How more and more people are making money without contributing anything of value.
By Rutger Bregman – Thick fog envelops City Hall Park at daybreak on February 2, 1968. Seven thousand New York City sanitation workers stand crowded together, their mood rebellious. Union spokesman John DeLury addresses the multitude from the roof of a truck. When he announces that the mayor has refused further concessions, the crowd’s anger threatens to boil over. As the first rotten eggs sail overhead, DeLury realizes the time for compromise is over. It’s time to take the illegal route, the path prohibited to sanitation workers for the simple reason that the job they do is too important.
It’s time to strike.
The next day, trash goes uncollected throughout the Big Apple. Nearly all the city’s garbage crews have stayed home. “We’ve never had prestige, and it never bothered me before,” one garbageman is quoted in a local newspaper. “But it does now. People treat us like dirt.”
When the mayor goes out to survey the situation two days later, the city is already knee-deep in refuse, with another 10,000 tons added every day. A rank stench begins to percolate through the city’s streets, and rats have been sighted in even the swankiest parts of town. In the space of just a few days, one of the world’s most iconic cities has started to look like a slum. And for the first time since the polio epidemic of 1931, city authorities declare a state of emergency.
Still the mayor refuses to budge. He has the local press on his side, which portrays the strikers as greedy narcissists. It takes a week before the realization begins to kick in: The garbagemen are actually going to win. “New York is helpless before them,” the editors of The New York Times despair. “This greatest of cities must surrender or see itself sink in filth.” Nine days into the strike, when the trash has piled up to 100,000 tons, the sanitation workers get their way. “The moral of the story,” Time Magazine later reported, “is that it pays to strike.”
Rich without Lifting a Finger
Perhaps, but not in every profession.
Imagine, for instance, that all of Washington’s 100,000 lobbyists were to go on strike tomorrow. Or that every tax accountant in Manhattan decided to stay home. It seems unlikely the mayor would announce a state of emergency. In fact, it’s unlikely that either of these scenarios would do much damage. A strike by, say, social media consultants, telemarketers, or high-frequency traders might never even make the news at all.
When it comes to garbage collectors, though, it’s different. Any way you look at it, they do a job we can’t do without. And the harsh truth is that an increasing number of people do jobs that we can do just fine without. Were they to suddenly stop working the world wouldn’t get any poorer, uglier, or in any way worse. Take the slick Wall Street traders who line their pockets at the expense of another retirement fund. Take the shrewd lawyers who can draw a corporate lawsuit out until the end of days. Or take the brilliant ad writer who pens the slogan of the year and puts the competition right out of business.
Instead of creating wealth, these jobs mostly just shift it around.
Of course, there’s no clear line between who creates wealth and who shifts it. Lots of jobs do both. There’s no denying that the financial sector can contribute to our wealth and grease the wheels of other sectors in the process. Banks can help to spread risks and back people with bright ideas. And yet, these days, banks have become so big that much of what they do is merely shuffle wealth around, or even destroy it. Instead of growing the pie, the explosive expansion of the banking sector has increased the share it serves itself.
Or take the legal profession. It goes without saying that the rule of law is necessary for a country to prosper. But now that the U.S. has 17 times the number of lawyers per capita as Japan, does that make American rule of law 17 times as effective? Or Americans 17 times as protected? Far from it. Some law firms even make a practice of buying up patents for products they have no intention of producing, purely to enable them to sue people for copyright infringement.
Bizarrely, it’s precisely the jobs that shift money around – creating next to nothing of tangible value – that net the best salaries. It’s a fascinating, paradoxical state of affairs. How is it possible that all those agents of prosperity – the teachers, the police officers, the nurses – are paid so poorly, while the unimportant, superfluous, and even destructive shifters do so well? more>