Minority Opinions

Not everyone can be mainstream, after all.

Flipping the Flow

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I once had trickle-down economics described to me while riding in a car.  I had heard it before, of course, and something had always felt a little off about it, but it wasn’t until I read a Cracked article, of all things, that pieces really started to come into place.  One of the big keys is that economics as we know it is far less trickle-down than siphon-up.

Where does your money come from, really?  In my case, it most directly comes from a mix of middle-class parents and state governments.  From there, it could be traced around and around a huge pool of small interactions: taxes, paychecks, purchases, investments, loans.  Along the way, it passes through many hands, most of them contributing in some small way to the benefit of society as a whole.  Some are producing food, some are educating the next generation, some are constructing buildings or roads, some are making it easier for everyone to interact, some are providing protection, and some are encouraging others to work harder or spend more.

But wait, does that last one really feel like it belongs?  In some ways, perhaps the taskmaster has been important for coordinating groups into contributing more value than the individuals would on their own, but it still feels a little less productive than actually making something.  Nevertheless, we’re spending ridiculous sums of money on managers and advertisers.  Every last penny of it sucked out of some other worker’s labor.

What would happen if we took them all out of the picture?  Let’s take out all of the bankers and politicians, too, along with the rest of the top 1% richest people.  Who’s left?  The people who actually make stuff.

Granted, their stuff wouldn’t be worth quite as much without the organization provided by the middle-men.  They could only sell to those they met; perhaps some would come to them, or perhaps several would gather in the town square on periodic market days.  It would be much more economical to meet the needs of your immediate neighbors than to have the most perfect product for a niche audience, so most people would turn to food production, with a few specialists in crafting and repairing tools.  In short, it would be just like the boring parts of our history.

Those middle men, or more importantly the network they create, have allowed society to progress well beyond subsistence farming.  They’re the reason my combination of inquisitiveness, laziness, and perfectionism are incredibly valuable instead of deadly.  But they tend to forget that their value depends on a basic set of goods, services, and infrastructure provided largely by the least appreciated elements of society.  They enhance, but they do not create.

Is there a way to remunerate each individual based on his or her real contribution to society?  I once read a novel that included something of the sort, but it bypassed the question of how to assign values to various actions.  In some ways, it made technology act as management, while leaving humans in other management capacities.  In the end, perhaps it was something like a bank balance with supply-and-demand pricing, but without the interest.  In all probability, though, the author may have underestimated the network effect of otherwise useless individuals in building a community.

Then again, have they been building as much as they have taken?  It has been claimed that the benefits of technology have been disproportionately distributed to upper level management, instead of taking a potentially reasonable stance of decreasing work hours for the majority.  Granted, some parts of that article are a little squatchy, and I’m not entirely convinced that the Occupy Movement is on the right path, but it does irk me when the rich take less care to build a better society than to enhance their own portfolios.

On the other hand, some of them probably feel like their contributions really are that important.  Despite stifling several companies and producing almost nothing innovative, Microsoft has successfully integrated computers into the everyday life of most Americans.  Andrew Carnegie built a fortune off the backs of steel workers, many of whom lost their jobs after requesting a raise commensurate with the profit they were making for the company, but spent large portions promoting science, education, peace, and fine arts.  Then there are the bankers who made huge bonuses by selling insurance policies to other banks, with far too little consequences for inability to pay up when the bubble burst.

Who’s to say whether the last should be punished more than the first?  How can we estimate the potential damage of letting a company fail when it has been horribly mismanaged, despite employing entire towns?  When can we develop an equation for the worth of universally solid education?

Sorry, I once again have more questions than answers.  But at least I feel confident that the simple picture painted by the rich, that their money goes straight into more jobs, isn’t as clearly correct as they would like.

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Written by eswald

1 May 2012 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Lifestyle, Politics

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