Picking the Right Battle
Progression in the labor market shapes our everyday lives. Work is our primary way of creating value in society and exchanging it with others. Yet, there is still something inherently wrong with how work is perceived and carried out. Renowned psychologist, Bob Black in his book The Abolition of Work said:
No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.
The book explores the idea of forced vs voluntary labor. The quote above describes Black’s position towards forced labor and he is clearly against it. Forced labor can be defined as an economic activity primarily driven by survival motives or accomplishments of societal constructs, like making ends meet or achieving a social status (materialism). The journey might be exhilarating and yields pridefulness in the early phase of the achievement. However, soon enough, the accomplishment will normalize and emptiness would creep in, knowing countless time and energy is spent on chasing man-made milestones. Just like any monetary motivated actions, when a local maxima is reached, you’ll find yourself running on an endless hedonic treadmill, looking around for a higher maxima, taking part in the art of comparison. You’ll never be satisfied (or even content) with constantly changing goals that is purely derived from “trends”, resulting in a directionless life. The happiness level fluctuates heavily, meaning at least twice as much effort/achievement is required to exceed the previous level of joy.
Living in a society with the aforementioned approach as the default would result in a focus-less society where so much potential is wasted. On the other hand, voluntary work is the other type of economic activity that is backed by concrete principals and intrinsic reason. The feeling of having a bigger purpose will prompt you to do work willingly. The shift to this mindset is a long road ahead, but it would undoubtedly boost societal progress, simply because when people obsess around their work, they would work after hours, midnights, weekends, and all those extra minutes of production will accumulate to accelerate innovation. Voluntary work doesn’t give as high of spike of happiness as what achieving societal milestones give you, but it is more sustained and have a net positive slope, gradually increasing as you do more of it.
This monetary motivated approach to work is in constant competition with non-material motivations as they are often perceived as two mutually exclusive events, influenced by factors like socioeconomic status and geographical constraint. In simpler terms, it is believed that there isn’t a way to maximize earnings while doing something you deeply care about.
Philosopher John Rawls introduced the concept of “principles of justice”, where he pushed the idea of an equal opportunity for people with the same talents and courage regardless of their socioeconomic background. In his words:
“In all parts of society there are to be roughly the same prospects of culture and achievement for those similarly motivated and endowed”
In a mere span of 20 years, technology has leveled the playing field more than humanity has done in centuries and the future looks promising. Google made it possible for anyone on earth to access any information in seconds, and social media connected individuals and communities, fulfilling our true desire as social creatures. However, much is yet to be done to fully tear down the barrier of entry to opportunities, requiring a societal mindset shift to disregard social constructs like needing to have a degree to get a job.
Is there a way to break the exclusivity between compensation and “passion”?
a. Compensation and capital allocation
To answer this question, lets first take a deeper look into how contributors are compensated and how capital is distributed in the current system. Individuals are either compensated through a fixed employment period or hourly engagement basis where the price don’t respond symmetrically to market conditions. The decision is subjectively made through mutual agreements between involved parties that results in undervaluing or overvaluing contributors professional worth (though the former is more apparent).
Furthermore, there is a huge misalignment between where value is created and where the money is going. This structural flaw comes from a poorly designed system where there is an abundance of layers between end users, also known as middlemen. Stacking up mid-layers was done to minimize variability and maximize trust; and this approach worked well until these middlemen make self-centered decisions at the expense of the people who elected them in the first place. Ironically, it did the reverse of the intentions where civilians lose trust and unwilling to delegate responsibilities to the system because their everyday lives are held hostage to whoever is at the top of the food chain making all the decisions.
The presence of mid-layers also causes a misallocation of capital. Middlemen benefit the most out of the system, simply because they happen to be at the intersection where the money flow. For example, public school teachers, who spend their days shaping the future generation, are paid 10x less in comparison to an investment banker who assists Fortune 500 companies in M&A. Alternatively, mid-layers induce capital inefficiencies with unnecessary fee collections and unfair halt of a fair share of capital, known as corruption.
Furthermore, our society is dealing with underutilization of capital, when the world’s total capital is clearly abundant. Spending and redistributing capital is a key driver for turning the world’s economic engine. Yet, it is surprisingly hard to move funds around and people are holding their money, because they have no trust in the current system or there aren’t enough available channels for which the funds can be allocated to.
b. The problem with “passion”
In the 1800s Karl Marx introduced the concept of alienation of work, describing the issues of capitalism and how hyper-specialization alienates workers from what they produce, which results in low working morale. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx wrote:
“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.
This theory accurately depicts the situation in today’s working culture. The widely adopted LLC structure breeds top-down organizations where most of the profit goes to the owner’s pocket while users and employees are left dry, contributors voices are drowned under the hierarchical structure, and there is no sense of ownership, resulting in employees doing their jobs half-heartedly. Of course, there are some jobs that are more independent than others but this illustration primarily highlights the more common type of employment.
Modernization and automation in the coming years would gradually remove the need of specializing labor. This poses an even greater question as to how society can transition to a more creative and generalist-minded approach. Systems need to be rebuilt into one that is more open, flexible, collaborative and self-sovereign.
Coordination between like-minded individuals/groups that share a common purpose is one of the biggest force of change out there. High level coordination yields results that otherwise wouldn’t be possible if done individually. More coordination usually equals to faster societal progress as the political phase gets shortened, which tightens the gap of the iteration phases. However, coordinated individuals also mean increased chances in collusion, and the only answer to collusion is to have a highly coordinated party overpowering it.
A system may also have opposing coalitions within them, when there’s a divergence of principals/motivations. The easiest example for this is how America is divided into red and blue states with rivaling ideologies. Coalitions can collude in a society that suffers from the fixed-pie fallacy because when a pie is singular, different versions of coalitions will try to cannibalize each other, resulting in net negative outcome for all parties. On the other hand, a pie-abundance approach would benefit from the formation of unique coalitions and increase the diversity of values. Using the same example, imagine if America is divided into two separate entities, each having its own distinct regulations. This way, Americans can migrate to places based on their political beliefs. This example seems utterly nonsensical due to geographical limitations; as it should be, because it is not meant to be taken literally, only conceptually.
Liberalizing the creation of digital channels-of-coordination would not only increase societal biodiversity but it will remove the barriers and increase the chances of individuals in finding their place to belong outside family, aka “passion”. The seamless experience of decision making around team’s direction, capital allocation, or task management would entice more variations of channels-of-coordination, creating a small flywheel that slowly builds up momentum.
The questionable (?) road ahead
Immanuel Kant believed in a society of autonomy where people are bound by no rules other than by themselves, and authorities of principles that underlie an individual should be by his/her own will. For a will to be free, it mustn’t be forced psychologically nor physically by another party. This Kantian philosophy is key in breaking the exclusivity between compensation and “passion”. Only if we can build an entirely new system that encompasses fair capital allocation and a rich collection of channels-of-coordination, society can unlock the sweet spot (labeled “?” in the diagram) , where one doesn’t have to be chosen at the expense of the other.
The path is long, uncertain, and full of questions; I am going to take a page from Kant’s teaching and follow my will to stop the passage here, only to be continued in the future with the solutions of the problems outlined above.