Wealth creation, middle class, technology and relative poverty

@andygogo (1580)
January 14, 2007 9:18am CST
MIND THE GAP May 2004 (published online Nov 2006), by Paul Graham When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once. Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong. Why? The pattern of variation seems no different than for any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money? I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health? The Daddy Model of Wealth When I was five I thought electricity was created by electric sockets. I didn't realize there were power plants out there generating it. Likewise, it doesn't occur to most kids that wealth is something that has to be generated. It seems to be something that flows from parents. Because of the circumstances in which they encounter it, children tend to misunderstand wealth. They confuse it with money. They think that there is a fixed amount of it. And they think of it as something that's distributed by authorities (and so should be distributed equally), rather than something that has to be created (and might be created unequally). In fact, wealth is not money. Money is just a convenient way of trading one form of wealth for another. Wealth is the underlying stuff—the goods and services we buy. When you travel to a rich or poor country, you don't have to look at people's bank accounts to tell which kind you're in. You can see wealth—in buildings and streets, in the clothes and the health of the people. Where does wealth come from? People make it. This was easier to grasp when most people lived on farms, and made many of the things they wanted with their own hands. Then you could see in the house, the herds, and the granary the wealth that each family created. It was obvious then too that the wealth of the world was not a fixed quantity that had to be shared out, like slices of a pie. If you wanted more wealth, you could make it. This is just as true today, though few of us create wealth directly for ourselves (except for a few vestigial domestic tasks). Mostly we create wealth for other people in exchange for money, which we then trade for the forms of wealth we want. [1] Because kids are unable to create wealth, whatever they have has to be given to them. And when wealth is something you're given, then of course it seems that it should be distributed equally. [2] As in most families it is. The kids see to that. "Unfair," they cry, when one sibling gets more than another. In the real world, you can't keep living off your parents. If you want something, you either have to make it, or do something of equivalent value for someone else, in order to get them to give you enough money to buy it. In the real world, wealth is (except for a few specialists like thieves and speculators) something you have to create, not something that's distributed by Daddy. And since the ability and desire to create it vary from person to person, it's not made equally. You get paid by doing or making something people want, and those who make more money are often simply better at doing what people want. Top actors make a lot more money than B-list actors. The B-list actors might be almost as charismatic, but when people go to the theater and look at the list of movies playing, they want that extra oomph that the big stars have. Doing what people want is not the only way to get money, of course. You could also rob banks, or solicit bribes, or establish a monopoly. Such tricks account for some variation in wealth, and indeed for some of the biggest individual fortunes, but they are not the root cause of variation in income. The root cause of variation in income, as Occam's Razor implies, is the same as the root cause of variation in every other human skill. In the United States, the CEO of a large public company makes about 100 times as much as the average person. [3] Basketball players make about 128 times as much, and baseball players 72 times as much. Editorials quote this kind of statistic with horror. But I have no trouble imagining that one person could be 100 times as productive as another. In ancient Rome the price of slaves varied by a factor of 50 depending on their skills. [4] And that's without considering motivation, or the extra leverage in productivity that you can get from modern technology. Editorials about athletes' or CEOs' salaries remind me of early Christian writers, arguing from first principles about whether the Earth was round, when they could just walk outside and check. [5] How much someone's work is worth is not a policy question. It's something the market already determines. "Are they really worth 100 of us?" editorialists ask. Depends on what you mean by worth. If you mean worth in the sense of what people will pay for their skills, the answer is yes, apparently. A few CEOs' incomes reflect some kind of wrongdoing. But are there not others whose incomes really do reflect the wealth they generate? Steve Jobs saved a company that was in a terminal decline. And not merely in the way a turnaround specialist does, by cutting costs; he had to decide what Apple's next products should be. Few others could have done it. And regardless of the case with CEOs, it's hard to see how anyone could argue that the salaries of professional basketball players don't reflect supply and demand. It may seem unlikely in principle that one individual could really generate so much more wealth than another. The key to this mystery is to revisit that question, are they really worth 100 of us? Would a basketball team trade one of their players for 100 random people? What would Apple's next product look like if you replaced Steve Jobs with a committee of 100 random people? [6] These things don't scale linearly. Perhaps the CEO or the professional athlete has only ten times (whatever that means) the skill and determination of an ordinary person. But it makes all the difference that it's concentrated in one individual. When we say that one kind of work is overpaid and another underpaid, what are we really saying? In a free market, prices are determined by what buyers want. People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things. Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it's unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. [7] Then you're saying that it's unjust that people want the wrong things. It's lamentable that people prefer reality TV and corndogs to Shakespeare and steamed vegetables, but unjust? That seems like saying that blue is heavy, or that up is circular. The appearance of the word "unjust" here is the unmistakable spectral signature of the Daddy Model. Why else would this idea occur in this odd context? Whereas if the speaker were still operating on the Daddy Model, and saw wealth as something that flowed from a common source and had to be shared out, rather than something generated by doing what other people wanted, this is exactly what you'd get on noticing that some people made much more than others. When we talk about "unequal distribution of income," we should also ask, where does that income come from? [8] Who made the wealth it represents? Because to the extent that income varies simply according to how much wealth people create, the distribution may be unequal, but it's hardly unjust. Stealing It The second reason we tend to find great disparities of wealth alarming is that for most of human history the usual way to accumulate a fortune was to steal it: in pastoral societies by cattle raiding; in agricultural societies by appropriating others' estates in times of war, and taxing them in times of peace. In conflicts, those on the winning side would receive the estates confiscated from the losers. In England in the 1060s, when William the Conqueror distributed the estates of the defeated Anglo-Saxon nobles to his followers, the conflict was military. By the 1530s, when Henry VIII distributed the estates of the monasteries to his followers, it was mostly political. [9] But the principle was the same. Indeed, the same principle is at work now in Zimbabwe. In more organized societies, like China, the ruler and his officials used taxation instead of confiscation. But here too we see the same principle: the way to get rich was not to create wealth, but to serve a ruler powerful enough to appropriate it. This started to change in Europe with the rise of the middle class. Now we think of the middle class as people who are neither rich nor poor, but originally they were a distinct group. In a feudal society, there are just two classes: a warrior aristocracy, and the serfs who work their estates. The middle class were a new, third group who lived in towns and supported themselves by manufacturing and trade. Starting in th
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