Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Putting the "Hard Work" Myth to Rest

The beauty of the modern economy is that it is built on a foundation of massive amounts of capital. The most financially successful in society are those who, through any combination of luck, willpower, and intelligence, leverage that capital as much as they can.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the entertainment industry. Before the invention of the radio and television, entertainers, performers, and actors were regarded mostly as oddities and grotesques. They would travel from town to town, performing for a crowd of curious people that dwindled as the novelty wore off. The hours were long. The pay uncertain. It was an extremely unglamorous profession.

Nowadays, entertainment is vastly more lucrative. The radio and television made it possible for people to broadcast their voices and actions out to millions of people all at once. Traveling from town to town was no longer necessary. All you needed was a radio transmitter or a camera to reach a vast audience. In fact, our entertainment distribution systems are so sophisticated and widespread that it's possible for a viewer watch a music video, tv show, movie, or short comedic skit on the toilet of a public restroom.

Because the barrier to gaining a massive audience (and thus advertising/endorsement dollars) has never been lower, it's created a whole subsegment within the entertainment industry called reality TV. People of no real distinguishing talent or ability have cameras following them, while producers put them in hyper-contextual circumstances and then watch what unfolds. This has given rise to the conceit of "being famous for being famous".

Perhaps the first person widely regarded for being famous for being famous is Paris Hilton. And her situation isn't hard to deconstruct. She is a young, blonde woman (always a hot commodity) who, by sheer dint of birth, happens to be the heir of a vast fortune. The only difference between her and other heiresses is that she had a sex tape. What's the hook? That she is a young, blonde woman who happens to be heir of a vast fortune who made a sex tape that got "leaked". That's the extraordinary circumstance. In an alternate reality, it would have been the b-plot of a soap opera.

What had to exist in order to make that a marketable thing? The internet, an entertainment industry (and everything that entails) increasingly reliant upon mindless content, a large audience, and a vast heritable fortune. Paris Hilton only had one of those things, the heritable fortune, and she only has that because she's the daughter of a man who's the son of another man who happens to be the son of an iconic business mogul.

She was responsible for none of that. But because she could indirectly leverage all that capital, she's now worth a hundred million dollars on her own. Before you snort and say that she's just the spoiled scion of a famous family, look at your own circumstance and see how much you owe your own good fortune to something you had nothing to do with.

The single biggest correlation with socioeconomic success is your parents. The reason why is because your parents determine which schools you go to, which neighborhood you grow up in, whether you're well fed, intellectually and socially stimulated in a positive way, etc. And they're leveraging things available in American society. The internet. TV. Public schools. Public roads. Various retail stores. Construction firms. All of these things are capital that gets leveraged into shaping your childhood and who you will become in the future.

That is the principle reason why the average person being born in America will be more materially prosperous than the average person born in Zimbabwe. That person in America, through no effort of their own, was born in vastly more fortunate circumstances and is able to leverage much more capital. Even in America, we have vastly different starting circumstances. The person who is born in the inner city has a much lower chance of socioeconomic success than the person born in an upper middle class suburban enclave.

American politicians like to talk about the American dream. And the standard refrain of the American Dream is that, in America, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can achieve all of the major benchmarks of material success (a house, a car, and a myriad of various consumer electronics). As the relative poor of America know very well, that sentiment is horseshit. Hard work doesn't guarantee anything.

When I hear a politician wailing about the travails of the working class "I met a single mother of two, who works over 80 hours a week at 3 different jobs....", I'm disinclined to listen any further. The purpose of their remarks is to engender sympathy to a person in an unfortunate situation. Why? Because they're trying to convince a group of suckers with cheap rhetoric. Because their intended audience believes that hard work is the ticket to success. It is anything but.

Throughout history, the hardest workers were usually the least fortunate members of their society. Whether you were a slave (in Egypt, Rome, Antebellum US), an early industrial age factory worker, or a single mom stuck at a dead end job, your job was to work for other people. Instead of leveraging capital, you were the capital being leveraged.

So let's put the hard work myth to rest. Chinese workers in Foxconn factories in the southern coast of China who put in 80 hours a week assembling iPhones to sell to spoiled Americans work really hard. But they're dirt poor. Meanwhile, I spend my work day in a well conditioned office at my own cubicle doing 4 hours of real, actual work per day and I make at least 15 times as much as they do.

The ticket to success is to leverage as much capital available to you in the most efficient manner possible. Sometimes that involves hard work. More often, it involves a lot of luck. Things that have nothing to do with hard work or merit, such as height, physical attractiveness, skin color, legal residency status, your parents, are much better predictors of success than the amount of hours you put in. That should put to rest to any notion that our society is a meritocracy where the only things you need to succeed are talent and hard work.

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