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The Fraud of Jobs

by Stephen Fortunato

Lies abound. There are the mostly benign “white lies” of the insincere compliment or the fabrication to avoid a social obligation, and there are the grander and more poisonous ones that can shape and undergird an entire political culture, or at least its dominant class. Some lies eventually assume the status of myth or religious doctrine: for example, the United States is always a force for good in the world; or that favorite of political panderers: that the common sense and basic decency of the American people will triumph over any adversity.

A current lie that is as dangerous as it is fantastic, and which mesmerizes the two major political parties as well as the punditocracy and the public, is that the creation of jobs and “putting people back to work” is the motivating objective behind all economic policy. This lie is repeated as a mantra in stump speeches, legislative debates and op-ed pieces in ways that always mask its deeper and more metaphysical premise that it is only economically productive labor performed for a wage which entitles a person to the resources that will allow for a life of dignity and contentment. Poverty and privation necessarily become the only alternatives for the millions of people who perform no such work or are compensated meagerly for the jobs they have.

Put another way, the managers of the current economic system — whether it is called capitalism or globalization — insist that the unemployed seek jobs even when not enough exist for everyone and the jobs that remain available after outsourcing and automation often pay less than a living wage. Anyone who has shopped for food or rented an apartment knows that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a joke as cruel and fraudulent as the poverty demarcation line of  $23,050 for a family of four.

Sometimes machines are more profitable than cashiers — even cashiers paid the minimum wage.

The detritus of the departed manufacturing base is observable everywhere in the form of abandoned factories, desolate towns and aisles in megastores filled with imported goods, most of them shoddy. And the assault on human labor by automation and robotics is ubiquitous as well, from the self- checkout scanners that convert customers into unpaid replacement employees to the cranes and containers in our ports that have decimated the ranks of longshoremen.

This state of affairs, with cybernetic machinery relentlessly displacing workers, was predicted  more than a half-century ago by economists and social critics in a sadly ignored document titled The Triple Revolution (full text available at which was submitted to President Lyndon Johnson and other political leaders. Its conclusion that work as it had been known for centuries was changing qualitatively because of technological innovation should be no surprise when the core principles of capitalism are considered. The animating force of free enterprise is the maximization of profits but this is no more a moral precept than its corollary of minimizing the costs of production. Because labor is usually the major cost of any capitalist enterprise and therefore an impediment to profit growth, the elimination of this “problem” through locating a cheaper labor supply or, better still, by  substituting  a machine for  workers  suits the capitalists’ goals just fine.

It should not be forgotten that for more than two centuries the United States economy, as well as that of other empires, was built largely by slaves, the classic unpaid labor force. Today, modern forms of wage slavery in such places as China, India,  Mexico, and the United States —  for agricultural and menial workers — is the model applauded by contemporary economic buccaneers who, far from being the job creators their political apologists claim they are, employ every opportunity to exploit, and ultimately eliminate, labor.

Nowhere in the capitalist universe is there anything approximating the Buddhist precepts to save all sentient beings and to act with compassion toward all including one’s self. Nowhere in the capitalist universe are there found any rudimentary notions of social justice as taught by all of history’s prophets and poets.

So the Big Lie is that everybody is obliged to contribute toward production, though jobs are too few and many pay inadequate wages, or else face a marginalized existence of poverty and privation. And a significant footnote to the Big Lie is that production can be of anything, regardless of social benefit and even if the methods of production degrade the environment or endanger the worker, or both. The Lie, once exposed, thus presents the question: What must be done?

The answer must be explored along two channels: individual and social. Individually, through meditation and activities with the sangha, or other small  groups, an awareness arises that lasting contentment comes not through the accumulation of things inspired by advertisers manipulating desires, but rather through simple joys like cooking, gardening, making art, or activism.  The simple, non-acquisitive life is something taught by the Buddha and modern guides such as Thich Nhat Hanh, and sages from other times and places as well, from Horace and Seneca, to Ryokan and Thoreau, to Dorothy Day and Helen Nearing.

To address the question of the political and plutocratic demand that work is an absolute prerequisite for sustenance, if not survival, is more difficult; but there is a growing movement pressing for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) which would, in essence, provide each individual with an annual government stipend without any work or means-test requirement.(See,e.g., and  Though current political discourse would lead one to think otherwise, the United States committed to the notion of BIG in theory when it signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 25 of that international agreement provides that governments must assure that all people have

a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his [sic] family,” and declared importantly that this minimum must be guaranteed even when a person experienced a “lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his [sic] control.

Needless to say, the BIG contemplates a significant rearrangement of budgetary priorities, not to mention a tectonic shift in political consciousness and will. Surely the megabillion defense budget requiring bases and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction along with personnel, public and private, to maintain the Empire will have to be cut back; and a tax system that encourages the concentration of great fortunes in the hands of a few while necessary services like education and fire protection are curtailed must be reconfigured. And activists, whether in Occupy and Living Wage organizations, or the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, must educate the public and their elected leaders about the obvious: among the vaunted, inalienable rights that inhere in all people are the rights to food, shelter, healthcare, and a dignified existence allowing for educational and spiritual growth, regardless of any so-called productive labor performed at a “job.”

Some may object that these demands are utopian. My response can only be that the prevailing ludicrous insistence that people obtain jobs that do not exist — or which are being phased out into oblivion — is a cruel fabrication that will result in nothing but the continued dystopian consequences of poverty, marginalization, and oppression.

Stephen Fortunato was a trial judge on the Rhode Island Superior Court for thirteen years after serving as a civil rights lawyer for more than two decades.  He has been a Zen practitioner for at least forty years.


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Comments (19)

  • Rachel

    I am SO excited to read about BIG in a post here! It’s necessity keeps coming home to me when i can’t sleep worrying how i’ll make money without going back to corporate America (and i am the lucky one: I have that option!). The only quibble with this post: In addition to a Basic Income Guarantee, we also need universal health care.

    Now how do we make that happen? Sigh. That’s the question i keep coming back to. To me both BIG and universal health care are obvious rights – and i suspect i represent a minority because we’ve all been brainwashed by those lies…

    Maybe changing our language could be a step? Rather than using the cover-up language that perpetuates the lies, we can talk about sickness profiteering (rather than health care) and wealth-subsidies (rather than tax cuts).

  • Richard Modiano

    For those of us old to to remember, a guaranteed annual income was part of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and Harry S. Truman proposed universal health care following his 1948 election. The ideas are not new and neither is the regressive opposition to them.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Many thanks to Stephen (if I may) for this important post.

    In this country at least, serious consideration of the basic income/guaranteed annual income idea owes much (if not everything) to Richard Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward (1888). See too Arthur E. Morgan’s biography, Edward Bellamy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944). For a helpful discussion of Bellamy’s ideas (i.e., a sympathetic yet critical analysis), please see “An Unfinished Dream,” in Raghavan Iyer, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; Reprint ed., Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1986).

    As for some of the conceptual and historical lineage of the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) or Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), they can be traced to a fine variety of individuals, including Thomas Paine, Francois Huet and Cesar De Paepe, as well as the “social dividend” notion in G.D.H. Cole’s work and later in Oskar Lange’s use of that term “to refer to each citizen’s contribution-independent share in society’s net profits on the use of collectively owned means of production” (Philippe van Parijs). Those not intimately familiar with the “basic income” idea might read van Parijs’ edited volume, Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform (London: Verso, 1992). Among the contributors are Brian Barry, Robert E. Goodin, Andre Gorz, Claus Offe and Hillel Steiner. The BIG is also the subject of one of the volumes in the Real Utopias Project (I linked to this in another comment thread here) by Bruce Ackerman, Anne Alstott, and Philippe van Parijs, et al.: Redesigning Distribution: Basic Income and Stakeholder Grants as Cornerstones for an Egalitarian Capitalism (London: Verso, 2008).
    For those impatient or wanting to read something a bit shorter, there was a very helpful New Democracy Forum treatment of the Basic Income proposal over a decade ago in the Boston Review, November/December, 2000. Philippe Van Parijs (cited above) writes the main article, followed by sundry responses. Thankfully, it is available online:

    The “dignity of labor” (in the language of Catholic theology on the topic) or the role of work as an intrinsic part of human fulfillment is undeniable, but full employment—or anything close to same—in this stage of globalist capitalization will remain elusive if not unattainable for most countries. As James Robertson presciently wrote in the introduction to his Future Work: Jobs, Self-Employment and Leisure after the Industrial Age (New York: Universe Books, 1985), “The impact of labour-saving technology, the competitive pressures of international trade, and the reluctance of taxpayers to finance more public service jobs, clearly suggest that, if substantial economic growth ever does come back as we still understand it, much of it is likely to be jobless growth.” Another work along these lines chock full of food for thought is Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio’s The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

    The BIG has been shrewdly proposed above as a species of “egalitarian capitalism,” but while this may have ideological resonance and rhetorical appeal on its side, I think it fails to transcend the intrinsic problems associated with the commodification of labor and the sovereignty of Capital in capitalism. In other words:

    1. A capitalist society is one in which the economy is primarily arranged for the benefit of Capital.
    2. A capitalist society is one in which the economy is primarily arranged for the benefit of capitalists.
    3. A capitalist is one who is committed to pursuing the interests of Capital, even when those interests interfere with, contradict, or trump the efforts of individuals and groups to live their lives under the authority of the Good.
    4. A capitalist is one who believes that the free market, driven by the profit motive, is the most appropriate way of organizing the distribution of goods and services in society.

    Therefore, as Michael Luntley writes The Meaning of Socialism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1990):

    “Under capitalism the subject is alienated from the normative bonds that would otherwise hold her in place within the community. If this is not done, the ‘labour market’ cannot be established as a commodity market. If it is done, the possibility that human life will be structured by moral norms is shattered. [….] Under capitalism the subject is alienated from the norms that alone can provide a human social life framed by moral values, the subject is alienated from the good.”

    I explored this further in a post a couple of years ago at Religious Left Law in a post title, “The Good & Capitalism: Toward an Appreciation of the Meaning of Socialism:”

    Related to the above link but more in the way of a critique of fundamental presuppositions, assumptions (with regard to human nature for example), and values associated with capitalism that are contrary to Buddhist ethics and psychology, indeed, to eudaimonistic individualism more broadly, please see my post on The Economics of Unhappiness: A Syllabus,

    As to precisely how Marx’s conception of human nature and capabilities transcends the basic philosophical and psychological assumptions and premises of capitalism, please see Jon Elster’s brilliant essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989 ): 127-158. This has inspired—alongside some ideas derived from the economist Amartya Sen—Martha Nussbaum’s increasingly influential articulation of the “capabilities approach” to human development as explored in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). Although she does not mention her debt to Marx here, she does acknowledge his contribution in her earlier book, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard University Press, 2006).

    Finally, in noting Stephen’s anticipation of objections or possible dismissals of the imperatives he outlines as “utopian,” we might keep in mind that this term may be used in a non-pejorative sense, indeed, as indicative of a necessary facet of emancipatory political philosophy, intrinsic to imagination, critique, and civic education, as I explain here:

  • Rachel

    At the risk of sounding impatient, i’ll type up the question your comment brought up in me, Richard: Why the heck can’t we get it done, then?!?

    Part of the reason for asking this, though, is a wish to learn because i see a lot of wheel-reinvention because we don’t listen to “our elders” (whether they are truly older or simply more experienced). What can we learn from past movements that would strengthen our efforts today? Is there a way to accelerate social change?

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I have a comment from early yesterday morning “awaiting moderation.” Should there be a problem with the comment, by all means please let me know. Thanks, Patrick

  • Katie Loncke

    Thanks for the reminder, Patrick: when comments contain more than two links, our spam filter routes them through a moderation process automatically: it saves us a lot of energy, but it can be kind of confusing. Your comment is now out of limbo and visible!

  • Richard Modiano

    “Why the heck can’t we get it done, then?!?”

    First, we live in the United Stets of Amnesia, so earlier struggles are soon forgotten. For example, Truman proposed universal health care in 1948, and Sen Ted Kennedy revived it with a proposal in the Senate in 1971. President Nixon countered with his own version of health care reform that was essentially the “Obama Care” we have today.

    If you look at the big picture, you can see gradual changes taking place over decades: 50 years of agitation to get the vote for women, 100 years of struggle to get a Voting Rights Act, 50 bloody years of agitation to win collective bargaining for labor, etc.

    I’m reminded of a line from a poem by Allen Ginsberg:

    For the world is a mountain
    of shit: if it’s going to
    be moved at all, it’s got
    to be taken by handfuls

  • Nicole

    Human rights don’t get served up by willing politicians. Citizens need to struggle for it. The good news is there is a world wide movement and awakening in this direction.

  • Frank M Ortiz

    Much of this is arises from how our respective governments have set up our economies to empower the individual with both legal freedom and economic freedom. Both are absolutely necessary for establishing the kind of world we collectively seek. Political economists over the past 250 years from Adam Smith, to Henry George to Joseph Stieglitz have arrive at the same conclusions. The world just needs to aware of them.

    Find them at:

  • Barb

    There is another option but this would be good for transition to it. I am in Favor of what is called the natural law resource based economy. I consider as long as there is money there will always be greed and the grab for power that it brings. The rich will as it is stands now will not stand for the BIG Program even though I really wish it was here. It would make my life much easier since I am sick a lot and I live in a box as a result. Not a bad box but still a box.

    You can check out the link on my name and the Zeitgeist Movement and the Venus Project.

    I am heavily in favor of the BIG program as it does not stop people from progressing such as the current programs do. My theory they know they stop people from doing better so they can be controlled easier and I am sure I am right on this one.

    So if you want the BIG program you have to make a very big stink to get one. For the one’s running things now don’t care if we die or not. We are not profit to them and the BIG program can cut into their own profits.

    theVenusProject dot com.

  • Jay Garces

    Hey, I’m new. I am doing an report for sociology on “the perfect job – compare and contrast disconnected fantasy with utopian but real action plans”, meaning what is fake or honest even if its still a dream. Buddhist Peace forum has this article by Judge Fortunato on fraud jobs with a cartoon guy, reminds me of working at In’n’out, except we all made $8.25 ’cause its Cali, lol. There was another story about your work going beyond your actual job. Katie Loncke wrote the article with people in Hong kong striking to make their job better.

    My question is can buddhists have a perfect job because they get a peaceful mind or would you have to go on strike?

  • Katie Loncke

    Hey Jay! Thanks for coming by — and for raising this question, which gets to the HEART of some of my own struggles around the meaning of an engaged Buddhist practice.

    I can’t speak for all Buddhists, but for myself, I can say that studying dhamma, or Buddhism, has helped to unravel some of the needless suffering or anxiety that comes from my habitual responses to the world, and especially to things I can’t change. Which includes reducing needless suffering around problems in paid work. BUT: problems don’t go away just because I learn to relate to them differently. So, out of compassion for myself and others, I would like to work together to change the way jobs and employment work in the first place. Why should people have to work so hard for so little pay, often in dangerous conditions (a building collapse in Bangladesh just killed 87+ garment workers making stuff for global companies), just to get food to eat, water to drink, health care and a place to live? Why shouldn’t we have a global society that guarantees these things for people, and produces based on need, rather than profit? Only then, I would argue, would we have the conditions to allow for something close to a “perfect job.” A job based on meaningful, democratic, and healthy contributions to the society that takes care of us, rather than a job motivated by a fear of being broke and unable to pay bills. Kenji Liu’s piece today, on “toppling the big stories of our time” and replacing them with more wholesome, helpful stories, represents some great Buddhist-informed thinking on this kind of shift in perspective.

    And in the meantime, you may have already guessed, haha, I say HELL YES we need to go on strike when the occasion calls for it. Sometimes the perfect job means a chance to organize with fellow workers to stand up for what’s right, and fight for a better society for everyone.

    Just my take. I’m curious what you’ve been finding and thinking in your research for your report!

    And by the way, speaking of In-N-Out, did you see the news about hundreds of fast food workers going on strike today?,0,5930406.story

    I hope there are some Buddhists out there in solidarity! :)

  • Jay Garces

    I’m definitely down with the strikers. Us students and faculty at City College are fighting the Community College Board which wants to cut our funds and turn it into the University of Phoenix.

    I have not got my mind around the perfect job yet, but I’ma keep in touch here. It isn’t any worker or boss I ever knew. Is Buddhist Peace hiring?

    jeff, yeah boy! Check out yo’ cuz, DJ Jazzy Jeff “My Peoples” and Luda “Do the Right Thang.” If you can’t stand the heat…

  • Rachel

    I wonder if work in a coop would be more perfect than in most other work situations… Might be something to add to your exploration, Jay. Why would a job there be more perfect (shared ownership…) or less perfect (often still no living wages…) (See for example)

  • Jeff

    Hey Jay, thanks putting the political and spiritual side of our music out there! The Ludacris/Common/Spike Lee “Thang’ is great – like a new Teddy “wake up everybody” call. But Jeff and Raheem’s music video is so powerful (in the setting of Katrina and the Civil Rights movement), I’m going to copy the YouTube link here for Dawn and Katie and everyone:

    Good to have you with us.

  • Susmita Barua

    Thank You Stephen for this article and all the supportive comments it generated. If Buddhists are for the benefit of all living beings, and dignity of all human life and labor with potential to live with awakened hearts then there is no greater concept in economics than the universal basic Income. I like to call it a universal basic living grant (than basic income) that affirms life, democracy, equality, peace, security and basic human rights for all.

    With basic survival needs assured for all, it would slow down the pace of life, open up creative leisure time and help actualize the individual and collective human social potential. In my vision it will work well to tie the grant with some form of volunteer service; the basic social responsibility of each person to contribute towards the well being of family, community. society, and for civic education and preservation of ecology with 10-15 hour volunteer work per week. People can choose among a variety of mindful work according to their skills, ability and preference subject to need availability. For example one tenth of per capita GDP (about $48K) for every US citizen (at least $500/mo for adults and $300/mo for below 18) can be distributed in the form perpetual tax-free basic living grant to drastically alleviate suffering due to extreme wealth imblance, unemployment, crime, poverty, hunger, homelessness and forced wage-slavery. It will definitely strengthen democracy, reduce bureaucracy, weaken the military-prison-industrial complex and ecological footprint of the US in the planet.

    To be successful in the long-run, this must be tied with debt-free public monetary and banking system. We do not need to float in a sea of mindless stuff, plastics, GMO and junk food for body and junk media for mind. see my discussion paper “A Global Citizen’s Manifesto: Basic Income as Basic Human Right” #207 @

    Lets envision a global culture of peace, integrity and responsibility.

  • dennis crane

    Please allow me to try a summary.
    1. America is bad
    2. Providing jobs is bad
    3. Expecting an exchange for one’s productive activities is bad
    4. There are not enough jobs so people shouldn’t be expected to work-even when they can
    5. It is not what you are now that counts but what you once were-even if you improved your behavior through insight and discipline
    6. A system that expects people to exchange for what they receive is bad
    7. There should be a lot of examples of societies that are good but this author can’t recall any at this time

    And a couple of comments :
    Several countries have espoused your view and made gestures in that direction.
    USSR and China, are examples. The funny thing is, these leaders with their grand comments and beautiful rhetoric drove their nations into slavery and subsistence. The USSR is gone now and China with it’s over 1 billion almost starving and 200 billionaires is on it’s way. A great people reach into their own pockets and sacrifice in order to help those in need. A person can see need and can distinguish between real need and other not so venerable attributes. Decent people see to the widow and her children. A society with abundance does a pretty good job of caring for the needy. A slave society can’t. The experts (usually very rich experts), don’t have enough data to make good decisions, even if they do have genuinely good intentions and words are no proof of that. It is not so much America that is great. What is great is a free people with a free uncontrolled economy and a free market. Free people create abundance and upward mobility. Laws must exist which create equality under the law. Especially equality of opportunity. Laws which favor some over others inevitably create some rich and many poor.
    In America it is the 14th amendment which guarantees that equality. Now we have the 16th amendment which nullifies the 14th so we are losing our precious equality and our freedoms.

    It is the first Paramita which enjoins us to give the good to others. That is a fine injunction. Self perfection requires care for others. Taking from Joe by force and giving to John robs Joe, deprives him of his willingness to willingly and wisely give and can’t really see John well enough to discover whether the gift is a good or an evil. Taking what is someone else’s (by force) and giving to others is not what the first Paramita teaches. It is giving of our own that is self perfecting. A wealthy upwardly mobile society has the capacity to give whithout creating suffering. Creating a society of equally poor people creates more suffering. Since the author above mentioned his 40 years as a Buddhist, I will add I have been a devoted Buddhist for 48
    years and I have never noticed that forcing generosity creates any virtue in the forced giver.

    Free people in a free market lessen suffering for most people. The simple proof of a free society’s superiority is the almost universal desire of people to get to one and escape their miserable conditions of slavery. A slave has his minimum needs met. A slave is clothed and fed. A slave is given housing and doesn’t need to worry about the morrow. Why does a slave not remain contented in his slavery? Perhaps it is because he would like to try to do better.
    In a way that is the Teacher’s injunction-do better. That is the essence of the Science of causes and conditions. That is the heart of the middle way. Perhaps slaves just want out of a slave society because they somehow sense that the boat is sinking and there must be a better way. That better way is a free people voluntarily working together in a free market society.
    What is the meaning of this constant attack of what is good in the name of what is perfect? Perfect is hard to come by. Why tear down what is very good, until you can show us the better?

  • Jay Garces

    Dude, the “BPF” site you’re looking for is, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.

  • Richard Modiano

    ‘I am a Marxist monk,’ says Dalai Lama
    Express News Service : AHMEDABAD, JANUARY 18, Sat Jan 19 2008, 00:36 hrs

    “I am a Marxist monk, a Buddhist Marxist,” said the Dalai Lama while delivering a lecture on ‘Ethics and Business’ at the Indian Institute of Management here on Friday.
    Addressing the audience, consisting mostly of management students, he added: “I belong to the Marxist camp,” he said, “because unlike capitalism, Marxism is more ethical. Marxism, as an ideology, takes care of the welfare of its employees and believes in distribution of wealth among the people of the state.”

    The highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists said the global economy created vast economic differences in every country of the world. In the absence of “ethical handling of money”, whole communities suffer from a sense of insecurity.

    “Exploitation of workers is maximum in developing countries. There are very high degrees of exploitation in India and China, simliar to the exploitation during industrialisation of Western countries a century ago,” he said.
    Ethics, he said, need not be based on religious faith. He categorised ethics as theistic, non-theistic and secular, but explained that in all the three cases, the definition of ethics remains the same.

    “On the one hand, both theistic and non-theistic religions advocate love, forgiveness, tolerance and compassion. Secular ethics, on the other hand, is based on the realisation of the same ideas on the basis of common sense and individual experience.”

    Trust and openness should be the foundation of business ethics, said Dalai Lama. “Even according to modern scientific research, warm heartedness is important for the happiness, well-being and health of a person. Consequentially, it forms a sounds base for a happy society.”

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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