Sept 14, 2009
When I was young, I was pretty miserable due to my circumstances and my unwillingness to accept situations that didn't make proper sense. When I was very young, I questioned capitalism because it didn't make sense and I mistrusted authority based on money. I was right to be so, the economics of those I have questioned have been proven faulty. No, capitalism has not been proven faulty just yet and I have since changed my mind quite a bit. In fact I have embraced capitalism, but also in the same time I embrace anarchism and I still hold businesses accountable for their unbelievably bad business practices. I know that anarchists are supposed to loathe capitalism, but a new breed of anarchist has arisen from the wild west of the Internet. Self-reliance of Thoreau, community of Ghandi, sensibility of Tom Paine, and recklessness of Emma Goldman, the community grows in individual mind and foot.
But this essay isn't about Anarchism, it's about capitalism and misery. Good business practices can often bring as much misery as bad ones. When I was young I didn't understand the connection between money and value. If I wanted something of value I needed money, but there was never a question of if I wanted money, I needed value. Money was given to me for each hour I spent in misery and I couldn't wait until I was free of it. In fact, had I not found a really good distraction at age 16, I would've walked away for better or for worse. When faced with misery in exchange for money I do not consider it to be a fair trade. But capitalism is designed to do exactly that.
Oh you can be happy with what you do, but don't disconnect money from misery. The fact that you're happy with what you do means that someone is paying you to do something you enjoy. They would pay you as much or possibly more if you were completely miserable. You see the more the general population like a job and are able to do it, the less someone is willing to pay for it. Competition is a bitch, no? Right now unemployment is in a huge peak mainly due to the awful economic decisions of a large number of capitalists. These economists failed to predict or even analyze the situation that was rapidly causing a meltdown in the fabric of our economy. The consequence is misery. Thousands of tech workers find themselves looking for work in a buyer's market -- wages are low, demand is low, and we are flooded with people. Microsoft, long time purveyor of misery no longer thinks that there are not enough skilled programmers. Unemployed people find themselves working jobs that are so unrewarding, uninteresting, and awful that there is just one goal left: pay the rent.
I am rather lucky to be in a much better situation. I am gainfully employed, have been able to hire an employee, have 5-6x as much vacation as my colleagues, have a very flexible schedule, and do not have to deal with as much stress as many of them. This past week was incredibly stressful for me because I have overworked myself into burnout in record time. The reason I am bearing it is because it's a rare occasion. If my client does what he should do, we will have one or more customers for the project that I have profited over $20,000 from this year. This money allows me to grow my business and find out whether I have what it takes to compete in the security industry with an exotic technology and a rather difficult business model.
You see, without capitalism I would be working on the projects that I wanted all day long. I would be able to spend countless hours honing my exotic skills like assembly, hacking, linguistics of programming languages, symbolic logic, and so forth. Since my time would be my own I would have no incentive to cut corners or to have questionable business ethics to save money. In fact since time would be on my side, I might just take a few years off and see what it looks like when I'm tan and a good surfer.
Capitalism burdens us with decisions about the most profit and the consumer. It requires us to value our reputation before our own interests. Again when I was young I saw capitalism to be the center of a rather awful mess of people being dissatisfied with their livelihood and living inefficiently due to lack of time and understanding. As I have grown older I can obviously see how miserable the whole thing makes us. Capitalism is a motivation to create value. Instead of instilling the value of being creative, it instills the value of making money. This would be bad news if creativity was expensive and value (money) was plentiful. But the opposite is true: resources are scarce while creativity is abundant. We live in creative times and we are consumed by a creative inspiration designed by our very souls. We find ourselves working extremely difficult or miserable professions because they need to be done to ensure the continued luxuries that we and our fellow wealthy Americans take for granted. Think for a moment about your budget. Who does that money go to? It gets split up by the workers you see and the managers you don't, the tycoons and the factory workers alike take a share of every penny you spend on rent, food, clothes, and coffee. They are miserable and so are you.
But wait, there is hope. I don't think I would be up for writing such a miserable essay if it weren't for the hope that we can all share at one time or another. That hope is improvement. Oh yes it's not a walk in the park and it's a big game with no winners but the enjoyment you can get from the hours you spend in your off hours can make you happy. You might even have a job that makes you happy when you take a week off from it. If you aren't there, you just have to live with it. If you're on your way, have some fun because it shouldn't get a lot easier than this. If you're there, well... congrats. It's hard to say when you're there though.
I've come a long way and every day I think of something I am happy about. Sometimes it's just that I'm healthy and other times is that I can pay my rent. You see, I remember when I couldn't pay my rent. It sucked so much to not be able to pay rent on time. I ended up getting a loan or a handout and that made me more miserable than anything else in my entire life, even when I thought I was a literal slave to a tyrannical government. You see the way capitalism works is crooked to its core. It's designed to be a carrot on a stick to ensure the buggy of food and progress get pulled to their destination: the gluttonous Americans. But wait aren't we the gluttonous Americans? I like dodging the blame by looking at all the various systems of control that I opt out of. I try to think that my contributions to the tech community are worthwhile even if I am hoarding a little bit.
Capitalism even without gluttons, the corrupt, or profiteers is a strange and difficult system. Perhaps this is why it gets such a bad rap. It is instantly understood (money = value) but never quite mastered as seen by the recent housing fiasco. There are a few ideas that have recently become very clear to me that I would like to discuss.
First of all, capitalism seems like a zero sum game even though it isn't. When you look at the stock market, you are implored to remember that the value increases on average for a long enough time frame. That's true but it isn't nearly stable enough for a person to 'win big' in the same way that a person that puts their savings on a roulette table (always bet on black). The problem with extrapolating this notion to all of capitalism is that it completely ignores value. It's easier to think of your budget and your income for this since your income is based on a company's profit. If I'm selling a piece of software, every penny I earn comes from consumers. Each penny I earn someone else loses. But wait a second, what does a consumer gain from my piece of software? VALUE! Aha, so each time a person spends money they have earned, they are getting value in return. In fact, when you work you are creating value out of thin air and the company is able to pay you only because they are able to get others to pay money for that value. So every penny that gets passed from person to person is _value_ created for the purpose of making money.
Next up, we have the notion of relative worth. In the recent housing debacle we saw huge mistakes made (in hindsight of course) and gross negligence by every person involved (except those who truly can claim ignorance like the homebuyers). The reason behind this whole mess was that value of something is not static. Green bananas are fine, yellow bananas can be sold, but overripe bananas cannot. In a city with 5k bananas, a price of $1 per pound ($0.5 per kg) may be reasonable while in a city with 5B bananas a price of $0.10 per pound may be considered high. A piece of software that isn't competing with any other can charge $400 because the market will allow it while another piece of software can be sold for $20 just because a developer wants to sell more copies. Copies do not cost anything to a developer. Sales and support cost money but selling 1000 copies at $10 profit a piece is not a failure to any indy developer.
And so for the conclusion, I'd like to requalify my point: Capitalism makes us all miserable for the benefit of ourselves. We don't know very well how we'd do without it because we can't relive our lives. We do know what we can do with it. It's up to us to make it happen. And if we find a way to shrug it off, we may one day find out what it would be like without it. My guess is that I would be as miserable as I am today.