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Capitalism: Where You Own Your Labor
It’s no surprise to anybody here that computer types tend toward the left. We build systems in our heads and then make those systems real, and they never work quite right, but they are Quite Good and improve our lives anyway.
Should you find yourself in possession of a magic wand that gave you perfect pastrami sandwiches, would you want to find out if it can do corned beef? What if nobody ever sat you down and explained that your magic wand had a specialty and while all deli looks interchangeable, it really isn’t?
We computer types, masters of making computers say “Hello World” to us, believe that we are the world, and we can fully construct the world from the ground up. Our conceit may not be as earned as physicians who save people from death. That doesn’t matter, we’ll be conceited and assure others that we in fact can build a perfect world.
On April 27, a computing conference had a keynote speaker who (after being so pleased we can attend conferences again, scolded the audience that the pandemic is ongoing) delivered a premise that there is work that is Useful and work that is Profitable, and that there is Profitable stuff that is and isn’t Useful, and Useful stuff that is and isn’t Profitable.
And argued that things like jokes, which people enjoy, are Useful (ok, I guess…) but not Profitable, where sending spam emails is profitable but not useful. Then you end up, eventually, in a world where these things get disconnected, especially as more useful things (he said “Solve Climate Change” here) are not profitable, you end up with a depressing Venn Diagram.
Then he dropped a definition of Capitalism on screen. “An economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.”
This definition sounded familiar. In fact, that’s the first sentence on the Wikipedia entry on capitalism. It also sounded to me like it came straight from Karl Marx.
With language like that, it’s no surprise you think Use and Profit can be disconnected! If the means of production are a thing distinct from other things, then of course those should be operated for the good of all! It sounds so good. It IS so good. Morally speaking, if capitalism locks the means of production in the hands of the few, then surely this is unnatural, and the production should be to benefit all people!
A lovely thought. With a definition of Capitalism like that, it’s clear that Capitalism has to go.
But what is profit?
Well, that’s money someone gave you.
Because you had something they wanted, and they were willing to part with the money for the sake of the thing.
How did they get the money?
It was compensation for something.
If you keep cycling around this sequence trying to find the origin of money, a better definition of capitalism emerges.
Capitalism is an economic system based on owning your own labor.
- If you make a product, you can part with it for any price you choose.
- If you are hired, you elect that (for the money/benefits you are given) you are willing to give up your labor.
- If you rent a house, you exchange the money that represents your labor for a living situation you consider acceptable.
Under this definition, perhaps this conference speaker would realize: Useful is a subset of Profitable. People are willing to give up their money for any number of useless things, but if anything is of use to anybody, someone will be willing to give up their labor for your own.
This definition also sets up a moral supremacy of capitalism for the same reasons Socialists give for socialism: people should own their own labor. Under communism, people give their labor to the collective. Under capitalism, people retain their labor.
How a definition can sharpen the moral discussion!Published in General
There are many things I might find useful but not worth the price to me. If there is a critical mass of people like me, that product or service isn’t profitable because nobody will buy it.
There are (fewer) things that I can make that other people would find useful – but maybe not worth what I’d ask for them in exchange.
So I disagree – things which are useful to others are not always profitable to produce – it depends on how useful they are, what they are worth in the market. If they’re not that useful – and if they can’t be produced for a low enough cost (the unspoken assumption behind the market is that of course they can, but…you know…maybe not?) then useful but not profitable is a possible thing.
What I found interesting was the unasked question (perhaps I’m reading to much into it): useful to whom?
Oddly, I’ve seen the reverse in my career. Programmers that I’ve worked with have been quite conservative. Then again, I’ve spent my career working in. San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. My most recent company was HQed in Austin and I’ve seen a decided leftward shift in employees as a result.
Why do many IT people seem to be left leaning? Well, partially because of the location of Silicon Valley, but also because of how rapidly the industry has grown where very young people became massively wealthy and didn’t understand how that happened, or why. I’ve been consulting since 98 and consultants are a weird breed of IT. We have to show results that improve a business or we don’t get hired. We aren’t start ups working long hours hoping to build the Next Big Thing ™. We often are working directly with vlthe business and thus have to speak their language.
Age, location, and type of work all are factors. In my consulting world almost everyone I work with leans to the right. If I was in SV or even Austin, working a startup it might be different.
I think that much of the ultra-wealthy left has no real idea where their money came from. Be it Hollywood, Music, Silicon Valley, NYC, or wherever people produce intangible things that have vast income, they either figure anyone can do it, or they are so smart and talented in their narrow specialty that they should be in charge of other things. Why were the pigs in charge of the Animal Farm? Because they were pigs and thus better, more equal. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that the ultra-wealthy see themselves as more equal. When it’s a singer, or an actor it can be risable. Seeing Sean Penn or Robert Deniro lecture us about economics, or whatever is like us telling our auto mechanic how to resolve an issue with our car. In our super specialized world, knowing a lot about a topic means…you know a lot about a topic. Alas, in today’s world the internet seems to make us all experts on everything.
I don’t find that definition all that objectionable. I could also go for something along the lines of “An economic system in which people can freely exchange goods and services with minimal government interference.” To a lot of Americans with a poor understanding of the subject, capitalism is the acquisition of money by any means necessary. A bank robber is not practicing capitalism, but many people think he is.
I suspect that Pope Francis will not be featuring this passage in any of his upcoming sermons…
Useful perhaps to people who have proven themselves useful to others. It’s a club, you have to get in by being useful, to help decide who else is useful.
It’s not inaccurate. It’s a bit wrong-headed to suggest there are Means of Production separate from all other things. A rock can be the means of production, if used to grind flour, or it can decorate a garden path. Suggesting that The Tools are The Thing leads to such weird choices as a pop song (2011-ish) in North Korea about how CNC machines were really going to make everything better. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPPlTX2a974
Setting up the definition to include means of production sets up a dichotomy between those who have and those who do not. If you do not have a CNC machine, you can’t make cars, for example.
That’s why the definition is harmful to sustaining capitalism.
I am with you, Randy. Capitalism involves several things that took 1000’s of years to evolve. 1. property rights 2. free markets (natural prices and quantities) 3. pooling of capital (corporations) 4. limited liability of corporations. The objection of the clause “for profit” melts away, if one considers non-monetary benefits. It just means voluntary at that point.
What about people who may not be useful but who still have worth? And needs, so while they may not be useful they still need useful things.
Wrt means of production – it’s whatever you use to produce. Nothing is intrinsically a means of production (except maybe $$$$?), it depends on how/whether you use it.
As far as capitalism and poetry:
I was for a while on The Well, one of the world’s first online communities.
I joined the writers’ group there.
A subset of that group was devoted to poetry and poets. A good number of writers in the group were poets. So each week, the group at large would hear about this new poetry chapbook or that one being released. Often the new releases had been penned by poets who were members.
Like most computer forums, people would post topics for discussion. One time, a pissed off poet shared his angst at how few people purchased his poetry book, even though he had announced its release.
Other poets moaned and groaned about the same thing.
A friend of mine put up a poll, asking these anguished souls whether or not they had ever thought of purchasing another poet’s work.
Very few had. It had nothing to do with lack of income – the same people who had not purchased their fellow poets’ work were often bragging about which new gaming system or virtual reality gizmos they had recently bought.
I thought of this group when a friend got back from the Netherlands to explain about how the socialized government there gave grants to artists. That way beginning artists could develop their abilities while being subsidized.
The government also found it needed to rent warehouses where the many unbought works of art could be stored.
The only thing the government did not do was decree that everyone in that country had to purchase x amount of art works from these aspiring Van Goghs.
This decree might have actually been cheaper for the tax payers than the continuation of the government renting warehouses to store all this art.
But if this had occurred, wasn’t it likely that eventually the government would favor those artists who actually had their art work purchased? So such a system might eventually have evolved from socialism back into capitalism.
In any event, the poets I knew had no such ability to feed off the government as their Dutch counterparts. The last I knew, they were still commiserating over how no one appreciated their talent enough to buy their poems.
Yeah! What about me?!? Huh?!?
Sell you for parts, I say. Still think you weren’t useful? Think again!
They can try to at least be decorative?
I think this captures my disagreements with the post’s thesis.
Having a public transit system is very often useful. Unfortunately, it is not often possible to make the transit system profitable. This is also aside from all kinds of charitable actions.
However, there is one thing that absolutely demolishes the idea that useful is a subset of profitable – children. If we don’t have kids, the human race goes extinct. You cannot imagine many more useful activities than that. However, kids are a massive money sink – not even slightly profitable.
Must you be cruel?
And there you have the difference between private profit/cost and public profit/cost. Societies at large profit from children. (Which is why I think we should use things like the tax system to subsidise the associated private cost of having children. It’s enlightened self interest.)
On a segue: do you solely measure profit financially? I argue that none of us does.
As with most Utopia, they don’t work out well – remember the “Blue Screen of Death” brought to you by Bill Gates et al
How is that cruel?
The beauty standards of today insist the obese are beautiful, the disturbingly skinny are beautiful, the maniacal are beautiful, the overly distraught are beautiful.
In fact it has gotten to the point where just abut the only individuals not considered beautiful are those who are classically very pretty or very handsome.