In a wealthy society, could you buy a good job?

by on April 14, 2007 at 7:36 am in Economics | Permalink

Let’s say that the world is so wealthy that most people don’t need to work.  Still they might be bored.  They might want to work.

What kinds of jobs could they buy?  Under one view, the resulting jobs would always feel phony.  The customers/laborers would never fear being fired.  They would never have to try very hard, or could never feel that the enterprise really mattered.  You might, for instance, buy a job as a blogger.

Under another view, markets in artificial jobs will be very advanced, a’ la Total Recall.  Maybe it will be only twenty hours a week, but your phony job will feel quite real.  It will feel better and more important than today’s jobs.  Theatre, drugs, and self-deception all can be directed toward this end.

If need be, we can create a separate job in making your phony, purchased job matter (that job surely would matter).  Contract to suffer twenty lashes if you screw up.  Or hire a third party to start sending money to ten poor kids in India.  If you are not a superior producer, the third party will stop sending the money.  He will also send you photos of those Indian children, now kicked out of the orphanage and with distended bellies.  Over time you will see them starve and die.  Of course to accept such terms is, since you will likely work hard, an ex ante act of altruism.

I don’t expect this exact outcome, but only because there are cheaper ways of buying jobs that seem like they matter.  I believe we will be able to buy very good and very fun jobs.  I do not fear that we will all become dissolute recipients of trust funds.

I am indebted to Megan McArdle for a lunch conversation on this topic.

DK April 14, 2007 at 8:23 am

Aren’t people already buying jobs on archaeology digging vacations, mission trips to Honduras, and non profit boards? I agree with you, but I think the age of buying jobs is already here.

And that’s not to mention the 18th century practice of buying apprenticeships for your kids (if poor) or military officerships (if rich).

Slocum April 14, 2007 at 9:22 am

I’m puzzled as to why is this such a puzzle — we already have lots of people who don’t have to work (retirees, teenagers, non-working spouses without young children at home). We know what these people do, so I don’t see the mystery. Why wouldn’t we expect these categories to grow? Kids who get their first paying job at a later and later age, people who retire (or semi-retire) earlier, and so on?

Rich Berger April 14, 2007 at 10:43 am

Tyler-

Just what do you do for a living? I think you have too much free time.

Joel B. April 14, 2007 at 11:27 am

I hate to say it Tyler, but this seems kind of like a question that already has an answer. To a large degree, isn’t that what politics is becoming? Now certainly not completely, but certainly in the State of California being wealthy goes a very long way toward individuals buying their “dream job.”

The Tsunami April 14, 2007 at 1:29 pm

i hope poverty is a problem of past by the time this era of buying jobs arrives. what a despicable world it would be otherwise.

Steven Schreiber April 14, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Isn’t this what entrepreneurship, Buffett-style takeovers and the like boil down to anyhow?

Robb April 14, 2007 at 2:24 pm

No, entrepreneurship and buyouts are about making money. After all, Buffett leaves current management in place to run the companies that he buys. He’s certainly not buying a job for himself when he buys a company; he’s buying the cash flows. As are Blackstone, KKR, and all the others. Of course thy tend to have a much heavier hand in the day-to-day business of running the companies than does Buffett.
As far as being able to buy a good job in the ultra-wealthy future, I think it’ll wind up looking a lot more like I imagine Los Angeles to be: lots of people trying to be “artists”. Lots of people painting really bad pictures, writing really bad books, and acting in really bad TV shows. These are the things that, for the most part, add no value to society but make the people doing them feel like they’re doing something meaningful. A very tiny percentage of the population can actually add value doing such activities. The rest of us are wasting space.
Also, I like to imagine that there will be several levels of professional athletes, ranging from the really good ones that we have today, all the way down to the fat old guys who buy a position on a team. *Side question: how much would a ticket to a Mid-Atlantic Seniors League baseball game cost? And if all of the players paid to be on the team, should it cost anything at all? And how much will a hotdog cost at THOSE games?

Gabriel Rossman April 14, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Tyler,
As you yourself have written, such a labor “market” already exists for the arts.

B.S. April 14, 2007 at 6:51 pm

I’m not sure whether I’m more jealous that Megan had lunch with Tyler, or that Tyler had lunch with Megan…

TJIC April 15, 2007 at 11:06 pm

Let’s say that the world is so wealthy that most people don’t need to work.

Er, how would that wealth be produced in the first place? Hello?

Automation.

Jake April 16, 2007 at 2:11 pm

You can already buy good jobs. The canonical example is probably “race car driver”, where drivers frequently have to contribute money to their team, either through bringing in sponsorship or directly. There are plenty of other jobs that you can “buy” by being rich enough to forego other much more gainful employment – non-profit boards, public interest lawyer, etc.

Robert Rounthwaite April 16, 2007 at 4:45 pm

It would be extremely easy to set up a system where jobs are paid for but don’t have the problem that “customers/laborers would never fear being fired.” Presumably the risk of being fired, like the risk of losing at a video game, would be part of what you had paid for, and would, indeed, be central to the brand. It’s like a poker tournament — you pay your money and you take your chance. If you perform well, you can tell people at parties that you are a professional whatever, working for the real deal. Don’t you think NBA players would do it for free if that was the only option? Assuming plenty of wealth, the status would be a draw.

Not that I find the idea plausable — this problem would only happen if there was some kind of ceiling on wealth, either by fiat or because there was somehow nothing worth buying beyond a certain point.

guest April 17, 2007 at 6:49 am

TJIC, automation is a form of capital investment. Capital does not produce wealth from scratch: it is a complement to other productive opportunities.

Timothy April 17, 2007 at 11:11 pm
AnnaS November 19, 2010 at 9:37 am

You have thought a very nice scenario, but you can’t apply that to capitalism… you need to change the mentality for that scenario to work and the wealthy people you talk about would do everything to ensure the well being of all man kind and not just their own life of leisure… Global Visas Complaints

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