Mariana continues her tirade against government capture by capitalist in general. It is interesting how her lessons for government applies perhaps overall to organisations and businesses just as well. That the point of the economy is not the profits but the purpose of the activities themselves. In short run, going for the profits may work but in longer run, it is knowing what problems you want to solve and working on them effectively that brings about the profits.
For governments, that is perhaps the strongest point. But when it comes to corporates, I still think that it is natural for the capitalists to hijack the agenda of the government, lobby for the focus on growth and highlight all of the social benefits of economic growth so much so that government keeps staring that way. The dominance of the economic agenda and how the goals of societies have become caught up with the principle of growth is perhaps something we should be discussing and considering as a society.
In Singapore, how we want to grow our society next needs to be considered. I think the Forward SG initiative was attempting that exercise through the idea of (re)formulating our social compact yet all too often, the logic of resolving the issues seem to boil down to certain initiative, formation of committees or some kind of organisation to look into things. Maybe it is not about adding components? What if it’s about discarding some of our existing things? Including our emphasis on academic merit?
We ought not lose heart but keep the conversation going.
I’ve been based out of Australia for almost three months now. The transition was smoother than I had expected and as a Singaporean who have studied abroad both in the US and UK, Australia is an easy environment to fit into.
Yet there is one cultural element in Australia that makes it so radically different from most of the other places I’ve been and lived in. It is the respect and remuneration that is given to heart and hand labour. Vocational skills, trade skills are properly valued. Plumbers, technicians, work men are well respected and rather well compensated. It is a place where I have seen the most female construction workers at work sites. The work environment for these people labouring with their hands are generally good.
Same goes for heart labour. The caregivers; the nurses, those social workers. They are given great deal of respect and these jobs are not looked down upon. It is markedly different from Singapore in that sense. Last year in Singapore, Lawrence Wong made a speech about valuing heart and hand labour more in Singapore. The government was concerned about pay gap and inequalities but as a culture, there is a lot to learn from Australia when it comes to respecting the trade skills.
One could argue the prices would rise; food in Singapore may no longer be cheap. And it might cost way more to get someone to deliver goods or to fix stuff around the house. Well, we do pay a lot more to our corporate workers, and we do pay a lot for tuition teachers – why should head labour necessarily earn more? The government could lead the way by setting higher standards when it comes to some of these trade work. They can also pay more for the services they procure in the heart and hand sectors.
Sometimes I wonder if being a good professional can be different from being a good employee. After all, what is being a good employee when you’re over-delivering or serving your customers better than your employer expects? Is that “stealing” from your company? How about when you are over-worked by trying to be a good employee – does that set a bad example as a professional?
There seem to be some tension between doing good work and being a good employee. And it has to do perhaps with the actual business culture and character of the firm that you’re in. Or it comes through from the self-interested capitalist identity of what a firm stands for. It is strange though, that the firms that would persist tend to be the ones who have been able to uphold their values and commit to them.
So all the short run success factors and metrics turn out to be pretty poor indicator of long-run success. Yet people feel like they have no choice but to stick to these short term metrics because people can’t patiently wait for results or their fruits.
Can people be talented in terms of their attitude and work ethic rather than in content? I think it is potentially harder to find good people who takes ownership in their work and do them well than so-called skilled people. Because our work and education system increasingly churn out lots of generalists in the market, education stops being a good system for sifting out the non-committed, the slackers and non-resilient.
We want the system to help everyone get a degree, get good jobs and get paid well but we forget that our market system continues to be built on the competitive premise of “may the best team win” – which is to say that at some space between the education system and our industries, something is going to snap.
To move away from creating broken systems or breaking one part of the system while trying to fix another part. You choose.
I wrote about finding talents; but what do you do after finding them? Do you leverage them? Do you beat them into conforming with the system and structures you’ve created? The use of talents is more important than finding them because you’re not going to keep them if you think that the transaction is just about remuneration in exchange for them applying their abilities to your problems.
Conditions need to be created to leverage on our talents better and that can come from remuneration but it also involves the structure of work, processes and the environment created by managers and prevailing cultures.
If you don’t have them, then finding talents might be a waste of time and resources.
The previous two posts are really just preparing me for this final one about returns on capital. We have talked about the aspirations of labour and that perhaps capital should be more like labour, where it is not just trying to get a return to multiply itself, but actually to look to more qualitative returns as well. But how would capital do that?
We see examples of this done using state capital. The government uses its capital to invest into public infrastructure, education or even public housing; all of these drives returns at broad economic and social levels. And this can generate more taxes in the future but the idea of the government isn’t to actually be able to generate more taxes in the future. Having more taxes is good because it can sustain the pace of these investments but the actual return is what the society reap in terms of better standards of living, greater knowledge in the people and so on.
Yet private capital holders are not exactly thinking this way. Private capital holders act as if most of what matters is that invested capital reaps more capital. And imagine if this was applied to the government, that it simply invests more so as to gain more taxes. It might end up investing in more coercive approaches to extracting more taxes. Or to just invest in areas that gives it more power.
If companies starts developing a vision of the future and of the world it wants to build, and define the returns on capital as what gains the world get in steps towards those vision, one could expect businesses to behave differently. In other words, we start investing the way we would want to be able to practice charity or giving effectively. We put our money where there can be most impact and action towards the future we want to see in the world. The returns come when we are able to step into the future that we had envision, not when the money flows back in. In most cases, if that future in our vision materialises, the monetary gains should come in to sustain that vision. If it doesn’t, then something is missing somewhere, and you either find another vision or path to invest into, or harness further resources needed to move towards that.
Labour is different from capital; the output of labour is meant to upkeep life, and in order to keep labour going, the returns are used to enrich labour in different ways. It could be investing to enhance skills and hence quality of labour; it could be food for sustenance and continued provision of labour; there is also enjoyment and entertainment, that labour needs to have meaningful life. The returns on labour is not to have more labour, nor to expand labour, but to live, to enrich life of labour.
Labour also has fixed lifespan; it needs to be utilised or it gets wasted. It cannot remain stationary or stagnant the way capital could. It does not hold its value when it is not being worked. And being worked, it accumulates greater value more quickly. Hence, labour can be chasing something more basic and yet more elusive than what capital chases.