Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Exploitation of Duty

OK, the title is a bit dramatic, especially since this is going to be fairly abstract exploration of an economics idea I've been kicking around in my head for a while. If someone were paying me to write these, there would be a lot more research and a lot more organization to the observations and arguments I'm going to make, but, they're not (but let me know if you'd like to), so this is going to be a fairly disorganized, but hopefully still understandable tour through some of my thinking about, you know, the little things in life; the relationship of market based economics to human society.

Perfectly accurate, except he's not wearing PJS.
It is accepted as truth that it is virtually impossible to make a living just by writing. Sure there are a few bestsellers and there's always the chance to sell the movie rights, but the vast majority of people who get paid to write must also get paid to do something else as well. (At least those who are writing art and entertainment. Copywriting is a different animal.) Given the kind of hours that go into a sellable piece of writing, I think it's fair to say that writing is an underpaid industry. Historically there have been about four responses when an industry's workers are underpaid. Payments rise in order to ensure the profits from the industry continue, workers organize to increase wages, the work is done by an underclass, like the immigrants working on our farms today, or the work doesn't get done and the industry vanishes. But none of those things are going to happen in the writing industry because writers don't write for the money (see above); for one reason or another they feel a duty to write. Writing fulfills a deep human need and so, no matter what the economy of the day pays writers, someone will write.

Live! Damnit live! Also! Get our your insurance card!
Now, imagine if the services provided by, say, EMTs were priced according to supply and demand. If you're in an ambulance having a heart attack or bleeding from some a wound, demand is about as high as it can possibly be and you've only got one source of supply. Essentially, according to supply and demand, an EMT could charge “Every single dollar you have,” and that would be a fair price. (Which is why healthcare makes no sense in the private market.) Same goes for fire fighters, police officers, and just about everybody else in the medical profession. But as a society, we have decided to remove medical care (somewhat) from the system of supply and demand, which means that from a purely capitalist perspective, every single person who becomes an EMT will make less than what they economically deserve. And yet, people are still EMTs. Furthermore, people are still nurses and general practitioners even though those professions demand a high amount of effort in return for a relatively minimal reward, especially when compared with other medical professionals. And yet we still have nurses, EMTs and general practitioners. Just like in writing, these professions meet a deep human need, the need to help others, and so, even though they don't make much economic sense, people will continue to do them.

There are plenty of jobs that are vital to society but are not compensated as though they are vital to society. These jobs are filled by people who feel a duty to do them and so a surplus is created. Capital that should go to these professions doesn't, because the people who do the jobs do them out of duty, rather than for profit. Duty is exploited to create a surplus of capital. Inherently, this isn't a problem. In order for a capitalist society to function, there must be some exploitation of duty because otherwise all of the capital of society would be tied up in stitches and potatoes. Essentially, there is an acceptable level of exploitation of duty. But what we have now is something much different, an extreme redistribution of that surplus, part of a grander trend of wealth concentration, that is making it even more difficult for those who follow the call of duty to live comfortable lives, while weakening and destabilizing the economy as a whole.

Simple rule: If you're a white man in a suit, never steeple your fingers
Why does a mediocre financial planner make more money per hour than a great novelist or an excellent nurse? Because odds are, the financial planner is in it for the money. I mean, nobody ever says, “I just had to follow my heart, so I became a financial planner.” Because people go into these professions for the money, they need to be paid a lot in order to do the jobs. How does a CEO who destroys a company somehow make shmillions in salaries, stock options, and bonuses? Because they are doing it for the money and so absolutely everything they do is geared towards getting as much money as possible. Nurses do what they do for the satisfaction of contributing to the wellness of other human beings, writers do what they do because there is human need to create, so nurses get paid in satisfaction and writers get paid in creations. (Of course, landlords still don't accept “creations” for rent.)

Essentially, our current political-economy redistributes the wealth of duty driven professions to profit driven professions. In a way, we already accept that there is something unjust about the level of redistribution in our current society. All of those NEA grants are, essentially, re-redistributions of the surplus of capital created by the exploitation of duty. So are the MacArthur genius fellowships. All the underwriting of PBS programs, all the grants to art organizations, all the cash prizes for books. All seek to re-redistribute an unjust redistribution. They are ways to redress the exploitation of duty.

But recently, these techniques have not been enough. Along with the inherent exploitation of duty every society needs to survive, we have lived for about thirty years in an era of radical wealth concentration. Everybody but the wealthy have seen their wealth diminish. There are lots of different ways to move what we have now to a sustainable society, one in which nurses are still not paid what they're worth, but are paid enough to be financially comfortable in their lives. Some of them involve reforms to specific industries, like creating a single payer universal healthcare system that shifts wealth from actuaries, administrators, and specialists to nurses, EMTs, general practitioners and other support staff that ensure treatment happens, or like Amazon not shredding to teenie bits the book industry by squeezing all of the capital out of it, so there are more stores to sell books and more money to pay authors. Some of them involve economy-wide federally driven reforms, like raising the minimum wage, which should raise wages in general, or an increase in grants and funding to important but inherently unprofitable endeavors. Some involve the rich assholes that are fucking ruining it for everyone to get a fucking sense of decency and community. (Ain't holding my breath on that one.)

As I said in my introduction, I haven't quite pulled all of this together and I'm sure there are aspects of this someone more familiar with economics would understand that I don't. I spend a lot of time in my own head and sometimes ideas congeal enough to warrant a blog post. (Hoo boy, just wait from my Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized Content post.) But one thing is pretty solid in my head. As everyone tells you, the engine of capitalism is profits, which means that capitalists will pursue profit above all else, and sometimes the “all else,” includes pretty important stuff. For as long as we have had capitalism, as a society we have done stuff to ensure at least some of that “all else,” happens, whether through government programs and regulations, or people doing things out of a sense of duty rather than profit. In fact, capitalism simply cannot work without these buttresses of “all else.” Whenever our economy has operated with a small number of the buttresses, it has to varying degrees COLLAPSED. Maybe we should reward duty a little more and money a little less.

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