Your work is non-essential, according to coronavirus

Some of my observations about coronavirus and economy.

It’s striking how FEW people we need to sustain many. More than a billion people are in physical isolation, BUT utilities (electricity, water, internet) working perfectly. Really a marvel of innovation and automation that shows how well technology and infrastructure in most places has been built.

On the flipside, many people’s work is turning out to be NON-ESSENTIAL. That means, it is not *needed* for satisfying basic needs (food, shelter, and some form of psychological stimulus which is the internet). The interesting dynamics here is to know how long would the working class support the remote workers whose work is really not contributing to anything tangible. …on, the other hand, it does contribute since the remote workers are now the consumers and without consumers, we would not have producers.

There are different levels though, regarding choice (needs vs. wants). Utilities are not a question of choice (want), but that of NEED. I must have water. Somebody needs to do some work to get me that water. The guy doing that work is now thinking “why the hell i need to work for that guy when he’s getting paid (salary or government subsidy) for sitting at home. Let me stay at home as well.” This is the classical communist’s dilemma — people don’t have an incentive to make an effort if they can get the same pay-off without any effort.

The dilemma above is why this is now tricky. Government is needed to ensure an influx of money into the system. Otherwise, MOST people go out of work, because their work output is NON-ESSENTIAL. (Assuming here that the money influx is being used to keep people “working”, meaning they keep making nice and insightful LinkedIn posts like me here, while the real workers are running things.)

…one could also ask, with a good justification, how is this different from what was before? Perhaps in no way at all; coronavirus could be just revealing the fact that most people, no matter how busy or important they portray themselves as, contribute very little to the economy in terms of satisfying any basic need.

One more point is that of HISTORY: interestingly, we can see this pattern emerging since the dawn of civilization. What else was the birth of “clergy” class than the indirect consequence of production surplus? Because not all people were no longer needed to provide food and shelter, they MADE themselves useful by inventing stuff. And the people that did all the work accepted that, for whatever reason. The economy, and society in consequence, has always relied on NON-ESSENTIAL work, it seems.

The inspiration for this post comes from an encounter with a food delivery guy last week. He came to bring me food (=satisfy my basic need) and HE was apologetic for not finding the right place. I told him “no worries at all”, but in my mind I was thinking “dude, you’re saving me from hunger and YOU are apologizing. Can’t you see what’s going on here?”

Keywords: capitalism, Marxism, surplus, division of labor, needs vs. wants