We all carry a variety of media of exchange in our portfolios, some more liquid than others. Deposits are pretty high on the liquidity scale, stocks and bonds a little less so, and our household's furniture is even less movable. The most sizable medium of exchange in our portfolios also happens to be our least liquid one: labor. Our capacity to use our brains and bodies to work is the primary currency that each of us own, although it isn't a particularly mobile one. Might things be different? Could labor be converted into a more effective medium of exchange that is capable of competing with highly fluid financial assets for preferred liquidity status?
Much of our lives are spent trying to make marginal improvements to the liquidity of our labour. We may choose to learn more skills so that we can participate in multiple markets, the more markets being open to us on any given day the more saleable our labour. Alternatively we may choose to learn one thing very well. While this leaves us with only one market in which to sell our labor, the quality of our work should differentiate itself enough such that the liquidity we enjoy within that one market outweighs the liquidity we choose to forgo by not participating in other labour markets.
Even with these liquidity enhancing strategies, labor remains a relatively hard sell compared to other media of exchange. This is problematic. Insofar as liquid media are the best hedges against an uncertain future—they can be rapidly mobilized to help plug leaks and patch holes—this means that labour, our largest medium of exchange, does a pretty bad job of protecting us from unpredictable events. It takes too much time and effort to sell the damn stuff. Amongst media of exchange, labour is the slow moving Titanic.
Which is why we fashion contractual crutches to convert illiquid labour into a more vendible product. Rather than go out into the marketplace each morning to find a new person who'll buy our labour, we usually make long term deals with buyers that require them to repeatedly purchase our services over a period of time. Having secured a repeated buyer of our services, we've converted a bad hedge against uncertainty into a better one, at least as long as the contract is in effect.
But there are ways to make labor even more liquid. To do so, we need to overcome the physical characteristics of labour that prevent it from being as good of a medium of exchange as, say, gold. Gold is divisible, portable, uniform, and durable. An ounce can be divided into smaller bits without any loss of value, it can be used by successive individuals without depreciating in quality, and it passes easily across time and space. Labor, on the other hand, can't be bottled up and stored, nor can it be passed on from buyer to buyer. Once expended on some task, labour is dissipated and ceases to be a conveyable medium. Labour is like an ice cream cone, it doesn't last very long.
A time-honoured way to encourage the liquidity of something is to securitize it. Take an illiquid mortgage, combine it along with others into a pool and splice that pool up into easily tradeable mortgage-backed securities. Or convert a sole proprietorship into a corporation, create shares that represent ownership, and list those shares on a marketplace, thereby converting illiquid ownership into liquid ownership. Exporting these ideas to the labour front, if people are capable of toiling away for fifty years, then why not create a series of claims on that labour and allow those claims to be sold off? In this science fiction world, these claims might be called 'labour shares'. While physical labour itself cannot be resold, the non-physical representation of that labour—labor shares—can be passed around indefinitely along long monetary chains.
This solves the resaleability problem that has historically impeded the liquidity of labour. After an employer has bought some of our labour shares and put us to work, should they have no further need for us they can trade away our shares to another employer rather than just firing us. Middle men might buy our shares and sell them on to other middle men, with the odd speculator jumping into the fray when they think they can buy low sell high. Financial engineers might combine our shares together with those of other similar workers, creating large pools of labour that can be bought all in one fell swoop by large employers. Our labour, once the Titanic of exchange media, has become a nimble instrument.
In this science fiction world, labour "does" more for its purchaser than in times past. As before it provides anyone who has bought it with a real pecuniary return (a labour share can be converted into work), but now it also provides an extra non-pecuniary return. Specifically, labor shares act as a stock of liquid media of exchange on par with an inventory of cash. A buyer of our labour, say a firm, now finds itself owning a fairly decent uncertainty hedge—should it be blindsided by some unforeseen event, the firm's owners can rest well knowing that the firm's managers can sell off either its cash or its accumulated labour shares, or some combination of the two, in order to help acquire the resources necessary to resolve the crisis.
Since labour now provides potential owners with a greater range of services than before it will command a premium over its previous price, or a liquidity premium. Anyone who provides labour will receive that premium, thereby earning more than they did before.
There are some ugly aspects to this science fiction world. It is certainly dehumanizing, treating humans like any other vendible commodity or asset. A market for labour shares might breed a highly itinerant workforce the members of which, much like Federal Reserve notes, would be constantly recycled from one side of the globe to the other. It also raises moral questions of personal agency. If we no longer want to toil for the employer who owns our labour shares, must we repurchase those shares—and our freedom—back from them?
The positive aspect of a world with liquidity shares is that in rendering itself more liquid, labor earns a greater share of the pie. Why should capital, after all, be rewarded the entire range of liquidity premia that society has to offer? Over the last few decades, financial engineers have made houses, equities, bonds, and all sorts of other assets ever more liquid. As a result the prices of these assets have steadily appreciated, a higher price being the market's reward for any asset that throws off growing quantities of liquidity services. That's great for the 0.01% who's wealth is primarily comprised of these assets; they enjoy ever growing capital gains (see chart below) and a larger slice of society's wealth. However, the majority of the world whose wealth is largely comprised of relatively illiquid labour potential has been left eating dirt.
|The wealthiest 0.01% of society now owns 11% of society's wealth, up from just 2% in the 1970s.|
Saez and Zucman, March 2014. [pdf]
Speed up the exchangeability of labor, on the other hand, and the reverse happens—labour grabs a larger liquidity premium for itself, thus appreciating in price and henceforth earning a larger share of society's total wealth.
Another advantage to a labour share scheme is that workers reduce their exposure to the discomforts of uncertainty. A worker's labour, represented by the full lifetime stock of liquidity shares in their portfolio, is more marketable than before, which means that they can more easily sell their labour to deal with potential disasters. This renders the future a little less frightening, the reduced contingency planning this entails allowing workers more time to enjoy the present.
Alternatively, rather than speeding up the liquidity of labour, maybe we should be slowing down the liquidity of all other things. That way labour, in the name of keeping up with the Joneses, never has to go down the somewhat ghoulish path of ever-accelerating liquidity. Various policies including a Tobin tax, the slowing down of equity markets in order to weed out HFTs, Glass Steagall style banking restrictions, and trade protectionism are all ways to help clog up the liquidity passageways. Enact these policies and mobile assets like stock and bonds lose their liquidity premia. The 0.01% who previously benefited from capital gains on rising housing, stock, and bond prices now suffer capital losses, and the labouring 90% will enjoy relative wealth gains.
The problem with these policies is that in constricting liquidity, we'd end up losing a major bulwark against felt uncertainty. Fretting and brow furrowing would increase, our lives worse off than before. The retort here is that perhaps liquidity should never have become our most important uncertainty hedge. In times past, self sufficiency, communities, families, and tribes were the institutions that we relied on to cope with a cloudy future. What made one's labour a great hedge against uncertain events, say a flood, was not that it could be rapidly sold off, but rather that together with other members of the community, our toil, sweat, and tears could be mobilized to plug dikes or rebuild houses. Implement policies like a Tobin tax and we may move back towards this world.
That may be true, by we've gone so many centuries down the liquidity path that its probably too late to reverse course. Labour shares, or something like it, might not just be science fiction; they could be the next step in the great liquidity race, especially if labour wants a larger share of resources. Perhaps the best way to cope with the ugliness created by an institution like labour shares, still very much in the imaginative stages, would be to innovate more humane ways to securitize labour. No-trade clauses or limited-movement clauses, for instance, might allow individuals to have some say in determining the destination to which they are dispatched. Unions may have a role to play in designing standards for labour shares that ensure that we don't bargain too much of our humanity away.
There is probably some upper limit to how liquid you can make something. Until that plateau is reached, financial engineers will keep making capital more liquid, and owners of capital will continuously enjoy the resulting price gains. Unless labour decides to liquidate itself, it could be facing many years of deteriorating wealth relative to the top 0.01%.