruits of our own pickings. But even before Daybreak, our ancestor-ancestors evidently tired of fighting for raccoon scraps and decided to cooperate and divide labor. We find tasks we each can do better or with less heartburn than others can. I do my work for you, you do your work for me, and we call it even. If you don’t have an immediate personal need for my specific work—I may hire a plumber to fix my pipes, but my plumber doesn’t have a pressing need right now for me to write him a philosophical essay—we translate work into currency, which you can convert into the goods and services you need elsewhere. that currency becomes the simple, shared measure of the value of the work you can do for others.

We exempt many people from this transactional valuation, though not perfectly. We let children escape work, but not for long: we gradually introduce them to our expectation that they, too, will work for others someday, and we train them to fulfill that expectation. We let old folks withdraw from the workforce, but only if the “earn” their retirement with work in their prime. To some extent, we tolerate the idleness of the young and the old because, in many fields, they cannot add much value. They lack the strength, skill, experience, or endurance that productivity requires.

So we work, and we pay people to work for us. In normal times, this constant exchange of labor and goods and wampum beads works tolerably well. We tolerate certain injustices in this system because we slide into thinking that this system provides not just practical sustenance but justice. We deserve to eat because we work, or because we will work when we grow up, or because we did work for decades before we retired.

So what happens to that justice, what do we deserve, when we cannot work?

Never mind the normal broad exceptions, the young and the old and even the sick and disabled. What about us healthy, working adults, who now, in this strange sudden world of coronavirus, to stay healthy, must not work? How do we earn a living?

In response to this sudden shift in our capitalist, transactional valuation of human life, Smithfield Foods chose a capitalist response. It tried to outbid coronavirus and its workers’ risk assessment, offering them more money to continue working in hazardous conditions. Smithfield Foods labeled those incentive payments “Reponsibility Bonuses,” underscoring the value proposition underlying our whole economic system, the idea that work signals virtue and that sustenance—existence!—is the earned reward of virtuous labor.

That capitalist response, that doubling-down on the idea that individual dignity depends on continual labor, created the fourth-worst concentration of coronavirus cases in the nation.

We could try to preserve the instrumental, transactional view of individual worth by saying that the greatest value we contribute to each other and to the community at large right now is by stopping our usual work and staying away from each other. We are saving two million lives and a functional health care system by shutting down the consumer economy and staying home. No work right now is more important for America than that. So if we must earn our dignity and self-worth and sustenance by fulfilling the needs of others, there’s our work of the moment. We can argue our coronavirus relief checks are simply payment for a job well done, the very different but vital work of not working at the office, of not coming in to slaughter hogs and chickens, of shuttering the café.

But who writes those stay-home checks? Smithfield Foods makes its money chopping and grinding hogs into wieners. People staying home don’t make wieners or make money for Smithfield Foods. Why should Smithfield Foods pay workers for skipping the work at the plant that directly adds value to Smithfield and instead staying home to create value that accrues directly to the community at large, to Smithfield and its competitors and all other businesses and entities in the marketplace alike? The Grand Falls Casino in Larchwood is acting with great decency toward its workers, paying them six weeks’ salary while the casino is closed, but is the casino obliged to keep pouring its money into the general welfare and not its own?

Obviously, to reach every American, coronavirus relief checks have to come from the American government, not from individual companies but from all Americans polling their resources and working together. But if we think of those relief checks as payment for the “work” of not working, of staying home to prevent spread of contagion, do we deny those relief checks to knuckleheads like Oacoma’s Coronavirus Charlie who test positive and heedlessly walk around town putting neighbors at risk?

No. Even prisoners get three squares a day.

To the extent that any of us “deserve” our daily bread (and Hamlet reminds us that all we deserve is whipping), that desert comes from something other than how many wieners or frisbees or sales we can make. As children, old folks, prisoners, and now everyone furloughed by pandemic response demonstrate, our right to eat, our right to exist, is not earned. Our right to exist is inherent in our existence. (Sum, ergo dignum sum?) Our dignity comes from being, not working. Even when we cannot work, we retain the right to exist.

We can each provide according to our ability, but we should each receive according to our needs. Decoupling labor and sustenance—that’s not just Marx; that’s pilgrims settling the New World and following the example of the first Christians:

The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.

And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need [Acts 4:32-35, as translated by Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, 1993/2018].

Coronavirus shines a bright light on the shortcomings, failures, and contradictions of modern American capitalism. The current pandemic casts in stark relief the flaws in our language and our values.

We do not “earn a living.” Even when we cannot earn, when doctors tell us we must not go out to earn, we still get to live. The transactional capitalist economy does not affirm that basic, inherent human dignity. A communitarian, socialist economy does.

17 Comments

  1. Edwin Arndt 2020-04-11

    Thought provoking stuff, Cory. And yet, sheltering in place
    will simply not work forever. You can bet that when the time
    comes, farmers are going to go out in their fields and plant
    a crop. And eventually someones car will need to be repaired,
    and someones furnace will have to be fixed. Let’s hope that
    the virus gives up before the worst happens, because most of
    us realize that we simply can’t shut down forever. When
    people are consuming, somebody has got to be producing.

  2. jerry 2020-04-11

    Interesting and thought provoking. I’m certainly not going to stand up for Smithfield Foods other than to say, who will feed us? We won’t have gardens until this fall, what do we do until then? I remember once reading of a gent in Keystone that grew turnips, Art claimed that he saw German’s after the war, growing them as that was the only thing to eat, are we ready for that? Even turnips take time to grow and then you have the issue with the lack of toilet paper, so you need production of that.

    Right now, there are miles long streams of cars at drive thru food banks all over the country. The workers there are volunteers that distribute the food to those in need that have either lost their jobs or are just plain poor. Food banks right here in South Dakota are strained and in bad shape. What would happen if there were no food there or in any of the grocery stores due to lack of production on those kill floors?

    Without those farmers and ranchers who go about the dangerous business of providing the food for our belly’s, we would starve to death. So what do you do with the food processors?

  3. John 2020-04-11

    Two thoughts.
    One, let the lawsuits flow.
    Two, the historical outcome from pandemics is the re-emergence of labor over capital. Labor wages rise. Scarcity, fear, and other factors contribute.
    Consider Figure 4 of this brief, yet exhaustive review: https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/files/wp2020-09.pdf

  4. Donald Pay 2020-04-11

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Cory and commenters.

    The idea that pandemics cause the re-emergence of labor over capital depends, I think, on the death of many of the laborers. Once the pandemic kills off laborers, yes, labor becomes scarce, and you expect it to become more important. That assumes that capital can’t be used, or used effectively, to reduce need for labor. I’m not sure that assumption holds today for some sectors of the economy.

    Work is important for social outlets and self-worth as much as for the economic benefits. Marx, contrary to what many think, was big on work. What he was concerned about is how laborers’ natural enjoyment that they get from being agents in their work was crushed by capital by how work was “alienated” from the worker and controlled by capital.

    As a retiree, I am enjoying not having to work, but I do miss the daily banter with co-workers and the feeling of making a small contribution to my fellow humans. I find myself doing little things for others, even if it is just bringing up their garbage carts, shoveling walks and doing small errands. It helps me feel useful, and it gives me a social outlet, too.

    I definitely appreciate Social Security, Medicare and 401 k, which are social safety nets for elders. I know I earned these “benefits” through years of work, but their primary value to me is that I now get to spend time writing down various ideas I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about. I’m not talking about what I write here as a commenter on Cory’s blog, though that is fun, too. I have completed three “books” in 3 years, though no one will probably ever read them, other than maybe my daughter when I die, and I’ve got a nugget of an idea for my 4th book. There is so much you can do when you don’t have to “work” in the so-called “real’ economy. I often do much more work now than I did back when I was working.

    Adam Smith discounted what many parents and grandparents are doing now. Smith, of course, did little to nothing when it came to actual “work.” He inherited an estate, and his wealth allowed him to write his tombs on economics about which he had little first-hand experience. One thing that always struck me was that his mother cooked his meals for him, but he didn’t consider that work since she didn’t participate in the free market economy. Today many parents and grandparents are at home, distancing themselves to the virus doesn’t spread so fast that the capitalist economy implodes. They doing “work” that the capitalist economy discounts, even though it may actually save capitalism.

  5. Debbo 2020-04-11

    Good post Cory, very interesting.

    Pure capitalism is not a viable economic system. Well regulated socialistic capitalism is.

    There must be strong safety nets, viable labor unions and vigorous trust busting for an economy to serve all participants.

    The US requires certain constitutional adjustments to function effectively. Anti-bribery laws must be stringent and strictly enforced. Congressional and senatorial districts must be proportional to population and drawn via computer algorithm. Election structures must be drastically limited and entirely publicly financed. Voter laws must be generous and encourage extremely high turnout nationally. Political considerations must be entirely stricken from all levels of courts. Racism and misogyny must be addressed and taken into consideration in lawmaking until both have been erased from public consciousness.

    There’s more, but it’s supper time. Later. 😁

  6. T 2020-04-11

    Excellent read
    We r already getting ready to plant, need a part? You call and it is set outside. Need fuel? They deliver, need tires (get them now prices going high because of “shortage” and they r delivered. Nothing has changed much still with preparing for spring planting
    Only thing changes this year, is fuel prices, everything else is high. If you need something worked on, a service call is made but for their protection and yours, no one is around. Hauls are still being made, no contact, and same as seed pickups, you stay in semi. Extra hauls are bonuses for extra cash those were few before everything hit. Your not allowed in elevators either call or leave paperwork in a box.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    Edwin, I agree that we can’t all stay in our caves forever. I can’t fix my own car, much less build my own replacement. I can’t build my own computer or my own Internet any more than you can produce quality journalism and political philosophy. We must interact. We must trade goods and services.

    But this moment when we can’t interact shows the flaws in thinking that our personal value, our dignity, is defined by production and consumption. We produce and consume because we have to, but we deserve to eat and exist regardless of our industrial output.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    Jerry, the food factories pose a hard practical problem, separate from the philosophical proposition I’m trying to resolve above.

    Farmers don’t have to suffer from social distancing. I would think now is a great time to be alone in a tractor plowing and planting the back 40.

    Food factories do suffer. Yes, the way we’ve set up our industrial economy, Smithfield and similar plants have to operate to put meat on most of our tables. But Smithfield has demonstrated that it can’t stay open without causing an explosion in coronavirus cases. If Smithfield shuts down, we’ll have trouble putting ham and wieners on our plates for a couple weeks. If Smithfield doesn’t shut down, half of their workers will get sick, several will die, and they’ll infect their families, friends, roommates, and other folks around town. We can go without ham and wieners for a couple weeks to save those lives. We shouldn’t be sending Smithfield a nice letter asking them to close for more than three days; we should be sending them a court order, putting police tape around the whole plant, and telling them they don’t open until all of their workers have been in quarantine for two weeks and until Department of Health inspectors followed closely by KELO-TV cameras have reviewed and approved every cleaning and safety measure the factory has taken to prevent any more spread of contagion within the plant when the workers come back.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    John, I look forward to all of us being alive after the pandemic to go to court. It will be a pleasure to see everyone at the courthouse. Maybe we’ll even get to shake hands.

    And all those lawsuits will give journalists lots of meaningful work, to help us hear and study all the arguments over rights, duties, contracts, and the Constitution that arise from this pandemic and inform our community-building for the next generation.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    John, I’ve just looked at the intro to that paper on the long-term effects of pandemics: lower rates of return than after wars, because pandemics don’t destroy capital, just labor and demand. Fascinating! I’m going to need to read more!

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    Donald, I find it interesting that the things you do to replace pre-retirement work and to maintain connection and serve others don’t appear to provide monetary rewards. You aren’t “earning” your living. You do things for personal fulfillment instead of a paycheck. And, as you say, that sense of fulfillment drives you to work harder than you did when your work resulted in a paycheck. Is that what you say Marx was talking about with the natural enjoyment of work and the alienation of workers crushed by capital?

    I find Adam Smith useful, but Donald, perhaps you just pointed out the fundamental flaw in Smith’s philosophy. The free market itself isn’t bad: exchanging goods and services to allow specialization (including having someone else cook so Smith could concentrate on writing his instructive tomes!) raises everyone’s overall quality of life. But was he guilty of the main flaw I’m talking about above, focusing on work that results in pay in the free market and discounting the work you and I and others do for personal fulfillment and love?

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    Safety nets… seat belts… airbags… fire hydrants… we use these things only occasionally, only when things go wrong. Most of the time, we don’t need them. Most of the time we leap from our trapezes and whistle down the highway and run our electrical devices on the mystical forces that flow through the flammable veins of our homes with no damage, no need for rescue from our mostly unfettered choices.

    But when things go wrong, we have to suspend normal operations and engage our safety mechanisms.

    Capitalism is normal. Socialism is necessary.

    Paychecks are normal. Feeding, clothing, and caring for everyone, whether the economy is working or not, is necessary.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-12

    T describes nicely how farming can still happen, safely and with every participant, farmer, mechanic, trucker, elevator operator, etc., working in relative isolation… though had I gone into farming, I suspect I’d really miss the chance to be in the shop with the mechanic, help him with those replacement parts, and learn how to fix it myself next time.

    But even if we could automate all that farming—run the tractors and combines and trucks by GPS—the displaced workers would still need to eat. A universal basic income would ease the displacement of labor due to automation and coronavirus; the challenge is figuring out how we keep generating that universal basic income, that sustenance for each person, when our tax system is based on collecting wealth from workers as they work and spend.

  14. Edwin Arndt 2020-04-12

    Cory, I guess I shall have to try harder.

  15. jerry 2020-04-12

    So then, can anyone tell me why we need GMO in our food system? How about growth hormones? Why can’t we have natural food that puts ordinary Joe’s back to work the farms and it’s products. We used to do that and then we moved to the city and started selling encyclopedia’s to one another.

  16. Debbo 2020-04-12

    Jerry, one thing to keep in mind about farm work prior to many of the modern advances is how dangerous and physically disabling it was. The danger is somewhat reduced, though farming is still high on the list of dangerous occupations.

    Sometimes I am guilty of romanticizing the farm life of my youth. As a child I thought it was torture when mom directed me to weed a row of green beans in our 1 acre garden. I cannot imagine the back and hand pain from spending the day picking cucumbers in a 20 acre field. I’m sure I’d be crying, unable stand straight and my hands would be bloody.

    On the farm we might process up to 50 chickens in one morning, have them bagged and in the freezer by noon. That was hard work, but we had very few ill effects. In the hog packing plant we processed 3000 hogs in one 8 hour day. Each worker made the same cut or motion 3000 – 12,000 times that day. For the first couple of weeks my hands were like claws at the end of the day. I couldn’t tie my shoes! My back, legs and arms were on fire. I barely made it to my car after work. I came home, laid down on my bed and cried.

    These are the things workers in the food production field endure. It’s harsh, sometimes debilitating. I think it may be time to make some changes in the farm to table process to provide better food and more humane conditions for the people involved.

  17. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-13

    We talk often here about how various technological and economic choices put people out of work, especially in agriculture. But as Debbo reminds us, putting people out of backbreaking, spirit-crushing work isn’t all bad. And my main thesis here wonders why we need to be in a rush to put anyone back to work. We shouldn’t need a deadly pandemic to give the underpaid, overworked laborers at Smithfield a holiday (and its too bad they are getting their break at a time when they can’t go on a trip or celebrate), and it’s too bad they have to go on this break with the threat of losing their paychecks after two weeks. But those workers’ value and dignity does not depend solely on butchering hogs as quickly as possible.

    The philosophical point here is tricky: I don’t want to give people an excuse to lie about being lazy. We do need some work to get done, and not all work is pleasant. We deeply appreciate the doctors, nurses, truckers, and grocery stockers right now, and we’d be in a world of hurt if they all stayed home. But all the non-essential encyclopedia sellers (and Amway hawkers, and Mary Kay ladies…) aren’t lesser people just because they aren’t working. Those sidelined workers, the folks whose business model can’t withstand a general quarantine, still need three squares and a bed as much as anyone who has the chance to put in 40 hours remotely. There’s a practical challenge in continuing to produce and distribute sustaining wealth in the midst of a pandemic that demands turning down GDP, but there’s also a moral challenge to adjusting our values and paring down the Smithian thinking that could lead a lot of people to feel depressed about not working.

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