On January 30, I wrote this essay about the advantages held by those from wealthy backgrounds in the supposedly meritocratic career game that determines who among the rising generation will lead. It was posted to Hacker News on March 7, and has attracted a great deal of attention and criticism. I wish to respond to the most thoughtful critiques.
1. Personal gripes, sour grapes, all that jazz.
First, let me handle one of the less thoughtful and interesting (but still marginally relevant) critiques: the claim that my essay is rooted in a personal gripe. To answer that: no, not really. I’m not part of the wealthiest 0.1 percent that can be considered truly elite in this country, but my background is more than comfortable, and my level of talent is sufficient that I’ll probably never be long-term unemployed, at least not in the severe and unfavorable form that unemployment takes for those who are actually poor. All I’m going to say is that I’m closer to the spoiled rich kid with the unfair advantages than the striver with six-figure student loans. To what minimal extent my dislike of American society is rooted in personal issues, it speaks more about my tendency toward anxious worry than about my actual state of affairs. Socioeconomic status is difficult to quantify, involving more than just money, but I’d estimate that I’m from a point between the 95th and 98th percentile in the United States– and, for the record, I still believe that even I would be better off in a fairer system, due to enormous cultural benefits of a more just society. That’s all I care to say about where I come from; it’s really not that relevant.
This post probably began in my mind when I read an article (ca. 2006) about the fortunes of Ph.D. students of differing backgrounds. For those who entered academia, the correlation between background and pay was minimal, but for those who went into industry, those from wealthy backgrounds invariably ended up at the top. (Since we’re talking about people with doctorate degrees, we’ve already eliminated degenerate party-animal rich kids from the discussion.) This I found perverse: one would hope that, out of the pool of people hard-working and talented enough to get quantitative doctorates, any socioeconomic influence would be eliminated. Not so. Honestly, I didn’t believe the conclusions of the article, until I observed the experiences of my friends in various corners of the working world.
In large-firm law (“biglaw”) one’s chances at partnership are determined not by the quality of one’s work, one’s law school grades, or even the prestige of one’s law school, but by the prestige of one’s undergraduate college and, far more so, the status of one’s prep school. (As “too many” smart middle-class students have been allowed into elite colleges these days, ever since that “Jewish-Marxist conspiracy” known as the SAT, the upper class is now using prep school to size people up.)
The closest I’ve been, personally, to this matter is when I observed the ignominious firing of a friend of mine. Though I didn’t work with him at the time, we share enough of a social circle to make it clear what happened. As he was from a middle-class background at a predominantly upper-middle- to upper-class hedge fund, he was placed at the bottom of the heap in terms of project allocation, getting assigned the work that no one else wanted to do, because of where he came from and the assumption that he had no better options. When this pattern reached beyond disfavor into managerial fuckup territory (a project he suggested was ignored, then given to someone less qualified a year later) he asked his boss for an explanation. At the next performance review, he was fired: people like him don’t get to speak up about project allocation.
Realizing with age that this sort of injustice is systemic, and that a number of people had experiences just like his, has led me to believe that the overthrow of the corporate system is necessary and good.
2. Anti-corporatism is not anti-capitalism
As a libertarian socialist, I believe that government should provide a basic income (of about half the per-capita GDP) and safety net in order to eliminate poverty. I would argue that the basic income should be provided to all people, so that a person’s income is a monotonic function of wages earned. (That is, there isn’t the “welfare valley” in which a person’s income drops when going from welfare to entry-level work.) In the United States, conservatives believe that poverty is a “bitter medicine” that impels people toward more moral behavior. They’re wrong. Poverty is a cancer that eats a society from the inside out. That said, I believe that once a basic income is established and being jobless is no longer the life-crushing horror is is now, government can step out of the way on many issues. There’s no need for a minimum wage, for example, when basic income is already provided. (In truth, the minimum wage is just an extremely clumsy and minimal basic income, but with the burden of payment placed on low-end employers, the result being that they’re discouraged from hiring at the low end at all, creating excess unemployment.)
In a libertarian socialist system, the right of free enterprise is recognized as long as it does not impinge on others’ rights, including a fair society and a clean environment. Now that being fired is an inconvenience but not a disaster, companies can be allowed to hire and fire at will. There’s a floor on economic well-being but no ceiling, as I honestly can’t see a good reason why the genuinely most productive people shouldn’t be given huge rewards. What I don’t like is seeing a class of generally untalented and ineffectual people given huge rewards just because of where they were born, and I especially don’t like the fact that these enormous rewards enable their arrogance and lead them to destroy everything, as we observed in the financial meltdown of 2008.
I believe in maximizing freedom, and economic freedom (the freedom from poverty and corporate authority, but also the right of free enterprise) is critically important. Work needs to get done, but peoples’ intrinsic desires to work (noting that there will still be a free labor market) will take care of that. The strongest argument against a welfare state hinges on the observation that some people (maybe 10 to 20 percent) have no drive to work, and that a welfare state establishes a permanent class of well-fed, lazy, parasitic people at the bottom of society. The obvious counterpoint is the observed and indisputable fact that corporate capitalism creates a permanent class of lazy, useless, and parasitic people at the top of society, and that’s far more unhealthy.
Corporate capitalism, which I desire to destroy, is neither capitalism nor socialism. Rather, it’s a system designed to provide the best of both systems for a small elite (about 0.5%) while leaving the worst of both worlds for the rest.
What does this have to do with rich kids in the workplace? My contention is that the advantage held by the rich is largely a consequence of their ability to live freely. They own, rather than renting, their lives. This gives them a sense of place and purpose that energizes them, enabling them to make work both a productive and fulfilling experience, rather than a burden that will sap their energy, for someone else’s benefit, until they are too old to be useful. My desire, with regard to libertarian socialism, is to make this freedom as common as water. I don’t wish to end work, but to liberate it. Imagine the world we’d have if people worked on what they wanted to work on instead of what they had to do to get by: people would have a lot more passion and creative energy. (As for the “grunt jobs”, they’d still be done as people would pay others to do them, but the conditions the workers faced would be ones of respect and appreciation for their time, rather than exploitation.)
3. Not all rich kids succeed– still not a counterexample.
A counterargument I often hear to the point I’ve made here is that a lot of rich kids are shiftless, indolent, or socially ungraceful and therefore do not succeed in any kind of workplace environment. This is, obviously, true. Dumb and lazy rich kids end up with embarrassing, depressing, and rather pointless lives just like pretty much everyone else. I’m not talking about the dumb and lazy people; I have nothing against them, but I don’t really care about them either. I’m talking about the hard-working, talented people who should be (whether they come from rich or poor backgrounds) the next generation’s leaders. If they are rich, it is impossible for them not to be drawn into the ruling class even if their work ethic is just average; if they are poor or middle-class, it’s highly unlikely.
Rich kids know that they have a near-100% chance of getting appropriate recognition. They don’t even need to play office politics; those details “work themselves out”. If they take demanding jobs, their work ethic is never questioned because it’s known that they could choose less demanding jobs. Even though the rich are almost never given higher salaries or shorter hours than their middle-class counterparts, but they almost always get the best projects . A very wealthy friend of mine who entered investment banking explained it this way: he still had to work 90-hour weeks, and wasn’t paid more than any other analyst, but the projects he got were often VP-level in quality, and Managing Directors took an active interest in whether he felt he was getting appropriate work.
4. “Just go start a business”
Paul Fussell wrote a book called Class in which he insightfully eviscerated every social class, and his finishing chapter, “The X Way Out”, described a “Category X” of people whose intelligence and culture enabled them, whether poor or rich or (as most of them were) upper-middle-class, to transcend social class and live “outside of the system”. This highly-regarded set of people was the namesake for “Generation X”. Everyone wants to believe they’re part of category X, but few people actually are. “X” is great, but until we eradicate poverty and economic exigency as if they were a plague, it won’t be the reality for most of the world.
The “start a business” advice is analogous to “become category X”. I’m not against startups. Startups are awesome. When we do implement libertarian socialism, we need to make ourselves absolutely sure that we have a society in which new businesses can flourish, because they are where innovation comes from. To argue, however, that startups are a silver bullet to the world’s class problems is painfully naive. First, only a small percentage of the population can afford to work for an extended period of time for no or low salary, with no guarantee of an eventual payoff and, in fact, a high failure rate. Second, fundraising and public relations are all about connections. It’s almost certainly easier to start a business from the grass roots in 2011 than it was in 1975, but startups remain a game that only the privileged can play. Rent and food, well-off people like myself often forget, do not magically materialize when needed.
The venture capital angle probably deserves its own post. Raising money, even for the best startups, is an execrable fucking nightmare. Often three-person startups will have one person working full-time on the fundraising game, because it really is a full-time job. It’s not something that takes care of itself like in the Hollywood portrayal of startup life. It’s rare that a startup can get decent terms from a venture capitalist without creating simultaneous interest in a large number of investors at once– call it the “herd mentality” if in a pejorative mood. Business is all about leverage, and even a great startup may face terms like participating preferred and multiple liquidation preferences (if the words “multiple liquidation preferences” didn’t evoke nausea, hatred, and a visceral desire to stab someone, they should) if a venture capitalist thinks that, despite its merits or potential, no other VC will fund it. How, exactly, is a young entrepreneur going to create simultaneous interest without deep social connections into the venture capital world? He can’t.
The best strategy for an aspiring entrepreneur would be to work as a leading venture capitalist’s protege out of school, being placed in portfolio companies (preferably in technical, rather than managerial, roles, especially early on) while maintaining the VC relationship, and then to found companies once experienced and well-connected. This career, however, is only available to the very rich.
5. Exceptions don’t prove the rule, but they are exceptions.
Exceptions to my claims exist. Mark Zuckerberg came from a “merely” upper-middle-class background, went to Harvard but did not fit in with final-club brats, and nonetheless managed to put his cool project in front of the Harvard Crimson. His luck was enormous at times, but he succeeded on his own merits and built a successful company, though not a true “rich kid”. Fair. It, of course, does happen on occasion. And knock-out successes are more likely to come from the fringes of the elite (Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg) than the elite’s risk-averse, social-climbing, conservative core. No question there. I am not going to claim that such exceptions “prove the rule” because that would be nonsense; an exception is cause to doubt a rule, not proof of it. I will claim that they are outliers; I think this much is obvious.
People love to talk about social mobility. We have a little bit of that in the United States, but it’s more like a social Brownian motion. People drift a little bit from where they start, creating a pattern of mobility (up, down, or up-and-down) across generations that is often mostly out of their control. Once every 100,000 years or so per person– which means it’s guaranteed to happen for some, given the gigantic number of people in this society– there’s a sudden jump in the upward (or downward) direction, landing in great wealth. It doesn’t never happen. It is, however, quite rare, and I wouldn’t bet my life on it, which is what corporate denizens (sacrificing their quality of life now, for the promise of enormous wealth in the future) are literally doing.
6. Solutions to this problem exist, but only radical ones.
The injustice I have described is nowhere close to being the most severe crime of corporate capitalism. I doubt it even cracks the top 10. Compared to American health insurance, which is a 9/11 every 24 days and therefore just cause for aggressive retribution, it’s almost too minor an injustice to even mention it. The American middle class are, by world standards, privileged people and the fact that they will get less than they deserve, while still living in moderate comfort, may not garner much sympathy. Still, it’s critically important to raise this issue, because so little attention is given to it that even many intelligent people buy into the delusion that an American “meritocracy” exists.
The American middle class, despite its comfort, is bitter and anxious, yet deeply desirous of change. They will, for better or worse, play a major role in the ongoing worldwide revolution against the tyrants of the dark ages, from whose dominion we are struggling to emerge. The Great Lie that the corporate elite has put out– that corporate capitalism is a meritocracy and that it’s possible for people of talent and conscience can “work within the system”, rise to power, and rule justly– has led people to accept a morally unacceptable status quo.
There are two reforms the immediate future will require of us. The first involves energy: we’ll need to move away from fossil fuels due both to declining resources and environmental concerns. The second revolves around work. We have to fix Work. As technological advances render human labor less necessary, the age in which average people can reliably sell labor to markets at a fair price is going to end. Don’t look for it to come back. It never will. One year of unpaid education is already required to secure two years of paid work, and that ratio is only going to get steeper as technology advances and what decent work remains becomes more specialized. The bounty brought into society by the next 100 years of technical advances will be immense, but if the gains aren’t distributed fairly, a lot of people will be very miserable.
In the mid-1920s, improvements in agricultural technology, especially in the Midwestern United States, brought commodity prices to low levels and triggered a spell of rural poverty. It might have seemed like a problem “out there” to a Manhattanite in 1928, but two years later the poverty had spread far enough to tank the stock market and seep into the cities. By 1933, even many wealthy people faced utter ruin the Depression. As I’ve argued, poverty is not “moral medicine” but a cancer that destroys society. Six years of the most horrendous and idiotic activity humanity has ever conceived– war– transpired before the Depression ended.
What happened to agricultural commodities in the 1920s is about to happen to nearly all human labor. If we fail to graduate, now, to a rational society, the calamity awaiting us is far greater.
On the other hand, if we seize the opportunity to build a rational and fair society, judiciously but aggressively clearing away cruft, legacy and inheritance in favor of something better, we can eradicate many of the problems I’ve exposed in the last few thousand words.