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NYT Mag's Adam Davidson Praises Economic Exploitation

In his latest 1% apologia, Davidson hails the capitalist lottery system for workers. Yves Smith explains the idiocy of this idea.

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And another part of the fantasy that Davidson and other status quo apologists exploit successfully is the desperate need to believe the system is fair. As Stanford neuroscience professor Ben Barres (who knows more than a bit about discrimination, having formerly been Barbara) noted, citing research:

When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists.

Another intelligence-insulting aspect of this article is how Davidson force fits all sorts of different jobs into the same simple-minded generalization. One of the reasons some career paths have extreme power law payoffs is lots of people are willing to do the work for no or little pay because it is creative and intrinsically enjoyable (at least for some people). Writing and the visual and performing arts fall into this category. By contrast, as Frank Partnoy’s book FIASCO made clear, highly paid derivative salesmen hated the work and all said they’d do anything else, including haul garbage, if they could make anything resembling the money they were earning.

Not that we should fell sorry for the aspiring partners or equivalents in accounting, consulting, investment banking, or the law that Davidson weirdly equates with drug dealers or mail room boys looking to leap into a professional role. Those jobs are all well paid to very well paid. The hours are typically exploitative, but the young’uns are also learning a trade, as well as how to manage clients, not just doing scut work. And unlike the mail runners who never get their break, the downside for people in banks or professional firms who don’t make it to the very top are usually very handsome. Indeed, a not trivial number opt out into better careers than if they had stayed with their firm and had made it to the top.

So Davidson misleads in suggesting that a normal organizational pyramid, or the more Darwinian “up or out” version of law, accounting, and consulting firms, is a “lottery” when the upside and downside payoffs of those career paths are very attractive, as contrasted with the typical payoffs of trying to be a professional performing artist (for instance, a woman I know who majored in dance and had gotten hired as a ballerina had to turn to stripping to pay off her school debts).

But there is one way in which Davidson’s lottery metaphor is apt. A 2008 study found that poor people spent a whopping 9% of their incomes on the lottery. I’ve read various theories as to why, most of them of the moralizing “aren’t they dumb/irresponsible” subtext. But as someone who once in a great while buys a lottery ticket (only when it is a rational bet after taxes, and even then, with the predictable lack of success), the explanation that seems most plausible is that the wager allows them to engage in some pleasant fantasizing, just as shelter and vacation magazines do for the more affluent (you can argue that this fantasizing comes at a high cost, but people who are poor need their pleasures too, and there are worse choices than lottery tickets).

So unintentionally, Davidson’s lottery metaphor is apt for those who aren’t on the fast track: exploiting people’s tendency to dream to get them to accept economic propositions that are hopelessly stacked against them. And his insistently cheerful tone tells us we should recognize that this is all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.


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