The story of history that we are taught in school has a very simple narrative. Way back in the day, people struggled. They had to work long hours with only the simplest of tools. People were forced to work against their will. Life was miserable. And as time moved on, innovations happened. Life got easier. Machines did more work, so people did less. And people have become better and kinder, sharing their rights and privileges with the less fortunate. Now all the people have all the rights and everything is happy. And all the credit goes to Capitalism. Because earning money is the reason people innovate, and the reason that anyone can have a chance to succeed.
In case you couldn’t guess from the way I have presented that, I have to disagree with most of that narrative. Not that I’m going into each part of that now, but I would like a foil to work with (or against).
But there is a very important throughline to all of that history. Since the advent of agriculture, there have been the people who labor, and the people who benefit from that labor. Let me say that again. There have been people who did the work. And there have been different people who reaped the rewards of that work. Go as far back as you want, the people working the fields have never been the people showing off the latest fashions at court.
The specifics of the dichotomy certainly change. At some points, the farmers own the land, sometimes they are peasants tied to the land, other times, they are slaves, still other they are paid employees. But never are the people who produce the product, who actually plow the fields, forge the weapons, or manufacture the vehicles, ever in power. There are stories of people who came from that background getting out, but those are few and far between. There are times and places where the leaders let the workers think they have some power, but it’s just a minor role.
And the goals of these two groups are completely at odds. The powerful want to make as much money for themselves as possible, while the Laborers want to make as much money for themselves as possible. Because money is a finite resource, both cannot win. One must lose. And every time, it’s the people with the power. Sure there are brief moments when the workers gain the upper hand, say when the labor pool is small, or they have formed a union. But the powerful learn. Every time this happens, they learn from it how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
And so it goes. Sometimes a new technology is introduced, and there is some disruption to the system, but it balances out and keeps right on moving. Most of these disruptive technologies are labor saving devices. Great! That helps the people doing the labor, right? Not quite. It displaces some of the labor force. Some of the people who used to do the job, are replaced by machine. And suddenly have to find something else to do.
I will not deny that this has led to a massive diversification of types of labor, and career opportunities, which has been great. However, I am afraid that we are reaching a point where that trend will not continue.
As technology advances, we see a wider and wider variety of fields being influenced by labor saving devices. The reason is simple. The wealthy find that it is cheaper to implement technology than it is to pay people. For the same reason that slavery was chosen over a paid work force, and hypothetical employers would hire desperate immigrants rather than citizens, and minimum wage rarely increases. Jobs are being outsourced to the machines. And they will not come back.
And it’s not just manufacturing, cashiers and farming. It’s lawyers, doctors, and salespeople. It’s performers, artists, and bankers.
So what do we do about it? Should we raise the minimum wage? Certainly! People deserve to be able to support their family from their work. But will it help stop the robot takeover? No. It will probably hasten it. Just because the business can, and should pay, doesn’t mean they want to. Should we make laws limiting job replacing machines? Couldn’t hurt. Might stave off some of the worst effects until we can find a long term solution. But it won’t last. If the powerful want something, they will try over and over and over until they get it. It will eventually be overturned. Should we stop robotics research? No can do. The genie is out of the bottle. And it could be a great thing.
From here we have two choices. 1) We can let capitalism take it’s course. If we choose this, eventually there will be no work for people to do. I know some people say that there will be other jobs wet haven’t even thought of yet. And that might be true. But really, how long will those jobs last before themselves being replaced? Minimum Wage won’t help anyone if there are no jobs. This possibility is terrifying to me. If the powerful continue to show the type of blatant disregard for humanity that they have been demonstrating, the people who they used to rely on will be allowed to fall into a poverty so immense and unending that most of the population would literally starve to death or kill one another in a desperate bid for survival. I know that sounds extreme, and I seriously hope I am wrong and that their humanity would kick in before that happens. The thing that I thing might kick them into gear is actually their own greed. They only make money if people are buying what they are selling. It is actually in the best interests of the wealthy for the people to have spending money.
Or 2) We find an alternative way to support all people. One idea with growing support is a Universal Basic Income, or UBI. This is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone gets money just for existing. And if you work, you continue to receive the UBI. This means that people would have the opportunity to wait for a better job offer, or pursue their own passion without fear of failure. This would by necessity drive up pay, benefits, and working conditions. It would give people the spending money they need to allow the wealthy to continue to make money. But I could easily see this undone by an administration that opposes it, so even once passed, the fight would not be over. Just like with anything.
The other way to support people might be to make money superfluous. I know, this can sound crazy, but I have been bouncing these ideas around in my head for a long time. I would like to get them out of my head, and begin having discussions. Other people think of things I haven’t. But I will say that those I have discussed this with, have come up with problems they feel are insurmountable, that I see as only a problem from a perspective that already includes money. So I encourage you to keep an open mind.
We already have enough food for everyone on the planet. It just isn’t distributed in such a way to get it to everyone, because the money isn’t coming from everywhere equally. We could build the infrastructure to distribute it if we really wanted to.
There are enough vacant houses in the US to eliminate homelessness. I suspect that worldwide we could make that happen too, of it is not already true. What is stopping us? The fact that we expect money in exchange for shelter. It is the money getting in the way of solving this problem.
The last basic human need is water. This is the hardest to overcome. But humans are really smart. As a society we have made some amazing innovations. Many of the most transformational were motivated by heart not money. People who want money like to do things that have been proven to make money in the past. Bigger and better, sure, but not transformational. People who want to change the world work in transformational.
To get real innovation, you need motivation that comes from wanting to solve real problems. Capitalism doesn’t provide those motivations, being human does. And can you imagine how many new ways to solve a problem might be created if millions of people who currently have to spend their time working just to get by suddenly could spend their time doing the things they are driven to do? I’m not just talking about figuring out a solution to water scarcity. I’m talking about cures for cancer, solving climate change, and creating long term habitats on different planets for a start.
For a long of these big problems, capitalism not only doesn’t find a solution, but actively creates them. For instance, climate change. The biggest polluters know that they make their money by polluting. Capitalism has given them a vested interest in not solving the problem. And they work tirelessly to make sure that no one will get in the way of those short term gains. Blocking regulations, and actively convincing people that it’s all nonsense. You want a conspiracy? There’s one for you. A real one. And it’s not even very well hidden.
Even attempts to make Capitalist goals align with environmental goals don’t work out. Carbon Credits always seemed like a cop out solution to me, and organizations like Greenpeace are turning a critical eye to the system.
Another amazing thing that removing capitalism does for innovation is remove competition. Competition has long been heralded as the reason for innovation, but just like capitalism as a whole, I would argue that it causes, at best, incremental improvements. I would much prefer cooperation. If two people have the same goals about saving the world, and somehow manage to get hired at two different companies actually trying to make a difference, they will each find different solutions. More solutions are great, don’t get me wrong. But if there are two that are very similar, neither one will really be transformational. For instance, if two companies both have green concrete, and one allows for rainwater to soak into the soil, and the other doesn’t produce CO2 to manufacture, which one do you choose? But if those scientists worked together instead of competing, you could have one product that did both. But the engineer working on creating solar roads could work separately and then both things could work side by side. Or they could all work together as a team and create something that has all three properties.
Removing competition doesn’t only affect innovation. It also affects our personal lives. Racism is certainly fueled by hate. Sexism is fueled by a need to be better than someone else. But they, and other -isms are also fueled by competition and resentment. Throughout history any group that is new to an area is accused of taking jobs from those who were already there. It has happened, among others, to the Chinese, the Irish, and now Mexicans. Even women were treated with a different level of respect before entering the work force. Sexism certainly still existed, and kept them in the home, but when women chose to enter the sphere of the male workplace, that sexism changed form to something more vindictive. If we can limit the things that people need to compete for, we can make more progress towards ending hate.
So in short, we are at a crossroads. We have a choice to make: do we let the world continue on its path of separating haves and have nots? Or do we address those issues now while we still can? Do we let those in power dictate our path or do we take the reins and make sure that we have a place in the future? In the end, making sure we are all taken care of is in everyone’s best interest. Not taking action is a choice. Putting off the choice is allowing the problem to magnify in the meantime. We have seen what happened with Global Climate Change when we let it play out. It gets worse and more polarized. It gets harder to solve.