Work hard, accumulate skills, and become better at your normal job. Even if you're not writing open source software to help local governments in third world countries have free elections and fight malaria or donating 50% of your salary, you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for. In fact, that's how most of the world's wealth is created.
Not saying you shouldn't volunteer or donate your salary (I personally try to donate a decent chunk of my salary to givedirectly) but -- unless you're a nigerian hacker or malware developer or something -- just because you're getting paid or working on something that isn't an absolute necessity doesn't mean you aren't doing social good. Just something to think about.
It's comforting to think that just going to work and doing your job is actually contributing to something, but I just don't see how that can be generally true and definitely not universally true.
Even if we just measured contribution in purely capitalist terms, e.g. shareholder value, I don't think your claim is true. I think there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net. It's likely that a lot of employees in such companies are also destroying shareholder value. And this is just shareholder value - to say nothing of the value destroyed for other stakeholders.
Yes, it is possible to lead your life in such a way that even if you work very hard, you're still a net drain on humanity.
Sorry, but we have to think much harder about how we can create a net positive contribution.
We need to go beyond high school guidance counselor nostrums like "work hard! study hard!" and really struggle with the issue of how we can contribute.
I can't imagine how it would NOT be true. Say you buy something from the store. Presumably you're getting more value from it than it costs, if you weren't, you wouldn't buy it. Same with a company. If an employee provides more value than their salary, it makes sense to hire them. Otherwise it doesn't. Sure it's not perfect and wages are sticky and people skate by etc, but you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs. Maybe we have a different definition of "contributing to something."
"...there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net."
Maybe I'm misunderstanding something or this is a typo, but how could this be true? Shareholder value isn't an abstract concept like love or blue, it's the number of shares in a co*their price. The SP 500 is not negative.
You can make money while damaging society. Some (possible) examples are employees working at:
- a tobacco company
- company that supplies oppressive regimes with tools (software and military hardware) to stay in power
- company peddling some kind false medical treatment
- tax lawyer helping people find loopholes
- lobbyist working to increase regulatory capture in favor of their company
> you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs
Yes, I agree. But note that you can provide net value to your company, but detract from society as a whole. Even so, I'd say the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians, etc.
But there is a spectrum of how much you contribute ranging from way in the negative to way in the positive. There's also jobs that contribute nothing, but don't really hurt. Day Traders come to mind, they do high-frequency money sloshing, but don't really change anything.
It is easy to build something and say "this helped family X, or this powered Y homes", but there are so many externalities that are simply hidden. What if family X is part of Nation Z, who is about to start thermonuclear war W?
It's just a guessing game at that point. It seems that most people ignore it under the guise of "well, I do the good that I can", but it's false comfort, IMO.
It's better than the alternative, which is to assume that any job that pays (and thus is from a company that earns profit) has equal impact or externalities with all other companies.
A lack of clarity shouldn't be an excuse for not trying.
I agree with the rest of your comment, except for the above quote. The jobs you listed do not make up the majority. It's interesting that you only list trades and educated workers who earn above-average wages. A plumber can earn in one day of overcharged labour what it takes a worker in the service industry a week or longer. Pilots, engineers, lawyers, and politicians certainly do not belong as part of any definition of "majority".
The majority of jobs are in the service industry: fast food joints, real restaurants, retailers, etc. More than half of service industry jobs could vanish overnight, and consumers would get along just fine. These companies and jobs don't exist out of a necessity to serve society; they exist only because employees can be paid a tiny percentage of what they are worth (and in some cases being forced to live off food stamps), while the corporations rake in billions. These companies aim to make the easiest dollar possible, with no effort put into providing a service anyone actually needs. A job does not benefit society simply because a company manages to sustain itself by maximizing its own profits at the cost of taking advantage of employees.
If we could shut down every fast food joint (ex: McDonald's) and bottom-feeding retailers (ex: Walmart), and find positions for all those employees doing something more beneficial to society, that alone would make a huge difference. Those two companies are the tip of an enormous iceberg. These companies are not a "necessary evil", as if without them there would be no jobs. These corporations perpetuate the status quo to benefit themselves - society is an externality.
The capitalism we practice today will never improve upon this situation. The only incentive is for corporations to take the entire cake, offering services people think they want (they don't even really want them), rather than services people need. Things will never change without a major shift in the way we view economics. Perhaps if the next major plague takes out 50% of the population, we'll be forced to return to basics.
But as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative. Employees spend some of their time providing value to customers, and some of their time protecting the "moat" around the company.
The percentage varies quite a lot, but I think there are lots of places where it's quite high. And within a company you may be acting in a role that's almost 100% moat protection, even if your coworkers are providing value directly. Without you, other people at other companies would provide that value directly, you're just helping to ensure that it happens under your shareholders' brand.
It goes meta, because then you have companies whose product is just moat protection services for other companies.
And it goes meta in the other direction too, down to the individual employee level. When you have no experience, you devote 100% of your energy to providing value. Once you have credibility amongst your coworkers, it makes sense to start shifting some of your resources to maintaining that credibility. This can become pathological in the same way, with entire companies whose product helps employees at other companies appear more credible to their peers. E.g. PowerPoint.
I have a lot of nice blue chip stocks that don't do that. Companies that not only pay me dividends far greater than any savings account, but the base value of the stock increases as well. None of these companies are tech or speculative stocks. They are solid big corporations manufacturing real things that people buy to live. Maybe it's essential. Maybe it's artificial cheese and soda pop. But it's something regular people buy at the corner store or the equivalent. And there's lots of them. And this activity is essential in some way for them and nothing about the transaction is misrepresented or unreasonable.
On the second point: this could happen a variety of way. For example, shareholder value is destroyed when there are positive returns, but those returns are worse than what could be realized from equivalently risky positions. Another way of thinking about this is that the return on capital is less than the cost of capital, resulting in a net negative return. Another way this could happen is if shareholder returns follow a power law where only a handful of companies (e.g. Amazon) create outsized positive risk-adjusted returns whereas most companies generate negative returns or positive returns at an unnecessarily high risk level.
So, yeah, just because someone pays you doesn't imply you're actually doing something worthwhile.
This is kind of personal for me because I spent way too many years under the mistaken belief that just because I was getting paid I was doing something worthwhile. I would hope others avoid the mistake I made.
However: In that very same perfect system, the individual is also compensated for exactly 100% of the added value.
If they then spend it on personal consumption, they capture all the value of their work for personal benefit.
Society is improved by that exact amount only if you include that workers well-being in the calculation. Otherwise, it's exactly zero.
But the effective altruist community has already come up with a perfectly valid yet somewhat disappointing answer: "earn to give", i. e. try to make as much money as possible, then spend as much of it as possible on others' wellbeing.
Creating wealth vs transferring wealth.
I've tried to choose jobs that have some value add, some win/win angle. Alas, it hasn't been that easy.
I think your argument is just as reductive as the parent comment. If we're going to come up with a definition of 'value' that actually helps people make good decisions about how to spend their time, then its too simplistic to say 'all jobs create some value', but it's also too simplistic to say 'the average job is destroying value'.
I honestly think the reason most people don't try to do more good in the world is because it's just really hard and complicated to tell what's good/valuable and what's not.
So in short: use judgement. There's a lot of social good to be done in mundane jobs - but just because someone is willing to pay for something, doesn't mean it should be done.
In fact, by working for a typical VC-fueled tech company, you're probably helping a few very rich people extract rent more efficiently from a greater number of people. Your best bet for social impact is to do the exact opposite -- get involved in left politics, find ways to show solidarity with people who are being hurt by the Uber-ization and Airbnb-ization of the world, and use your tech skills to counter those effects.
> you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for
^^^ The thought process that lets HNers sleep at night.
Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.
Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.
But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, "Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen."
It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented. 
Yes, if you're creating better entertainment, but furniture, better toys, better gadgets, and people are willing to pay for them, you have made the world better.
But people are also willing to pay for weapons, for software that helps them to violate the privacy of others, for financial products that promise much and deliver little, for products that have addictive properties from sugar to gambling to everything else.
So, yes, just building things that other people want and getting rich in the process CAN be a good thing to do. But it is not AUTOMATICALLY a good thing to do.
If I earn a good salary but I buy nothing but fast food or the cheapest (factory farmed) meat, cheap clothes made in sweatshops, expensive gadgets from companies that exploit workers, own 3 gas guzzling cars, have 5 children, vote for politicians who enjoy waging war on on other countries, how am I making the world better?
Feel free to e-mail me if you ever want to talk about this further (address in profile).
Smith was a very thoughtful economist but people have a bad habit of cherry-picking his work to suit their own needs while ignoring the bits that would constrain them.
So I would be very surprised if compensation is directly tied to societal value.
By killing Netscape he set back the computer industry by a decade or more. If Gates hadn't used anti-competitive tactics, and he had just accepted, say, a 60% share for Windows, we would have reached where we are much quicker.
We benefit immensely from the presence today of multiple strong operating systems, Windows, Android, iOS, MacOS, Linux, and Chrome are all great offerings that force the other players to be better.
Windows languished during its monopoly decade, and we were all stuck with it. Why did it even take until iPhone 3G for there to be a widespread online software store? Because Microsoft profited from Office being the biggest, most profitable box on a shelf with a bunch of other boxes, and having that boxed software be the only place you could direct your attention on a PC. Steve Jobs could start an online software store because Apple was barely selling any software. They had nothing to lose. Gates had the world to lose.
Look at where peoples' attention goes today. That's what Netscape was promising. Now imagine if Gates had let that happen in 1995.
And Word and Excel were clones of existing software. Microsoft had about as much positive impact on the tech industry as Baidu is having now. Baidu probably has more users than Gates ever had.
2. I'm sure Microsoft's competitive tactics had something to do with it, but it also sounds like Netscape had it's own problems: https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Netscape-lose-ground-to-IE
Now it is much more nuanced than that, network based criminal activity has existed since the invention of the telegraph, but I would be willing to wager even on a per capita basis of Windows, Mac, UNIX, and 'other' users of the network, it stands out.
That said, those days are largely behind us (caveat Wannacry and poor update policies) and I consider properly patched operating systems from all of the major vendors to be credibly defended from exploitation. I reason to that point of view by using the price offered for 'zero days' as an indicator of the challenge of finding them.
It's really the IBM PC platform, IBM's willingness to sign a non-exclusive contract for the OS, and the success of the early clones (Compaq, AST, etc) making DOS so common that raised productivity so much. Whatever OS had shipped on them would have grabbed the market share DOS and Windows did.
which ones? forcing them or not forcing them?
1. Bundling them -- it should be trivial to turn off all non-security updates while still getting all security updates.
Counterpoint: There might be no unambiguous distinction between security update or non-security update.
2. Not having them. WannaCry was so bad because Microsoft stopped providing security updates for a system that's still widely used.
Counterpoint: It seems odd to insist Microsoft continue to provide updates to a fifteen-year-old system they end-of-lifed three years ago. Should we be able to force them to keep providing updates indefinitely by steadfastly refusing to upgrade?
Nevermind that by merely participating in a marketplace as a service provider or consumer you're providing a social benefit; that benefit's just not as easy to understand and doesn't get you any vanity points.
But if you're on a mission trip carrying a third world orphan in a microloan-built vaccination tent while on the phone with companies asking for food donations, you're just the most selfless person ever - clearly such charity is just an innate part of who you are.
Also, spending time on understanding the benefits coming from participation in a marketplace leads one to conclude that the market doesn't address all human needs promptly enough, and is not itself beyond creating many great problems.