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Luke Hutchison

TED Fellow,

TEDCRED 50+

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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 11 2013: Luke, you bring up a very valid point. However, I believe you are missing a very important fact, and that is some people truly enjoy working, as you call them, menial jobs. My father was a semi truck driver, and he said that he loved it. My uncle spends his days working cattle, and he loves what he is doing with his life. The summer before my Freshman year of college I was a roofer and concrete man on a crew, and I loved what I did. There are men I've worked with who have spent their lives in these "menial" jobs, and they love it. However, there are some that do not. The difference, though, is these men explain why they are doing what they are doing. Mostly, that they made mistakes in their decision making at a young age, and they were unable to escape the consequences. These men don't hold their wealthy fellow Americans responsible for their financial success. These men I've worked with in "menial" jobs in my opinion are noble, wise, and able to earn enough income for necessities.

    Another fact missed is the confusion of true poverty with that of relative poverty. Within the United states there is a significant amount of relative poverty. Relative to Bill Gates most of us are poor, and unable to afford all the amazing things he can. The beautiful thing about capitalism is that if you notice the wealthy begin by getting the "nice" things all to themselves. However, as time goes on those who are relatively poor to the wealthy begin getting the wealthiest bunch's "nice things". The point I am trying to make is that there will always be relative poverty, because it's human nature to compare how well off one is to another. However, we have the ability to use capitalism to minimize actual poverty, and to move on from there. This is such an exciting time to be alive. We have the chance to see the world completely shift, and it is human innovation through capitalism that got us to this point and human innovation through capitalism that will take us forward.
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      Mar 11 2013: Nicely said sir.
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      Mar 11 2013: I could not have said it better.
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      Mar 12 2013: Interesting. But I am not sure, particularly after reading your second para, if you are basing your judgement about 'niceness' of capitalism with a particular country in mind or globally. You taked about relative and true poverty. Here is a reality check.
      #At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
      #More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening.
      #The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.
      #According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.
      #Around 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. The two regions that account for the bulk of the deficit are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
      #If current trends continue, the Millennium Development Goals target of halving the proportion of underweight children will be missed by 30 million children, largely because of slow progress in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
      #Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
      #Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.

      Capitalism is followed almost all over the world. Looks like there is a lot of unfinished business.
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      Mar 12 2013: Well said but I would have to kindly disagree w/most of what you just said.

      it is great that your father and the other individuals you mentioned loved their jobs but you can't possibly credit capitalism for them loving their jobs. They have grown to love what they did because they had no choice but to stick to what they were doing (that is if I read your response right). It is almost like the case with Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill only to have it fall down again. For me that is a problem because it leaves no room for advancement or the freedom to try out other things. Once again it is great that you and the people you know enjoyed what you did for that is rare but I do not think its an argument for capitalism.

      I think you have to understand the harsh reality of capitalism. People are not perfect. Everyone is going to make mistakes with some being more damning than others. Although it may be an individual responsibility that person should have the chance and opportunity to change their life. You can't have that in capitalism. It is possible but if rags to riches stories were common they would not be as remarkable.

      What you said about relative poverty is somewhat true. In the U.S. what we call poverty will be middle class in other cultures. Someone like me who does not make that much of an income, is in the top 20% compared to the rest of the world. We ignore the fact that other people work for only 30cents a day.

      Capitalism in theory sounds nice. If you are referring to capitalism that Adam Smith proposed in the wealth of nations, I am with you but that is not the case in the real world. If you haven't noticed the happiest places to live are not capitalistic countries, it the N.European socialist countries. According to Gallup polls, the U.S. was ranked #11.

      All in all, if i had to paint a vision for the future, it would be modeled off the N.European counties as opposed to capitalistic ones!!!!
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      Mar 13 2013: Why should labourer's work be valued so poorly? I think every person has a right to safe work conditions, including a reasonable sleeping pattern in the case of truck drivers, and should have a reasonable share of the profits for their labour and expertise. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any labour. All labour is honourable.
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        Mar 13 2013: I'm not saying labor work is bad but that in a capitalist system it eventually leaves little room for advancement. I respect the fact that we have people who are willing to do the dirty and hard labor. I just don't think they can be truly represented in a capitalist system
      • Mar 13 2013: Oft times, I have been witness to the phenomenon, "oh he/she's just a janitor, a rock-crusher etc.," being uttered by children at play. The pervasive attitude that ones place in the work-a-day arena dictates their place within societal acceptance is, like it or not, part of the human-condition within any society. I only use my own experience in reflection, as I am guilty of the same misconceptions surrounding this issue that afflicts mankind to varying degrees. Nonetheless, it exists.
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          Mar 15 2013: I must say Robert, this is a social value that is extremely parochial. Its may be true in the U.S.A but in other parts of the globe the social perception of the value of a certain kind of labour varies tremendously. In France for example, many forms of manual labour have artisan status and there are other examples. In the U.S the janitor and the shoe salesman are virtual untouchables, but that is not the case here in New Zealand. I am a Lecturer in a Tertiery Institute, the woman who cleans my classroom and I are friends. If my daughter was to bring home her son as a boyfriend, I would not have a problem with it.

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