Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Accidental Subsistence

I got The Social Network through Netflix, watched it on Sunday. Interesting in that it seems to be a movie about a company (Facebook) instead of a movie about a character. There are several characters that the movie follows, but they seem to take peripheral importance to the development of the company. Scenes with the characters are generally truncated, dialogue limited, development minimal. Lots and lots of micro scenes used to show the developing plot, but not really to establish a relationship between the viewer and the character.

Most interesting to me was the idea that the company could go from a vague concept to a 25 billion dollar company in just a few years. 25 billion dollars is an incredible amount of money. It's large enough that the main character, Mark Zuckerberg, is encouraged to pay a settlement of 65 million dollars to people who really don't seem to have much cause to sue him. 65 million is considered negligible when compared to 25 billion.

Another way to look at it: 25 billion is almost twice as much money as it would take to completely rebuild Haiti. Remember Haiti? It's still fucked, nearly a year after the earthquake. Almost 10 million people squatting in tents, dying of starvation and cholera, and Mark Zuckerberg could cash out his Facebook stock (51% ownership of the 25 billion dollar company) and single-handedly save all those people without even needing to fund-raise a dime.

And it's not like Facebook, this monstrously valuable company, actually produces any vital product. It doesn't have any direct connection to survival, ie food water shelter. It probably won't even be around in another decade or so, fading away just like Friendster and Myspace and all the rest.

A while back Mother Jones magazine published a series of charts meant to visually illustrate the disparity of wealth in the United States. Here's one chart from that series:

So 1% of the population have 34.6 percent of all the money. (Actually, the chart uses data from 2007, and the situation has worsened since then.) When one guy (Zuckerberg) can make 12 billion dollars in five years by creating a company that doesn't even do anything crucial (ie related to survival), during a time in which the average American income is less than $35 thousand a year, it's easy to see how that disparity arises. And with every coming year, the number of people who have all the money shrinks, and the number or people who don't grows.

Here's another way to look at it: Our grandparents earned enough from their jobs to afford a house in a few years. Our parents earned enough to qualify for a 15 or 30 year mortgage, which meant that with a regular job they could afford a house in 15 to 30 years. For our generation, even with a regular job, it is no longer possible for many people to afford a house or mortgage at all in their lifetimes. You just can't earn enough, anymore. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg comes up with one unnecessary, soon-to-be-outdated idea, and he makes 25000 times more in five years than the average American will earn in a lifetime of work (assuming 30 years of earning around $35K a year).

Which means that there isn't really any point in trying to maintain a traditional career anymore.

Considering that, maybe this is a better strategy: work as little as possible, just enough to earn money to cover your basic (food/shelter) needs. If you're ever going to claw your way out of poverty, it'll be from coming up with that lucky idea (like Facebook was for Zuckerberg), or from winning the lotto or something. You can't work your way out of the poorhouse anymore (if you ever really could).

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