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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 20 2013: There are really two questions being discussed, with many undefined or poorly defined terms. One question is whether capitalism is sustainable. The other question is whether poverty can be eradicated within a capitalistic society. If the question is purely whether capitalism is sustainable, the answer is yes. If the question on the author's mind is really about wiping out poverty under capitalism, there are many facets that need to be considered.

    Poverty is not only an economic condition, it is also a state of mind as well as a moniker applied to lower income or non earned income people. It is used to define a class of people in an economic condition without regard as to why they are in that condition. It is used to describe a condition in this country that is considered middle class in other places in the world.

    A different, yet corollary question is: Can poverty be eradicated? The answer to that question is a simple no. The reason that the answer to this question is so easy is that there are people, no matter what you do for them or what you give them, will never seek to work their way out of their situation. In fact, the more you give them, the more they will be willing to take without effort.

    Please don't mistake what I'm saying. I am NOT saying that people who are in poverty are lazy. What I am saying is that human nature is also a factor. People who do not have to work to get rewards have no incentive to work for more rewards. People who do work for fewer and fewer rewards will tend to not work as hard and begin to expect the same rewards that those who do not work get.

    The bottom line is that eradicating poverty has nothing to do with capitalism. If it did, then you would not see any poverty in communistic or socialistic societies. Yet, poverty is rampant under those governments. Far more so that under capitalism.
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      Mar 21 2013: Hi Marc,

      i wonder why your only answer to the question whether capitalism is sustainable is "yes" (with no details)? is it that obvious to you?

      Speaking of poverty, did you know that most poor people do work? You can't eradicate poverty by giving people money or any rewards. it's all about the political and social system which does not create opportunities for all people to have a decent life. this is why poverty has a lot to do with capitalism
      • Mar 22 2013: As to your first question, it is that obvious. When the first person on Earth decided that the benefits of his or her labor belonged to him or her and not the entire community, that was the birth of capitalism and it has flourished ever since. It is sustainable as long as the people who work are allowed to keep their rewards, or at least enough of their rewards to keep them happy.

        Do I know that poor people work? Of course I do. Do I believe that a capitalistic society provides fewer opportunities to advance one's own condition than any other form of social experiment? Absolutely not!

        America is rife with stories of people who have advanced themselves through education and perspiration. Education is achieved through learning, not teaching. Like the horse led to water who does not drink, a person can be taught many things, but without the desire to learn, the results are for naught. Perspiration is achieved through the willingness and desire to do better and be better. People who advance themselves have both these qualities and have spent their lives practicing both.

        This is not to say that everyone who has the desire to learn and put all their efforts into their toils will achieve monetary and social advancement, but the chances of doing so under capitalism are far better than under anything else.

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