Thursday, August 6, 2015

This Strange Machine: The One Percent and the Zero-Sum Economy

I know Kung Fu.

So the last will be first and the first last, for the called are many and the chosen ones are few.
~Matthew 20:16

I still remember a lot of my test scores.

I did pretty well, especially considering that I never really prepared for any of them. I always did well at standardized test, so why was there a need to prep for anything.

They reported those test in raw numbers, but also in terms of percentiles. Look, you did better than 99% of people who took this test or that test. It really didn’t mean much to me because I didn’t really feel like I worked for it.

For me learning was just looking at things that interested you and finding out what more about them. I learned a lot about airplanes after I was done with dinosaurs. Then it was sports and then girls and then everything was some sort of way to learn more about girls.

Those percentiles were huge for the educators whose work was judged on how well we did on those test. I never understood that. If it is based on percentiles, if everyone learns at the same rate, then there is no movement. If you increase your percentile over time, it means that there has to be someone who did less well relative to you. It’s a zero-sum game.

But it was still celebrated. I remember once my high school having a party, and the only people who could go to the party were those who had raised their percentiles. I was mad because as part of the one percent, I could not by definition raise my percentile. I ended up being able to go to the party when I pointed this out.

I was aware of my status, and that it was more or less unearned. I would be lying if I said that it was not part of my self-definition. My two best friends were also part of that elite club at our school. That meant with 700 kids at our school, there were only four others as smart as us (yes, yes, those tests are national or state-wide, so there could have been an uneven distribution of the top scores at some schools, but that’s neither here nor there. In fact, I used to be smug about it until I was shown what that really meant. In a country the size of America, you could take all the top one percent, and you would be able to create a city the size of Chicago. It was a humbling though, but it didn’t make me angry or feel any less special. In fact, It was a bit inspiring. I felt a bit lost growing up, but to think that there were scores of people just like me created  sense of community. Heck, I’d even talk to people just in the 2% and not feel bad about it.

I think that machine intelligence may be on the way, so that eliminates some of my perceived advantage. If you could download all the books and learn skills, it eliminates part of the specialness of being at the top, but it doesn’t diminish me in any way. One of the most interesting things about me is that I was on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”. I lost, but I blame the buzzer more than my faculties. I have always had a weird memory, more able to recall disconnected facts than the faces of someone I just met. I did well to get on the show, but I joke that being good at trivia is worthless in the age of Google. I will always be less accurate than web search for the rest of my life.

I don’t feel a loss from the rise of Google because I don’t feel like others having access to information is bad for me. I think there’s still emancipatory potential for humanity through technology and having all that knowledge at the tips of our fingers. We just have to get through the early adoption of cat pictures and listicles first. I don’t feel a loss because my mind, no matter how proud of it I am, is not something that I worked for. My aptitudes were set genetically, and fostered through having parents who guided my development and teachers who saw things in me and sought to teach me what they could, going out of their way oftentimes to challenge me more than the standard curriculum. I did work to fill it, and continue to do so, but that stuff in there is for sharing; this strange machine that weaves ideas and thoughts and can never come to a finite or concrete conclusion.

I have been thinking of my conceptualization of my mind and tried to turn it around economically to how people think about money. there have been several issues that have come up and made me wonder about people’s perceived diminishing when others are brought forth to some sort of power economically. The widest spread of these issues is the fight for 15, where there has been agitation amongst service workers for an increased minimum wage to fifteen dollars a hour. My reading is that the minimum wage was once enough to get someone to near the poverty line, which is in itself a flawed measure. Currently, a minimum wage job leaves you below the poverty line unless you are supporting only yourself, and again that leaves you highly in want.

So there have been two arguments against raising the minimum wage that are almost ad hominem attacks. First is the argument that they don’t deserve it because there are other, more deserving workers in which a raise to fifteen an hour would mean that those other workers would now labor at with a parity to the fast food service workers. This is a weird argument because it is not as if anyone is asking the paramedic to dig out of their pockets and directly subsidize the wage raises. No, “Sorry, Joe, but now you only get $8.50 an hour because of those folks at Arbys”. If anything there would be modest menu increases because labor is a significant portion of the expenses of your average restaurant.

The second argument is that they’re not really poor. Some workers are living as part of well-off households. But also look at how much money they have relative to poor people elsewhere. I’ve heard this argument and it befuddles me. The research seems to indicate that relative poverty is worse in terms of life outcomes and mental states than absolute poverty is. Now, I don’t wish absolute poverty on anyone and I am not volunteering to move to any of those countries that are victims of imperialist extraction without the occupier's leaving in place strong institutions. The bottom line is that not paying people survival wages in no way is good for the people who are not suffering from want - I recommend everyone read “The Spirit Level” - and is bad for society as a whole.

I think both sorts of arguments go back to an idea of some zero-sum game. If you pay someone else more, it diminishes me, especially if I am near the new level of pay that is being proposed. I think you see an analogue of this with the proposed drug testing of “welfare recipients,” where it the people most forcefully advocating this on a personal level have low-level jobs and are suffering from. if not conscious of, their own gross exploitation at their workplaces.  

But it’s not a right / left divide issue. There have been a couple of analogous things that have popped up in recent news that makes me think that people see success as some sort of zero-sum game where it is not. We can all succeed, and thrive, but there is a socialization that speaks against that idea at a young age. The first I’ve seen is with Zappos. I’ve been following them because they are at least trying to do some new things with the organization and how service is delivered. They recently reorganized how the entire company is run, where each employee is involved with self-management and management of the company as a whole in an idea called “Holacracy”. Employees were given the option to walk away with some buyout money. A significant portion did, and even more of the former managers, because it meant that they were no longer special.  

Another example was in the New York Times recently. This company's owners made everyone’s base salary $70,000, which is pretty awesome if you were a receptionist. But there was some backlash were a couple of employees quit even though they got raises. They were just mad that their raise wasn’t enough. I don’t understand either response. At Zappos or this other company or if you’re a paramedic, you lose nothing as others gain. People are angry at this because they can see the front-line workers and feel disdain for them and create a category and put them in that category and then compare themselves to that category. I don’t do that. I have been down on my luck, including two years unemployed after the great catastrophe of 2008, but since then I have worked at my education and at my workplace and not gotten sick or had other life disruptions. It means that they keep giving me more stuff to do with the commensurate salary increases. But here’s the thing - I want my coworkers to make more money. We are all underpaid.

Which comes back to the one percent, but this time it is not the one percent in terms of test-taking, but in terms of income and wealth. Like at my party, the one percent can’t get any more one-percentier. The difference between those tests and wealth is that there is no to bound. In the test, you can get all the answers correct. In terms of wealth, you can just keep adding questions. And add the one percent have. There are charts and graphs that you can look at, but the anger has been misdirected. If you can perceived of the economy as a zero-sum game, it is not the fast food workers that are the cause of low and stagnating wages. It is the higher corporate incomes and the lower return to labor compared to ever raising productivity. Where have those returns gone to? The CEOs and the large shareholders who have expropriated the surplus from all our labor. They are the ones who control the resources and the governments. They are the ones who make your median household income look like peanuts. Compared to them, we are all poor. The problem is that we just don’t see them.