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The Life Of An Average Precariat

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And so, taxes are far too high, until people decide to say screw it and tell the IRS they’re impoverished. Maybe a Dicksenian degradation of the soul is correct. And that opens up a parallel problem with social services.

Scrupulous, contracting precariat might get a little upset, knowing they pay twice as much for social services they enjoy half as often.

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To get the unemployment benefits, you have to first be employed, and independent contracts don’t count.

If you go through a protracted period without a client — there’s not much of a safety net at all until your yearly income numbers are affected.

On the other hand, if you business-claimed your way into paper poverty, you can drive your Ferrari right up to the welfare office and get all sorts of benefits — food stamps, welfare, etc.

Also, if you’re a different kind of Precariat, the kind that works “real jobs” with paperwork, unemployment is a great system in a lot of states as long as you game it a bit.

In California, if you’re a union background actor who gets to work four days one week, but can’t get anything for the following three weeks, the month doesn’t look too terrible.

You can get unemployment benefits for those three weeks based on the income you made from that one week you did work.

If, on the other hand, you’re an actor who worked one day every week, you’re off to sleep on the streets.

Basically, our relationship with the government is complicated, and at times, seems more connected to strategy than real need.

But the common connection for all of us is that it takes a lot of time to deal with the government. Time we’re not paid for.

Time we could be spending doing something less obnoxious.

Competing with the others of our kind:

For many writers, there was a time when the Internet was a God-send. I want to say it was somewhere around 2007 to 2009. It was a time when the Internet was ubiquitous in the developed world, search algorithms were still very straight-forward, and many sites were paying “rev-share” meaning that with some basic SEO skills a writer could get on a platform like Yahoo News and make very good money for writing… well, crap.

Repackaging information out into the echo chamber, but also occasionally writing what they really wanted to, you know, real journalism.

Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

Yes, newspapers got shutdown, and the quality of journalism descended into the lowly pits of crapdom, but it was also an opportunity.

But Google is more choosy about its news, ad revenue is down, and the Internet is now ubiquitous in the developing world too — meaning writers are competing against English-speaking South-East Asians with much lower living costs.

It’s globalization, and it’s put downward pressure on the wages of a whole bunch of precariat folks — writers, basic programmers, customer service.

And then there are disruptors — like Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Upwork — opening up global platforms for goods and services that empower consumers and cut costs, but also force people into contracts and drive down earnings.

I remember another story, not from Ted, but another ride-share driver who had a problem being followed and harassed by angry taxi drivers. It reached the point where he started carrying a gun for protection.

But those were the early days, the ride-share drivers don’t need to worry about those taxi drivers any more — they’re all too hungry to put up much of a fight now.

That kind of antagonism — poor on poor conflict — isn’t anything new, but there was a better time, at least in the writer community, where there were many people working to keep writers well-informed and wary of scams — and there are so, so many scams.

Databases like this one give an idea of what publications pay, and Writer’s Digest includes pay ranges on all sorts of writer work. There are also forums where writer’s tell horror stories.

(Just as a rule of thumb, anything that shows a person writing on the beach or by a pool is a scam. And writing on the beach is stupid, sand gets everywhere and you get nothing done because you’re too busy dealing with glare on your screen all day. Don’t be stupid, stay inside).

Yes, we’re all in competition with each other, but it’s also important to realize we’re also in a negotiation with the people who pay us. Every compromise to pay makes it that much harder for everyone else to get by.

But with a growing precariat, keeping a decent control on prices is near impossible.

There is simply too much supply feeding a limited demand.

As a result, we much fight and destroy each other.

And then there’s the loneliness…

Then there’s a more standard issue Guy Standing talks about, the pyschological affects of precarious living.

Offices and jobs are where adults make friends.

The kind of friend you’re not really that close to, the kind of friend you don’t dare complain about work to, but the friend you still spend a lot of time with.

People meet future spouses in work settings. They play sports and do Borat impersonations. I don’t know myself. Most of my knowledge of office socializing comes from the sitcom “The Office,” but still, working as a contractor or a temp, moving from place to place, takes away a stable social life.

The Internet is a cold, cold place, and if it’s where most of your social interaction takes place, I think there’s a good chance you’ll go insane.

Solutions…

When it comes to the lonely precariat, viciously beating each other into poverty, there is, maybe, a way to mitigate the harshness of life through guilds.

First, let me tell you about an industry that has been disrupted over and over again. An industry that has faced precarity for many decades, and thrived in it — Hollywood.

Actors, writers, cameramen, cinematographers, most everyone is represented by guilds. They’ll say they’re “union” but they’re not.

Unions collectively bargain for stable, regularly rising wages, usually for unskilled labor.

Guilds enforce minimum prices for their members, who have proven their skill-set. Guilds can’t guarantee their members work, but they guarantee wages high enough to compensate for the down-time.

Although Hollywood’s guilds usually guarantee a minimum contract length, there are clear limits presented by an industry where a show can get cancelled at any time, and film shootings are inherently temporary.

It might sound pretty one-sided, but businesses get something too.

Guilds ensure that people know what they’re doing.

Yes, you’re paying more, but the risk is reduced, and the costs of training and inspection are reduced. And yes, even Lyft has some inspections and on-boarding costs to deal with. Guilds also provide a little bit of social stability in a chaotic world — even if it’s just for training, classes, and mixers.

I know…

A customer service guild? If unions struggle to keep workers employed, how will guilds force price controls on labor?

I understand the difficulty, and there’s another idea in the wings.

Universal Basic Income

Yeah, it’s the cutting edge of progressive public policy. A condition-free monthly check to everyone. Not enough money to automatically become “middle-class” but enough to not starve.

Enough to feel economically safe in unpredictable times. It’s also the conclusion Guy Standing draws from his analysis of the precariat.

Afterall, globalization exists, and it’s not going away. Nor should it.

Hundreds of millions of people are being pulled out of poverty by undercutting Western workers. And they have every right to get out there and make a good living.

Policy researchers have run pilot programs everywhere from Uganda to Finland, and, so far, it looks like many of the economic fears are exaggerated.

  • Inflation doesn’t balloon out of control.

In fact, UBI seems to prompt more people to start businesses that compete and keep prices in check.

  • People don’t just sit at home and stop working.

In fact, productivity seems to increase with people more open to the precariat lifestyle of contracts and part-time gigs.

And think about that mess of social services and taxation. A welfare system more based on knowing the rules and playing the game than real need. A system of taxation that requires some people to choose between lying or eating.

And think about all the people spending their careers maintaining that porous welfare system. All of that represents a economic loss.

Of course, I don’t see the United States engaging in any sort of cutting-edge progressive policy-making any time soon. And when it does, could our beleaguered internal revenue service (IRS) really redistribute income on that level? Or will China be signing those UBI checks?

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