Thoughts about economics and work

Q: Why do your best?

A: My favourite quote ever is from the end credits song in the game Portal. The song is by Jonathan Coulton and is called ‘Still alive’. The lyrics say “… we do what we must, because we can, for the good of all of us, except the ones who are dead. …” The words “We do what we must because we can.” have always stuck with me.

I choose to understand it as meaning that if you have the talent, skill, and opportunity to make a contribution, then you have a moral obligation to do so.

Q: What if I’m good at lots of things?

A: If you must choose between tasks, tend to focus on the tasks that you can do better than those around you. If a task needs doing then it should be done by the person best suited to doing that task. If that person is doing a more important task (according to them - you don’t get to decide that) then it falls to the next best person, and so on.

Q: Capitalist or socialist?

A: I’m an efficientist. If the economy is working most efficiently then there is more to go around and less fighting over limited resources. I appreciate the elements of both capitalism and socialism that facilitate an efficient economy. For example, an efficient economy requires freedom of movement, equal access to education, a healthy workforce, etc., but it also requires that companies be able to employ the best people and get rid of those who do badly in their work (but not unfairly so).

Both sides get this very wrong from time to time. Unions are often focused too much on job security and not enough on positive work environments. That’s why we have rampant workplace discrimination based on any number of factors, when the only factor that should matter is job performance. Companies make the mistake of thinking that employees that work longer and working harder. They watch the clock, force overtime, and track employees’ time to the minute. Isn’t it more important that the actual work gets done? Why isn’t that tracked properly?

Call me a centrist if you like, but extreme capitalism and extreme socialism are equally terrible ideas. In extreme socialism you take away extrinsic motivation to perform. Why do you job if you know you’re getting the same amount of money regardless? This has been tried many times and always failed badly.

In extreme capitalism you can buy anything you like, including power, and throughout history we have seen that every time this happens the first thing the person with power does is stop others from being able to get back that power by placing blocks on the market. This means that whenever capitalism goes too far it destroys itself and you end up worse than before.

So how do you allow efficient and mostly free trade in goods and services, but not in power? That’s a question for you to think about.

Sean van der Merwe
Coordinator of UFS Statistical Consultation Unit