There is a lot of debate over the sources of growing inequality. The common answer from economists is that we are moving to a tech-generated winner take all economy.

Some economists, perhaps most famously, though by no means solely, Paul Krugman, have endorsed the idea that changing social norms about what executives can be payed are key. In this telling unions and their ability to enforce such norms may be an important player.

However, only mildly in jest I’d like to offer another explanation – the proliferation of norepinephrine based stimulants. My sense is that in the old days caffeine, nicotine and cocaine were the only widely used stimulants.

  • Caffeine has a wide variety of effects but the one most likely linked to increased productivity is a downstream dopamine effect.
  • Nicotine likewise is multifaceted but its stimulant effects seem to act primarily through a dopamine pathway.
  • Cocaine is unquestionably a dopamine reuptake inhibitor and a powerful one at that. If its potential for abuse wasn’t so high it would be the “super-drug”

However, what’s newer on the scene are norepinephrine based drugs. The street forms are speed, meth and the various derivatives. However, the slew of popular energy drinks also work this pathway, as does ephedra, as does ephedrine, as does pseudoephedrine (sudafed) – though not nearly as effectively.

Perhaps, most importantly Adderall and other ADD drugs work this pathway.

Unlike the dopamine drugs which target the reward system, the norepinephrine based drugs target the “fight or flight” response more directly. They AMP you up for lack of a better term and markedly increase focus.

The increase in work level from an norepinephrine hyped person is obvious. However, I might expect that the increase in productivity is many times greater. There seems to be increasing returns from having a single individual work on a single project over short periods of time. The communication delays between people and the memory loss when stretching projects is likely to be significant.

Causal empiricism tells me that the difference in the work effort produced by a “lazy” employee and a “motivated” employee is at absolute best a factor of 2 or 3. However, the increase in work product from a motivated employee could realistically be a factor of 20 or more.

This means there are enormous returns to being motivated and motivation can to some extent be simulated by norepinephrine based drugs.

Moreover, casual data collection also tells me that the use of such drugs in one form or another is massively widespread among high earners.

Am I arguing that Adderall is the ultimate cause of the increase in inequality – of course not.  However, I am interested in what extent it is a factor.

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