Disclaimer: I am not an expert on any of the topics I might have mentioned here, eg economics, possibly political systems. I make many assumptions. Do introduce nuances that I have missed out in the comments.

Let us consider two propositions.

1. The hierarchy of jobs is necessary for the functioning of society; policies to address income disparity are futile because of the intrinsic mindset underlying such a hierarchy.

Singapore works by a hierarchy.

This assumes that some jobs are of more value than others, and that a rational being will try to work his way up this hierarchy. Given also that we are proudly a meritocracy, we assume that people who are less skilled or capable are relegated to the “lesser” jobs, and the value of a job is determined by its salary, economic benefits being the primary indicator of how much society values your work, in relation to supply and demand. Ie, if what you’re doing is unique (not many people can do it) and needed (satisfies a practical application), you likely earn a high salary. Conversely, at the base of the pyramid are jobs which are not unique (their work is easily replicable, also a contributing factor to the low barriers of entry). We don’t consider that there are jobs which are not needed, because if so it is likely that market forces will push them out.

Why are we keeping these jobs which are easily replicable? Let us consider this from a purely practical perspective. If the work is easily replicable, it means that automatons can do it– but the fact remains that such technology hasn’t caught up yet, most likely in terms of cost. Essentially, we are employing human labour to perform repetitive tasks that give joy to nobody (because of their repetitive nature; we assume that humans are individualised and would like to add value to their work, instead of merely being functions to perform a task) because it is cheaper to do so, and as long as it remains this cheap, there is no incentive to invest in innovation that will bring such automatons to the masses. The hierarchy, and hence income disparity, must remain because it is necessary in order for society to function– we capitalise on human labour whom we deem to be lacking in ability to keep the gears turning; we imply that their lack of ability– in society’s eyes– doesn’t earn them the right to feel valued in a job that needs their unique strengths, but relegates them to the bottom of the pyramid, where they should be satisfied if they have enough money to maintain a minimal standard of living. We give them jobs! we say. Without such a hierarchy, where are these people going to feed themselves?

We observe that such jobs (eg bus drivers, construction workers, cleaners, domestic helpers) are normally taken by foreigners or seniors. In the first case, these foreigners have not had opportunities to attain abilities that society values, and come here primarily because the exchange rate makes their salaries seem more attractive in their home currencies. We capitalise on the exchange rate and their lack of opportunities to obtain such labour that locals disdain to partake. We say: such labour is repetitive and thankless, I have no onus to invest money in machines to do these jobs, I employ the less well-off to do it. This betrays our mindset that humans are tools that can be exploited, and that jobs are not something that should give us a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment, but exist to 1. on the individual level, to maintain a standard (rather than quality) of living, 2. to allow the machine of society to go on, ie society is bigger than any of us.

We are allowed to do this because our economic system is not a closed one. If it is closed, the lack of supply– locals who are unwilling to perform these tasks– should have driven the salaries of these jobs up. As it is, the flaw in the system is that there are countries which are less well-off in general which supply our labour, and such a divide in our economic prosperity is what enables our system to continue.

tl;dr: Most of that was for my benefit of reasoning my thoughts out. The main conclusion I arrive at is that the income disparity, whether on a national or international level, is necessary for our society to function; that because our system is founded upon my above-mentioned principles, it is ultimately fruitless to decrease the income disparity with social policies which are merely stop-gap measures and do not address intrinsic issues of whether people are tools or deserve an income not merely driven by flawed economic forces, as my next proposition will address.

2. Humans add value to their jobs

Let us consider an alternate society where repetitive jobs have all been taken care of by automatons, leaving jobs which allow for some space of unique contribution. Eg, domestic helpers are around because they give a personal touch to their handling of household matters– details are taken care of, service that renders them invaluable to the character of the house, relationships developed with employers such that they cannot be replaced exactly by another domestic helper. Re: Downton Abbey’s servants. This means that they do offer unique services that no other individual can replicate, hence supply is low, and their salaries should correspondingly go up, because we value their work.

In such a society the hierarchy would be more flattened; people will play to their strengths and undertake jobs that they can provide something unique in; there would be an unspoken minimal income in the sense that most people would have salaries that are around the same, since all their services are unique and one cannot put all of them on the same scale to rank them and give them different incomes accordingly.

To attain such a society, we must believe that jobs are not merely to feed us, and people are different and hence provide a different touch in their jobs, which assumes that they take pride in them. Then the issue of income disparity would be moot.

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4 comments

  1. Ben Leong · January 24, 2013

    Your understanding is somewhat flawed, but the full picture is too complicated for proffy to explain to you in a blog comment. Basic problem actually is that we have become so efficient that there’s not enough work to go around. Also, just got back from SF about 4 hours ago and really need to go to bed. Come and have lunch/coffee with me in a couple of weeks and I can explain this to you? 😛

    • Caleb Chao · January 24, 2013

      That’s the thing I first thought of! There is not enough valuable jobs to go around. And that situation is just getting worse as we automate more and more of our stuff.

      • melodily · January 24, 2013

        Isn’t value something we give? Is it not theoretically possible to make a job we deem “unvaluable” something worthwhile? Say, retail– I’ve walked into shops and seen shops that are very much a product of a lot of heart, and people who work there put in much effort in the layout, quality etc and find it interesting to know different customers, whereas over here it’s more a job that requires a lot of standing and boredom. What I was looking for when I was writing this was not that everything become automated (that was written somewhat ironically), but that we respect different jobs more.

    • melodily · January 24, 2013

      Is that possible, how can you conclusively determine that? Or is it that our needs are changing such that we don’t demand something that only other people can offer, but instead can settle for uniformity? Sure, I’m free after 2 on Weds and 4 on Thurs (:

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