Thursday, December 26, 2013

Will there be a revolution?

Jason: Do you think there will be a revolution?

Sonja: Where?

Jason: In the United States.

Sonja: What?? Why would there be a revolution?

Jason: Well, the growing inequality for one thing.

Sonja: Oh, "the poor are getting poorer, while the rich are getting richer" - is that it?

Jason: Kind of. Not only that, but yes, that's part of the problem.

Sonja: OK. What's the other part?

Jason: The fact that it's not only about inequality, as this has been with us for a very long time...

Sonja: ...and it's been quite useful...

Jason: Yes, it's been quite useful. But in the past it was more about the overall increase in wealth lifting all boats, albeit unequally. Today more and more boats are permanently stranded on a sandbar. When tycoons like Ford and Vanderbilt made their fortunes, they also created a lot of relatively well-paying jobs, lifting many people out of abject poverty. The new billionaires of today often create very few jobs. Some well know brand names of the Internet Era operate with the staff  of dozens, yet are capable of making their owners incredibly rich.

Sonja: I think I know whom you have in mind... But there are examples of Internet companies that have huge operations, with the staff of thousands. Besides, is it this proof of the democratization of wealth creation? Unlike those tycoons of yesteryear, you no longer need enormous capital to build the infrastructure of your industry. All you need is a laptop and Internet access - anybody can have that.

Jason: If only that were all you needed... You also need creativity, talent, ability to take and afford risk, good education, etc. These intangibles are much less common than computers and Internet access. You may succeed without some of them, but not all of them.

Sonja: OK, so people are born with different capabilities - I'm not going to deny that. All I'm saying is that in the past you needed all that, plus a fortune.

Jason: That's not quite true. Many of the "giants of industry" started from very humble beginnings. But that's not my point. My point is that, while it may be easier for a handful of people to become richer quicker, it only helps them, and very few others. Those who did not have the mental resources to become rich, could still find decent jobs in the factories built by the shrewd, risk-taking entrepreneurs. That's no longer the case. In fact, those who are being displaced by new ways of doing things have no way of benefiting from new jobs being created - simply because those jobs aren't being created. And if they are, they require more intellectual "capital" and often more education than those misplaced workers can afford.

Sonja: One thing you need to keep in mind that the bar had been raised. It was much easier for Henry Ford to lift people out of poverty by paying them $5 a day, because that compared very favorably to the meager wages of many other workers.  Not to mention that it beat the back-breaking labor at a farm. People today are not starting that low. Their starting expectations go beyond mere survival - thus it is much more difficult to create jobs that would satisfy those expectations. Many of the low-skill, high-paying jobs had been replaced by machines or more efficient processes...

Jason: ... or shipped abroad. Many of those jobs did not disappear. They are just being done by someone else in the world. Cheaper.

Sonja: True, but the steadily growing expectations of these workers abroad are going to force their industries to start shedding human labor there, too.

Jason: The outcome will be more dissatisfied people with nowhere to turn to. How is that not a recipe for revolution?

Sonja: The lacking ingredient is despair. People may lose their jobs, but that does not mean starvation for them and their families. You said it yourself: people would revolt demanding "bread and circuses". At least in the advanced economies those two are fairly abundant. As long as people can have one hand in the bag of potato chips, and another one on the TV remote, or a media tablet, they will be pacified.

Jason: Is this supposed to fill me with optimism? A handful of obscenely rich people in the sea of lobotomized couch potatoes?

Sonja: You did not ask for an optimistic scenario. You asked whether we'll have a revolution. Here is your answer.