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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 16 2013: Describing any work as 'menial' strikes me as pompous and presumptuous. I have not done janitorial work or built roads, but I have worked in factories doing highly repetitive assembly work. While ultimately I chose to do work that relies on my mind rather than my body, I derived some satisfaction from doing such 'menial' work from doing it the best I could. And I met others who were near retirement who didn't seem to feel as if they were being exploited. They were grateful for the benefits that having such jobs conferred, and they enjoyed the freedom that these jobs gave them. When they punched out, they were done - no budgets, HR issues, or waking up at 3am worried about their project budgets. Not everyone in this world is destined to be an engineer for a startup firm, or be an executive on wall street.

    I love the fact that there are people who are good at and enjoy doing pretty much every job there is, especially because I know most of those jobs are ones I would either be hopeless at, or would absolutely loathe, or both. But that doesn't mean I don't think those who are doing them don't enjoy their work. Sure some don't have the luxury of choosing, and will take whatever they can get. But the fact is, one can take pride is doing pretty much anything well. The real question is will they?

    Then it comes down to society to establish a way of first identifying those individuals who max out their abilities in doing whatever they are doing; and then compensating them accordingly.

    Life ain't fair. The contributions of some will be greater than the contributions of others due to all sorts of circumstances. And society will reward some more than others as a result. That's life. And it sounds an awful lot like the (admittedly imperfect, and in some cases horribly inequitable) system we now have.
    • Mar 16 2013: I like the healthy respect for "menial" labour shown in this post. Many such jobs require real qualities of steadfastness and intelligence. It squares nicely with the next comment that "poverty is when there are no Factories Orchards and Roads"

      As a way of organising Factories Orchards and Roads and providing Jobs, Capitalism is surely specifically designed to be UN-sustainable. What it is good at is wrecking those things, and replacing them with larger, more "efficient" units. E.F. Schumacher, ("Small is Beautiful") argues that this is not purely an economic imperative but a psychological one. (ie in whole system analysis, smaller units are often more economic, but factory owners like to the size of plants growing.)

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