Tuesday, December 03, 2013

How to improve the capitalist system

By Frank Moraes

Okay, so Jeff Bezos wants to send carrots to my door via helicopter drones. Or something. I don't know. My father gave me the news last night that 60 Minutes continued their long history of hard hitting investigative reporting by doing a puff piece about how Amazon totally rocks! They could have just photoshopped a picture of Matt Yglesias sucking Bezos's cock, but that wouldn't have eaten up 15 minutes of air time. Look, I'm for Amazon. Last year I was able to order Christmas gifts, have them wrapped, and sent my nieces and nephews without ever having to talk to them. Now if Amazon could just come up with a service to handling those "thank you" calls, I'd be set.

But here's the thing. What if Amazon succeeds? The truth is that our income inequality problems are the result of exactly this kind of thing. We need to think about whether the capitalist system really works as human labor becomes less and less important. I've begun to think about it like a game. Imagine that the World Series was decided by a single game. It is well known that any team in the major leagues can beat any other team on any give day. So that wouldn't be fair. But take it further. Imagine that none of the players on any of the teams got paid unless they won the World Series. That's pretty much the system that we have.

Let's think about my favorite example: Mitt Romney. He makes about $20 million per year. The average American family makes about $50,000. So he's making 400 times as much as the average American and he doesn't doanything. And he never did. He mostly just extracted wealth out of the work that other people did. But taken to extremes, what exactly is our society going to do when Jeff Bezos has all the money? What good will his carrot delivering helicopters do? No one will be able to afford carrots—just Jeff and Mitt.

Of course, it won't get to that point. Economies evolve. But conservatives are so rigid in their thinking. They pretend as though the economy is the same as it was when Adam Smith was alive. But it isn't. As I wrote last year at this time, Tsarist Russia Less Unequal Than America. And why is it less equal? It isn't because people are worse now. It is that the economic system now allows for "winners" to win far more than is reasonable.

The question is what we are going to do about it. To me, we are at the point where we should provide a guaranteed income. This would do a number of things. First, it would reduce the amount that the "winners" win. Second, it would mean that businesses that wanted labor would have to pay reasonably well. Otherwise, there would be no point in working. Third, it would force businesses to automate and not use humans to do stupid, repetitive, boring work. Overall, it would be a boon to innovation. Conservatives claim that people only innovate if there are huge rewards for doing so. I haven't found this to be the case at all. I work two different jobs that currently aren't paying anything to speak of. One of them is this blog, which continues to grow in terms of its readership. The other is a high tech start-up. I'm doing both of these things because I have a financial cushion. If I had to worry about my next meal, no amount of potential future reward would make me work on them.

So if Jeff Bezos wants to deliver carrots by helicopter, he ought to be in favor of this new approach to our economy. Otherwise, there will not be enough people who will be able to afford drone delivered produce.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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