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"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..."

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."

Also:

"...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.




> I can't imagine how it would NOT be true.

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.


I honestly think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the individual value of rank-and-file work to society as a whole.

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.


Sure, it may be an educated guess, but we have to try.

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.


>> the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians

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.


Yes, I meant I can't imagine how that's not true in general, I know there are many specific contrary examples. Agree about the continuum, I think we're fortunate that most ways to make a living are on the net positive spectrum.


You are correct about the starting conditions. A company with no revenue will devote close to 100% of its resources to creating value for customers.

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.


"as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative"

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.


Soda pop seem like the best possible example of a business that has worked hard to build a moat around itself, to the detriment of its customers. Those companies work hard to make it hard for people to change their lifestyle. I would be surprised if even half of revenues went into the product itself.


On the first point: Behavioral economics has taught us that life is just a lot more complicated than that. You're referring to fairly simple econ 101 models of human behavior. There's also principal-agent problems. Maybe you create value for your bosses career prospects, but does that mean the stuff you're working on is creating value for the company? Or is just creating the perception of value? Executive tenures are very short - they may or may not be creating long-term value.

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.


In a perfect, free, fair, well-informed market economy all economic activity happens because it helps someone.

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.


By your logic I can make the world a better place by selling heroin to schoolchildren.




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