Robert Reich, the perfectly-sized* former Secretary Of Labor, recently wrote about Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, the company that markets a messaging app used by hundreds of millions of people, for $19 billion (yes, that word starts with a “b”). Reich’s point was a simple but powerful one: As technology makes us ever more productive, and the economy ever larger and more efficient, it does not create many jobs. WhatsApp employs just 55 people, who now think of the members of the WalMart-owning Walton family as part of the 99 percent. The wealth created by this kind of venture in this kind of economy gets concentrated in a few hands, drastically exacerbating the problem of inequality.
But must technology (and art and music and science -- really, any creative venture) generate inequality? Could we -- as a kind of thought experiment -- imagine a society and an economy in which that would not be the case?
Let’s first consider that the vast majority of jobs in an information-driven economy are make work, people given the responsibility of overseeing other people who report back on yet other people who manage people who advise still others who tell those actually doing the real labor how to do their jobs; those people actually doing the work in the best possible scenario then ignore all these others and do what needs to be done. If you take the compensation structure out of the picture, those jobs, the ones at the bottom of the food chain, the ones where actual work gets done, often seem the most interesting and rewarding. It’s the people holding all the makework positions, the “business process analysts” and “project managers” and “financial engineers”, who find their work soul-killing, if lucrative. In a recent AskReddit on the question “If money was not an issue and jobs were unnecessary, what would you do with your life?” few (if any) answered, “Exactly what I’m doing now.” Probably because those people who would answer that way weren’t on Reddit; they were doing the jobs they love, even as time-servers got in their way and made doing those jobs more difficult. If you love curling -- either the ice-sport kind or the hair kind -- and had no need to earn a living, why would you ever choose to work as a management consultant instead?
Let’s next consider that some people will drive themselves to create, to innovate, to improve the world, even in the absence of any tangible incentive. The greatest artists, writers and musicians don’t do their work for money; they do it because they feel compelled to make something no one has ever made before. In a sense, they feel competitive with every other creator in their field, and driven to trump them. Perhaps they yearn for recognition -- actually, strike that “perhaps"; even as reclusive a figure as Emily Dickinson sent her poetry (a little bit of it, anyway) into the world to ask if it “breathed." Which software developers reign as the uncrowned royalty of their world? Not Google’s or Facebook’s or (certainly) Microsoft’s. Rather, those who create open-source projects, who design and code software meant not only to be given away, but to be given away so completely that anyone else can make it theirs, those men and women comprise the crème de la geeks. Ask a working programmer what he thinks of Linus Torvalds, the original developer and driving force behind the Linux operating system, which has all but replaced Windows in server environments, as against Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg -- then be prepared to spend a couple of hours listening to the nerdily passionate answer. Anyone who really cares about the work he or she does tends to think less of people who work purely for the money -- even if it’s a lot of money; those interested in the tangible reward more than the work itself are sellouts, drones or hacks. When we choose our work because we love that work, rather than because we must put food on the table, we do it diligently, tirelessly, proudly.
So, given these two fact-like opinions, how could we arrange our economy to reduce inequality, make businesses more profitable, drive innovation and make the greatest number happy goals I assume most of us would endorse?
First, we fire almost everyone. Then we support them, not lavishly but comfortably, out of the huge taxes we impose on corporations and the wealthiest members of society. And while we’re at it, we could also cut our military budget, by far the highest in the world, by a factor of four, to match our nearest competitor in military spending, the People’s Republic Of China. (Whew. Didn’t that feel good?) We believe that everyone must work, that there is something noble -- moral -- about work, and furthermore that work must be unpleasant and something done against our will, but why? What is the basis for that, other than a depressing and dysfunctional worldview derived from a pre-industrial world where, just to stay alive, you had to labor “by the sweat of your brow to eat bread." We don’t live in that world anymore. We produce more food than we can eat or distribute, though only two percent of us live on farms anymore, only one percent claim farming as an occupation.
So in this bizarro world where we are not crippled by our obsolete view of work, the vast majority of us would work only at things we love. Corporations would operate as leanly (and, to use a bit of business jargon that I despise, “agilely”) as they could -- or lose out to competitors who don’t need to wait for a dozen committees to put out a new version of a product. Should the market smile on one of the many projects undertaken for the love of the work, the rewards for that success will indeed go to the person who dared to undertake that project -- but also to the society that supported him or her in the long years before, in the form of the frankly confiscatory taxes that we would impose on corporate or personal income. Succès d’estime, a far more satisfying and integral feeling of worth, would replace the silly and pointless drive to own more in order to mark success. (The results of which, as the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, do not make one happier.) Markets would do what they do best, calibrate prices for optional goods and services, while government would do what it does best, provide for necessities and for the common good.
Do I believe this utopian scenario will come to pass? Of course not. We are idiots; we humans. We act against our own best interests on a daily and an hourly basis. All we need to do to discredit an idea is call it “socialist"; unlike President Obama’s insurance-company-loving healthcare plan, this idea really is socialism, with a healthy dose of pure free-market capitalism -- as opposed to the corporatist oligopoly represented by our current economy, and I am quite opposed to it -- thrown in for spice.
As utterly unrealistic as this scenario might be, wouldn’t this be a better world if it did come to pass? Of course it would. And so it won’t.
* I speak as person of shortness myself; at 5’3” and 13 years younger than Reich, I feel confident I could take him down in a game of one-on-one, my utter lack of hand-eye coordination notwithstanding.