Life is unfair

Seattle, home to two of the nation’s three richest men and a staggering array of high-tech millionaires, is Ground Zero for inequity. One economist, trying to put Bill Gates’ wealth into everyday terms, calculated that in 1986, when Microsoft went public, Gates was earning enough that it was not worth his time to spend the four seconds necessary to retrieve a dropped $5 bill. By 1998, it wasn’t worth it for Gates to pick up $10,000.

Let me put all this another way. For a quarter-century, you’ve worked like a donkey to boost productivity — and almost all the benefits have gone to your boss and his investors.

Why have we let this happen? Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels asked just this question and concluded that, basically, we’re dumb: 20 percent of those he polled were unaware of this trend entirely, 40 percent hadn’t thought much about it, and the rest either benefited or didn’t believe anything could be done.

We keep voting for politicians, funded by the upper crust, who have protected this growing inequality. And we do so at our peril. “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” the philosopher Plutarch said.

“A state divided into a small number of rich and a large number of poor will always develop a government manipulated by the rich to protect their property,” English commentator Harold Laski added in 1930.

Another reason we tolerate this inequity is because it was masked by the entry of women into the workforce. While individual pay has stagnated, many households went from one to two incomes. Well and good, but this also meant that female employment went from liberating choice to daunting obligation overnight, as two-income families bid up the price of housing. This is the biggest American social revolution since the Civil War, and work has found little solution in the conflict between career and motherhood.

WHICH BRINGS US to another reason for discontent: the $5,000 barbecue grill. In his book “Luxury Fever,” author Robert Frank argues that the significance of such absurdities is not that you will buy one but “that its presence makes buying a $1,000 unit seem almost frugal.”

Advertisers and the media relentlessly raise the bar of our material satisfaction. No matter what you’ve got, there’s something better. Automobile showrooms feature gleaming luxury cars not just out of hope of selling it to the odd rich customer, but because their staggering sticker prices make the other cars on the lot seem like bargains — even though their cost has shot up 75 percent in 20 years.

Our expectations have changed. The average new home today is 50 percent larger than that sold in the 70’s, and because household size is smaller, average square footage per American has doubled. Households have gone from one to two or more cars. Spending on luxury goods is climbing at four times the rate of overall spending.

Study after study has shown that people don’t judge their well-being by what they have, or need, but by what their neighbors have. We live in a culture driven by envy, and a hundred ads a day make dissatisfaction inescapable. We want you to be miserable. The economy depends on it.

SO HERE’S the game plan of the modern workplace. One tactic is to take work and life as it is, go through the stages of denial-bargaining-acceptance, and deal with it. This is the theme of the daily comic strip “Pluggers,” defined as “the 80 percent of humanity who unceremoniously keep plugging along, balancing work, play, and family life. Even if they’re struggling, they are optimistic.”

Another is to respond to inequity by doing as little as possible, like the coffee-cup-carrying Wally in the comic strip “Dilbert.” To paraphrase the old joke about communism, his bosses pretend to pay him, and he pretends to work.

A third way is to go into management, and when you think about it, the burgeoning bureaucracy that has developed since the 1980s makes perfect sense. If real income is static, then the only way to get ahead is by promotion. If machines are eliminating manufacturing jobs, one way to absorb surplus labor is to add bosses.

Any middle manager worth her salt will contrive to hire yet another middle manager, thus accomplishing two things: shifting her work onto her clone, and, by supervising the new sub-manager, justifying yet another pay raise. Management is the most efficient self-replicating program since DNA.

Top management doesn’t mind this, because middle managers are like the boys who painted Tom Sawyer’s fence: They work overtime for free. One hallmark of modern “brain work” is that, while allowing casual clothes and more flexible schedules, it is also never, ever, really over.

These trends are even more insidious because of what Pittsburgh academic Richard Florida calls in his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” or the people who think for a living: lawyers, teachers, engineers. In 1900 there were 250 artists, writers, musicians and actors per 100,000 Americans; now there are 900. In 1900 there were 55 scientists per 100,000, now there are 1,800. On average, creatives work 49-hour weeks, often scattering tasks into weekends, evenings and vacations.

People who can do creative tasks well are rare, however, and bosses are loathe to lose them. Moreover, creatives often lack the patience, political smarts and attention to detail that make a good manager and are disasters when promoted.

What’s a poor creative to do? Do what they do best, accept they’re not going to get rich doing it and console themselves that their supervisor, with different talents, is — by their lights — supposed to be a moron.

STATISTICALLY, AMERICANS are the most productive, richest and collectively unhappiest of the top six industrial nations, researchers contend. In an Internet essay called “Technology and the Work Ethic,” author James Leth argued that the central dilemma for a corporate employee is this: “To have a good life, you must earn a good salary. To earn a good salary, you can’t have a life.”

There are alternatives. Besides having more than its share of billionaires, Seattle is also the place where authors such as Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin, and Cecille Andrews have penned books pointing out that acceptance of a lower standard of living can mean more freedom and less stress with no real decline in the quality of life.

“The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes,” Gore Vidal remarked.

And studies of primitive bush people in the harsh Kalahari Desert show they need only spend a few hours a day at “work” to survive.

Ah, but it never seems simple. What about health benefits? Retirement? College tuition for the kids? Weddings that allegedly average $23,000 a pop? The health-club membership, the Hawaiian sun break, the Starbucks latte?

And for many of us, work isn’t just about money. It gives us purpose. It’s our social network. It provides structure. It instills pride.

So, do you ever get to rest? Maybe not. Remember 1999, at the height of the boom, when everyone dreamed about retiring early? Didn’t make sense, did it? Now the Social Security retirement age is scheduled to recede, 401Ks are moldering, pension plans are being gutted, workers are being fired before they can claim them, and we may be headed back to a time like 1950, when nearly half those over 65 still worked.

Oh, well. “The man who dies rich dies disgraced,” said Andrew Carnegie.

And just be glad you don’t have the angst of the newly rich who hire the services of California’s Money, Meaning and Choices Institute, set up to help them make sense of their guiltily affluent lives.

“Money used to be called the root of all evil,” says Institute director Stephen Golbart. “Now it’s the root of stress and confusion.”