Bernie Sanders’ Attacks On The 1% Raise Important Question: Who Does Productive Work Today?

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

bernie ca rally(This posting is an edited version of a posting that appeared yesterday in Forbes, on a central employment issue raised by Bernie Sanders’ current campaigning in California).

Over the past week of campaigning in California, Sen. Bernie Sanders has continued to denounce the power of the wealthy to influence American government, declaring in Long Beach that “billionaires are not going to run this country.” The rhetoric of Sanders and his supporters over the past few months mainly focuses on the amount controlled by the wealthy, millionaires as well as billionaires. But the rhetoric also at times includes the idea that the 1% are not really contributing much to economic growth: that the hedge fund managers, financiers, lobbyists, government officials and high priced management consultants, are gaming the system, and not doing productive work.

Is this correct? Should we care? And if the financiers and other Sanders targets are not doing productive work, who is? A tiny number of American workers produce anything tangible—less than 2% of the nation’s workforce is directly employed in farming and less than 8.6% in manufacturing. What of the majority of other workers in white collar jobs, who at the end of the day mainly push paper? What of Senator Sanders whose product, like that of other politicians, is mainly air?

Listening to the Sanders campaign this past week and over the previous few months has brought to mind an inquiry regarding productive work that I was involved in some years back with the prominent San Francisco-based psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Aaron. I summarize it below in the hope that it might keep alive and push forward the current discussion, important on the individual and collective levels.

In 1986, the Harvard trained Dr. Aaron began speaking about a phenomenon he saw in his practice in the financial district. A good number of his patients, mainly high earners, did not have the usual work discontents—not enough pay, a boss who is a jerk, no job stability. Rather they felt that they were just pushing paper, they were not doing anything of value. “Each day as I drive over the Bay Bridge to work in San Francisco, I have the same thought: today they’re going to find out about me,” a money manager tells Dr. Aaron. A broker for a major firm confides to Dr. Aaron that he “sits in a high rise office making phone calls throughout the day and reading reports. What can I tell my children I do?” An administrator in California government explains that she has been on the payroll for two years without any real duties and that she’s leaving “even if I have to scrub floors to work.”

Often family or friends advise getting a hobby, or finding some other distraction. But Dr. Aaron sees these as palliative. Is there not better advice for these workers and others?

I had been introduced to Dr. Aaron a few years earlier. As we talked about this “real work” phenomenon we decided to see if we might address it more thoroughly and with a link to the economic research on productivity.

We put a small ad about our inquiry in the back of the local legal newspaper asking, “Are you doing Real Work” and within the first two days received 22 responses from persons who basically said, “I don’t regard my work as of value.” We wrote several op-eds for the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers and received other responses. Throughout 1987 and 1988 we conducted structured interviews with over 60 professionals in the service sector and government, and examined the various measurements and definitions of productivity.

The project was never completed. Dr. Aaron passed away suddenly. A draft of a manuscript, Real Work, as well as transcriptions of many of the interviews, reside in the archives of the California State Library. For the past several decades, I have had no contact with it.

But prior to Dr. Aaron’s death, we had developed some preliminary thinking about Real Work, and how Dr. Aaron’s patients and all of us might think about the challenge of productive work in a white collar, post-industrial economy. Here very briefly are some of our main conclusions:

  • Real work has nothing to do with whether something tangible is produced or not. Few workers produce anything tangible today or will in the future.
  • There is a great deal of “non-work” in today’s economy — jobs that are mainly pushing paper—and the amount is growing, especially with the increase in government regulation.
  • The key to doing productive work in a white collar economy is not the occupation, but how one approaches work. In particular, real work involves incorporating elements of craftsmanship into the job: emphasis on results not process; integrity; willingness to get the product just right, without regard to remuneration.
  • Some people find their craftsmanship in leaving a white collar position in finance, law, or government to take up more tangible pursuits: to design furniture or grow grapes or bind books. Most others, though, create their craftsmanship in their existing occupation, by how they approach their work.

It’s not clear that the Sanders campaign and its supporters are doing any more productive work than many of its familiar targets. Still, the questions about productive work that are being raised by the campaign are good ones; and will hopefully continue after this election.

And what of you? Is productive work an issue you think about? For yourself? For our economy? I’d welcome hearing your thoughts.

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