Compensating Losers in a Winner-Take-All Economy
12 March 2015
I‘ve just finished Thomas Piketty’s much talked about book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There is much that could be said about this rather long book, but I will not attempt a review. Piketty’s theme is the concentration of capital at the top of the income hierarchy. Income inequality has become a political issue of some importance, and Piketty’s book speaks directly to this interest, which partially explains its popularity.
One point that Piketty does not make explicit in his book, but which could be said is implicit throughout, is the transition to an economic paradigm that could only be called a “winner-take-all” model. Many have commented on this. Skyrocketing executive pay is only only symptom of this social transition. It is arguable that the upward skewing of income and expectation is a function of what has been called the “attention economy” (and which in terms of the internet specifically is sometimes called “clickbait”). In a world flooded with a cacophony of voices competing for attention, those who can best capture the interest of others have an advantage. In each field of endeavor — music, sports, entertainment, industry, government, media, etc. — there are a handful of superstars who disproportionately command public attention and the rewards that follow therefrom. They are the winners, and they have scooped up the pot and left nothing on the table.
Kevin Kelly discussed the winner-take-all aspect of contemporary society in The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [2.3.14] (I previously discussed this interview in Science, Knowledge, and Civilization). Kelly said in this interview:
Another point about this winner-take-all phenomenon is that at first we have a natural reaction saying, “Well, winner take all; there can only be one winner,” but here’s what technology is doing: technology is increasing the number of races in which you can win. There are more and more niches and more and more places in which the technology creates new ways in which one can win. There isn’t a finite number of winners, there’s an infinite number of winners as long as you’re not trying to win someone else’s race. The way everybody can become a winner is to continue to increase the number of ways to play, even though you have these winner-take-all phenomena. There’s only going to be one search winner, but there are so many other ways to race and to win other than in, say, search. In most cases, trying to compete against a winner is not going to succeed in this kind of dynamic. What you want to do is make up a new way to win.
I suppose that you could call this the “long tail” argument for a winner-take-all economy, and Kelly is arguing that technology is increasing the length of the tail and therefore the number of individuals who can find some place to call their own along this long tail. But the long tail is a tail only, and not the bump in the statistics that identifies the explosive growth of attention (and therefore income earning potential) that takes place at the center of things. Sure, if there’s an infinitely long long tail there could be an infinite number of “winners,” and each of these winners will take all that is at stake in the miniscule region they dominate, but the share of society’s total wealth available in the infinitely long sections of the long tail is also infinitesimally thin. Being a “winner” in this sense is like the boast of being “big in Japan.”
What will we do with the losers in a winner-take-all economy? Keep in mind that most of us are “losers” — including those who are “winners” along some thin segment of the long tail. Most of us are neither rich nor famous nor well-connected and influential. What is to be done with us? are we to be quietly forgotten? Are we to go gentle into that good night of poverty and obscurity?
There is a well-known quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the condition of the poor in relation to those better off:
He said, ‘the poor in England were better provided for than in any other country of the same extent: he did not mean little cantons, or petty republics. Where a great proportion of the people,’ said he, ‘are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Gentlemen of education,’ he observed, ‘were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’
For Dr. Johnson, then, the mitigation of poverty is a civilizational issue. This is, moreover, the differentia that marks the distinction between true and false civilization. The condition of the well-to-do is pretty much the same everywhere. That is still true. Indeed, it is likely to be even more true today than when Johnson said this to Boswell. The technocratic elite of global society have access to similar resources, they shelter their wealth in similar ways, they travel in the same circles, gather in the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and send their children to the same schools. What continent they happen to come from is much less important than their bank account, or what tax haven they happen to use as their address — or the address for their offshore bank accounts.
One of the ways in which individuals become impoverished, marginalized, and socially invisible is through unemployment. While growing income inequality is a complex problem with many historical forces driving it, the problem of unemployment — a problem intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization that can never be “solved,” but only managed — may be significantly exacerbated in the near future (by which I mean within the next 50 years). If technological unemployment becomes a major economic factor in the coming decades, this could drive an already widening social gap to dangerous levels that are not socially sustainable. This may happen anyway, but my point is simply that technological unemployment could make this happen more rapidly.
In several posts on technological unemployment (“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment, Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity, and Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I have pointed out that, not only is our society not making the transition to an economic regime in which the structure of employment realistically mirrors the nature of industrialization, but rather the prevailing attitude is punitive. Unemployment is seen as a personal failure, and even as a moral failure — a moral failure deserving of social disapproval. The poor are widely viewed as requiring discipline, regulation, and oversight by the professional classes.
Is it possible to find a way to compensate the losers in a winner-take-all economy when losing is seen as a sign of moral failure and winning is ascribed to meritocratic success? These social attitudes exacerbate rather than mitigate the damage of extreme income inequality. And social attitudes cannot be easily changed. Piketty in his book makes a case for a global tax on capital, but honestly calls it utopian. He probably understands all-too-well that nothing like this is politically possible. But changing policies is much easier than changing social attitudes. Social attitudes do change, but they change with glacial slowness, and while they are ever so incrementally adapting to changed conditions, generations are being effectively lost.
As Dr. Johnson rightly observed, this is a civilizational concern. If we care to pay attention, we can see this before our very eyes. The homeless live the life of nomadic foragers within the interstices of civilization. They have ceased to participate in civilization as we know it; they have given up on civilization, and civilization has given up on them. Of course we know that many of the homeless are mentally ill, and that many are alcoholics and drug addicts. Even today there are a few individuals who devote their lives to trying to help even those who spurn help and who abuse those who seek to help them. This is a thankless task, and it is only done out of love if it is done at all.
That many of these individuals who have gone from merely being unemployed to being utterly destitute have serious deficits that require significant intervention to overcome is an indication that they come at a price that even the destitute are unwilling to pay. We have all heard stories of the indignities visited upon the impoverished and the helpless. Some of these stories are horrific, and, somewhat disturbingly, cultural Foucauldianism is sometimes invoked in order to excuse the failure to intervene in the lives of those who have suffered from the tender mercies of institutionalized “kindness.” I can both understand and sympathize with a desire to live free as an urban forager rather than to be subject to the discipline of some “total institution.” But are these our only choices? Are there not ways to intervene without insisting on control, regulation, and discipline conceived as a moral corrective?
Compensating losers in a winner-take-all society is something that must be done with our eyes wide open, understanding the mistakes that we have made in the past, but understanding also that we are not limited by the mistakes we have made in the past. And if we do not find some constructive way to address the glaring inequity of our society, before the end of the century even the most pleasant lives will not be able to be fully insulated from the growing masses of marginalized and impoverished individuals whose only failing is that they are not good at making money.
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