The coronavirus recession has laid bare how illogically the U.S. labor market values work that matters.
In the United States, as elsewhere, citizens have been extolling the role of essential workers – such as nurses, grocery suppliers and delivery drivers – by, for example, rewarding them with nightly claps. Yet many of these employees receive low pay and few protections, suggesting a different appreciation of their worth in the market.
But in highlighting this disconnect, perhaps the crisis has also provided an opportunity to reimagine an economy that values jobs for something more than just wealth creation: meaningfulness.
A moral market?
Meaningfulness has to do with how much one’s work matters in a moral sense, which is not always signified by how much money a job pays. It often relates to personal fulfillment from work but may also concern the social contribution work makes and what, morally, we ought to value. Contemporary social scientists and philosophers cite historical thinkers as diverse as Adam Smith and Karl Marx as recognizing the potential for meaningless work to detract from human well-being.
Unfortunately, our labor market tends not to account adequately for morality. For example, it often assigns less tangible value, such as money, to meaningful work that is intangibly valuable. A high school teacher may have a harder time accounting for her share in the success of a former student’s business venture than does the investment banker who helped fund the startup.
Workers who risk their well-being to clean bedpans at hospitals and stock shelves at grocery stores may have only the reassurance that their work is essential to augment their relatively meager compensation.
To suggest that moral values should be more integral to the free market is neither anti-capitalist nor partisan. As an ethics professor and business adviser, I know it is widely accepted that markets are imperfect and require mediation to balance out inequities.
Even a celebrated market economist like Milton Friedman recognized that the free market undervalues some things. Accordingly, disruptions from events like the current pandemic warrant public and private sector coordination to ensure an adequate supply of essential goods and services.
Checks and bank balances
The recently passed bipartisan stimulus package that offers proportionately more to people who have less is consistent with this view that markets warrant intervention when it can stave off human suffering.
Similarly, wealthy individuals often act generously when they perceive distress that may be caused by unfairness in market mechanisms – for example, by donating money to make up for lost wages. But this only highlights a system that rewards some people with so much wealth that they can cover the missed paychecks of hundreds or thousands of others.
But I would argue that bailout checks and individual acts of kindness are not nearly enough. They may even have the unintended consequence of moral licensing – creating the false impression among individuals that they have fully done their part to mitigate the problem.
Work deemed essential in the pandemic has taken on more meaning because it is urgent to people now. However, even after this crisis has passed, much of this work will continue to be essential to our society.
Meaningfulness can also apply to work that seems less urgent but nonetheless important, such as the concerts and performances that we are now missing. Unfortunately, funding for the arts and public education is an easy target when budgets are strapped.
Similarly, when we emerge from the economic aspect of this disaster, as after the Great Recession, those who already had the greatest financial means are likely to be the most prepared to increase their wealth.
More than applause
If we allow that return to economic normalcy, ordinary workers who have suffered greater losses in the downturn will also be in the most uncertain position to benefit from the recovery. Americans could redress this by reprioritizing the place of meaningfulness in how they measure and remunerate work that matters.
Of course, restructuring the economy to recognize meaningfulness is complex and some would say fanciful. But I believe the moral values of our markets are a reflection of our individual and social values. And there are things that can be done to move in that direction: Prospective employees can pursue work that makes a moral contribution to society, companies can adopt more socially conscious statements of purpose and policymakers can look at ways to better acknowledge the nonmonetary contribution of work to society.
No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.
The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.
Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.
The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.
Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.
Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.
It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.
The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.
In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?
Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.
Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.
Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.
Gotham Greens, a Brooklyn, New York-based purveyor of high-tech greenhouses that sells fresh produce to a growing swath of restaurateurs and grocers, opened its newest facility in a plot behind 2501 Dallas St. in Aurora May 20, according to a news release. The 30,000-square-foot agricultural hub is expected to cultivate some 2 million heads of various leafy greens each year.
Situated beside a long-abandoned aircraft runway, the building marks the fast-growing company’s eighth such greenhouse in the country. Founded about a decade ago, the firm now operates greenhouses in Chicago, Illinois Baltimore, Maryland and Providence, Rhode Island, netting more than 35 million heads of lettuce each year.
All of Gotham Greens’ grow houses use about 95% less water and 97% less land than traditional farming.
The new Aurora facility cost approximately $4 million to design and construct, according to Gotham Greens co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri.
Residents of the metroplex and beyond can soon expect to see the Aurora-grown greens on the shelves of several local supermarkets, including Whole Foods, Safeway and Alfalfa’s…
Co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri said the new Aurora location is poised to infill an increasing number of broken links in the food chain spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Given the current pressures on our country’s food system, one thing is clear: the importance of strengthening our national food supply through decentralized, regional supply chains,” Puri said in a statement.
The company is expected to hire a total of 30 workers in the coming weeks. That comes as the global pandemic continues to decimate the regional economy, with nearly 500,000 unemployment claims filed in Colorado in the past three months, according to statistics compiled by the state department of Labor and Employment.
Visitors are asked to follow state and local guidelines, which means groups must be limited to 10 people or fewer.
The Gunnison Gorge has experienced similar activity from outfitters looking to raft and fish, said Eric Coulter, BLM public affairs specialist for Southwest Colorado…
According to a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2019, 3.3% of Colorado’s economy was attributed to outdoor recreation. Its estimated $11.3 billion in value added 146,178 jobs…
Joel Aslanian, owner of Gunnison River Guides, has plenty of Gunnison locals booking rafting trips. Though, at the moment, only those who fall under “essential travel” (having a second home locally means having reason for essential travel) are allowed to schedule float trips with a guide. This includes those who wish to fish on the river as well.
According to Gunnison County’s public health order, beginning Wednesday, May 27, all non-residents are permitted to travel to Gunnison County as long as state and local governments allow them to visit.
Since the guides are usually limited to three people or fewer per trip, Aslanian can guide under restrictions. He and others on the raft are required to wear a mask.
June and July are usually when Aslanian sees most of his business. As restrictions begin to gradually loosen through the state’s orders, he anticipates people will still want to recreate, even if it’s slower than previous years…
Ridgway State Park is open, said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but to camp, a reservation must be made prior to arrival.
Showers, in-person service at the visitor center, and swimming at the swim beach are closed at this time. However, Lewandowski anticipates the swim beach will open in the next week or so.
Lewandowski noted he’s seeing normal activity and there hasn’t been a lag in those who wish to recreate at Ridgway Reservoir. CPW is asking people to continue to maintain safety measures for guests and staff.