Sunday, August 11, 2013

What good is an advantage over another?

I see it all the time. People seeking an advantage over others. Every competitor vying for the top spot, edging out the other guy, excluding others from the arena or, in some cases, destroying the competition so that they never return. It is folly to imagine that securing an advantage over others will make your life better, bring happiness or security. it will do the opposite.

I like to drive. I have a style and manner of driving that is fairly consistent. On the freeway, I drive so that I rarely have to use the brakes except for exiting, stop and go traffic, and the occasional slow driver who happens to change lanes without proper notice in front of me. For me, any use of the brakes on the freeway is wasted gas.

So I measure my inputs and distance between me and the next car. I let the friction working against the car to act as a natural brake. When approaching other cars in front of me, I try to estimate when to left off the gas so as to allow friction to slow the car down enough to match the speed of the car in front of me. This way I don't have to use the brakes to match the speed of the car ahead of me. In this manner, I made a set of brake pads last 60,000 miles.

I give trucks a wide berth and let them merge to be polite and to save fuel. I let people change lanes and often, they are off on their merry way. I move in ways that facilitate movement on the freeway because we share the road and there is plenty of room for all. I leave early to give plenty of time for a leisurely drive to my destination. I don't have to race to my destination.

I have had my share of speeding to get ahead of another guy. I know what it's like when someone gets ahead of me. With age, I began to realize that in a minute or two, I will have forgotten the other guy. Proving superiority to another guy on the freeway is about as useless as winning an argument with a drunk man. There is no point. But there is lost time. Time that could have been used to plan for better things.

In technology, I see one company pitting its resources against another to win. Microsoft is a great example. They have a "take no prisoners" philosophy. They structured their company so that even divisions within the company were competing against each other. They structured their review process so that someone was always pegged as the top guy and the bottom guy, with the bottom guy almost certainly dismissed. How are they doing now? Their stock has been going sideways for about ten years now. They have been overwhelmed by competitors because they do not play nice with others.

In politics I see one political faction pitting their resources against other factions, seeking an advantage over the other, with the intention of imposing its will upon the other. When one faction wins, the will of that faction will almost certainly be imposed upon others. Does this make anyone happier?

I don't think so. I've never seen it work. If a man works hard to build a business and finds a way to get employees to work for less money, fewer benefits, and that increases the company profits, does that make anyone happier? Anyone at all?

It is obvious that employees will be no happier. We would think that the employer would be happier. For a time, he may be happier, but only for a short time. His brain may be momentarily satisfied. But now, he has elicited resentments from his employees, so he seeks comfort from other employers to justify what he has done. He seeks comfort from the shareholders to approve what he has done. He insists that he is cutting back to save the jobs.

The painful reality is that his brain just wants more of something and money seems to provide temporary relief from that pain. Never mind that this executive has the force of law, contracts and the political support of his government to assert his advantage over others. That isn't enough. Whatever he's got, he wants more to settle the voice in his brain, to secure an advantage so that it will never be taken away.

This is the "wealth incumbency" that Jon Stewart talks about. People go into business to make their lives better. But for some business owners, it's "a battle", "a war", "a struggle" or some other euphemism to demonstrate a conflict. It is, to them, a contest of wills. If you see running a business as a contest of wills, you're probably not going to be happy running the business.

The Reagan Revolution, on its face, promised prosperity for all. The tax cuts to the wealthiest among us were held out to all as a carrot on a stick to encourage us to grow rich. But not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Not everyone has the desire or inclination to run a business. Most of us just want to work at a job we enjoy and take a middle class paycheck home to the family.

The tax cuts were not used to spread the prosperity around. They were used instead to build, secure and assert an advantage for the business owners over the rest of us. For example, the trend over the last 30 years has seen business investments move from labor to capital. This means that instead of paying employees to do the work, more automation is in use or, labor has been moved offshore. This resulted in exploding profits for the largest corporations. This is a tremendous advantage.

What will employers do with this advantage? They will use it to buy homes in gated communities, private security services, power generators for their homes, private schooling for their kids. They will seek distance from the middle class, both in economic and social terms to ensure that they no longer have to compete directly with the middle class or even have contact with them.

This isn't the culture imagined by the Founders of this country. They saw the problems with the aristocracy in England. They intended not to make the same mistake again, to create a level playing field for all. But their legacy has been subverted into yet another aristocracy.

It is not nice to build a ladder, climb it, and take it with you so that others cannot follow you. This is what the 1% have been doing for the last 30 years. They built an advantage over the 99% and then took the ladder away. Is anyone happy for this? I doubt it.
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