Why Policymakers Must Understand Musicians
If we are all musicians now, our laws and services need to reflect the realities of the gig economy.
In our last installment, I started to lay out some broad concluding thoughts for We Are All Musicians Now. Today I’m going to dig a little deeper. And although I don’t often delve into “politics,” some of you may be tempted to view today’s words as such. But I’d invite you to dive in with an open mind.
That’s what I did when I started this project. We Are All Musicians Now began with its titular thesis, and the hope that I’d be able to prove it. Hopefully I did. Now I’d like to talk about the implications. The more interviews I’ve done and the more pages I’ve written, the more certain ideas have asserted themselves.
Simply put, the economic realities of our world are changing. The new gig economy—with which musicians have been intimately familiar for decades—offers great promise and freedom, but demands a social safety net not offered in many countries today, as artists like Amanda Palmer remind us.
“Government is basically crowdfunding,” she told me. “A lot of that, again, has to do with what we value, what we decided as a group of people deserves attention and money.”
Personally, I’ve always believed that in a country like the U.S., securing some form of free healthcare for all should be a priority. Yet despite spending twice as much per capita as European countries with universal healthcare, we can’t seem to follow their formula.
Americans remain underinsured, in many cases having no choice but to forgo preventative care due to cost concerns. Then emergency rooms overflow when maladies that could have been nipped in the bud turn into life-threatening issues.
Think about how many Americans have made employment and financial decisions simply based around the availability of healthcare. It’s wildly anti-entrepreneurial to have a system that often makes individuals choose between trying to start their own businesses and maintaining healthcare for themselves and their family. And this means the already-wealthy are often the only ones who can afford the risk.
Then there’s another form of insurance that needs an update: unemployment, a critical part of the social safety net. It’s wildly outdated for today’s economy. The archaic rules generally call for individuals to be ineligible to collect benefits if they’ve worked at all during a given period, even if it’s gig work that earns them less than unemployment.
I remember encountering that in my days as an editor: some freelancers (understandably) refused work not because they didn’t want to do it, but because they didn’t want to risk losing their (much larger) unemployment benefits. Then there were the California freelancers who could only write a reduced amount of stories per month, a frustrating side effect of legislation aimed at helping gig workers.
A musician could always fall back on some other career if they really had to. It was the de-facto safety net. But if all careers are trending to an equally mercurial marketplace, that safety net is disintegrating by the day.
Simply put, if the world is going to make musicians of us all, then we all need a better safety net than the one we barely have. And neither our hodgepodge healthcare system nor our antediluvian unemployment benefits are enough. For the gig economy to truly function, we need universal healthcare, as well as a modern unemployment system and/or some amount of universal basic income.
That may seem obvious to some readers and repellent to others. Personally, as someone who spent the first decade-plus of his career on staff at Forbes, I’m surprised to find myself arriving at a conclusion that involves UBI. Then again, the more I think about it, the argument makes sense on an economic level as much as it does on a human level.
With a more robust safety net in place—one that doesn’t discourage gig work—I suspect we’d see an easing of the current labor shortage. That means everything from quicker shipping to cheaper groceries, and an increase in overall productivity.
Additional gig work on the books would generate extra tax revenue, which would help offset the cost of additional social programs. Not to mention the fact that government-subsidized healthcare would actually be less fiscally onerous to corporations than the current system.
Given the gridlock in our political system, it seems highly unlikely anything like this—or anything at all, save abolishing daylight savings time—will make it through Congress. But to me, at least, it seems we really need to consider this sort of path if we’re going to adjust to the We Are All Musicians Now economy.
Tune in next week for some more final thoughts as I wrap up the book.
Also: I recently had the honor of sitting down with the good folks at Seneca to chop it up on everything from why my parents didn’t want me to become a writer … to why I did … to why I briefly thought I was going to get eaten by mountain lions with Kanye West. For the whole story and more, click here.