FOR DEVOTEES of Krsna, work has a higher purpose than simply keeping the body alive. In the Bhagavad-gita (18.46) Lord Krsna reveals the spiritual significance of work: "By performing his own work, in worship of the Lord, a man can attain perfection."
The government, therefore, Srila Prabhupada taught, is dutybound to ensure that every person is engaged according to his ability. "There should be no unemployment," he said. "Just stop this unemployment, and you will see the whole world will be peaceful."
Since the whole world isn't peaceful, I listened with interest last year as my sociology teacher made some remarks calculated to deflate college-boy enthusiasm about the upcoming presidential election: "It really doesn't matter who wins this election. Everything is going to stay the same. Take unemployment. All three candidates talk about reducing unemployment. But if you listen carefully none of them talks about creating full employment. Why is that?
"Full employment is bad for business. Businesses need unemployment to keep labor costs down. If everyone has a job, then companies have to pay higher wages to attract workers. This cuts into profits and it means lower campaign contributions. So none of the candidates advocates full employment."
The professor was right, of course. High unemployment helps keep down labor costs, favoring employers. And from the government's point of view, unemployment has the desirable side effect of holding down inflation. Full employment means higher wages, and higher wages translate into higher-priced goods for consumers. That's inflation. So economists tell us that in a market economy we just have to live with the "agonizing tradeoff between inflation and unemployment."
When a society has high unemployment, of course, it has the high costs that come with it. The most visible: the costs of welfare checks and unemployment benefits. Prolonged unemployment also dampens consumer confidence. Sales go down because people don't know when they'll have more money. Economists also point out that the real cost of high unemployment is the loss of goods and services that willing workers could have provided.
And then there are the social and psychological costs. A person's contribution to society is mostly defined by the work he or she does. Take away someone's work and you've cut that person off. "In our society, it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job, …" said Martin Luther King, Jr. "You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist."
"Re-Engineering" and The Growth of Unemployment
What causes unemployment? Two causes are easy to see: mechanization and the movement of jobs to countries with cheap labor. Employers go in for machines or high technology to save on labor costs. Sometimes workers are laid off right away, and sometimes job losses come later. As a result of industry's big investment in computers and other technology over the past couple of decades, we may soon see millions of more people out of work.
A recent front-page article in The Wall Street Journal (March 16) tells of "re-engineering" "a technique for finally getting the elusive productivity improvements that companies had hoped to reap from the hundreds of billions of dollars they invested in data-processing equipment over the past couple decades." Through re-engineering, the Journal says, businesses will achieve "stunning productivity gains." Businesses will do this by training employees in multiple skills, pushing decision-making to lower levels, and reorganizing assembly lines and offices to simplify and speed up work. Another technique: using temporary workers to avoid adding new workers to the permanent payroll.
But the costs in unemployment will be tremendous. The U.S. private sector, the Journal says, "today encompasses roughly 90 million jobs." By some estimates, re-engineering will wipe out as many as 25 million of them.
John C. Skerritt, managing partner in the financial services group at Andersen Consulting, says, "We can see many, many ways jobs will be destroyed, but we can't see where they will be created. This may be the biggest social issue of the next 20 years."
John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computer, commented that the "reorganization of work" might prove "as massive and wrenching as the Industrial Revolution."
The Journal concludes, "With millions being laid off, nearly everyone may feel threatened, and with good cause. For most workers, job security will be the most tenuous since the Depression."
History of Unemployment
Today the problems of unemployment may seem eternal, and when Srila Prabhupada admonishes that the government must make sure that everyone has a suitable job, his words may seem impracticable. But even a few hundred years ago, things were quite different. In the Middle Ages, for example, Europe had its problems, but unemployment was not large among them. Most people had a specific work to do for their livelihood.
But as Europe shifted its economic base from subsistence farming to commerce and industry, people were no longer assured a productive role, and they began to lose their jobs. With the invention of the water wheel, the windmill, and the horse collar, many serfs and peasants were put out of work, kicked off their land. By 1449, there were so many jobless "loiterers" that the first vagrancy law was passed: any person unemployed had to work for whoever offered him a job at any wage.
Unemployed serfs became "free labor." They no longer had a master to work for. Anyone could pay them a wage for work, and not have to be responsible for their livelihood and well-being. So now employers no longer had to pay a liveable wage a great boon for business. Without long-term responsibility, employers could hire and fire "human capital" at will.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the number of displaced workers had grown dramatically. At the end of the sixteenth century, English geographer Richard Hakluyt wrote of what this meant in England:
Multitudes of loiterers and idle vagabonds, having no way to be set on work, often fall to pilfering and thieving and other lewdness, whereby all the prisons of the land are daily pestered and stuffed full of them, where either they pitifully pine away, or else at length are miserably hanged, even twenty at a clap out of some one jail.
Unemployment and Crime
In the centuries since then, the link between joblessness and crime has stayed. As sociologist Elliot Currie points out, evidence suggests that if you know which inmates among already hardened prisoners will be released but be out of a job, you know which are most likely to go on to become high-rate offenders.
Citing research by Johns Hopkins sociologist M. Harvey Brenner, Currie says that in 1970
an increase in the American unemployment rate of one percentage point accounted for nearly 4 percent of that year's homicides, almost 6 percent of its robberies, and close to 9 percent of narcotics arrests.
These effects of unemployment come about only partly due to the pressure of losing a job and running out of money, Brenner says. Equally important is what he calls "the compound-interest effect." Out of a job, a person may turn to drugs and alcohol. And these in turn lead to crime.
Brenner also points out that by forcing jobless workers to move to other cities in search of work, unemployment breaks up families. This also leads to higher crime rates. When you think about the rates of unemployment predicted for the next couple of decades, you can't help but wonder: What will happen to families in a country where twenty-five million people are moving from place to place, desperately looking for work?
Currie gives evidence that along with unemployment, underemployment fosters crime too. A job flipping hamburgers at McDonald's may not be enough to keep a teenager out of the drug trade. People need jobs that can give them a decent and stable living. Beyond that, as argued by Carroll D. Wright in 1878, "The kind of labor which requires the most skill on the part of the workman to perform insures the laborer most perfectly against want and crime." Currie concludes that an economy that condemns many to drudgery and frequent unemployment will be neither just nor safe.
A Rural Solution
Tellingly, Currie links the problem of urban crime with the displacement of farm workers in earlier decades. The steady and massive erosion of jobs for small farmers and farm workers pushed millions of rural people into the cities just when steady work for low-skilled newcomers in the cities was disappearing, lost to automation, the suburbs, or low-wage havens abroad.
Currie makes a case similar to Srila Prabhupada's: to reduce crime and suffering, it is the duty of the government to provide everyone with suitable work.
What does Currie hold up as an example? Not the creation of inner-city business enterprise zones. Instead he recalls Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In the 1930s and 1940s, it put more than 2.5 million poor young men to work, mostly in national and state forest projects and other public works.
Anyone who has visited American parks and seen the beautiful log and stone cabins, shelters, and even woodland chapels put up by the young CCC workers can appreciate that, at least in the material sense, here was good work in a simple natural environment conducive to good character. The government invested a lot of money in the CCC, but the investment paid off in tangible structures, crime prevention, and the development of good people.
Roosevelt's CCC approach to unemployment held this irony: although a wholesome rural environment might have been new to many CCC workers, many possibly even most had parents or grandparents who had worked in rural settings decades earlier. What was it that pushed them or lured them off the land to seek work in the crime-ridden cities? Next time I'll discuss the sociological effects of replacing small farms with agribusinesses and industry.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, spent several years on the Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.