The uproar that erupted after Dolly Parton rewrote the lyrics of “9 to 5” for a Squarespace Super Bowl ad revealed a problem with the English language: a worker is no longer an activist.
As he sang at Entrepreneurs’ Celebration:
“Working from 5 to 9”
You Have Passion and a Vision
‘Cause it’s hustlin’ time
A new way of living’
will change your life
Do something that gives meaning to it…”
Some criticized it, saying it celebrated the “empty promise” of capitalism, such that those aiming to establish their own businesses were “workers” who needed to be protected from powerful corporations. Others understood that there is more nuance to our economy than ever before and, perhaps, Parton was on to something.
In fact, his updated lyrics represent a shift in primacy between capital and labor in the 40 years since he wrote the original. The idea went that moving forward is simply a “rich man’s game … to put money in his wallet.” Workers today have a different ability than when they first sang in 1980:
“Have a better life
And you think about it, don’t you?
it’s a rich man’s game
no matter what they call it,
and you live your life
Putin’s money in his wallet. “
There are abusive corporations, and we need a better social safety net so that people are not at the mercy of the principle of shareholder primacy, but this truth hides a more complex reality. The division between capital and labor increasingly resembles chronology, a return to language, and the deceptive simplicity of another time. Nevertheless, the media continues to perpetuate this false dichotomy; It is a wrong idea that labor and capital are two different and opposite forces in our economy. Perhaps it is human nature to do so.
Or maybe it just sells more newsletters or generates more clicks. The media of course thrives on conflict (real or fictional) and tries to group things in black and white alongside human nature, making our economy somehow composed of different actors who exist entirely on one side of capital/labour. The line makes for easy narratives.
The truth of this aspect of our economy, like most things, lies in gray areas. In the movement between specifics and groups. The American economy has always been uniquely entrepreneurial, from the discovery of the “new land” to the expansion of our country and eventually its industrialization. Entrepreneurs have taken the lead for a long time. Today around 6 crore people are entrepreneurs in some form or the other.
The vast majority reside on the front lines of the economy. They’re the freelancers or late-night business starters Parton sang about. They are free to side with earning money to make someone else’s dream come true, or sewing together a life for themselves by becoming their own boss. They are driving Ubers, delivering food for GrubHub and selling their crafts on Etsy. Never have more people had more access to expand their horizons than now to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. And they exist in a world of technology, where a single person at the kitchen table has the power to bring an innovation to market, just as giant corporations had four decades ago.
Victor Hwang, CEO of Right to Start and former vice president of entrepreneurship for the Kaufman Foundation, described the capital-versus-labour debate as “the biggest false narrative out there.” It’s an artificial narrative we’ve created: Employer vs. Employee; big vs small; Corporation vs worker. All are false narratives and contribute to the mistaken belief that the most important battle in our economy exists between these perceived opposition forces. “
But our economic and government funding debates are often framed by the media around the idea of capitalism versus socialism, corporations versus workers. There are some signs of a deliberately engineered division in that increasingly divisive conversation, such as on climate change or gun rights. Right-wing groups interested in deactivating the government figured out how to split the country into two groups and fight them.
Why don’t we have universal health care, parental leave, working infrastructure – all things that, not coincidentally, would spur entrepreneurship and small business? We have been too busy fighting about the evils of socialist takeover and capitalism.
The conflict thrives in part because we don’t have the right language to describe what’s happening now: “These debates should be viewed as part of a larger discussion,” Hwang said. “We should try to encourage highly innovative people and companies. What categories do we need to develop? How do you categorize one’s role in the economy?”
What we need as an economy is a system that empowers more people to be productive and entrepreneurs. Solving problems and looking for opportunities to make a difference in their communities. Instead, we have built a system that supports the incumbents; One who thrives on the status quo; Which stifles innovation and uses the strategy of segmentation to do so. It is a tension that stems from our neoliberal worldview that achieved near-consensus in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Beyond the mere argument that free markets and open trade make it easier and better to do business (which we generally agree with), it also means that the only thing important in our economy was keeping big companies big. (While, perhaps, allowing the occasional upstart – but only those that had the potential to grow rapidly and become large companies themselves). The value of small businesses operating in the middle of our economy was lost. We do not even measure their impact effectively.
Wanting to know how the “economy” is doing, we look no further than the fate of the 500 largest publicly traded companies (S&P 500) or the 30 large businesses that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average. No wonder people on main streets are scratching their heads as pundits cite the Dow’s continued growth as the economy is thriving when they can see millions of small businesses closing all around them.
In our book,the new builders“, we describe entrepreneurs as “builders.” According to the Online Dictionary of Etymology, builder is a word with Old English roots, meaning “to be, exist, grow.” In a century where change is the common language, Builders have the freedom and ultimately the value of their labor as a mechanism for the creation of capital.
We often forget that most of these builders — small business owners in America — create opportunities with the most limited resources. According to the Kaufman Foundation, 83% of businesses are formed without the aid of bank financing or venture capital. Yet small businesses are responsible for about 40% of US GDP and almost half the employment. Perhaps that is why David Smick, the publisher of International Economy, calls him the “Great Equalizer” in his book of the same name.
Technology has fundamentally changed the landscape of businesses of all sizes and has the potential to enable the resurgence of our small business economy. Instead of propagating a false narrative that individuals need to choose between being part of labor or capital economies, we should encourage liquidity between the two. The more capital ownership we encourage – through savings, investing in our own businesses, and by allowing more people to become investors of all kinds – the more we can create wealth and open economic systems for generations to come. run the activity.
A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of International Economy Magazine.