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Luke Hutchison

TED Fellow, Google

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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: Re: " What happens to civilization when nobody is willing to work in the factories and orchards, or build roads?"

    Poverty is when there are no factories, orchards, or roads.
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      Mar 16 2013: we have been there. 100000 years ago, we had none of these. we had, on the other hand, life standards unimaginably low, average lifetime of 20 years, child survival way below 50%, regular famines and constant violence.
    • Mar 16 2013: "we have been there. 100000 years ago, we had none of these. we had, on the other hand, life standards unimaginably low, average lifetime of 20 years, child survival way below 50%, regular famines and constant violence."

      Very subjective take. The people of that time lived in "normal conditions for the time", just as we do. The tangible, objective evidence is that humankind was able to survive the most incredible problems and conditions for the following 990,000 years before getting into Agriculture. maybe a 25 year lifespan was even an evolutionary advantage. (Things were clearly not so bad, cheer up old man!!) ;-)
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        Mar 16 2013: My point may not have been as clear as it could have been.
        We need to define poverty for the sake of the discussion. We think of poverty in America but here we do not experience the kinds of primitive conditions we see is other places in the world. We define the poor in America in terms of the hungry. We do not experience major starvation like in some place.
        • Mar 16 2013: Your point was really sound and very clear - poverty being the lack of a good environment and infrastructure. (Orchards come first with me, then internet; roads and factories are way down the list!) Hunger in some parts of the world is often due to the lack of political stability - people are amazingly good at planting orchards when they aren't getting shot at or otherwise being displaced by some more "wealthy" party.
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        Mar 16 2013: "for the time" is subjective. average lifespan being 20 years is objective.
        • Mar 16 2013: I'm very unsure about that approach to objectivity. Things have to be measured in context to be meaningful. the lack of Washing Machines in the Stone Age does not indicate poverty in my book. I could be convinced otherwise, but at the moment i think my point stands.

          At the time it was maybe a really good, joyful experience (as well as sometimes painful one) during that 20 years - all that stuff about life being nasty, brutish and short is a totally unfair (and subjective) projection backwards from 2013. Catching a fish with a sharp stick was probably a really good, happy moment in some caveman's life, and he probably went to sleep with a full belly dreaming of a nice comfortable future sometime in the far future in the 21st century. I doubt very very much that happiness was invented along with agriculture, but how can we measure that objectively?

          Just for fun, google "Happiness + Shakespeare" and "Sadness+Shakespeare" and the results score is c.8 million to 2 million in favour of happiness! But "Happiness + Nowadays" only returned 7 million! We really don't want to know what "Sadness + Nowadays" returned. No! don't ask!

          If you can fashion an axe out of flint the I'll be really impressed with your wealth of intelligence...but look down on your own ancestors from a comfortable technical platform I'll scorn you for your poverty of imagination! Well, they can't have been so bad we you came out of the end of the pipe, can they?

          I'm playing here - but seriously, we should question the idea that Poverty is a lack of anything - in sufficiently reduced circumstances even 1 loaf of bread will represent wealth. I think we should define it in psychological terms. Maybe Stone Age Man had less psychological poverty, for example. Lack of longevity, or poor Nutrition or even being at War with the next tribe is not the whole definition of poverty, though from where we sit we can surely agree they go a long way towards it
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        Mar 16 2013: it is a valid argument that you don't lack what you don't know about. i don't think that it is true, but i would accept it as a valid argument. however, there are many many joys in life that our ancient ancestors could very very well comprehend, but they lacked. like for example their children not dying. or always having enough food. or not suffering the cold. i don't think that anyone today would choose their life.

        i think you got it wrong. the definition of poverty should be absolute, just like the definition of being malnourished. it is entirely different that some government office declares an income as poverty line. it should not happen. the definition of happiness is not strictly dependent on poverty / wealth, though it has a very definite relation, especially in the low end.

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