Amy Vail: ‘Let’s fuse two threads of your recent columns together: A silver lining to our rapid descent into plutocracy is that, when the machines take over in 2045, rich and poor alike will be made members of a permanent underclass. (See? I’m an optimist, too!)’
☞ There is always a bright side.
Actually, Amy’s insight gives me an excuse to address something else. Imagine a world of such technological progress that a single machine, owned by a single family – the Kochs, say – could produce essentially everything anyone needed.
It used to take 60% of the citizenry to grow our food; now, just 2% or so. It used to take 400 people to perform Mahler’s Second Symphony; now, just the touch of an iPod.
What if, sometime in the future, to do the basics – grow our food, generate our energy, produce our clothes and housing and transport – it took just one giant machine (with robot appendages and so on), generating its own limitless energy from the sun, oiling and repairing itself as needed, producing abundant fresh water via desalinization . . . the works.
Ridiculous, but here’s my point: Technology has the potential to provide us with ever more comfort and prosperity. But a key challenge is already, and may increasingly be, how to share that wealth. Should the Kochs (say), having come to own that machine through lawful* means, control 90% of the world’s wealth? While everyone else, desperate for employment (because what would really need doing that the machine couldn’t do cheaper?), and thus willing to work for peanuts, lived at subsistence?
*They bought the patent on the limitless energy piece, which provided the wealth to acquire everything else; and they ‘persuaded’ Congress to extend patent protection on limitless-energy devices to 500 years.
Again, ridiculous. Reductio ad absurdam (or maybe just absurdam?) to make the point.
But not ridiculous – or evil – is the need to find ways for the seven billion of us to get along and share the wealth, while still providing for loads of individual freedom and incentive. Hence, for example, a progressive income tax. An estate tax. A minimum wage. Limits on campaign contributions. Antitrust laws. Collective bargaining. A social safety net. All kinds of things that fall way short of communism* but that are needed and should be welcomed. Unless, that is, you believe that the Kochs (et al) deserve tens of billions, because they have created so much value for the world, and that billions of others deserve to suffer because they didn’t happen to be born in the right place to the right parents or with the right physical and mental attributes.
* ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs’ . . . a utopian system that so flies in the face of self-interested human nature as to lead to oppression and misery.
It’s a balance.
I would be the first to agree that such things as LBJ’s well-intentioned war on poverty went too far to be effective. Likewise, the 90% and 70% top tax brackets that prevailed for decades as we paid down our massive debt from World War II.
But the simple-minded notion that we should go back to the good old days of Nineteenth Century unregulated capitalism (with its 1890 life expectancy of 42.5 years for white males; 58.5 years for those who survived childhood) – well, that extreme clearly doesn’t work for 2011 either.
It’s fair to argue over where the balance should be at any given time.
I would argue that today’s Democrats are far closer to having it right than the Republicans (for example, under Clinton, and his tax rates, we had prosperity and a balanced budget).
And I would argue that as technology does race along – and fewer and fewer people are required to provide the essentials – the balance should naturally and gradually shift toward more redistribution, not less.
I assume you’ve seen the news. I’m proud of the Obama Administration for advancing equal rights – a bedrock of our union (‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’). Just as churches must absolutely be allowed to discriminate against certain people as an article of their faith, so government, in the issuance of civil licenses or in any other way, must not.
Reported a good year. I’m in it for the long term.
Quote of the Day
The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.~Sir John Eric Ericksen, Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, 1873
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