Adam Davidson’s NY Times magazine essay about Edward Conard’s view of wealth has been on my mind for a few days. There is much to criticize here, not the least of which is Conard’s application of a discredited functionalist model of society that says stratification is a function of occupational importance, such that the most important players receive the most lavish rewards. Clearly this is Conard’s argument, and he would like more inequality because he believes it would generate the motivation for those who are currently ‘wasting’ their talents on things like art to move into other, more productive lines of work.
In particular I’ve been thinking about the primary players in Conard’s model of investor driven capitalism, which I take to be ‘investors,’ and ‘consumers,’ and the relations between these actors. In this model, the risks of investors pay off in better lives for consumers. Another category of actor which is really only hinted at is ‘workers.’ Workers in Conard’s ideal capitalism appear to serve at the pleasure of investors who are driven to improve the lives of consumers. Conard shared an example of improvements to soda cans which make all of us richer because increased efficiency means each can costs a few cents less. He also shared examples from computing technology, Davidson himself writing that even progressive economists believe the economic success of companies like Google spreads ‘value’ throughout the economy.
The working definition of value throughout this essay is quite thin. It is value in the economic sense, meaning dollars and cents. Conard’s dismissive view of ‘art majors’ is an obvious example of how privileging economic value delegitimizes those forms of human productivity that do not serve purely economic ends. Specifically, work in the ‘rational’ fields of finance or technology are praised as ‘good,’ while creative pursuits are categorized as secondary, at best, or worse, selfish and wasteful from the perspective of Conard’s vision of the good society.
There is a much sounder critique of this perspective than I will provide here, but several thoughts came to mind to me as I read. Rationalized, cheap food quite often brings with it things like obesity and disease. How much of the current diabetes epidemic in our society can be attributed to cheap soda that tempts consumers into poor choices? How much of our current unemployment, and underemployment, can be traced to the role that computing technology has played in making well paying jobs automated and/or unavailable to previously well employed workers? How many students, scholars, or journalists have written lazy essays because one of Google’s primary contributions to knowledge is access to less than reliable sources and an explosion of information illiteracy?
Finally, an experience late last week brought this article to mind again. A Sears Hardware store near me is closing. While it is associated with Sears, it had the feel of a small, local hardware store, certainly when compared to Home Depot or Lowes. I happened to be entering the store as the ‘liquidation sale’ banners were being hung. It was a sad experience. Selfishly, I might bemoan how the disruptions that are a normal part of investor capitalism will negatively impact me and my neighbors for whom this store was about a minute away. Now I’ll have little choice but to drive the 15 minutes to Lowes or Home Depot, using up more gas and having to deal with the ‘tyranny of choice’ that makes shopping a the Big Box stores a frequently daunting experience. Of course, I also have less choice because one competitor has left the market. Now, I also live close to a shopping center losing one of its main stores. Will this affect my ‘property value?’
Sadder was the fact that the clerk who cashed me out was crying. While I don’t know her name, she was familiar to me because she was often there when I shopped. Certainly, she enjoyed serving her customers, the consumers the store served, but when I made small talk with her, it was clear that she was saddest because she ‘opened this store.’ She opened it, and now she was there to close it. This place of work was a part of her identity, a place where she applied her particular craft, and clearly she valued the work and the place quite highly. It is this personal and emotional aspect of work that Conard’s model of the ideal economy simply ignores by conceptualizing the ‘worker’ as a residual category between ‘investors’ and ‘consumers.’
This is about more than simply appreciating human sadness because it also demonstrates how investor capitalism devalues any particular job and any particular worker. When a job is simply a slot that may or may not last long term, how can we expect a worker in that job to take pride in work, to perfect a craft, or to feel any desire to serve consumers well? An irony of Conard’s model, then, may be that it ends with low quality experiences for consumers. However, I’m sure it serves investors well.