Here’s a fascinating profile on radical Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles, an empiricist who says his research doesn’t support the Chicago School efficient marketplace hypothesis. Instead, Bowles argues that the wealth inequality created by strict market economics creates inefficiencies because society has to devote so much effort to stopping the poor from expropriating the rich. He calls this “guard labor” and says that one in four Americans is employed to in the sector — labor that could otherwise be used to increase the nation’s wealth and progress.
The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.
The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time–perhaps starting their own businesses or helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China.
Guard labor supports what one might call the beat-down economy. Community Action’s Porter sees it all the time.
“We have based almost everything we have done on the idea that we always need a part of our workforce that is marginalized–that we can call this group into action at any time, pay them nothing and they will do anything that needs to be done,” she says.
More discouraging, perhaps, is the statistical fact that a person born into this workforce has little chance of rising beyond it.
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