Virus Outbreak

Ellen Booth, 57, who lost her job in Coventry, R.I., after the restaurant she worked at closed, studies to become a certified medical coder. Booth hopes to pass her upcoming exam and soon hit the job market.

When I was young and foolish, I worked too hard. Twelve-hour days, occasional all-nighters, an incipient ulcer, a neglected family. What was I thinking?

I blame my boss, Max Weber. He wasn’t my real boss, of course, but rather the early-20th century sociologist, economist and historian whose thinking inspired my heedless striving.

Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic,” a heavily Calvinist distillation of longstanding religious beliefs that work is inherently rewarding, in this life and the next. Convincing the masses that work had value beyond wages, he suggested, was essential to the rise of capitalism.

I’ve been thinking about Weber lately. Republican governors in five states are ending the COVID-19 rescue plan’s $300 supplemental unemployment benefit. Another 22 mostly GOP-run states — including Massachusetts as of Thursday — are imposing work-search requirements for that weekly payment.

Economists note that the economy is recovering and that unemployment is declining — in the Berkshires, for instance, to 8 percent, the lowest level since the pandemic began. At the moment, 8 million jobs are currently going unfilled in the U.S., a pandemic high.

Republicans say those openings remain unfilled because of overly generous unemployment benefits. That extra $300 is somehow lulling us into staying home in front of the TV instead of adding to the Gross Domestic Product. How dare we be so lazy, so unpatriotic, so unreligious?

Well, we 16 million still jobless have our reasons. First, many of those empty jobs are minimum-wage horror shows. Second, we don’t want to die. COVID-19 is still grabbing 30,000 people every day, especially in low-paying, customer-facing service jobs. Third, we can’t find child care, since the pandemic has clobbered that essential industry and schools aren’t fully reopened.

Fourth, many of us are on furlough and waiting to be called back to our old jobs, a reasonable expectation, now that the economy is perking up. Fifth, some of us older folks have taken advantage of the recent run-up in the stock market to retire.

But Republicans, and many bosses, seem to be listening more to Max Weber than to the Labor Department. They think we need to suffer more, to be driven back to the salt mines by fear and destitution. Builds character, you know.

Fortunately, attitudes about work in the U.S. seem to be changing. Polls show widespread support for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage, strengthening labor unions and simply paying workers more.

Major companies — McDonalds, Target, Wayfair, Starbucks, Costco, Chipotle — have made big hikes in their lowest wages in recent months. Bank of America, which employs more than 250,000 people in the U.S., just announced it would pay new hires at least $25 an hour. Rather than fret about morality, these firms are responding to market forces in a classical way.

Speaking of economic theory, what about inflation? The classical view is that rising wages worsen it. Yet minimum wage boosts typically have minimal effects on price levels, and it’s unclear whether broader pay hikes now would have much impact either.

Our current inflationary pressure, says the Federal Reserve, is largely from temporary supply shortages that should ease soon. Besides, years of gains in asset prices, dividends, executive compensation and share buybacks haven’t moved the inflation needle much.

Likewise, the notion that more money somehow “spoils” workers, turns them into lazy ingrates, is more folklore than fact. Labor productivity in the U.S. is actually lower than in several countries with greater income equality, more worker protections and, in some cases, higher average wages.

Meanwhile support is growing in the U.S. for an idea that would make a Calvinist swoon: a guaranteed family income, not dependent on employment. The principle is popular elsewhere in the world and not entirely new in the U.S.: Thomas Paine proposed it in 1795 and Richard Nixon in 1969. His Family Assistance Plan made it through the House but died at the hands of Senate conservatives.

Two dozen U.S. cities are currently experimenting with guaranteed income plans. Los Angeles, for instance, just approved a three-year program that will provide a stipend of $1,000 a month to 1,000 families for the next three years.

Follow-up studies show that putting a floor under people’s incomes actually increases the likelihood they’ll get a job. Participants in such experiments, and many outside them, tell researchers they definitely want to be part of the workforce.

They value the independence, camaraderie and dignity that a job can confer. As Fern (Frances McDormand), the aging itinerant laborer in this year’s multi-Oscar-winning film “Nomadland” tells an employment office clerk: “I need work. I like work.”

Maybe my old slave driver Max Weber was right. Perhaps work really is inherently good — as long as the rewards, in this life at least, are good as well.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.