Justin Rosenstein was largely unknown to the broader world, but he was a star in Silicon Valley. He had been instrumental in inventing several of its seminal technologies. A programming and product design phenom, he helped start Google Drive and was the co-inventor of Gmail chat. Then he moved to Facebook, where he was the co-inventor of Pages and the “like” button. More than a billion people were regularly using tools that Rosenstein crafted. He had been rewarded with stock said to be worth tens of millions of dollars. He wasn’t yet 30.
Rosenstein now faced a dilemma not uncommon among young entrepreneurs who have found early success: what to do with his money and his remaining decades on earth. He knew he wanted to improve the world, and he was guided by one of the reigning mantras of the age — that of the “win-win.” He decided that his method of bettering things would be to start a company, Asana, which sold work-collaboration software to companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Dropbox. He believed that Asana’s software could be his most forceful way of improving the human condition. “If we really could build a universal piece of software that could make everyone in the world who’s trying to do positive things 5 percent faster, right?—I guess we’ll also make terrorists 5 percent faster—but on the whole, we think that that’s going to be really, really net-positive.”
Rosenstein’s desire to improve people’s lives by making everyone a little more productive was noble. But one of the central economic challenges now facing his country is the remarkable stagnation in wages for half of Americans despite the remarkable growth in productivity. The increasingly extractive financial sector is in part responsible. That sector could be arranged in other ways, including tighter regulations on trading, higher taxes on financiers, stronger labor protections to protect workers from layoffs and pension raiding by private equity owners, and incentives favoring job-creating investment over mere speculation. Such measures could help to solve the underlying problem by preventing the capture of the gains from growing productivity. Absent such measures, an initiative like Rosenstein’s wouldn’t bring the change it promised. It would serve to further increase an abundant thing likely to be hoarded by elites (productivity), instead of a scarce thing that millions need more of (wages).