A central problem with the U.S. economy, he told me, is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite these terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money. For proof, he looks to the market. At a nearby table we saw three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair. For all we know, they may have been plotting the next generation’s Twitter, but Conard felt sure they were merely lounging on the sidelines. “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he asked. “I’m sure those guys are college-educated.” Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.
“It’s not like the current payoff is motivating everybody to take risks,” he said. “We need twice as many people. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements but a shortage of people and investors willing to take those risks. That doesn’t indicate to me that risk takers, as a whole, are overpaid. Quite the opposite.” The wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large, he said. That way, the art-history majors would feel compelled to try to join them.
One could say many things here. One could say that not everyone wants to live a hyper-competitive life, and that they shouldn't be forced to. Or one could point out that while the financiers usually take home most of the loot, the actual dreamers and inventors rarely get rich (if they're employed by a corporation, they don't get the bonanza from their ideas except in the form of a paycheck that will never make them wealthy.) One could demonstrate that corporate patent laws and legal fees are the chief obstacle standing in the way of bright people with inventive ideas. One could note that there are a great many individuals whose moral compasses are intact enough that no amount of money on this green earth would convince us to profane our values enough to work for Goldman Sachs (some of us would prefer to go into prostitution instead, as it's less harmful to society.) Or one could point out that simply getting in the way of Mr. Conard's sociopathic agenda is more valuable to society than all his collective investments in minor changes to aluminum cans.
But perhaps the most important point to make would be this: it takes a remarkably materialistic and delusional mind to believe that a person not enticed by the prospect of earning tens of millions of dollars, would somehow be more enticed by the prospect of hundreds of millions (to say nothing of the fact that when it comes to Mr. Conard's kind of wealth, we're really talking about hundreds of millions versus billions.) Mr. Conard simply can't understand why more intelligent younger and middle-aged people don't take entrepreneurial risks. He assumes it must be because the rewards aren't big enough, despite record income inequality that has mostly gone to the new rich.
I can speak from personal experience on this one. I consider myself something of a risk-taker. I've never held a "normal" 9-5 job, I've radically switched industries and life plans a few times, and I've spent most of my life running my own business. I'm a type A personality and consider myself modestly creative. Obscene wealth doesn't interest me, as I'm much more interested in my legacy after I'm gone from this world than in my comfort while I'm here, and passive income makes me uncomfortable as I believe a person should actually work to earn their daily bread. But I'm not averse to the idea of creating a innovative product and being rewarded for it in such a way that I could afford to live comfortably while funding progressive infrastructure (for one, I'd love to give a bunch of great part-time progressive bloggers the ability to do their thing full-time, in coordination, without worrying about where the next meal was going to come from.)
And I've had a couple of ideas that I think might be million dollar ideas, given enough time and investment. So what prevents me from pursuing them? It's not insufficient reward. It's the fact that I would have to abandon my current business, my blogging and my volunteer life to pursue them, knowing full well that success would be a longshot, with any number of trip-ups possible along the way. And it's the knowledge that if I failed, there would be no one there to pick me up. If I got hurt, I couldn't afford to cover the expense. I couldn't afford to have kids. I couldn't even afford to stay in my apartment.
In other words, the reason even creative, inventive Type A personalities with potential ideas don't do what Mr. Conard suggests they should isn't about the lack of rewards for success. It's not even about our ideals.
It's about the risk. Risk that puts us in danger of losing everything should we fail. Risk that could, in theory, be mitigated by a society that doesn't let people go bankrupt for getting sick. Or punish them extravagantly in the wallet for daring to have children. Or pay a pittance in wages for more and more soul-crushing jobs with longer and longer hours and less and less job security. Or force people to live in ridiculously high-cost-of-living areas just to have decent schools for their kids.
Risks that a decent social welfare state would help reduce so that people without rich parents could afford to fail and still live to tell the tale.
Even Mr. Conard's own dystopian view of a world without liberal arts and public service, a horrific society driven purely by corporate growth and consumerist greed, would be better served by a decent social welfare state. But he has dedicated himself to destroying what vestiges are left of it.
And that is why I devote my life to stopping men like him, and putting much their wealth to more productive public use if possible. That would be a far greater gift to this world than any million-dollar consumer product idea I might invent, regardless of its success or ability to furnish me a yacht I don't want or need.
Cross-posted from Digby's Hullabaloo
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