Monday, November 3, 2014

How many actually need to work to keep us alive, and how have we managed to construct a society that enables the rest of us to appropriate the results of their efforts?

I thought about this reading about the work of a University of Arizona researcher Anna Dornhaus five years ago.  She did detailed analysis of European rock ants and determined from 300 hours of videotape that "the specialists aren't necessarily good at their jobs" "and the other ants don't seem to recognize their lack of ability."  Further, fast ants took 1-5 minutes to perform a task while slow ants took more than an hour and sometimes 2 to do the same task - and that 50% of the ants do no work at all.  Possibly, she said, "the lazing ants are resting, or are waiting in reserve in case something goes wrong."  Or, she said, "It's possible they aren't doing anything at all."

Sounds like us.  Two-thirds of us who are of working age (two-fifths of all 316 million of us) participate in the workforce, but how many of those 133 million people are actually doing the work that keeps us alive?  435,000 are farming, fishing, and working in forestry - we have twice as many lawyers, paralegals, etc.  For every agricultural worker, 27 are preparing and serving food.  If you include them, all the health care practitioners and support workers, all the construction, extraction, installation, maintenance, and repair people, all the production, transportation, and material moving people - all the people who do the stuff that actually helps us live - that's 52 million people keeping the other 4/5ths or 264 million of us alive.

I'm not saying the managers, accountants, programmers, engineers, scientists, social workers, lawyers, teachers, journalists, first responders, hair stylists, janitors, groundskeepers, sales clerks and administrative assistants aren't important - of course they are and some of them even help make the work of the 52 million happen more efficiently and/or effectively.  But much of what they do, strictly speaking, isn't necessary.  Neither for that matter is all the work done by the 52 million - some of them make facelifts and cotton candy for a living.

We have a political economy in which, like Anna Dornhaus' ant colonies, a few do the work on which the rest of us depend - and they don't even make the most money.  Hedge fund managers and professional athletes and movie stars do.  1% of us have 35% of the wealth (and the US as a whole, with 5% of the world's population, has 27% of its wealth). Why?

More interestingly to me, how could it work differently?  And why is any exploration of a different distribution outcome so outrageous to explore?  Isn't our current distribution of work and reward pretty arbitrary?  Many in the financial sector make a lot of money, but the efficiency of the sector as a whole has stagnated - some of the ants specializing in finance take 2 hours to get the job done but they get a lot more food and the other ants don't seem to recognize what's going on.  Why?

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