Eternal Employment:  A Day Job Worth Keeping

what-would-you-like-to-do-if-money-were-no-object- alan-watts-quotes

“We will all be employed at Korsvägen.”

In a post on August 31, 2017, I pooh-poohed the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” “Baloney,” I said, “Money is always an object.” I take it all back. Now you have a real life opportunity to answer the question, and money truly is no object.

I first read about it in this Atlas Obscura article. Google “korsvägen train station job” for more. The job is whatever you want to do. That’s it. Your only duty is to clock in every day at the Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden. Your salary is $2,320/month plus annual cost of living increases, benefits, vacations, a pension…. Why? To make an artistic and  political point about the economic and work issues we’ve been talking about in this blog.

“Titled ‘Eternal Employment,’ the project is both a social experiment and a serious political statement. In early 2017, Public Art Agency Sweden and the Swedish Transport Administration announced an international competition for artists interested in contributing to the new station’s design. The winner would get 7 million Swedish krona, the equivalent of around $750,000. Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, a pair of Swedish artists whose previous work was inspired by offshore banking, entered and suggested eschewing the typical murals and sculptures that adorn most transit hubs.

“Instead, they wrote, they would use the prize money to pay one worker’s salary and give them absolutely nothing to do all day.

“‘In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous,’ their proposal said. ‘We will all be employed at Korsvägen, as it were.’

“The pair also cited French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that accumulated wealth has typically grown at a rate that outpaces increases in workers’ wages. The result, Piketty argues, is an ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and everyone else. Using that same calculation, Goldin and Senneby predicted that by creating a foundation to prevent the prize money from being taxed, then investing it in the market, they would be able to keep paying that employee’s salary for ‘eternity’ — which they defined as 120 years.

“A 2017 financial analysis conducted by Sweden’s Erik Penser Bank, which the artists submitted as part of their application, concurred. The artists had proposed paying the worker 21,600 Swedish krona a month, the equivalent of roughly $2,312, or $27,744 a year. Factoring in annual salary increases of 3.2 percent, consistent with what Sweden’s public sector employees receive, the bankers concluded that there was a 75 percent chance that the prize money would earn enough interest from being invested in an equity fund to last for 120 years or more.

“‘In this sense the artwork can function as a measure of our growing inequality,’ Goldin and Senneby wrote.

“Deeming the idea to be humorous, innovative and ‘an artistic expression of great quality,’ the jury that had been convened to judge the competition decided to award them the prize.” [1]

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Oscar Wilde

The politicians don’t appreciate either the irony or the economic analysis.

”There was an uproar in Sweden in October when officials announced that Goldin and Senneby’s proposal had won, Brian Kuan Wood, a board member for the Eternal Employment foundation, wrote in the art journal e-flux, with outrage coming from politicians on all sides.

“‘Old Social Democrats accused them of using financial realism to mock the transcendental accomplishments of the welfare state,’ he recalled. ‘Neoliberal progressives accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money to stage a nostalgic return to that same welfare state.’ Lars Hjälmered, a member of parliament from Gothenburg who belongs to Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, decried the conceptual artwork as ‘stupidity’ in the news magazine Dagens Samhälle.

In their own writing, Goldin and Senneby fully acknowledge that paying someone to show up at a train station twice a day and punch a time clock is unproductive and thoroughly worthless. That’s the idea. Many people believe that art is supposed to be useless, they point out. They also suggest that the pointless job could lead to the creation of a new idiom expressing apathy, indolence and boredom: You’re working ‘as though you were at Korsvägen.’”[2]

I personally doubt the winner would be indifferent, lazy, or bored. I wouldn’t. Would you?

Mark your calendar:  applications open in 2025. Here’s the original job description. And here’s a more condensed version.

[1]An Experimental Swedish Art Project Will Pay You To Do Nothing For The Rest Of Your Life,” Washington Post (March 7, 2019).

[2] Op. cit.

The Landlord’s Game

monopoly

“Buy land – they aren’t making it anymore.”

Mark Twain

You know how Monopoly games never end? A group of academicians wanted to know why. Here’s an article about them, and here’s their write-up. Their conclusion? Statistically, a game of Monopoly played casually (without strategy) could in fact go on forever.

I once played a game that actually ended. I had a strategy:  buy everything you land on, build houses and hotels as fast as possible, and always mortgage everything to the hilt to finance acquisition and expansion. I got down to my last five dollars before I bankrupted everybody else. It only took a couple hours. Okay, so the other players were my kids. Some example I am. Whatever economic lessons we might have gained from the experience, they certainly weren’t what the game’s creator had in mind.

While Andrew Carnegie and friends were getting rich building American infrastructure, industry, and institutions, American society was experiencing a clash between the new rich and those still living in poverty. In 1879, economist Henry George proposed a resolution in his book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy.

“Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighborhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.”

From “Monopoly Was Invented To Demonstrate The Evils Of Capitalism,by new economist Kate Raworth.[1]

George’s book eventually reached the hands of Elizabeth Magie, the daughter of newspaperman James Magie and a social change rabble-rouser in her own right. Influenced by her father’s politics and Henry George’s vision, she created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and gave it two sets of rules, intending for it to be an economic learning experience. Again quoting from Ms. Raworth’s article:

“Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

“The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes.

“The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

“Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.”

“Chase wealth and crush your opponents” — that was my winning Monopoly strategy. It requires a shift away from the labor economy — selling things workers make or services they provide — to the rentier economy — owning assets you can charge other people to access and use. The scarcer the assets, the more you can charge. Scarcity can be natural, as is the case with land, or it can be artificial, the result of the kind of “regressive regulation” we looked at last time, that limits access to capital markets, protects intellectual property, bars entry to the professions, and concentrates high-end land development through zoning and land use restrictions.

Artificial scarcity can also be the result of cultural belief systems –such as those that underlie the kind of stuff that shows up in your LinkedIn and Facebook feeds:  “7 Ways to Get Rich in Rental Real Estate” or “How to Create a Passive Income From Book Sales and Webinars.” In fact, it seems our brains are so habitually immersed in Monopoly thinking that proposals such as Henry George’s land ownership  tax — or its current equivalents such as superstar economist Thomas Piketty’s wealth tax, Harvard law and ethics professor Lawrence Lessig’s notions of a creative commons, or the widely-studied and broadly-endorsed “universal basic income” — are generally tossed off as hopelessly idealistic and out of touch.

More to come.

[1] Kate Raworth holds positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. We previously looked at her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist  (2017).

The TED Inequality All-Stars

Economic inequality is so important to a thorough look at happiness on and off the job that, before we leave the topic, I decided to provide an all-star lineup of TED talks on the subject, from a variety of perspectives. We’ve heard from the first two before, but not the last three.

TED Chrystia Freeland

This is Chrystia Freeland, journalist turned politician. We’ve heard a lot from her book Plutocrats already. Her political biases are evident in this talk.

TED Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty, economist and professor at the Paris School of Economics, literally wrote the book on the subject — a 600-page runaway bestseller Capital in the Twenty-first Century. He talks fast enough to get through much of his book in this talk. I’ve quoted him before, too.

TED Paul Tudor Jones

Paul Tudor Jones II is the billionaire founder of hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation and a philanthropist. Here’s a sample:

“[Capitalism is] a system I love because of the successes and opportunities it’s afforded me and millions of others.

“Higher profit margins do not increase societal wealth. What they actually do is they exacerbate income inequality, and that’s not a good thing.

“This next chart, made by The Equality Trust, shows 21 countries from Austria to Japan to New Zealand. On the horizontal axis is income inequality. The further to the right you go, the greater the income inequality. On the vertical axis are nine social and health metrics. The more you go up that, the worse the problems are, and those metrics include life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, literacy, social mobility, just to name a few. Now, those of you in the audience who are Americans may wonder, well, where does the United States rank? … Yes, that’s us, with the greatest income inequality and the greatest social problems, according to those metrics.

“Now, capitalism has been responsible for every major innovation that’s made this world a more inspiring and wonderful place to live in. Capitalism has to be based on justice. It has to be, and now more than ever, with economic divisions growing wider every day.

“I’m not against progress. I want the driverless car and the jet pack just like everyone else. But I’m pleading for recognition that with increased wealth and profits has to come greater corporate social responsibility.

“‘If justice is removed,’ said Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, ‘the great, the immense fabric of human society must in a moment crumble into atoms.’”

TED Richard Wilkinson

Public health researcher Richard Wilkinson studies the social and health effects of income inequality. In his writing and in this talk, he offers piles of statistical evidence from worldwide studies on a wide variety of social issues including life expectancy, social mobility, math scores, literacy rates, infant mortality, homicide and incarceration rates, teenage pregnancies, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, school bullying, violence, high school drop-out rates, and more. In this talk, he returns often to three points that seem to be commonly cited in inequality research and commentary:

  1. There is a strong statistical link between these social issues and economic inequality.
  2. Conventional economic measurements such as GNP per capita, gross national income, and national income per person fail to recognize this link; and
  3. The problem of inequality at its core revolves around relative inequality (the human trait of comparing what I have to what you have).

TED Nick Hanauer

Nick Hanauer is another plutocrat — a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” — who has founded and funded 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He openly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for the future if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind. In 1980, the top one percent of Americans shared about eight percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans shared 18 percent. Thirty years later, today, the top one percent shares over 20 percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans share 12 or 13. If the trend continues, the top one percent will share over 30 percent of national [income] in another 30 years, while the bottom 50 percent of Americans will share just six.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.

“Fellow plutocrats, I think it may be time for us to recommit to our country, to commit to a new kind of capitalism which is both more inclusive and more effective, a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Next time we’ll look at the complex nature of real economics for real people in the real world.

Taboo Economics

Last time, University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak challenged us to upgrade our Econ 101 understanding of economics. I’ve spent the past year doing that, and have come across what appears to be the one single issue that will instantly and absolutely shut down all further inquiry. It is the ultimate economics taboo — the quickest way to destroy any hope of further learning or discussion. Taking it head on is like signing up for a an adventure tourism trip into the Labyrinth, live Minotaur included.

No thanks, I’m pretty sure I’ve got something going on that night.

It’s especially taboo if you’re an American — economists around the rest of the world talk about it all the time with a sense of urgency, like it’s something we need to get on right now if we know what’s good for us. More on that in a moment. But first, what is it? In a word,

Inequality

Karn_The_Minotaur_Boss

Uh-oh. I think I just heard the footfalls of a really large, really nasty creature.

Understanding economic inequality is the key to Economics 2017. Trouble is, the topic threatens the very bedrock of a country founded on this premise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

we are the 99%In the USA, “equal” means “anybody can make it here.” It is the land of Horatio Alger. To suggest that public policy — where the study of economics is played out — might include income inequality on its agenda is to throw Alger’s rags-to-riches enthronement of hard work, determination, courage, and honesty under the bus. Questioning those values is un-American by definition — the province of the Occupiers, who we all know finally had to give up and get a real job.

And so it goes.

You think I’m exaggerating? Read this NY Times op-ed piece from earlier this summer, then read these two completely polarized responses. The writer who started the exchange is a Brit who writes for the Brookings Institute and wrote a book entitled Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about Itwhich pretty much tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? About as surprising as finding this lesson plan primer on economic inequality on the PBS website.

And so it goes.

As the NY Times exchange makes clear, the issue isn’t so much economics, it’s the complete, total, utter American rejection of anything resembling a class system — a yoke we threw off with those Declaration of Independence fightin’ words. Which is why, these days, if you’re an European or Asian economist you’ll talk about inequality with a sense of urgency, but if you’re an American you won’t talk about it all — unless you’re a foreign-trained economist teaching at a prestigious U.S. university, which doesn’t really count. See the analysis of the USA vs. the Rest of the World Economic Divide in Why So Few American Economists Are Studying Inequality, The Atlantic, Sept. 13, 2016. (The article’s killer opening line is “In recent years, it’s been European scholars who have written the blockbuster papers on the topic.” “Blockbuster papers”? Seriously? Are we talking about economics here?)

Which is why it takes a Frenchman to write an international blockbuster (there’s that word again) economics book that takes 600 geeky pages to reckon with economic inequality. (Google Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century — it’s all over the capital 21st centuryplace.)

I mentioned the book to a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He’s the most dedicated to the study of economics person I know. His comment? “Piketty didn’t talk about benefits.”

That was it.

We can let the topic of income inequality send us scurrying to the safety of Econ 101, or we can brave the Minotaur. We’ll enter the Labyrinth next time.

By the way, the reputed lefty Brookings Institute and its equally reputed righty arch-rival American Enterprise Institute actually collaborated on a 2015 study called Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream. And if the BI is given to favoring its own touchy topics, the AEI isn’t afraid to tackle its own controversial counterparts, as I learned while squirming my way through The Inequality Taboo. I’ll just leave it there for now.