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Luke Hutchison

TED Fellow,


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Is capitalism sustainable?

Bono stated in his TED2013 talk that the numbers show that we can eradicate all poverty worldwide by 2030. While I really hope that is true, it begs the question: Is capitalism sustainable? Is it possible to have a rich and middle class without a poor class? The sad reality of capitalism is that if there is an exponentially small number of people with exponentially large wealth, there has to be an exponentially long tail of much poorer people who are each contributing to that wealth. Not that we necessarily need an exponentially small number of people with exponentially large wealth, but would the world keep running without capitalistic incentives that increase the separation between rich and poor? Can we eradicate all poverty without the rich sharing their riches? What happens to civilization when nobody is willing to work in the factories and orchards, or build roads?

(Please don't take this question the wrong way! Personally I wish that nobody had to work menial jobs. I just don't understand how we can eradicate poverty when so many jobs will always translate into low-paid labor.)


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  • Mar 2 2013: Hi Luke, we met briefly in San Francisco, didn't we?

    As I understand it, you're projecting that rising incomes eliminate poverty, and without poverty, no one fills menial jobs. Correct?

    The obvious solution: robots! If we automate all menial tasks, the concern evaporates. I see no inherent obstacles to total automation, but maybe I'm missing something and it's impossible. Even so, I still see a way that the capitalist system would fill menial jobs when what we call 'poverty' is gone.

    Say it's 2030, and rising standards of living have eliminated all the things that we call poverty: hunger, unsanitary conditions, dirty drinking water, no healthcare, cockroach problems, stringy shirts with mustard stains etc. It's still an unequal, capitalist society, so there's still a "poor class", but they're wealthier than most people today (in the same way that poor Americans now have things Louis XIV would envy). That's a kind of poverty I'm ok with! You more-or-less said this in your comments below, but I think it bears repeating, because even though there will still be people who are "2030-poor", "2013-poverty" has still been eliminated in this scenario.

    SO, there is room for both the elimination of poverty (in the 2013 sense of the word) and the existence of a poor class (in the 2030 sense). People who are "2030-poor" will still have the incentive to work (if we can take history as any kind of guide). There are poor people now who live in climate-controlled rooms, are food secure and have cars etc., but still FEEL poor enough that it motivates them to work menial jobs. "Poor" is not an absolute thing; it's something we assess relative to those around us.
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      Mar 3 2013: I just like to give my support on your points. Automation (which is clearly viable) could solve so many problems in the world. The problem is that for companies to invest and setup a system it would be take too long to see a significant return, blinded by short term gain in my eyes. Personally, like many things, I believe it falls down to values, a new enterprise is a reflection on a persons personality. The sooner people realise that improvement from the bottom up will improve life for all then w'll be a step closer. Just means a shift in education and training towards other industries is needed.

      For example, an investment in renewable energy sources will allow a significant percentage contribution to the demand of the country; all that needs to be paid for is the maintenance. The decrease in energy costs for heating and lighting will increase disposable income for households as the dependency on oil based energy decreases, allowing them to invest in other areas.
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      Mar 3 2013: Skynet........just saying.......

      All kidding aside, automation would definitely do all the things you have mentioned. The only stumbling block I see is job availability would be cut because many of the jobs are being done by robots. However, that is me looking through my 2013 eyes. There could be new jobs developed through all this automation in 2030. We simply won't know until we get there. Robots 2030!

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