The ‘Earnership Society’

The ‘Ownership Society’ is a slogan coined in 2004 by former United States President George W. Bush describing what he viewed as an ideal society, where personal responsibility, economic liberty, and the owning of property are paramount. Fast-forward thirteen or so years, and as evidenced by the huge fortunes in web 2.0, the post-2011 housing market boom, and a perpetually rising stock market (a bull market that’s in its 7th year and counting), it’s safe to say the society envisioned by Bush has not only been realized, it’s thriving. Foreigners are flocking in droves to America to buy homes in the most expensive of neighborhoods, while their kids attend the most prestigious of schools and institutions and work at the fastest-growing and most envied of tech companies, Google and Facebook, to name a few. Others are making huge fortunes–seemingly overnight–with apps; an example, being What’s App, acquired in 2014 by Facebook for a jaw-dropping $18 billion dollars (or to put it anther way, $150 million/per employee…yes, that is not a typo). And then Oculus, another get-rich-quick tech story, which crowdfunded its eventual acquisition by Facebook in 2015 for billions (the crowdfunders, however, made nothing, prompting howls of indignation online). So, yes, as these examples (and others) demonstrate, ‘ownership’ is alive and well (for some at least), as well to some extent, the meritocracy.

However, ownership and economic success has been very unequal: since 2009, especially, outside of the information and consumer technology sector, inflation-adjusted wages have mostly been stagnant. The labor force participation rate is at multi-decade lows. Manufacturing jobs pay fast-food wages. The greatest job growth since 2009 has been in the low-paying service sector and at the very top (not the middle). 95% of income gains since 2009 went to the top 1%. And since 2009, most stock market gains have gone to the top 10%. And nearly 7 in 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Even if some of these figure are an exaggeration and or taken out of their proper context, it’s safe to say ‘capital’ has done very well–but labor–not so well. Marx is probably rolling in his grave as to how ‘capital’ has triumphed so much over labor.

So while we have the ‘meritocracy’ (especially in Silicon Valley) and the ‘ownership society’, they are under the umbrella of what I call the ‘earnership society’. Although merit and ‘earnership’ are related, they are not interchangeable. Merit, in and of itself, does not lead to material success and ownership; rather, you have to ‘earn’ it, such as through ‘sucking up’ and sycophancy at work, by constantly having to ‘prove‘ oneself, seniority, or just random luck. By ‘earnership’ what I also mean is the end of entitlement–in post-2008 society, especially, no one is ‘entitled’ to anything. No one is entitled to job security–long gone are the days of lifetime employment and a predictable retirement age. As the links above show, the labor market is becoming increasingly competitive and difficult, with the number of job applicants vastly exceeding the number of spots available, even for the most mundane and low-status of jobs. No one is entitled to affordable healthcare and education. [2] No one is entitled to having any intrinsic value– success (as measured by intellectualism and material wealth) and self-worth are becoming increasingly intertwined [1]. The so-called ‘white male privilege’ that the left insists exists–if you look at the statistics of how men and boys are disproportionally homeless, disciplined and drugged at school, and are more likely than women to die by suicide–is more of a myth than reality.

Free markets produce technologies and products that enrich our lives, and it’s better for people to try to earn wealth than seek handouts–but perhaps earnership has gotten out of control, especially in a future society where automation and other economic and technological forces may render a percentage of the population permanently unemployable. [0]

[0] Some libertarian-types are warming up to the idea of a UBI to treat the possible problem of technological unemployment. But Fundamentally changing the economic system probably will not work and would probably have negative unintended consequences worse than the problem it is intended to solve. America already has a lot of entitlement spending, so it’s not like nothing is being done. Socialists/anarchists want actual ‘ownership of the means of production,’ but to some extend that is already happening with entitlement spending, which is paid for by taxes of those who produce, as well as corporate taxes.

[1] Religion, family, and community can fill those roles by endowing individuals with intrinsic worth, but ‘materialism’ (both in terms of positivism and the acquisition of material wealth) may have taken over. Wealth, achivement, and money can be quantified in an explicit, scientific sense; things such as heaven, god, and virtue cannot, so the latter may have been pushed to the periphery in our ‘age of reason’. Although religion may be the answer–it can also the problem, specifically, Protestantism and the concept of ‘original sin’ in which adherents have to ‘earn’ their salvation, which is related to the ‘Protestant work ethic’ as described by Max Weber. Perhaps America’s obsession with wealth, as the ‘New American Religion’, is a symptom of a ‘social sickness’. Catholicism, however, rejects original sin, and although humans may be tempted to sin, human beings bear no guilt for the sin of Adam.

[2] Social welfare may already be generous as evidenced by the surging growth of entitlement spending for services such has Medicaid, Medicare, and public education, but most Americans have a negative or near-zero ‘net worth’ due to expenses such as student loans and medical bills, as we all due to conspicuous consumption and ‘positional goods’ (explaining why most Americans are so poor is worthy of another article). This may be part of America’s transition to a post-scarcity society where everything is provided but no one (except for the ‘elite’ and a handful of others) ‘owns’ anything…everything is ‘on loan’ (some have likened it to ‘neofeudalism’). Immigration may be anther problem, due to ‘public goods’ being diluted. Milton Friedman remarked you cannot have both open borders and a welfare state. Perhaps a solution is needed that gives people a greater ‘stake’ in the success of the country (sort like a sovereign wealth fund, which some oil-producing nations have), but there are probably too many people and too much immigration for that to work.

Communism is ‘easy’ but wrong. Marxism thrived for nearly a century (and it’s still very popular on the ‘left’, along with the related ideologies socialism and anarchism) because of the allure of blaming others for one’s own problems, even though this ideology and economic system has empirically been shown to not work, compared to capitalism. Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell are right, but their ideologies are ‘hard’ because they require the individual to take full accountability for their actions and results.