Shooting rich people into space is more interesting

This post reminds me of an Uber passenger who, on reading the sign I have hanging for my passengers, wanted to assert the value of “innovation.” The final bullet point on my sign says,

No, this is absolutely NOT what I want to be doing with my Ph.D., but the job market has functions other than matching people with jobs, including ensuring that some are trapped in long-term unemployment or underemployment. Social inequality serves a purpose: Poverty and unemployment weaken workers’ bargaining positions and thus undermine wages and working conditions.

It is awfully interesting that my passenger perceived fair treatment for workers as incompatible with that “innovation.” And it is an ongoing source of cognitive dissonance for me that even with an alleged “labor shortage” that’s really about employer resentment at the very idea of having to pay anybody anything for anything,[2] age discrimination is rampant[3] and my job search continues to fail miserably. As a society, we are determined to discard human beings.

Instead, we have a space race among wealthy white men.[4] I usually defend space exploration, mainly because I support self-actualization, the idea that humans should be supported in developing themselves to their maximum capacities in whatever direction suits them, as long as they aren’t hurting others,[5] and because, frankly, I think we lose something important about being human when we constrain our curiosity for whatever reason.

But with wealthy white men, this development occurs at the direct expense of exploited workers’ self-actualization—they are hurting others—and, as Michael Hiltzik points out, this race more about developing vanity than it is about developing capability.[6] Which when I’m sitting here with Uber driving as the only job I can get, even with a Ph.D.,[7] leaves me wondering where my self-actualization comes in.

And it’s not just my self-actualization. In Pittsburgh, I find a lot of poor people and a lot of workers rely on Uber for transportation. Driving conditions here are difficult with roads that take a heavy toll on vehicles, making driving expensive. Racist policing in an area with a wide intersection of race and class makes it even more expensive. So a lot of folks here never even learn to drive.

And these people aren’t like me. They’ve never had a job that treated them well and seemingly don’t expect one. They haven’t been to college where self-actualization is a value. Traveling between poor neighborhoods, distracted by their smartphones, they seemingly manage never to see how rich people live and aspire merely to housing that’s barely better than what they’ve got now. I take some to and from jobs at Amazon “fulfillment centers” (warehouses to the rest of us):

Mr. [Jeff] Bezos did not want an entrenched work force, calling it “a march to mediocrity,” Mr. [David] Niekerk recalled, and saw low-skilled jobs as relatively short-term.[8]

And so it is:

The average Amazon warehouse worker leaves within just eight months – that’s an unmistakable sign that Amazon’s jobs are unpleasant, to put it kindly, and that many Amazon workers quickly realize they hate working there because of the stress, breakneck pace, constant monitoring and minimal rest breaks. Indeed, experts on the future of work often voice concern that Amazon’s vaunted algorithms and technologies treat Amazon’s warehouse workers like mindless, unfeeling robots – having them do the same thing hour after hour after hour.[9]

I wonder what that average is in Pittsburgh. It’s like workers here expect to be abused. Certainly, their potential has been constrained beyond what I can even imagine.

There are, at this point, multiple points to be made. First, my passenger who adamantly cheers “innovation” embeds an assumption that little if anything is lost when people like me are discarded. But as John Asimakopoulos noted, “[c]ountless potential discoveries, innovations, and advancements are never made because most faculty and intellectuals have been discarded, living as coffee baristas and wait staff versus the alternative of a homeless existence in a McDonaldized contingent academia.[10]

Second, that discourse assumes that my more ordinary passengers themselves are incapable of “innovation,” that they cannot contribute to society in a greater way than they do. I am reminded of friends I had in San Francisco when I lived in a residential hotel who worked in the residential hotel industry themselves, often as janitors, or as other low-end workers, but who, one night, took me along to a local bar where a few of them got on stage and played the Blues astonishingly well. These are the people who can’t quit their “day jobs.” They, too, are discarded in an assumption that anyone whom our society does not recognize as “worthy” to “innovate” or to “create” is in fact unworthy to do so and may be relegated to menial or robotic work.

Third, that discourse assumes that egregious social injustice is essential to “innovation,” that a massive class of exploited workers are needed to “free” “creators” to, well, shoot themselves off into space.

If we were ever on Jeff Bezos’ “march to mediocrity,” we have already long since arrived. We have a society in which that massive class of exploited, abused, and unemployed people are denied even a minimal standard of living, devalued as cannon fodder for our endless wars, and devalued through the active suppression of their potential. And even to the limited extent we recognize this mediocrity, even when this mediocrity stares us in the face,[11] we do nothing about it.

The rationalization for our system of social organization, both political and economic, is often that it is the “least bad” system. We cannot, we are told, do better.

But if we indeed value “innovation,” then the tweet with which I began this article[12] becomes relevant: Why are we not “innovating” better material conditions?

The obvious answer is that for those whom our society licenses to “innovate,” shooting themselves into space is more interesting.

  1. [1]Edward Ongweso, Jr., “It’s always the same song from Silicon Valley, . . . Twitter, February 4, 2022,
  2. [2]Eric Levitz, “5 Explanations for April’s Bad Jobs Report,” New York, May 7, 2021,; Eric Levitz, “Letting the Economy Create Jobs for Everyone Is (Sadly) Radical,” New York, June 4, 2021,; Heather Long, “It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America,” Washington Post, May 7, 2021,; Jon Schwarz, “The Business Class Has Been Fearmongering About Worker Shortages for Centuries,” Intercept, May 7, 2021,
  3. [3]Anneken Tappe and Allison Morrow, “Three key numbers that explain America’s labor shortage,” CNN, December 25, 2021,
  4. [4]Christian Davenport, “Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew are safely back from space, ushering in a new era,” Washington Post, July 11, 2021,; Franklin Foer, “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” Atlantic, November 2019,; Adam Gabbatt, “Bezos blasted for traveling to space while Amazon workers toil on planet Earth,” Guardian, July 20, 2021,; Tristan Greene, “Here’s the stupid reason Elon Musk wants to nuke Mars,” Next Web, August 16, 2019,; Michael Hiltzik, “The Bezos-Branson-Musk space race is a huge waste of money and scientifically useless,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2021,; Jasper Jolly and Gwyn Topham, “Richard Branson’s quest: to boldly go where no billionaire has gone before,” Guardian, July 10, 2021,; Rafi Letzter, “Why NASA’s Annoyed About Elon Musk’s Giant Rocket,” Live Science, October 5, 2019,; Samantha Masunaga and Andrew Mendez, “Jeff Bezos launches new era of space travel with Blue Origin ride,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2021,; Daniel Oberhaus, “How did Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin fail to dominate the billionaire space race?” Guardian, October 16, 2021,; Samantha Rolfe, “Elon Musk’s Starship may be more moral catastrophe than bold step in space exploration,” Science X, October 2, 2019,; Joey Roulette, “Space tourism rivalry gets extremely petty ahead of Branson’s spaceflight,” Verge, July 9, 2021,; Erik Shilling, “Richard Branson Didn’t Go To Space,” Jalopnik, July 12, 2021,; Shannon Stirone, “Mars Is a Hellhole,” Atlantic, February 26, 2021,; Shannon Stirone, “Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room,” Atlantic, July 7, 2021,; Derrick Bryson Taylor and Kenneth Chang, “Jeff Bezos Will Fly Aboard Blue Origin’s First Human Trip to Space,” New York Times, June 7, 2021,; Sam Wolfson, “Metaverse, Mars, meditation retreats: billionaires want to escape the world they ruined,” Guardian, October 29, 2021,
  5. [5]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  6. [6]Michael Hiltzik, “The Bezos-Branson-Musk space race is a huge waste of money and scientifically useless,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2021,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d.,; David Benfell, “About that alleged ‘labor shortage,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2021,
  8. [8]Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” New York Times, June 15, 2021,
  9. [9]Steven Greenhouse, “Amazon chews through the average worker in eight months. They need a union,” Guardian, February 4, 2022,
  10. [10]John Asimakopoulos, Acknowledgements in The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020), xiv.
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Nomadland glosses over that,” Guardian, March 23, 2021,; Jessa Crispin, “Welcome to dystopia: getting fired from your job as an Amazon worker by an app,” Guardian, July 5, 2021,; Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Tim De Chant, “Amazon is using algorithms with little human intervention to fire Flex workers,” Ars Technica, June 28, 2021,; Ryan Deto, “A Pittsburgh Burger King closes temporarily as workers apparently walk out,” Pittsburgh City Paper, July 26, 2021,; Timothy Egan, “The Corporate Daddy,” New York Times, June 19, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 19, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 30, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 14, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014,; Burgess Everett, “8 Democrats defect on $15 minimum wage hike,” Politico, March 5, 2021,; Danny Fortson, “Is Jeff Bezos’s Amazon now the ‘evil face of capitalism’?” Times, December 8, 2019,; Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, “Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better,” Atlantic, April 18, 2020,; Kate Gibson, “Minimum wage doesn’t cover the rent anywhere in the U.S.,” CBS News, June 14, 2018,; Nicole Goodkind, “Prisoners Are Fighting California’s Wildfires on the Front Lines, But Getting Little in Return,” Fortune, November 1, 2019,; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon,’” Guardian, November 28, 2014,; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014,; Steven Greenhouse, “Amazon chews through the average worker in eight months. They need a union,” Guardian, February 4, 2022,; Fiona Greig et al., “When unemployment insurance benefits are rolled back: Impacts on job finding and the recipients of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program,” J.P. Morgan Chase and Company Institute, July 2021,; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014,; Sebastian Herrera, “Federal Labor Official Recommends Alabama Amazon Workers Hold New Vote, Union Says,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2021,; Martina Hund-Mejean and Marcela Escobari, “Our employment system has failed low-wage workers. How can we rebuild?” Brookings, April 28, 2020,; Paul Jaskunas, “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile,” New York Times, February 14, 2015,; Sarah Jones, “Amazon Defeats Union Drive in Alabama,” New York, April 9, 2021,; Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” New York Times, June 15, 2021,; Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford, “Power and Peril: 5 Takeaways on Amazon’s Employment Machine,” New York Times, June 16, 2021,; Neel Kashkari, “Unemployment Isn’t What It Used to Be,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019,; Paul Kiernan, “Despite Tight Job Market, Labor Force’s Income Is Squeezed,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2019,; Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013,; Ken Klippenstein, “Documents Show Amazon Is Aware Drivers Pee in Bottles and Even Defecate En Route, Despite Company Denial,” Intercept, March 25, 2021,; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013,; Danielle Kurtzleben, “Read McDonald’s workers’ shocking harassment and discrimination complaints — and why they’re so important,” Vox, January 22, 2015,; Jenn Ladd, “‘This is a real job’: Philly’s restaurant workers dissect the labor shortage, and contemplate a different future,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 10, 2021,; Justin Lahart, “Jobs Are Hard to Fill, and Ideology Makes It Hard to Understand Why,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2021,; Alex Leary and Eliza Collins, “Unions Notch Win With House Passage of Bill Opposed by Uber, Lyft,” Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2021,; Colin Lecher, “How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity,’” Verge, April 25, 2019,; Eric Levitz, “Coronavirus Exposes the Virulence of American Conservatism,” New York, March 23, 2020,; Eric Levitz, “5 Explanations for April’s Bad Jobs Report,” New York, May 7, 2021,; Eric Levitz, “Letting the Economy Create Jobs for Everyone Is (Sadly) Radical,” New York, June 4, 2021,; Heather Long, “It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America,” Washington Post, May 7, 2021,; Heather Long, “‘The pay is absolute crap’: Child-care workers are quitting rapidly, a red flag for the economy,” Washington Post, September 19, 2021,; Heather Long, Alyssa Fowers, and Andrew Van Dam, “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings,” Washington Post, September 4, 2021,; Heather Long and Eli Rosenberg, “Why millions of job seekers aren’t getting hired in this hot job market,” Washington Post, November 8, 2021,; Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam, “States that cut unemployment early aren’t seeing a hiring boom, but who gets hired is changing,” Washington Post, July 27, 2021,; Gabriel Mac, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012,; Gene Marks, “Rude customers are a drag – but can we small business owners do more?” Guardian, July 25, 2021,; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? “I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014,; Patrick McGreevy and Suhauna Hussain, “California demands that Amazon comply with COVID-19 investigation,” Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2020,; Carlton Meyer, “America’s 20 Percent Unemployment Rate,” Truthout, April 10, 2009, copy in possession of author; Bryan Mena, “Unfilled Job Openings Outnumber Unemployed Americans Seeking Work,” Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2021,; Andrew Mollica and Sarah Chaney Cambon, “Where U.S. Workers Are Quitting Jobs at Record Rates,” Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2021,; Nathaniel Mott, “From Amazon warehouse workers to Google bus drivers, it’s tough working a non-tech job at a tech company,” Pando, October 9, 2014,; Casey Newton, “Bodies in Seats,” Verge, June 19, 2019,; Anna North, “The death of the job,” Vox, August 24, 2021,; Amara Omeokwe, “Biden Administration Moves to Tilt Pay and Power Toward Workers,” Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2021,; George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” Atlantic, June 2020,; Rachel Pannett, “Minimum-wage lessons for the U.S. from the other side of the world,” Washington Post, July 26, 2021,; Matt Petras, “In the continuing pandemic, businesses need workers, but are jobs meeting the needs of residents?” Public Source, August 12, 2021,; Jason Pohl, Ryan Sabalow, and Dale Kasler, “Medical employees say they’re getting COVID-19 on the job. Here’s why hospitals push back,” Sacramento Bee, April 2, 2020,; Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014,; Richard V. Reeves, “Capitalism is failing. People want a job with a decent wage – why is that so hard?” Brookings, April 29, 2019,; Dominick Reuter, “A worker in Florida applied to 60 entry-level jobs in September and got one interview,” Business Insider, October 19, 2021,; Reuters, “Amazon apology to Democrat includes admission drivers urinate in bottles,” Guardian, April 3, 2021,; Greg Rosalsky, “Is There Really A Truck Driver Shortage?” National Public Radio, May 25, 2021,; Eli Rosenberg, Abha Bhattarai, and Andrew Van Dam, “A record number of workers are quitting their jobs, empowered by new leverage,” Washington Post, October 12, 2021,; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020,; Michael Sainato, “‘I cry before work’: US essential workers burned out amid pandemic,” Guardian, September 23, 2020,; Michael Sainato, “Companies claim there’s a labor shortage. Their solution? Prisoners,” Guardian, July 20, 2021,; Cara Sapida, “Police respond after Pittsburgh’s South Side Burger King allegedly left empty by workers,” WPXI, July 26, 2021,; Jon Schwarz, “The Business Class Has Been Fearmongering About Worker Shortages for Centuries,” Intercept, May 7, 2021,; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Alina Selyukh, “Low Pay, No Benefits, Rude Customers: Restaurant Workers Quit At Record Rate,” National Public Radio, July 20, 2021,; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Mike Snider, “Work strikes at Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods show essential workers’ safety concerns,” USA Today, March 30, 2020,; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011,; Matt Stieb, “Amazon Called Out for Denying Workers Go to Bathroom in Bottles,” New York, March 25, 2021,; Emily Stewart, “Essential workers still lack basic safety protections on the job,” Vox, May 7, 2020,; Anneken Tappe, “America runs on bad jobs,” CNN, December 29, 2021,; Anneken Tappe, “A record number of Americans quit their jobs in 2021,” CNN, February 1, 2022,; Anneken Tappe and Allison Morrow, “Three key numbers that explain America’s labor shortage,” CNN, December 25, 2021,; Taylor Telford, “Income inequality in America is the highest it’s been since census started tracking it, data shows,” Washington Post, September 26, 2019,; Kanishk Tharoor, “The Exclusivity Economy,” review of The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business by Nelson D. 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  12. [12]Edward Ongweso, Jr., “It’s always the same song from Silicon Valley, . . . Twitter, February 4, 2022,

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