Our society has made a u-turn. Our democracy has left behind the vision of the Founding Fathers. Our obsession with the moral fibre and hard work of the individual has morphed subtly into a passion for making as much money as possible.
In today’s column, Inequality is a Choice, Nicholas Kristof reports that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.
Perhaps it is time to ask about the purpose of our work. Is it to make as much money as possible? Enough to feed our family? Or should there also be a non-financial component to our work? Should we, as in friendship and love, be thinking about how our work might benefit others?
Oh, I know. I am naive and an idealist. I have enough money to live on, so I have the luxury of having such thoughts. But I have never forgotten how, as a young man, I felt embarrassed and even shamed when a much-respected older friend asked, What is your exit strategy? That’s the only way you’ll make money out of this.
We were speaking of a venture I had started, and of course he was right. But his cynical realism hadn’t appeared overnight. A sickly youth, he had used his time bedridden with rheumatic fever to read the entire library at the British estate where he was put up. He remained an autodidact and became an inventor. He left us many innovations, but as a pilot, what is important to me is that in the late 1920’s he successfully flew the first inertial navigation system. The accelerometers were weights and springs. The integrators were vacuum tube circuits.
He never saw a penny from the invention. It was too soon, and nobody understood it. A generation later ICBM’s provided the motive power for the idea. There was no other way to steer the missiles.
He made a modest living by designing and building devices which were the spawn of more modest ideas. According to the doctors, he was living on borrowed time because his heart had been damaged by the rheumatic fever. He lived into his nineties. He did sell his company. I believe he had a good death.
I am not the first to point out that Wall Street, which began as a legitimate instrument for capital formation, now produces nothing that benefits society. Nor am I the first to ring alarms when CEO’s make four hundred times the average wage at their companies. But perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps this Wall Street bonus pool and these CEO salaries are the heroin which blunts the pain of uselessness. These rich folk, for the moment, are in a pleasant haze of denial. But truth settles on us all, sooner or later. Many of them will not have a good death.