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It chops you into pieces

5 min read

I've long said that there are two sectors I will never work in: banking and the military.

The reason I wouldn't want to work on technology for the military is hopefully obvious: I don't want my work to contribute towards killing people, in any capacity. I haven't stood behind any modern war we've been involved in, and it's bad enough that my tax money is being used to support those efforts, as opposed to creating a strong social safety net and supporting important infrastructure like schools and public healthcare. Building software to kill people would make me a murderer, and I have no interest in being more complicit than I already am.

Banking might be less obvious. For one thing, many modern banks have actually invested in arms manufacturers and traders. But modern banks are part of a system that forces people into poverty and is fueling unprecedented inequality. We need banks, but I think very few today are ethical.

One effect of rising inequality is that, to protect yourself, you can find yourself softening your morals. Wouldn't it be nice to have one of those big company salaries?, it's easy to think. And who could blame you, when you live in a place where you can still struggle with a six figure salary? Some companies are paying half a million dollars a year to the right technical leaders. Some are paying much more than that. Wouldn't that make everything better? To not have to worry about money all the time? To feel successful?

Tying success into money is a trap, of course. Everyone's definition of success is different; mine is about the impact I make, and not the money I bring home. For others, it might be about getting to live in a certain kind of house, or having a particular family dynamic. But when you're rubbing shoulders with millionaires and billionaires when you walk down the street, not having that kind of wealth can get under your skin. What's wrong with you that you don't have a two million dollar home? That person you're friends with has the kind of comfortable lifestyle you could only dream of. Does the fact that you don't mean you're not good enough?

It's as if there are invisible billboards yelling at you to be rich. In fact, there literally are billboards on the freeway into San Francisco advertising the benefits of retiring early. And at the feet of those billboards are people who have been displaced from their homes because of personal tragedy or financial misfortune or simply not having happened to have been born into the right sort of family, who can't have the safety net or routes up that they desparately need. Around the corner from them, a place where you can get eggs on toast for $12, where people in designer hoodies discuss how to minimize their tax burden when they exercize their options.

Not being wealthy is not a value judgment at all - it just means you made different choices, with different priorities. And it's a pretty appalling way to think. Consider teachers, nurses, care workers: people at the core of society, who nothing could function without. They're not earning six figure sums and generous stock options. Perhaps they should be, but they simply don't. There's a whole cultural history of jobs that are associated with women being monetarily valued lower, but there's also this simple fact: a job that pays more money is not more valuable. We value goods in a marketplace in terms of what people are willing to pay for them, but that value is numeric and arbitrary, and doesn't relate to something or someone's meaningful value. A price tag is not social or human worth. The libertarian ideal of the invisible hand of the market, which is baked into the heart of modern American culture, is nothing more than patriarchal fascism.

Your values matter. Everyone has to do what they need to in order to survive, but nobody needs to suspend their moral compass in order to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed an economic machine that forces people onto the streets for non-compliance. It is not a failure of skills or worth to turn a position down because it does not fit your ethics or life goals. Conversely, it's not in any way glorious to take a high-value position with questionable ethics because the money and market prestige are meaningful. Success at capitalism doesn't automatically absolve anyone of moral responsibility, and doesn't mean that a person is better by any other metric. And it is not possible to become rich without someone else being adversely affected.

But those aren't the messages. Just as fashion magazines constantly broadcast the benefits of skinniness, and just as damagingly, the tech industry has upheld wealth as a virtue. It's not virtuous. Virtue would be a world where everyone has the opportunity and the outcome of living a comfortable life, where everyone is empowered with information, and nobody is effectively put to death because somebody else wants to be rich. Virtue is your core humanity, and not your market cap.