RevolutionZ

Ep 3 - Vision: Meritocracy and Income

May 22, 2019 Season 1 Episode 3
RevolutionZ
Ep 3 - Vision: Meritocracy and Income
Chapters
RevolutionZ
Ep 3 - Vision: Meritocracy and Income
May 22, 2019 Season 1 Episode 3
Michael Albert
What should govern how much people earn for their work...we try to answer.
Show Notes Transcript

This third Episode of RevolutionZ takes up the question - what should people earn for their labors. How does it work now? How should it work in a good economy.

If someone asks: “I get that you want a higher minimum wage, I get that you support people striking for better pay, but what do you think really ought to happen regarding people's earnings,” can we answer?

This episode tries to do so.

If you have reactions, questions, or especially advice and suggestions for RevolutionZ, please email michael.albert@zmag.org

To support RevolutionZ, please visit our Patreon Page.

Speaker 1:
0:01
My name is Michael Albert and this is episode three of our new podcast RevolutionZ: Life After Capitalism.
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0:06
Charles Dickens wrote: "Annual income, 20 pounds annual expenditure, 19 six result happiness, annual income, 20 pounds annual expenditure, 20 pound naught and six, result misery."
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0:21
Woody Guthrie said, "Most everybody I see knows the truth, but they just don't know that they know it.
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0:26
And Malcolm x said, "If we don't stand for something, we may fall for anything."
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0:30
This episode of RevolutionZ discusses the thorny problem of what should determine how much income each person in society receives. Imagine you are a student at a university where custodians are striking for higher wages. Or imagine you are a parent at a grade school where teachers are striking for better wages. You support the striking employees, but someone who is doubtful asks you, okay, how much should they earn? How much should anyone earn? What's equitable, what isn't?
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1:08
If the strike's aim is not only to win an immediate gain, but also to prepare the way for seeking more gains, later, each limited gain, helping to pave the road to winning a better economy and society, this is a very Germane question.
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1:13
How should we talk about income so our demands will grow rather than becoming modest victories that terminate our efforts? Okay, so ask yourself, what income do you think we should receive for our labors? Put differently, what do you think should determine the income we receive, whether we are a custodian, teacher, or whatever?
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1:32
Suppose for convenience we call the total goods and services any society produces society's pie. Critics of capitalism typically feel that society's pie ought to be fairly divided amongst society's workers, but is it sufficient to just say income distribution needs to be fairly divided? What does fair mean, anyhow, and don't we need to say more to help dispel the widespread feeling that there is nothing better beyond capitalism?
Speaker 1:
1:55
Don't we need to say more so that our actions can cumulatively take us to where we want to go? One option for distributing income is to say that people ought to get more if they own property that contributes to the worth of society's pie. If I have a deed that stipulates that I own Amazon, then with this approach I get profits back as part of my income. In fact, even if I simply sit in a chair, if I am Jeff Bezos at Amazon, I get as much income each workday as someone working for me, packing and moving boxes, earns in a hundred years. Yes, you heard that right. Because if Bezos earns $13 billion in profits next year, which is not impossible, then he will learn about $50 million per work day. If Samantha working for Jeff Bezos at a pretty good job, earns $50,000 a year, she will earn $50 million -- what Bezos earns on a good day -- in a thousand years.
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2:49
If there is one thing nearly all anticapitalists have agreed on it is that property based income called profits creates dehumanizing poverty. It propels holders to Lord-like dominion over workplace. It causes ceaseless conflict over property-induced differences in income and power. It demolishes diversity by homogenizing contending classes. And subverts sustainability by giving centralized power and interest in exploiting nature and accumulating ceaselessly.
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3:18
Rejecting property based income for those reasons, a second income option is that people ought to get more income if they are strong enough to take it and ought to get less income if they are sufficiently weak to be given less. If I can take more, great I will. If you can't take more, too bad, you won't. Now it may seem like this thuggish approach to distributing income, so baldly stated, is so odious that no one would advocate it. In fact, however, it is literally how markets operate. It is all around us with markets.
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3:46
If you have bargaining power based on your having property, or based on your having a monopoly on information or skills, or based on your being aided by a bought off government agency, or based on your having a powerful professional organization or for that matter on your having a good union, you can take more than others. In contrast, if you have less power because for example your society is racist and you are in a racially subordinated constituency, or your society is sexist and you are female, or because you are isolated and easily replaceable at work, then you get less income.
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4:21
Al Capone, the famous American criminal, was once asked by an interviewer, what do you think about America? Capone answered, "I love America. In America, you get what you can take."
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4:31
Giving income for power is indeed a thug's economy. No doubt Capone like the idea and Trump likes the idea, but presumably you don't. Presumably you will agree that a power based option to distributing income violates our favorite values.
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4:45
Next comes an option that's harder to dismiss and that many who say they are socialists, for example, explicitly support. This norm is that people should receive back from society's pie, a bundle of preferred items whose total value reflects the total value of what they contributed by their labor to society's pie. If you and I pick cotton and you pick more each day, you should get that much more income than I get each day. And likewise, if we tend patients, play music, wash dishes, play basketball, or whatever else, if you contribute more to society's pie by your work, you should get more income in that same proportion. After all, if you get less than what your work generated, someone else is getting some of the value that you generated. And that seems unfair. Likewise, if you get more than your work generated, you are getting some value that someone else generated. And that too seems unfair.
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5:37
So it seems to follow that we should each get back for our labors income equal in value to the amount that we, by our labors, contributed to the total social product, and not more or less than that. But is this really so obvious? Is this really a norm that would yield the equity we desire? To answer we have to ask, what might cause you to produce more worth than me over the same period of time? Well, you may be better equipped for the work, stronger, quicker, or better able to reason, or you may have a plow and I only have a hoe or you have a computer and I only have a pencil and paper, or maybe you have workmates who better enhance your ability to produce because they are more capable than my workmates are.
Speaker 1:
6:16
Or finally maybe you surgically produce brain repairs whereas I manually produce car repairs, or maybe you make gourmet meals, whereas I sling hash. In each of those cases, if we say people should get income in proportion to the value of what they contribute to society's pie, you would certainly get more income than I. But should you?
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6:36
Why should your more productive, inborn genetic characteristics - greater strength say or better reflexes - or your better equipment, or your more effective work mix, or the fact that you are producing a more valuable output, ethically entitle you to more income? In none of these cases would giving you extra income reward some activity of yours, but instead it would reward only your luck in the genetic, equipment, workmate, or assigned product lottery.
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7:02
In other words, suppose you were born with Adele's voice, Bolts' speed. Shaq's, strength, or Chomsky's mind. You've been lucky in the genetic lottery. Should we then shower you with wealth on top of that good fortune?
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7:16
Or suppose you use a great tool that others don't yet have. Again, does that mean you deserve more pay? Should we shower you with wealth because you were lucky in the tool lottery? You get the idea. So is rewarding luck fair or does it subvert fairness and our other values similarly to how rewarding property or bargaining power subverts them?
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7:37
I should perhaps note at this point that a key thing about values is they are not true or false. I can't advocate a value on grounds that I can prove it is true or reject another value on grounds I can prove it as false. No one can prove any such thing about a value. Instead to choose among values and norms, the distinction has to be that we like what fulfilling one value leads to for society and we don't like what fulfilling another value leads to.
Speaker 1:
8:04
This was true for our earlier giving general allegiance to equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and sustainability, all of which we found likable, and as we proceed we also need to find likable whatever refinement of those values we settle on to further guide our approach to organizing particular aspects of social life.
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8:22
So do we think af society will be better if it rewards a person for their luck in inheriting traits like strength, speed and smarts? Should exceptional ballplayers, singers, calculators, and what have you, earn vast income for their special abilities? If you think the answer is yes, as any advocate of giving people income for the value of their contribution to society's pie has to, then be aware that top athletes now signing contracts for as much as $35 million a year are actually getting less than the value that they add to society's pie in the enjoyment of people watching them.
Speaker 1:
8:55
They get less? Yes. Because much as taken by team owners, TV stations, shoe manufacturers, and the like who have sufficient bargaining power to take it. But let's consider a less extreme example. Two farm workers go out in the field and work under the same sun, for the same duration, using the same tools, but one is six foot four and really strong, and the other is five foot eight and of average strength. They both produce valuable output, but the bigger, stronger farm hand produces twice as much. Do we really feel it is morally desirable to pay the stronger farm hand twice what we pay the weaker one? Might it be better if the workers get income according to a different norm, or do we think piling wealth on top of lucky genetic endowment is ethically sound?
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9:39
And should we really reward people as well for luck in the equipment lottery? I have better tools at my disposal in you. Should my hourly income be more in the same proportion that my tools let me produce more? Or similarly, is society better if we reward, luck in being with a more talented team of coworkers, or of happening to be assigned to produce objects of greater value?
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10:01
Socialists of every denomination don't like rewarding property or bargaining power, but many socialists do say they favor rewarding output, at least until someone points out the full implication. In any event, I would like to suggest, instead, that a worthy economic vision should give income for how long one works, for how hard one works, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which one works, so long as one is producing something that is socially valued. For a worthy economy, that is, we should favor receiving higher income for working longer, for working harder, or for working under worse conditions, but not for being stronger or more talented, or for having better equipment, or more effective workmates, or for producing something more highly valued.
Speaker 1:
10:43
If we adopt this approach, an average income will be payment for a workload of average duration, intensity, and onerousness. If I want more leisure than average, I will arrange to work less hours and get commensurately less income. And the same goes for the intensity of my work, or if it is more or less onerous.
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11:00
The title of this episode of RevolutionZ is "Meritocracy and income." Why that title? People claim capitalism is a meritocracy, meaning a system in which rewards are earned fairly, but that doesn't mean much until we defined fair. If fair means based on duration, intensity and onerousness of socially valued work, than anything one gets for some other reason, for example, from having property, being powerful, or having innate talents is not fair. A meritocracy in that case is in fact an economy that rewards people for those reasons and not for property, power, or output, but I would like to take just a minute to look at this still another way.
Speaker 1:
11:39
Imagine we lived in the old west and there is a lot of land to be distributed. We have everyone line up at some starting line and race out to lay claim to parcels of land. Those who get there fastest will get the best parcel. Those who arrive last, will get the worst. Fast horse, better parcel. Better route, better parcel. Is it a meritocracy? Too much lock, too much horse, you might say. Okay, suppose we handicap the race like I think they do with sailboat racing, for example. That is we somehow make all the horses that people are riding the same speed, everyone has to travel the same path, and so on. People take off. Is it a meritocracy? What's interesting to note, at least to me, is that in the first case and in the handicapped case, the outcome still has much better parcels, okay parcels, and much worse parcels. They just wind up in the hands of different folks.
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12:30
This is the second problem with the idea that a meritocracy is, by itself, in and of itself, supremely admirable. Same prizes? Then even if you make the race fair, you still get inequality, and perhaps horribly vicious inequality.
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12:45
So our approach actually has two aspects. Not only is everyone racing fairly in our approach, but the outcomes are sensibly equitable as well. So in a sense it is a meritocracy. I get more income if I earned it based on my outlay of effort, but also the extra that I get matches the sacrifice of time or energy or circumstances that I suffered. One way to look at the proposal is that each worker gets a work assignment and an income. Society seeks to ensure that the sum of debits and benefits of one's work and income taken together pretty much equalizes for everyone.
Speaker 1:
13:18
If I worl harder, or I work longer, or I work under more onerous conditions, the greater loss due to my effort is offset by my getting more income for my effort. I claim this approach to income distribution is economically equitable and highly consistent with all the values we seek to fulfill. Many and perhaps most will at least agree that this is a fair approach, but many will also doubt its practicality, and they are right that it would do no good to have a formally fair approach that, however, would leave everyone impoverished due to generating insufficient production.
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13:49
It doesn't do to spread the goods equally, spread the goods fairly, spread the goods equitably, if there aren't very many goods becausef the approach you're using just doesn't get the job done.
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14:00
The question that arises, therefore, for future treatment is would providing income for duration, intensity and onerousness of socially valued labor, not only be ethically sound, but also get the needed job done?
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14:13
This is Michael Albert signing off until next time for RevolutionZ.