The Creative Commons – Taking Back our Productivity

John Maynard Keynes, a highly quoted economist by conservatives and capitalist predicted in 1930 that our efficiency would rise so much that we would only work 15 hours a week. Keynes thought that by now his grandchildren would only work Monday and Tuesday and have a five day weekend. No spoiler here, we all know wages have not risen higher than inflation since the 1980’s. People are working longer hours for lower wages. There is now a massive and new class in America, the extremely hard-working poor. Is there a term that is more opposite the American dream than the phrase working-poor. This means they have the right effort, not “welfare queens”, hard working Americans trying to make ends meet and they are simply unable to on the wages of today. On top of that we see that after each recession more jobs are permanently displaced, meaning that the person who lost that job will never get it back and instead move to waiting tables and working retail- the sector where the majority of “new” jobs appear. Where did Keynes go wrong? How did he miss that we would make less money relative to cost of living? 

It all lies in productivity, Keynes knew that our productivity was increasing at a break-neck rate and assumed that at some point we wouldn’t have to spend all of our lives working. So what did he miss? Massive inequality, see keynes was right about our efficiency, except all the gains were taken by the ultra wealthy and not distributed among society. Hell, if we actually did divide up all the money in the US evenly, every person in the country would have $750,000/year. Pretty disgusting to think we could eliminate child poverty/hunger, homelessness(many of which are veterans), and so many other problems if it were only a priority. 

It is easy to see that Keynes is wrong in his final assumption, we are still working 5 days a week. However the basis for his hypothesis holds true, we have become more efficient/productive with every passing year. 

This graph from the economic policy institute at once redemes Keynes and shows his blind spot. It shows the flaw in the assumption that the “rising tide lifts all boats”. One thing Keynes could never see coming was the creation of the Creative Commons and the wealthy’s ability to own and profit from the general public’s data. 

So what are we talking about with the Creative Commons? It’s hard to say exactly but the businesses who profit from it that we are referring to here are businesses like Google, Uber, and AirBnB. Essentially we are seeing individuals own complex systems that only exist through the effort of all involved. Think about the fact that Google does not create any content that it displays on its search results, their value and product is presenting info they do not create to then study your behavior and sell that to businesses. Google is more complex which is why we believe it has made it so far without threat of anti-trust, lets look at Air BnB and Uber. These companies exploit the fact that there are individuals who need rides and individuals who have cars looking to make money. What is Uber really adding here? Yes the founders built the original software, but they aren’t riding or driving, they just built the apparatus first and get to permanently take a cut of all rides. 

Let’s take a step back before this hyper exploitation. Think about the business of making software, this is where Bill Gates made his billions. You make software at a high R&D cost, but after that there is virtually no variable cost, meaning no additional cost to sell a unit. This allowed Microsoft to retain its massive profit margins and rapidly accumulate wealth. Imagine all the homes and schools across the globe that sent Gates $50-75/year. Now zoom back in on Air BnB, they don’t even have software they are selling to end users, they created the only meeting hub where property owners can speak with renters. Once they own that hub they are like the local mafia, you want to do business here you have to permanently kick in to my coffers, even though you are providing all of the value. This would be like private citizen billionaires owning the roads and being able to put up tolls freely, could you imagine the outrage! 

This picture becomes even more grim as we see the horrors of social media, where corrupt billionaires(Mark Zuckerberg) own the virtual space where we interact with our community. What does Facebook really offer you? Other people! They use you to lure in your friends, once you’re all there they record your behavior and sell it to businesses. They don’t inherently do or add any value, they simply sell your friends to you, then sell access to likely consumers to businesses. They only know you’re a likely consumer, they monitor your internet usage and social media activity. 

While we are nowhere close to a solution today on how we can take back the creative commons, we must begin to wrestle with these concepts. What if Uber was non-profit and took 10% of what they currently do? What if postmates paid a living wage with benefits? How can we distribute the technological gains of the last 40 years to benefit society as a whole?