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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 18 2013: Alan,
    This is why I say that the tail is wagging the dog. Our economic system by means of bribery (let's call lobbying what it really is) of "our" representatives and their political parties has gained control of all other systems that we use by "owning" what is supposed to be "our" government. Nothing is going to "separate" them unless we, the people demand that "our" representatives actually represent us. What chance do you think of that happening? Yeah. Zip. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Not a hope in bloody hell.

    Back in the days when all societies were largely agricultural, and large portions of the people lived in rural areas, a bloody revolution did little lasting damage to the society's ability to survive. This is no longer so in our modern societies. We are mostly an urban population now and we depend heavily for our survival upon modern tech. It is not that we are too cowardly to revolt, it is that we CANNOT revolt without destroying the hundreds of years of technological development that means our survival in today's world.

    That means that real change must come about more slowly and thoughtfully; by evolution rather than revolution, if you will. And THAT means that we need to work hard to design the society that we want. Then we'll need to implement that social system in non-threatening ways so as to introduce it in a way that won't cause anyone to feel personally threatened.

    Yup. Very slow. Not an instant solution at all. We don't like that; we're accustomed to getting what we want, right now. No waiting or building for the future. Borrow the money and get it. Well, sir, this can't go that way. This has to be built over generations, maybe centuries. But, like it or not, this is what we MUST do if we are to survive as a species on this planet.

    The only question is, "Are we Man(kind) enough to do it?"
    • Mar 18 2013: I agree with your comment about our representatives that "....unless we, the people, demand that our representatives actually represent us".
      I also am not against slow changes. But may I suggest which is the place for change with the first priority. If you look at the recent approval ratings of the 3 branches of the federal government, sadly all three are dipping through the 50% boundaries. And the ratings on Congress are inching toward 15%. This atrocious figure cries out for a hard look for urgent need of some changes. It also indicates that this one "leg" of our government system of the 3 legs is just not functioning as our founding fathers expected. It also indicated that the voters, that's us, are extremely disappointed that these ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES ARE INDEED NOT ACTUALLY REPRESENTING US AT ALL.
      In summary, we must start to prepare the change, slowly or not, as soon as possible.
      • Mar 18 2013: Bart,
        It is indeed urgent to begin preparing for change. B U T ... until you know what you expect your social system to be responsible for, you can't very well design a system that will do you much good. That's what you have now. And that's one of the things to avoid in creating a new system.

        The approval ratings are what they are. I'd say that the average person understands completely that things aren't going right for himself and others, as things stand at the moment. Unfortunately Mr. Average Joe thinks a few "fixes" are all that's needed. He doesn't understand that it's waaay too late for band-aids.

        Yet, people are so conditioned to believe that this system is "the best of all possible systems" that it is a hard task to get many to even think about determining what the system should do, let alone designing one that will do that job and planning its implementation.

        I strongly suspect that our present set-up will collapse fully long before you can get people to see the need for change.

        This system is functioning almost exactly as the founding fathers expected. They set up a system that supports a republic. A Democracy is now favoured over a republic. That means the system can't properly support one thing when it was designed to support something else.

        It's time to take the founding fathers off the altar that people worship at. It's time to nail down what the people want a system to do and design, from scratch, one that will do as the people wish. Where it seems wise to adopt something put forward by the founding fathers - or any other people - then let that be done. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It will be necessary to take down the present system but we can keep the "bricks and boards" that are still sound and useable for use in the new building. It's the rot, and the potential for rot, that has to be eliminated. And you can bet that those who profit from that rot now are not going to be enthusiastic about any changes.
        • Mar 20 2013: Larry,
          I agree with you that the main thing to change is to get the rotten wood out of the system. But it seems obvious that at least the current Congress are consisted at least 50 or more who don't have the attitude of what's good for the whole country but instead they have the eyesight on what is good for their party affiliation, or occasionally for the sake of their own states in order to get reelected. Our founding fathers did not specify or restrict that there could be only two parties for the legislative branch. So referring to my earlier comments, I advocated that there should be a third party or independent candidates in order to break the iron-grip by only one of the two major parties in our legislative branch. But instead of a complete revamp of our existing Constitution, is it more practical to modify several important items in the current Constitution with a super-majority of consensus among all the voters. Of course, the first place the axe should fall would be, you guessed it, the composition of the Congress. There is an added advantage when the congress is cleaned up by including at least a 3rd or "independent" party, then even the Supreme Court would not be controlled by only one or the other party. even though the justices are supposed to be free of partisanship. Furthermore, the independents, or more additional parties, should be a group with sufficient number(s), so as they would not be serving as only a decorative figures, they would not have a substantive weight in the senate confirmation process of a supreme court justice (or in fact, it also involves the confirmation of the cabinet officers) , like the two current independent senators had to join the Democratic caucus instead of having their own.
          When there are constitutionally guaranteed congressional seats in the election, there will be substantially more candidates from independent or 3rd party coming out, because the current system overwhelmingly favors the 2 major parties
    • Mar 19 2013: Oh, Larry,
      I'm not well endowed with patience, I've lost it a couple of times elsewhere on this topic and the flash point has been the hubristic promotion of private property as an unalloyed good, which it most certainly is not. Your good hearted advance of the common sense principles of civic participation and careful and deliberate reformation has a calming effect on me. Which is as well as it is past my bedtime here.
      Goodnght.
      • Mar 19 2013: Alan,
        I wonder where 'here' is for you!

        I may not ease your mind any when I tell you that I too consider the ownership of private property to be a good thing. So much so that I would like to see everyone assured of owning their own property.

        But that doesn't mean that our whole doggone society ought to be "privately owned". I love the capitalist idea that we can, if we wish, engage in competition for wealth or other rewards. BUT.... it is idiotic for us to compete for bare survival when we can easily have a society - still capitalist - where the wealth created by that society ends up back in the society instead of in the pocket of one family and inherited down through succeeding generations that do nothing to earn it.

        Such great fortunes now hold over 90% of the wealth. And that just is plain ol' wrong. Wrong because that wealth was amassed by only a few people BUT it was created by a whole society. Wealth does not appear when there is no society to enable it to happen. Every person in a society makes some contribution to all the wealth of that society. Even if they produce nothing, the are consumers of goods and services. The money gained by the businesses that provide goods and services comes, in part, from those who only are able to consume but not produce.

        Too many people who call themselves "capitalists" seem to have forgotten that production is only one side of it. Production must be balanced by consumption in order for it to work. And if people are to play their role in the economic system, then they must have money to spend. That can only come from them receiving a fair and equitable share of the wealth created by the society.
        • Mar 19 2013: Oh, Now I'm really upset. ; -)

          The problem with the concept of Private Property is that it is prone to abuse by those with an ideology to peddle. What starts out as a healthy respect for other people and their physical and emotional security (which is here you seem to me to be) is then hyped up and twisted into an ideological tyranny by people who frankly don't seem to know any better. At that stage it becomes an instrument of psychological imprisonment - anyone who experiments with other system or style of thought is labelled as deviant and vilified.

          Nick Hanauer's "Banned" TED lecture brought out a whole load of comment on utube of this type and from that it appears to me that there is a lot of "mental illness" being caused in some of the "wealthier" nations by the lack of sensible social infrastructure and provision such as you suggest. I use quotes because we're getting into even more semantic problems here - there are different ways of measuring mental health and wealth. See Richard Wilkinson's TED for a more reasoned and fact-based position.

          "Here" is on a lilttle island in Europe where we spell realised with an s and we have to fit 60+ million of so people into a small space. Its not quite as crowded s Singapore but getting that way. Iv'e got to pop out and talk to some of them now,

          Regards,
          Alan
        • Mar 22 2013: What were the rules for Private Property when this country originally was founded? We did not discover what was already discovered. We used Locke's definition of "unfenced" land as being "available". We recognized the sovereignty of indigenous nations and broke every treaty. Western Lands were the only assets the federal gov't had (or just mint more money). Today they have mineral rights and airwaves, which belong to the people who empower the gov't. Eminent Domain is used to benefit private development. I am confused on the rules, so I do not know what is "within the rules". I am even confused on why people keep a piece of Earth upon dying, a burial plot that occupies real estate, vital resources in the form of a coffin, buried for no further use by future generations. We even rob the earth of our carbon, while polluting with embalmers.
          Philosophy has 1 goal: co-existence (peace). The Philosophy of Philosophy has 3 Principles: Conscious Conscience, Common Unity, and the Wisdom of Wisdom (the latter not applying to this conversation). Conscious (aware of) Conscience (my Soul). We are all different or unique, this makes us Common with all. In 2050, 9B people will be "fighting" for dwindling resources we have deemed as "necessities". It is Unity that is the necessity. I am not against private property, but we may have to rethink the definition of it (and redefine Corporation, too.) in order to pragmatically survive in coexistence. I am a Slave to Mankind therefor I Serve no Master. I am ruled not by Body Politic, but by Body Humanity. I am ruled by 7 Billion and counting.
          Philosopher David Suzuki studied a Tribe (name unknown to me) that made decisions by reflecting on the previous 7 generations and the affect on the 7 future generations to follow. Did we ever, or do we now, come close to matching this Philosophy? Will we need to think like this in regards to Property?
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        Mar 19 2013: I was OK until your comment implying that private property was... not good.
        So, I ask that if you are awake and refreshed that you could expend on that comment.
        And what is a sensible social infrastructure?
        Ideological tyranny also got me, one could only have a mind control ability to do that. Was it a metaphor I missed?
        I realise that England is geographically small area with many people sharing limited resources. Unlike America which is a vast land where you can go for hundreds of kilometers and not find enough people for a cricket match. Further, there are vast quantities of resources that Americans seem to waste. On the downside, American doesn't have an attractive royal family to appreciate, so I guess all is fair in it's own way.
        • Mar 19 2013: A sensible social infrastructure is what you get when you get a critical mass of ordinary people deciding to pool resources to build a set of ideas about how people should behave. The buy into this can be voluntary but is often more efficient to have compulsory participation. This is done in the open and has no particular psychosocial hazard.

          A stupid social infrastructure is when you get a group of billionaires sitting round in a room deciding how people should live, then constantly projecting that through advertising and media ownership over a period of several generations. If you are born into that environment you have no choice about buying in. Its only when you try to escape that you find out what's going on and the attendant hazards.

          People see a tendency in the US to veer unnaturally toward the second model.
        • Mar 19 2013: As for ideological tyranny, the clue is in the word ideology. An idea is the creative act, the temporary (or quite even permanent in some cases) construct of a free mind. An ideology is the promotion of an idea beyond its legitimate application or validity. This is happening in minds of people all over the world who understand the concept of Private Property but are too lazy, simple minded, brainwashed or otherwise unwilling to consider other ideas which, lets face, it are a damn sight closer to realities of life.

          I humbly suggest that you look at the output of Fox news, or any other news source of your choice - identify a subject, and count the number and type of adjectives used to describe different events. Is a bomber a "Freedom Fighter" or a Terrorist"? Do other reports on the same channel use similar terminology?

          A pattern will certainly emerge which reflect not any scientifically verifiable reality, or even fair comment. You ill, if you are objective, see a deliberate torrent of propaganda designed to instil fear of the alternative of whatever position the owners of the media support. "They" do it North Korea, the UK and, quite possibly, a Land of the Free somewhere near you.
        • Mar 20 2013: Mike,
          Sorry I missed your comment until now.

          Rest assured that you've read me wrong about private property. I am a STRONG advocate of private property. And that includes any amount of wealth that one can amass in his lifetime. You get it - it's yours. (Presuming you get it within the rules of your particular society.

          HOWEVER...... Once you die it isn't yours anymore. It came from your society - no individual standing entirely alone amasses wealth - and it must, for the sake of the society, return to the society.

          In order to keep all wealth from ending up in the hands of some damned government who 'administers' it on our behalf - communism - I want it to be passed down to the children of the society as a birthright inheritance. As PRIVATE property. When those children come of age and receive their birthright, it is theirs to do with as they please. If they want to use it to make more, they should be free to do that. If they prefer to study dance, or acting, or nuclear physics, or just piss it up against the wall, it's their choice.

          It is the responsibility of each generation to leave the world a better place for their children. Our present system only allows us to leave our own children better off in a shitty system. Our kids, if we can manage to leave them well off, will need to spend their lives protecting that wealth from predatory governments and the poverty stricken. Like a goldfish in a pool with sharks and barracuda.

          Let's take the idea of leaving a better WORLD a bit more seriously. Our own kids may not end up goldfish but they'll have a chance to do whatever they wish instead of being rent-a-slaves to predatory greed capitalism.

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