The Angry Economy Will Kill Us All

Profit-seeking and benefits-giving are not at odds: shareholders are best served when all stakeholders are well served.

Adrien Book
The Startup
Published in
7 min readMay 25, 2018

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The economy often appears to be a dark mistress one is either intimate with or is doomed to never understand. So, let’s banish the fog and get the basics out of the way: an economy is the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money. Simple enough, right?

Yet, despite this apparent simplicity, it will come as no surprise that it’s tough out there for many people surviving off this well-known, well-spread, meritocracy-based system of free markets called capitalism. We in the West are slowly realizing that we live in a post-economic world: nominally rich but plagued by things like medical bankruptcies and income inequalities.

One of the many reasons for this is that our economy isn’t as socially productive as it’s traditionally been, in part because we never learnt how to nurture a middle class that can thrive in a highly automated and digital society.

Which leads us to…

The Digital Economy

Where do the inequalities plaguing our societies come from? How did we carve-out the 20th century middle-class? I’d argue that the digital economy, wherein the bigger computing power and best software brings in the bigger bucks, is partly to blame: large companies now live and strive on data analysed by A.Is. They’re fed data. Your data. My data. Free data.

Our behavioral data and the quantifiable facts of our engagement are constantly blended for sale, with the aggregate of every single interaction becoming a mechanism for ever-more-finely tuning the business of attracting and retaining users. Most of the current top-tier tech companies have gotten to where they are because people aren’t paid for the information that is used to dole out regular dividends.

And because information is held to be free (one of the 21st century’s biggest lie) more and more people will not be paid for what they produce, even beyond “basic” data. You can see this in journalism and music already, but their fate awaits many other industries: advanced A.Is are already outperforming many white-collar workers, including legal researchers, pharmacists and… chess players (?). The digital economy is steadily digesting the physical economy and the jobs it provides, leaving a gap between those that give the information and those who wield it.

This has been a long time coming: in 1930, Keynes predicted that in the future (around 2030), production problems would be solved and there would be enough for everyone, but machines would cause “technological unemployment.” There would be plenty to go around, but the means of getting a share in it, jobs, might be scarce. He was, as usual, bang on. We’ve moved from issues of productions to issues of fair distributions.

How do we address this? For a start, we can keep track of where information came from. Pay people when information that exists because they exist turns out to be valuable, no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not. What the heck, let the price be determined by markets (if you received 5 cents every time you gave your email address to a company, how quickly would you make a dollar? Ten?). We’ve moved from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance, and the rise of inequality isn’t only caused by people not being needed. More precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there.

Which leads us to…

The Ghost Economy

When I rave about inequalities, who do I talk about? I speak of the invisible workforce: people who clean offices, sort recycling, fulfill online orders… Usually a ragtag crew of screw-ups, felons, floozies, single moms, the differently abled, students, immigrants, the homeless and hungry, the overqualified and under-qualified, all of them ghosted by the traditional marketplace. For them, Smith’s “invisible hand” takes on a whole new meaning (first Keynes, now Smith: really getting some use out of Econ 101 over here).

When you are so poor that you have to withstand the shame of a horrid uniform, the shame of handing out flyers in the street, the shame of welcoming suits to a conference all day, you become invisible. But in boardrooms, far removed from this suffering and indignity, things are better than ever. Shareholders, CEOs and venture capitalists are enjoying record profits.

And so began…

The Gig Economy

Many jobs have become gigs, and the gigs are unsteady. Part-time. No health benefits. No pension, no unemployment insurance, no maternity leave, no way to plan a life, sign a lease, pay off debt. No stability. No other options. The model goes by many names (the gig economy; the on-demand, peer, or platform economy) but the companies partaking in it share certain premises. They typically have ratings-based platforms, in-app payment systems and give workers the chance to earn money on their own schedules, rather than through the corporate ladder. This means that the distance between the main employer and the worker who fulfills these gigs widens, allowing for the same type of casual cruelty that is exchanged between people who meet on Tinder.

What often unites the gig economy’s stakeholders is a belief in meritocracy, the free market, and the potential for social mobility: the presumption that they’re playing a fair game. Yet, it’s never been easier to be a billionaire and never been harder to be a millionaire: in this game, there are winners and losers and no in-betweens. That’s the genius of companies like Uber. It took the traditional corporation, with its C-suit responsible for controlling workers and machines, and cut it in two, creating a management structure that needs not deal with the political demands of workers, while heralding the virtues of autonomy, flexibility and the “go-getter spirit”.

And thus was born…

The Sharing Economy

Uber and AirBnB’s business is characterized not by sharing, but by showcasing spare capacity for rent, with the platform taking a cut. Managers hang onto the sharing story because it props up the claim that market mechanisms could re-engineer the very community ties that the markets themselves have eroded.

This not only separates managers from the grunts: it also shifts the costs of working to the “self-employed”, as well as the risks this entails. This is a venture capitalist’s wet dream. Give a startup minimal capital to hire developers and run media campaigns, and then watch as network effects ripple over the infrastructure of the internet. Tadaaa, you’re suddenly in control of a corporation built with cheap digital tools extracting value from expensive real-world, physical assets like cars and buildings. The entity holds itself together not via employment contracts, but rather by self-employed workers’ dependence on it to access the market they rely on for their survival.

“But”, I hear you say “surely every efficiency has a winner and a loser, and society is benefiting in the long term”. First, don’t call me Shirley, and second, a service like Uber benefits the customer, who’s saving on the taxi fare otherwise paid, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who can’t (but more often simply don’t want to) afford a hotel, yet it also means that a significant revenue stream doesn’t make its way directly to the hotel employees such as housekeepers, receptionists and cooks. Instead of simply driving wealth down, it seems, the sharing model has helped divert traditional service-worker earnings into the top 10%’s ever-expending pockets, drawing wealth slowly upward.

And so we arrive to the logical conclusion of…

The Post-Work Economy

Even when work quality is miserable, we still associate it with the idea of self-reliance and self-realization. But what if it wasn’t so? If the goal of the economy is to provide decent-paying work for everyone, our economy clearly isn’t doing a good job at the moment. For the future economy to work, we might need to get rid of the illusion that our professional status is inherently and strongly correlated to our self-worth.

In response, many are calling for a universal basic income: a plan to give every citizen a modest flat annuity from the government, as a replacement for all current welfare and unemployment programs. This would safeguard people for whom work doesn’t lead to increased financial security and would arguably allow everyone to benefit from automation, not just the lucky few.

Before dismissing this idea too quickly, it’s important to consider the idea not in the context of our current economy, but of what the economy could become in a future dominated by robots and A.Is. A government implementing a basic income philosophy would acknowledge that there are too few work hours to be worked by all available workers, and respond by injecting liquidity into the mechanism that allocates them. Workers would need to be able to exchange hours of work at full pay, for hours of free time paid for by the state.

Other fixes are possible, with various levels of difficulty: fine employers who do not give equal pay, limit the use of temp workers, extend basic protections to all workers, create models for portable benefits as people switch job more or work for more than one employer (insurance or unused vacation days would carry from one job to the next), mandatory prorated benefits (someone who works a twenty-hour week gets half of the full-time benefits)… Taxation on robots has also been proposed by many smart people. The possibilities are there for any government bold enough to look into them.

Profit-seeking and benefits-giving are not at odds: shareholders are best served when all stakeholders are well served.

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Adrien Book
The Startup

Strategy Consultant | Tech writer | Somewhat French