Politicians Ignore the 'Be Your Own Boss' Economy at Their Peril

Democrats and Republicans who talk only of creating jobs are blind to the needs of a constituency trying to go its own way

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As politicians grapple with the Great Recession, their obsession is "creating jobs," by which everyone implicitly means "the sort of steady, secure, full time jobs that so many Americans had before the financial crisis, but can't seem to find now, even after many months of looking." President Obama hoped his stimulus bill would spur hiring and reduce unemployment. The GOP candidates are furiously contesting whether Mitt Romney's time in business, Jon Huntsman's tenure in Utah, or Rick Perry's stint in the Texas statehouse is the best preparation for getting the country back to work. But what if our return to prosperity won't look much like the last time the U.S. economy was booming? What if the future includes a lot more people working nontraditional jobs, stringing together freelance work, and engaging in various small-scale entrepreneurial activities, whether teaching electric guitar lessons or consulting for corporations?

Douglas Rushkoff makes a radical argument about this kind of future at CNN. "Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations," he writes. "We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff." Though skeptical that we're anywhere close to a world where most people can survive doing this sort of work, Will Wilkinson acknowledges that the economy of the last couple decades isn't likely to return. "A job is no longer the sort of thing one can count on to last a decade or a lifetime," he writes. "Indeed, the 'job' as a ready-made slot in an established firm that a worker with the right credentials and experience can plug herself into and receive a steady, long-term stream of income and benefits does seem to be going the way of the great auk." Phil Bowermaster agrees. "Maybe what's becoming obsolete is not jobs per se, but the idea that they are something that you simply find," he argues. "Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can't count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing."

Or has it already disappeared? Says Sara Horowitz in an article on this site, "We haven't seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy... As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this 'freelance economy.' Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects."

To be overly safe, let's just agree that this is a plausible future, and that some industries -- journalism is one -- are trending in that direction. There is also the fact that past periods of prolonged recession saw Americans who lost jobs turning to entrepreneurship instead. During the Great Depression, some out of work Southern Californians turned to fishing, casting a line from the end of the Santa Monica pier to catch dinner for their family and enough extra fish to fill a gunny sack and sell to neighbors. Some New Yorkers took to selling goods door-to-door. Lots of housewives augmented household income by doing laundry or mending clothing or growing vegetables.

All this suggests to me that our politicians ought to be doing something more. In addition to trying to kick-start the economy and bring back the sort of "traditional" jobs lots of Americans want, they ought to be making it easier on people to seek out what it isn't right to call non-traditional work, because decades ago lots of folks got by selling stuff or stringing together gigs. This ought to be done to help the unemployed. And also to hedge the nation's bets, for it would be foolhardy to bet everything on bringing back an economic reality that may be gone for good.

What sorts of policies am I advocating? One way or another, America has got to get away from employer-based health insurance. But a lot of people already recognize the impediments it poses. Less remarked upon are the many small ways that folks are stymied from everything from freelance gigs to self-employment to generating income with their existing assets, often in ways that benefit the well-off at the expense of the struggling. Take the Americans who've purchased too much housing, and are struggling mightily to pay their mortgages. One obvious step would be to rent out a bedroom in the house so that some extra money is coming in. But a lot of people in that situation are prohibited from becoming landlords by zoning laws that restrict housing to single families, so that the neighbors don't have to look at more cars parked on the street or deal with people of lower socioeconomic status in their neighborhoods. Is that the right policy?

Often as I can, though not as often as I'd like, I find myself sitting on a beach somewhere for a few hours. Sometimes a guy comes along selling water. I've encountered the annoying iteration of the beach vendor, and the friendly iteration. Sometimes I've bought the water. I was thirsty. It was a bargain. In most places, it's illegal for that guy to sell the water. Is it right to prevent a guy from a job he needs because sometimes those of us lucky enough to lounge around on beaches are annoyed by having to deal with the presence of commerce? I don't think so.

In her enjoyable series on the new economy, Horowitz, who founded Freelancers Union, urges government to extend the protections full time workers currently enjoy to freelance workers of all sorts. I am neither in total agreement nor disagreement with her prescriptions, all of which are worth mulling over, but I'd prioritize government at all levels just getting out of the way of freelancers and small entrepreneurs alike. People need work now. Needless regulations are stopping them.

It isn't that making it easier to sell things, less cumbersome to get a business license, or needless to check zoning laws before starting a small business in your home has no downside to anyone. But in a country with high unemployment, where generating income oneself is presently a more realistic option for a lot of people than getting hired by a company, doesn't it make sense to permit people the freedom to maximize their economic potential and to accrue the skills that come from even the smallest scale entrepreneurship, even if it causes some annoyances?

This attitude toward work and economic regulation is increasingly prevalent, and waiting for a champion. Interestingly, he or she could plausibly be a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal, or a libertarian who effectively marries free market ideas to concern for folks struggling under the status quo. If well articulated, the "free Americans to create their own economic futures" may even prove more appealing to right-leaning voters than Rick Perry economics, wherein governors bribe big corporations to create lots of low-wage jobs in their jurisdictions.

Image credit: Reuters