(Note 3/25/09) An old rant I wrote while frothing at the insane imbalances and labor waste of an unregulated large scale economy, something people typically do when at the losing end of it.  Of course, slightly after this inflammatory lefty diatribe, I learned from Peter Strait via email that Buckminster Fuller had already solved this proof in a plausible fashion in Design-Science Revolution, so I could have just read that.  This rant goes up in keeping of my "live with the infamy" philosophy.

The Problem

The current model for how people feed their families in industrial countries is doomed. It’s already failing to a great extent, as more and more people who would otherwise be middle-class find themselves starving, and the people who are managing to eat and stay out of the cold are killing themselves at meaningless jobs they hate. Meanwhile the cost of living has skyrocketed to the point where the thought of buying a house is either inconceivable, or leads one down the road to eternal debt, to the point where taking out a loan to buy a house is for the sole reason of borrowing against the house yet again to meet financial obligations.

The way business works in the corporate world is frankly stupid, and must be changed sooner or later. There are three primary things that lead to the stupidity of the modern business model: population growth, technology, and greed. All of these interact to create the problem, and so cannot effectively be discussed seperately.

The Earth’s population is steadily increasing, despite the compromising factors of war, plague, and the occasional genocidal campaign. In a modern culture like the United States, there is also an exponential growth in work-related technology. Robots and automated systems now do the work that used to be done by the average Joe worker, and information systems and digital communication manage the numbers more efficiently than a room full of clerks in green eyeshades.

What this means is that the work that actually needs to be done is done by fewer and fewer people all the time. The new jobs for specialists servicing technology is far outweighed by the jobs that are lost as the technology supplants line workers, and as systems become more reliable and stable the need for information technology workers decreases as well. However, you have more people popping up every year than you have people dropping dead, and they presumably would like to be fed and housed as well. What to do?

The Useless Bandaid

Some respite for the hopefully employed comes in the form of useless jobs. When I worked at Warner-Lambert (the last fully corporate environment I worked full time in), I estimated that fully 90% of the people working there were doing nothing at all that was necessary to the production and marketing of product. There are layers and layers of people in any bureaucracy whose sole job, it seems, is to go to meetings and cover their asses. A meeting in this environment is a carefully calculated waste of hours in which people try to methodically and diplomatically find someone else to blame should the project fail (usually someone not at the meeting). I had personal knowledge of about 6 projects during one year there in the MIS department, of which 3 would never work. This fact was known by the people presumably working on the projects, and it didn’t matter to them. Managers would hopefully switch to another department or get promoted in case it did screw up, and if they didn’t, they could blame the consultants. The consultants, for their part, were actively looking for new jobs and were constantly rotating, in a sort of expensive game of musical chairs where they wouldn’t be caught when the project got cancelled.

Of the 10% or so of those left, the people who actually did do something productive, almost all of them were on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and maybe half of these were spending roughly 15% of their time actually working. The other half were the administrative assistants, who were killing themselves with 60 hour weeks trying to get work done for their byzantine chain of bosses, who had already assured their doom if the project failed by way of useless meetings. The department I worked in was unusually good in that it recognized where the work was being done, and so the admins got the best gear and support. Most corporate environments don’t have this outlook: the secretary who is busting her ass gets an old P200 that crashes all the time, and the executives get laptops with docking stations and flatscreens so they can more efficiently play solitaire and schedule useless meetings, for which they demand insanely complex PowerPoint presentations of the harried admins. More useless work.

For some reason, though, even those whose jobs were obviously useless would be putting in long long hours and working weekends. Why would they do this? Because it looks good to their superiors, who are usually just as useless as they are, so that they can remain in the well-paying useless job and eventually become the heir apparent for an even better useless job down the road. To this end, work is invented by the workers themselves and by their superiors, since it looks bad if people are sitting around on their asses doing nothing, even when there is really nothing for them to do.

Warner Lambert could have saved itself tons of money by recognizing the fact that people were doing nothing, and saying, "Hey, go home, stay there, we’ll still send you a check which is a little smaller, but you’ll make up the difference in commuting costs." No corporate entity would do that, though, as it looks better to their stockholders to simply fire excess staff occasionally, while maintaining the same degree of useless invented work, forcing everyone else to work longer and harder with the threat of unemployment hanging over their heads. By forcing people to work like sled dogs, even if they’re producing nothing at all, somehow makes management feel like they’ve won some sort of contest in the realm of "who can screw their wage slaves the most." Meanwhile the people who got laid off have to find another position, and probably a useless one, and bust their asses working forever at it so they can keep their families from starving.

The Beginnings of a Solution

There is NO reason in the world why people should be worried about keeping fed or having a place to live. There is more than enough food for everyone if it was distributed, and the only real barrier to housing is our insane population density. Economically we can do it. There is also no reason people should be worked like slaves, destroying their families and leisure time, when there is nothing that needs to be done. Freeing up people from the endless work week and multiple jobs required to stay alive today would make for a lot of slackers, but it would also make for a great deal of important things that come from leisure time, like art, writing, and just plain old good ideas.

Ideally, then, we need to recognize as a free market civilization that the corporate goal of "making as much money as efficiently as possible" is at odds with the societal goal of "keeping our people happy and fed so they don’t rise up in armed revolution after their children die in alleyways." Welfare and the like are not answers for this, since the systems that govern them are horribly flawed and corrupt. Socialism fails because government is ill-equipped to deal with it in a population of greater than about 200. Large government always becomes corrupt when given excess powers and responsibilities. Yet a corporate entity would never agree to support excess people, because it looks bad on the quarterly report, without government mandates.

The proper solution to this is an enlightened corporate sector. Some new businesses are starting to take this approach slowly, with flexible hours, work-from-home, self-direction, etc. It’s actually a really good model, and it leads to people who generally work fewer hours every week while producing more. Even the first step of casual dress showed, in many cases, a marked improvement in efficiency, since while you were still hosing your workers, at least you weren’t making them wear a ridiculous uniform for the purpose of hosing them. More improvements come as companies realize that you don’t really get anything good out of overmanaging people, and that a worker satisfied with his lot in life (which excludes a 70 hour work week) tends to be more productive and goes on fewer killing sprees with a shotgun. This, however, doesn’t ultimately solve the problem of the population’s requirements, and in fact only screws them further as the enlightened corporation tends to get rid of its less productive people faster than the traditional one.

Ultimately, what is needed is for more people to get enough cash to keep themselves happy and safe, while doing less work once you cut out the useless jobs. The obvious model for this is to keep your employees at their same annual pay rate, while cutting their work week down to about 2 days, during which they can reasonably get everything done in many cases, and save on petroleum consumption and traffic rage as an added bonus. No corporation will do this, for obvious reasons, even if they can maintain their normal level of productivity and cashflow in the process.

Rhetoric Begins Here

The other model more closely approximates Denmark’s welfare system: taxes are incredibly high (probably in the form of a national sales tax rather than an income tax), but the income of an unemployed person from the state is about 80% of what it is for someone with a job… basically, enough to support yourself reasonably comfortably, with some excess income to pursue other interests. Horror! says the capitalist. Hooray! says the slacker. Under this system, the rate of unemployment shoots to about 50% or so, as busywork and the accompanying useless jobs are cut out of companies so they can meet the added tax burden, and the people who don’t have a job stay home and write bad novels and maintain cheesy websites.

This may seem like an incredible gimme to the slackers of the world who would like nothing better than to sit home and get a check every week, but consider the other effects. As the slackers discover that they can stay home, businesses have fewer people applying for positions, and those people are the people who want a job not because it’s a necessary evil, but because they actually want to work, either because they like the company, because they want to improve themselves, or just because they need to feel useful. These are the people who are best suited to work at your company, and because you can no longer support useless positions and no longer have to create busywork, you can produce just as well, or better, than you did before.

Simultaneously, entire companies that are basically useless decline even more, some to the point of dismantling. For the worker under the new system, this is unfortunate, but not disasterous, since they are now receiving a check anyway. The people who are really damaged by this are the stockholders and tycoons of the useless industry world. It would be interesting to gauge the importance of various fluff companies by how their stock does once people don’t need them to survive. I would personally short advertising, most of the financial industry (including trading houses and banks), large scale entertainment media, and any other sector that rakes in huge amounts of cash without actually producing anything. In the case of entertainment media, the internet is already destroying its viability, and once people realize that they can produce and publish art without the influence of the horribly corrupt and stifling entertainment industry, you will not only see more being produced, but some worthwhile work that would not have been given a chance by the bureaucracy. (Anyone who has worked in the music industry can attest to this.)

Meanwhile, your population of slackers stays home and does whatever they want to, becoming an artificial bohemian class. Most of them will just sit around and have fun, watch TV, and whatnot, but the most intelligent and creative of these people now suddenly have the freedom to explore possibilities that didn’t exist under the work to survive system. The arts make a huge comeback as musicians can suddenly ply their trade without living in a shoebox, and painters can actually paint. (A regular job is a HUGE detriment to the creative process.) Thousands on thousands of would-be novelists can now actually write, and although a huge number of these novels will ultimately suck, some won’t… and since the current crop of novelists generally suck anyway, all you wind up with is a larger pool of writers, and thus a larger number of them who write something worthwhile. Never mind that the concept of intellectual property is damned due to the internet, you don’t need to be so guarded about your publishing points if you’re not worried about your family starving to death.

What about the jobs that nobody wants? If you don’t actually need to work, why would anyone work at McDonald’s flipping imitation beef on a bed of grease, or haul your garbage, or clean your grout? Someone obviously needs to do these jobs. Well, consider that your "living expenses" are being covered by the state. Anything you get from your employer is over and above this, and probably very little (say 30% of what it was before), but this is excess money. Therefore, you’ll still do better at McD’s than you will sitting on your ass at home. However, truly horrible jobs will still not attract people, unless they actually pay well. In this way, the jobs which are horrible and undesirable suddenly become worthwhile for those who need or want the extra income, and we can begin to appreciate the value of jobs differently. The guy who grows your food is infinitely more important to the taxpayer than the ad executive who thinks up new ways of selling us stuff we don’t need. It would be nice to see the farmer rewarded for his contributions on a level commeasurate with his importance.

Class War in 2 Paragraphs

If all of this superficially makes sense, then why haven’t we moved more aggressively toward a similar system? Here the socialist rhetoric regarding class struggle is correct. Those who are in a position to try out these ideas, i.e. those with the resources to run a business this way, got to that point because they were using the old system. "If it ain’t broke (at least for me), don’t fix it." The plutocracy lives extremely comfortably because of the exploitation of the working class, and implementing a more socially responsible system would rob them of that lifestyle. If everyone suddenly got what they needed to live on for nothing, then by necessity those who are fabulously wealthy would take some sort of hit. They would still be considerably well-off, but it’s hard to take something away from someone in the U.S., as well it should be, and nobody wants to give up what they have, no matter how much they possess.

If such a system were implemented tomorrow, the few extremely wealthy who could see the benefits of such a system (better productivity, happier population, less worrying about the security of your great-grandchildren) might not resist too greatly. The truly interested ones would have started experimenting with some of the system’s elements ahead of time, and some have, with new outlooks on corporate policy and management styles.

The rest though would require some sort of compulsion. The only compelling reasons to give up a perceived portion of one’s income are the threat that you may lose all of it if you don’t comply, or the threat of being killed. The threat of being killed is discussed below. The threat of losing business can only come when all of your competitors are doing well using a modern approach to personnel management, and as a result you lose all of your workers. This cannot work in the system as it stands, since everyone needs a useless job in order to survive, and if I was offered a job with a despicable and socially irresponsible company tomorrow, I would probably take it rather than being evicted and losing my family. I wouldn’t need to do that if my family’s security was assured.

The Government Problem

All of this leads us back to the problem faced by any culture that looks to a socialist solution for its problems: big government. Big government is in almost all cases bad. It costs the government about 20 times as much as is necessary to put a bowl of soup in front of a hungry person, as it would if a private person or small soup kitchen did it. Graft, bad planning, and overwhelming bureaucratic incompetence seems inevitable whenever the government tries to do something new, no matter how simple it seems.

By and large, this is because of the similarity of government to big business. Layers on layers of people doing useless jobs, who are fighting to keep those useless jobs, adds to the inefficiency of government. Everyone is familiar with the stories about the $3000 wrench purchases, etc. These are only the tip of the iceberg. However, look at government as a business, which it ultimately has become, and apply the same logic to it. Three-quarters of civil servants are laid off and go home to write bad novels. Those who stay are no longer motivated by the fear of losing their jobs, since they will stay alive nonetheless. The ones who remain will be a mix of people who actually want to do the job for the benefit of the citizen, and those who are power freaks. Power freaks can be more easily weeded out in an environment where job security is not as important as it once was, and blackmailing your colleagues for their support becomes less attractive if they no longer fear the threat of job loss. It takes time, but eventually you wind up with a more efficient, more motivated, smaller government, doing what government is supposed to do: providing for the welfare, rights, and security of its constituents.

Viva la Revolution

The other problem with reducing the size of government lies not just in the fact that people wish to maintain their jobs, but because they wish to maintain unreasonable powers. The IRS, the BATF, and the DEA are especially hard to dislodge, since one of their motivations is to maintain the ability to ignore the constitution and civil rights in the pursuit of their useless endeavors. We’ve known for years that the DEA doesn’t actually accomplish too much, but they can kick your doors in and illegally search your premises. The BATF routinely screws up and kills the wrong people, because they can get away with it. The IRS isn’t even a government agency (they’re a private corporation) whose very existence is unconstitutional and was supposed to go away decades ago, but they have the power to seize all your assets, go after your family, and ruin your life far in excess of any sort of debt you may or may not have incurred, and they do this all the time. These entities and others like them are loathe to give up their powers to walk all over you, and have resisted and will continue to resist any efforts at eliminating or even mildly curbing their extraconstitutional powers. You can never give a government a power with the understanding that it will be taken away after a goal has been met, because it never is. These are just the most extreme cases.

Sadly, the reason that government continues to exercise unwarranted authority and resist change is because, ultimately, they have the guns. All political power comes from the barrel of a gun, said Mao, and he was right. Only the ultimate threat of force convinces people to do something they don’t want to. To negotiate for sweeping changes with any sort of clout, the threat of armed rebellion must be present somewhere in the background. In the United States, this can actually happen, since despite efforts to the contrary the citizens can generally arm themselves.

However, it seems increasingly likely every day that weapon ownership can be curtailed to the point of ineffectuality. When that happens, the only recourse left to citizens trying to change policy is passive resistance, which is a lot harder to do in a country which is pretty well off by the world’s standards. Historically, you needed to bring the people to the point of starvation for them to rise up and rebel, either with weapons or by sitting on a lawn waiting to be gunned down. This will not happen in a country with America’s resources for a long time, unless things get very screwed up. The only solace I can take is that unless the current system is changed, enough people will reach starvation levels to force the point. I just wish it didn’t have to come to that.

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