Surplus as the basis for modern society

observationsEconomics, labor, politics, societypaul beard

When people bring up the fact that everyone in the US is in the global 1%, it’s kind of hollow. We didn’t earn it, most of us. We were born to it. And it’s not like the guy making $1 a day in Wherever is living the way we do. He doesn’t have the same choices as we do but he also doesn’t have to meet the same requirements. Clothing and what it costs to buy and maintain, hygiene and the water and products it requires, transportation to get to a job, meals are purchased either as ingredients or as finished goods, not gathered or grown… these are all things that are encumbrances, for lack of a better word. Obligations we have to fulfill that our man (or woman) in Wherever doesn’t have to.

And then there is the notion of buying power. How much of our daily/weekly needs are met by our daily/weekly income? The folks at the Economist offer the Big Mac Index [] as a handy way of mapping currency values and buying power across the overlaid continent of McDonaldstan. But what of places where that isn’t useful?

The basis of a complex society is the surplus, the bit left over when we left hunting and gathering behind in favor of agriculture and livestock. I would define buying power as the amount of time we exchange, what part of a day’s labor, for the wages that sustain us. At what point in our day could we knock off and go fishing?

For many of us, the first hour or two of a $500/hour attorney’s day might seem like enough. But what costs does he have to meet? Suitable office space with staff, either hired for himself or managed as part of of a partnership; clothes and personal grooming; entertainment/social obligations, business licenses and insurance — many of us don’t deal with any of that. Our workplaces are arranged by others, our appearance is not tied to the billing rate we command, etc.

In modern industrial society, we don’t have the freedom a hunter and gatherer would of taking it easy when the herds are at hand or the fruit is ripe. At the same time, we don’t have the stress of looking for food when it’s scarce. So what value is the surplus? I wonder if we don’t have the stress of the competitive hunter/gatherer without the downtime of nature’s harvest.

This should be on our minds as we look at the financial crises around the world and the job situation for many, where there are too few jobs or the wrong sort of jobs or where jobs have migrated to cheaper labor, leaving behind unemployed or unemployable people and stripping knowledge and intellectual capital from whole nations. I think we need every kind of job and every kind of worker but we don’t need to fit them to a 40 hour/week model. We need to value workers and the work they do for both work performed and the potential or promise of work to come.

Repurposed from

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paul beard