Bret W. Lester

The Financial-Economic Treadmill

Working in an office never felt quite right. Sure there were times when I’d lose myself in the work and temporarily forget about my surroundings. But a pervasive sense of unease would always reassert itself eventually. Like something just wasn’t right; a deeply intuitive—instinctual—feeling that things are off-course.

The ideal notion of a company is a bunch of people gathered together cooperating to achieve a common goal. And that’s the vibe upper management will espouse and expect of their subordinates. But if you slipped the average white collar office dweller some truth serum and asked them why they’re there the answer is rarely in alignment with the company’s stated mission. Usually if they’re being honest, they will tell you it’s merely a matter of survival. It’s always about money; to pay off some college loan, mortgage, rent, car payment, whatever. Failure to do so would hit them where it hurts—in their quality of life. The seemingly inexhaustible accumulation of homeless on California’s streets is a stark visual reminder of what can result from dropping out of the rat race.

So perhaps Skallas is right. It’s akin to slavery. Think about it. You have a bunch of otherwise strangers huddled together—people who’d have nothing to do with each other under normal circumstances—working together toward a common goal that few of them genuinely give a fuck or two about, overwhelmingly compelled by one thing, the threat of getting fired and therefore unable to maintain whatever lifestyle they’ve managed to build for themselves or worse, ending up like the California street campers. Slaves were compelled by the threat of violence and white collar workers are compelled by the the threat of homelessness.

The notion that one must get a job to survive is so ingrained in the culture. You’re not really supposed to question it. I used to think my intuitive allergy to the office environment was due to a personal flaw. So I dawned a good Protestant work ethic and soldiered on for years. Made good money, gained respect from my colleagues, got promoted. I was a good employee. But that vague feeling of being incarcerated was always below the surface. Why?

Look to nature and you’ll find that it’s all about survival. An animal’s entire existence is about survival. Procreation and survival. In this respect, you can draw some parallels between the white collar worker struggling to stay afloat in the rat race and an animal struggling on behalf of its species to survive in nature. Or can you?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Picture for a second an animal, perhaps a bluejay or a coyote, living its everyday existence in its natural habitat. Then envision a lanyard-wearing business-casual-attired person at a computer in a cubicle surrounded by many of the same. The former creates a picture one would be inclined to hang on their wall while the latter (unless, having missed the spirit of the exercise and taken some liberties with your subject) doesn't.

Saying that something is not “natural” can be interpreted in so many ways. Because what’s your definition of natural? But the latter of the above is not natural and on some level you know what I mean. I think in large part the explanation lies in what a lot of companies (employers of white collar labor) are actually “doing”. The reality is that many of them are not doing much of anything meaningful where I define “meaningful” as any activity performed with the goal of improving our quality of life or generally moving civilization forward. Many companies are like mental treadmills where the only end is financial-economic activity for the sake of more financial-economic activity (which is whole or in part what I think Jim Rutt refers to as “money-on-money returns”).

Although I’ve successfully avoided it for my entire career and therefore can’t attest to it personally, the ballooning financial sector must be one of if not the most flagrant abusers of human cognitive capital. With an endless infusion of money from the Fed they have an advantage over other industries in that they’re capable of luring more workers with bigger salaries all while doing very little meaningful work. But the end result is more economic activity so it’s chalked up as good thing. But is it?

My office allergy is by no means unique. An instinctual aversion to the unnatural office environment is endemic especially among men. I think I’ve explained a possible reason why, and why it shouldn’t be ignored. I think an overall increase of well being would result if more people were not forced by necessity into into the financial-economic treadmill and were instead allowed to follow their inclinations.

It appears the pandemic may have given us a bit of data to back this up. One study showed that, after lockdown, “…40% of underemployed men self-report[ed] as “happy”, above the pre-pandemic average of 36% […], with 15% describing themselves as “inspired” compared to 4% at the start of the year”. I bet the uptick in inspiration can be explained by a greater number of individuals finally getting a break from the rat race; a chance to follow their inclinations; to do something meaningful. I bet if given the opportunity these individuals would continue being inspired and go on to create stuff that moves society forward. In other words, if the unemployment benefits didn’t run out they probably wouldn’t choose to return to their meaningless jobs even if it meant a pay cut.

I didn’t really know where I was going with this post when I started but it has meandered its way into a reasonable explanation for the “office allergy” phenomenon and surprisingly, a fairly good argument in favor of universal basic income. UBI makes sense when you think of it as a type of unlimited unemployment insurance; something to cover the basic costs of survival while people figure out a meaningful way to function in society.

Instead of continuing to inflate the relatively useless financial sector, perhaps the Fed should stop hiding behind the stupid contradictory “moral hazard” excuse and consider something like UBI as a better orifice in which to insert their fiduciary firehose.


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