In the very long term, technological society will need to implement a basic income, as soon as full employment becomes untenable. Basic income (BI) is an income paid to all people, with no conditions. Alaska already has a small one, derived from its oil wealth. In the long term, however, full employment will be impossible due to the need for ongoing, intensive, and traditionally unpaid training.
Today, I’m not going to talk about basic income, because we’re probably a couple of decades before society absolutely needs one, and even farther away from one being implemented, because of the monumental political hurdles such an effort would encounter. Instead, I’m going to talk about right now– January 7, 2013– and something we need to do in order to maintain our capacity to innovate. I will address something that society ought to do in order to prevent a pointless and extreme destruction of human capital.
Peter Thiel has created a program (“20 Under 20″) that pays high-potential young people to skip college, but the entry-level grunt work most people spend the first few years of their careers on is, in my opinion, much more damaging, especially given its indefinite duration. (I don’t think undergraduate college is that damaging at all, but that’s another debate.) There is some busywork in college, and there are a few (but they’re very rare) incompetent professors, but more creativity is lost during the typical workplace’s years-long dues-paying period, which habituates people to subordination, than to any educational program. I do not intend to say that there aren’t problems with schools, but the institutions for which the schools prepare people are worse. At least grading in school is fair. A professor as corrupt and partial in grading as the typical corporate manager would be fired– and professors don’t get fired often.
In terms of expected value (that is, the average performance one would observe given an indefinite number of attempts) the market rewards creativity, which is insubordinate. However, when it comes to personal income, expectancy is completely meaningless, at least for us poors who need a month-to-month income to pay rent. Most people would rather have a guaranteed $100,000 per year than a 1-in-1000 shot (every year) at $500 million, with a 99.9% chance of no income, even though the latter deal has more expectancy in it. Risk-adjusted, people of average means are rewarded for taking stable jobs, which often require subordination.
Technically speaking, people are paid for work, not subordination, but the process that exists to evaluate the work is so corrupt and rife with abuse that it devolves into a game that requires subordination. For a thought experiment, consider what would happen to a typical officer worker who, without subversion or deception to hide her priorities, did the following:
- worked on projects she considers most important, regardless of her manager’s priorities,
- prioritized her long-term career growth over short-term assignments, and
- expressed high-yield, creative ideas regardless of their political ramifications.
These activities are good for society, because she becomes better at her job, and obviously for her. They’re even good for her company. However, this course of action is likely to get her fired. Certainly, there’s enough risk of that to invalidate the major benefit of being an employee, which is stability.
So, in truth, society pays people to be subordinate, and that’s a real problem. In theory, capitalist society pays for valuable work, but the people trusted to evaluate the work inevitably become a source of corruption as they demand personal loyalty (which is rarely repaid in kind) rather than productivity itself. However, the long-term effect of subordination is to cause creative atrophy. To quote Paul Graham, in “You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss“:
If you’re not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful.
I would take this even farther. I believe that, after a certain age and constellation of conditions, creativity can be lost effectively forever. People who keep their creativity up don’t lose it– and lifelong creative people seem to peak in their 50s or later, which should kill the notion that it’s a property of the young only– but people who fall into the typical corporate slog develop a mindset and conditioning that render them irreversibly dismal. It only seems to take a few years for this to happen. Protecting one’s creativity practically demands insubordination, making it almost impossible to win the corporate ladder and remain creative. This should explain quite clearly the lack of decent leadership our society exhibits.
We should offset this by finding a way to reward people for not subordinating. To make it clear, I’m not saying we should pay people not to work. In fact, that’s a terrible idea. Instead, we should find a repeatable, robust, and eventually universal way to reward people who work in non-subordinate, creative ways, thereby rewarding the skills that our society actually needs, instead of the mindless subordination that complacent corporations have come to expect. By doing this, we can forestall the silent but catastrophic loss that is the wholesale destruction of human creative capital.