Utopia Now

From Paul Krugman in the NY TImes of Jun 14, 2013:
“So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income. ”

I’ve gone deeper than this article does, and so I don’t think Mr Krugman’s analysis goes nearly far enough.

Modern society simply has too many workers and not enough jobs. Automation has displaced, and will continue to displace ever more human workers. Machines are cheaper than people. A farmer with perhaps 2 or 3 helpers on a 500-acre farm can feed hundreds of people. A factory with a comparative few construction workers can turn out houses for a hundred…or two hundred. Military forces now are developing a camp-in-a-box. This includes not only housing for as much as a battalion but also necessary security to emplace it in a war zone. But the housing is the important part; a small efficient kitchen, climate control, shower, bedrooms and dining rooms. Cramped…but no homeless person would consider it so. And it could be adapted to house perhaps a hundred people. And wouldn’t have nearly the problems that stuffing a thousand or more people into a high rise causes in terms of crime and drugs and hopelessness.

Consider, for a moment, the Mediterranean nations. They’re not starving even though half their young people and one in five adults is jobless. The stores aren’t empty. Building supplies aren’t becoming unavailable. Food is being grown. Clothing is sewn. Cars are for sale. Roadways are maintained.

The fact is, developed economies can produce all that’s needed with perhaps 3/4 of their work force employed. It’s been that way for a long time. It’s only going to get worse.

Advertising convinces us to buy something new even when we don’t need it. That employs a few workers. Exports and tourism/travel employ a few more, which essentially keeps people of one nation employed while the money to pay them comes from another nation. It’s essentially exploitative and circular, hence a temporary solution to a developed economy’s ills.

Government employment that goes to develop internal infrastructure is probably the ultimate answer in the 21st Century. Build better road systems; certainly we know how. But usually we don’t build the best, we build the cheapest that’s practical for immediate needs. Build better power distribution systems, and distributed power rather than concentrated. Better communication systems. Better housing. Water distribution systems that collect excess fresh water (floods) and pipe it to the Great Lakes or reservoirs across the country. Better airports in places that aren’t served. More green parks and havens for wildlife, such that we accept a policy of living with nature. Such things as the ‘green skyscrapers’ that grow plant foodstuffs in cities and that won’t require transport to market and won’t be subject to disruption. Get the idea?

Paying for it is the problem. That’s going to take imagination, the kind of imagination that invented money in the first place. It’s quite likely that we’re going to need a system of exchange that either replaces money or changes how it’s generated and used.

But as a principle, if we conclude that no human being should go hungry or homeless or be unclothed in the 21st century, and accept that as a goal, we as a species can do it. Humans should have clean water and unpolluted air to breathe, and a place to walk with family unmolested by criminals. A place that provides security from crime. We can do that too.

Utopia is really, finally, within our grasp, but the idea of most of the wealth we create going to a select few and others starving while living under a cardboard box or being driven away by armed gangs and marauders from ancestral homelands…That’s not something we can sustain. The idea that some have nothing, no security, no medical care, no one to assist them in their old age, no education or hobby or socialization or arts or what have you, because they can’t afford it, while a single family disposes of 30% of the wealth of the richest nation on Earth…that’s unsustainable. The idea that a child born into poverty can never escape that poverty, will turn to drugs or criminal enterprise because there’s nothing else…that’s unsustainable.

And the idea that our political leadership continues to drift and generate ever more weapons and then to find a place to put them into the hands of soldiers, chessmen for the powerful to kill while playing at power games…that too is unsustainable.

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