Finding Equity in Labor

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

(note: this is part 3 in this week’s 5-part series on the brandification of our lives) 

Earlier this year, I wrote that Karl Marx was prescient when it came to explaining the woes of corporations that find themselves chasing the same consumers.

Without ever having sipped a double espresso skinny latte, he worked through a model that predicted companies would tend to pursue monopolies (via acquisition, or simply by destroying the competition), vertically integrate, squeeze workers until they earn the least possible, and then commoditize human experience.

His analytic recipe was to mix one part facts with two parts poetry and philosophy, with a pinch of angry, personal emotion thrown in for spice. But he nailed much of what’s fueling the desperate chaos that was once erstwhile opportunity for brand names like Starbucks or Dell. 

Too bad Lenin, Mao, and that nutcase Chavez in Venezuela (among others) gave the guy’s observations such a bad name. Their political machinations, not to mention stupefying evil, made the anti-Christ out of a grubby, dirt-poor vagabond who spent much of his adult life sitting in the British Museum for light and warmth. 

Marxism, the brand, is about as toxic as you can get. That leaves us with one brand — Capitalism — as the guiding principle for every economic event in our lives. 

Capitalism is based on numbers, no more real than those Marx used in his Das Kapital. It also invents variables, and then weaves them together into equations intended to yield meaning and relevance, just like Marx. 

Only Capitalism, the brand, has proven time and time again that it works a helluva lot better than its former competitor. 

That is, until it fails utterly, either on a topical or philosophical level. And when that happens, we have no other brand of economic thought to consider or choose. 

So when oil prices climb, the culprit is some vague entity called "the market" that exists beyond the reach (or complete understanding) of governments or consumers. Same goes for the way health care is priced and provided (or not) in America. The free market is an unassailable absolute, driving our sole brand of economic thought. It’s beyond reproach, even when it challenges the experience of our senses, like when we’re told "destruction" is "creation," or that the way to collect more tax revenue is to lower the rates at which they’re collected.

Humm. I wonder whether we’d be better able to understand topical news events if we had another brand of explanation from which to choose? It’s how consumers make value judgments on products: compare and contrast "A" and "B" on functionality, experience, and price. 

I doubt we’re ever going to see Marxism (or Socialism, or even, gasp, Communism) as a brand alternative offered up to help explain the sub-prime mortgage crisis in tomorrow’s newspaper, for instance. 

On a more philosophical level, living with a single brand of economic thought means we get only one version of those variables and equations I mentioned earlier.

Think about the idea of value for a minute. 

Capitalism determines the ultimate value of goods and services primarily based on cost (to produce and/or to acquire). There’s established math that tracks and affirms it, which the market uses to continually reset those valuations. And it’s from that math that we define major metrics for our social experience, not just economic: "gross national product" is a measure used to determine lots of things beyond the dollars in in which it’s priced.

So what’s the value of, say, a healthy environment? How about commute times, or spiritual well-being? Is there a value inherent, as lots of literature would suggest, in the very act of making something, whether it’s a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction? Do the experiences of respect, or cordial neighborliness, have value?

Capitalism, the brand, promises to factor in all of these variables, only it doesn’t. Most of these variables are externalities because they defy quantification. 

Yet it’s why so many of our economic answers don’t neatly fit the questions that arise from our experience. Time wasted sitting in traffic should shift commuters to other means of transportation, only it doesn’t. The long-term cost of pollution should be factored into the short-term pricing of energy, only it isn’t. Jobs are described in terms of salary rewards, not function.

Marx (and other economists, like Ricardo) believed that labor had an inherent value, or LTV. Maybe they would have quantified other qualities of our lives. And maybe that math might never have added up. But because we only get to choose from a single brand of economic thought, we’ll never know.   

If competition yields better choices, might it help to have an alternative to Capitalism to consider now and then? 

Even if another explanation was wrong, at least we would have a basis — other than the catchy shorthand of branding — to know that we what have chosen was right.

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