Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Playing The Numbers

Occupy Wall Street is being credited with starting a nationwide dialog about income inequality. Okay, I suppose. I guess I can give them that. But because I don't think that this is what they really set out to do, they didn't spark a dialog about why incomes in the United States are so unequal.

When I was growing up, my father taught me some very important lessons about work and jobs. Some of them I wish he hadn't, but a couple of them have really stuck with me due to their simplicity and obviousness.

There are two people connected to every job. The person who gives a job, and the person who gets a job. One of these is a better position to be in than the other.

There are two ways to make money from a job. You can either do something that other people can't do, or do something that other people won't do.
Sometimes, I think that people buy in too heavily to the idea of the value of work. Work, in and of itself, isn't worth all that much. People who work as field labor spend a lot of time working, and they work very hard - they don't clear all that much for their efforts. In order to advance themselves, many people in that situation are forced into a level of frugality that many Americans find completely impossible to imagine. Having enough money to save requires a remarkably low standard of living, considering the surroundings.

This is mainly because, despite the fact that many Americans find the work to be difficult, degrading and uncomfortable, farm workers are more or less a dime a dozen. The average migrant simply doesn't bring rare enough skills to the table, nor are they unique enough, to command a higher wage. The people who are making the big bucks on the other hand, often have skills that are very difficult to get. They also have a certain level of connections to people who can recommend them for high-paying jobs, but the old adage that "It's not what you know, it's who you know," has never really been as true as people have thought that it was. Closer to the truth is "It's not just what you know, it's who knows what you know." While there are always those people who park an incompetent friend or relation in a well-paying job simply to keep them out of the way, much more commonly wealthy people can display skills that the rest of us lack.

They have, to use an analogy, won a lottery, and they're reaping the rewards of that win. Sure, there are those people who claim that people who have made their fortunes invariably put in an amount of effort absolutely commensurate with their compensation, but as far as I'm concerned, the term "Just World Fallacy" exists for a reason. But this isn't to say that the people on the top have had all the luck, and left none for the rest of us. Many of us, seduced by the apparent ease with which many people seem to have made it big, spend too much of our time wishing for their talents, rather than cultivating our own. We wish that we'd won someone else's lottery, and neglect whatever prize we might have at hand. Talents, like work, are not created equal, and some people have more marketable abilities than others, and so even if everyone cultivated their talents to the fullest, there would still be a certain amount of income inequality, and as technology makes it more efficient to reach larger markets and larger audiences, the "winner take all" phenomenon that develops exacerbates the problem.

But I think that one of the issues that Occupy Wall Street railed against, even if it never articulated it, was the fact that many of us have become interchangeable, and thus, disposable. And in a world where many of us do not directly create the things that we need to survive, being just another face in an endless sea of people is a one-way ticket to a life of poverty. When Elizabeth Warren gave her talk on "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class," she pointed out that it now takes a college degree to land a middle-class job, where once it only required a high-school diploma. And as college attendance rates push upwards, it's likely to eventually become the case that one will need a graduate degree to stand out enough to command a respectable salary. (On the flip side, the high cost of college and graduate school carries with it a real risk of creating a permanent class divide, with a split between those who can afford the skills required to command high wages, and those who cannot.)

Of course, this also leaves doing things that others won't do. For instance, I always heard, growing up, that garbage men made a fairly decent living, for the work that they did. It was the stereotypical "dirty job" that no-one wanted. But as another example, it's pretty easy to come by "good enough" photographs of everyday people, places and things, and this is really undermining the profession of photography. But the guy who flies back and forth over an airport to get just the right aerial shot of a jumbo jet taking off or treks into the back country for a week and a half to come back with photographs of animals that just can't be seen anywhere else? They're going to be able to command high prices for their work, simply by virtue of going above and beyond.

But neither of these concepts fit neatly into the idea of "merit" as we've often been taught to think of it, and perhaps that explains why there is so much discontent with the way things work. We've been sold, as a society, a somewhat false view of the way things actually work, while the people who see through it go on to make themselves wealthy. But if that's the case, it suggests a starting point for a way out.

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