Why the most valuable jobs get the least pay.
I feel to preface my remarks today with the statement that I am pretty solidly a capitalist. Like any form of freedom, to work well it requires its participants take a certain responsibility upon themselves; but on the whole it’s a quite good economic policy.
But there seems to me to be one intrinsic flaw in capitalism. I first thought of this while pondering an imperative I once heard attributed to Søren Aabye Kierkegaard—as far as I can discover, incorrectly so attributed, but to whom it ought to be attributed I do not know. The thought was this: “We ought to reward occupations in proportion to their potential for improving the good of the society; thus teachers of children ought to receive the highest pay.” As I considered this imperative, whomever its source, I found that capitalism seemed to ensure its inverse.
A simple mind game will establish this idea. Suppose you have two jobs available to you. In one you travel from branch to branch of a large business spending a few weeks integrating into the employee pool and then firing those that seemed less effective before moving to the next branch. In the other you work with a group of children, helping them learn about the world and how to contribute to it. How much more would you need to be payed to take the first over the second?
The mind game isn’t perfect, of course, because individual taste makes any particular example ineffective. But the general principle seems to hold. People will accept less pay for a more rewarding job. The satisfaction of doing something positive is part of the “pay” of the job.
Thus I offer this simple rule: to make money, sell your soul. The jobs that require emotional callousness pay for that rare commodity. If there’s a job that involves hurting people, has a high divorce rate, and is otherwise makes honorable humanity difficult think how much people would have to pay to get people to take the job!
I don’t actually mind paying people appropriately for unpleasant tasks. But there are two side effects I find most troubling.
The first side effect is that people with a lot of money are held up be society as somehow worthy of laud and emulation. I do not pretend to understand this phenomenon but it does trouble me within a structure that pays depravity a lot.
The second side effect comes when you combine capitalism with democracy (which is rule by the demagogue) and mass media (which means demagogues are the wealthy rather than the eloquent). We often hear that power corrupts, but with this particular combination it is also true that corruption results in power. Since the corrupt also tend to seek power, we seem to be ruined on three fronts at once.
Oddly, all this negativity and doom-saying is one of the reasons I’m an optimist. I see a system that rewards and supports bad people in myriad systemic ways, and within that system I find a lot of people doing mostly good things. I have every reason to expect the most effective The least effective of the morally bankrupt I expect to find in prison. These people too are mostly morally alive people in my limited personal experience. of the morally bankrupt to be at the helm of every company and government and yet most of them seem to have an active, though small, conscience. What hope I find in seeing good in the worst!