Wealth, Power, and the Future Thereof

Can American democracy survive what seems to be an alarming concentration of wealth and power?  That’s a question often asked nowadays, as statistics show that income inequality has become much more pronounced than it was a generation or two ago.  Bankers and CEOs get huge paychecks, while the rest of us just seem to be treading water much of the time.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently wrote an article, Middle class methodically excluded from prosperity, in which he advocates stronger trade unions and more government spending.  On the other side of the debate, conservatives argue that the free market is naturally self-correcting and that more government involvement is not needed.

I tend to frame the situation as being determined more by technological advances and long-term social changes, which operate independently of the political parties’ maneuverings.  We don’t have to go very far back in history to a time when wealth (which I would define simply as control over stuff) and power (defined as control over people) were functional equivalents.  Wealth/power meant owning large amounts of land, worked by slaves or peasants; often there wasn’t much difference between the two.  Everyone, from the strongest king to the lowliest serf, took for granted that wealth and power belonged only to a few fortunate aristocrats and that this was the natural order of things.

When the Industrial Age got underway, it became possible for the first time to produce large amounts of stuff without having to conquer land and enslave workers.  Factory owners just had to pay enough so that their employees could live better than peasants, which wasn’t hard to do.  They operated what would now be considered deplorable sweatshops with little or no concern for safety and health issues; but no matter how rich they became, they had less power than the rulers of the past because they didn’t own their workers.  Wealth and power were starting to become less closely intertwined.

As technology continued to advance, the railroads and the telegraph made possible much faster travel and communication, which in turn enabled large-scale union organizing.  Once again, the balance shifted; although industry’s leaders continued to become wealthier as new technology made the economy more productive, their control over workers’ lives decreased just as quickly.

Workers gained even more personal empowerment as motor vehicles and the telephone created a society more mobile than any before.  As it became easier for workers to change jobs, companies paid higher wages and offered more benefits to induce them to stay.  Women and minorities had more career opportunities as a booming economy expanded.

It wasn’t long, however, before cheap transportation and computers made it feasible for businesses to set up operations anywhere in the world that had cheaper workers.  The combination of modern-day technology and an ample global supply of job-hungry peasants made corporate profits soar, while American workers’ wages stagnated.  That’s where we are now; and it won’t change much, regardless of which political party has more influence, until there’s enough industrial and commercial development worldwide to drive wages back up.

But at the same time, the Internet, mobile phones, and other inexpensive communication technologies have given individuals an unprecedented degree of personal power.  The wealthy no longer have the ability to control information and manipulate the populace to the extent they once did.  Dictators have fallen all over the world, and others will soon follow them.  Democracy is flourishing robustly in many places where it was never known before.

Ultimately, as industrial growth and a better-educated global workforce bring the era of cheap labor to an end, I expect wages to rocket upward because falling birthrates will result in an ever-shrinking pool of workers, while more jobs will require specific technical expertise.  Employers will no longer have the luxury of treating workers as interchangeable; they’ll have to scramble to find enough qualified personnel to fill all their positions.

Who will benefit the most as the economy changes?  As Mark Stairwalt has mentioned, when technical ability is highly valued, as opposed to social connections or popularity, the coin of the realm becomes respect earned by competent performance.  He characterizes such respect as an autistic ethos.  Of course, that doesn’t mean autistic workers are naturally more competent than others; certainly there are many people of different neurological types who are very good at what they do.  Autistics are, however, more likely to be specialists than generalists; and as such, I expect that as social and economic changes create a surplus of high-paying jobs that are closely matched to individual skills, we can look forward to better times for the autistic population.

on 08/25/10 in featured, Politics | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Nobel laureate Gary Snyder, too, described himself similarly as “a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.” He’s 80 now, and I see he has a new book coming out. Here’s to a life well-lived, whether or not we’re bound for hell in a handbasket.

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