Friday, October 16, 2009

Divisions, divisions, and widening gaps

"Today, the top one percent now takes in 16 percent of national income, up from eight percent in 1980. The top 20 percent receive over 50 percent of all income.”

This is a statistic which demonstrates well the predictable concentration, over time, of money to itself, to the already rich. Because poverty is horrible and being rich is wonderful, the tendency is for the rich to defend their positions, and get better and better at doing so as time goes on. They thus unwittingly guarantee that being poor becomes, in turn, ever more horrible, as the gap between them grows and grows. This further motivates the rich to consolidate their position, further widening the gap.

The pattern is a logical consequence of a system which has at its base the building blocks of Private Ownership and Scarcity. Both seem revered as unalterable facts of nature, the former as God Given Right, the latter as Necessary Incentive. Without scarcity no one would do anything except live; culture would wither and die. Without private property, no one would care about anything; all would fall into disarray.

But these are untested assumptions, aside from observing that history seems to confirm them. As a record of human progress, history can be seen as the tracing of a developmental journey powered by the fight over scarce resources, where highly ambitious and talented people go head to head for control of as much scarce stuff as possible. That there are upheavals, bloodshed and suffering is a regrettable side-effect of these endless struggles, but that is "how things are." It is nature writ large.

My corollary to this is “so far.” History repeats, but not like a broken record. The tune is always changing, albeit subtly, and often indiscernably, but it is changing. Is it unreasonable to think we might solve the core problems that give rise to poverty and war? Is ridding our culture of scarcity and private property beyond us? Or are they “natural” elements of life on Earth, like the Sun which warms and causes plants to grow, but also causes skin cancer and turns parts of the planet to arid desert?

There are of course incentives other than scarcity/money, status/victory, there is indeed progress not directly dependent upon money, itself dependent on scarcity and ownership. There are biological, geological, meteorological developments, and all have unknowable long-term outcomes; there is the development of ideas, philosophy, science, culture and technology that have their own unseeable consequences; in short change is always working at all systems that make up our life on Earth. To expect the pattern we discern in studying a written history but two to three millennia old, that study distorted by the shifting filter of changing paradigms we must look through, to expect history to carry on as before is to put too much faith in the well know dictum, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

If we go back far enough, we can suggest there was once no real perception of scarcity. Farming – that enormous transition from hunter-gathering – introduced the concept to human experience. It did not take money to motivate humans to take the decision to farm; there was no money, nor even the idea of it. The change took place for a whole host of reasons, one of which being, I am sure, the basic intelligence of homo sapiens sapiens, always extrapolating, imagining, tinkering some new way of doing things into existence; solving old problems, creating new ones.

Humans will always tinker and improve things, forever perceive problems and thereby create new ones by solving the old. This is the “incentive” which gave rise to private property and scarcity. It was not the other way around. How can it have been the other way around? How can scarcity and private property have given rise to incentive? How can it be that progress stops if they are removed from culture? We created both, thereby generating their unforseen consequences (capitalism being but one). Where there are humans in an imperfect environment – imperfect, that is, for their ever changing desires – there will be incentive, money or not, private property or not, material scarcity or not.

Most probably, many will strongly disagree with the idea that humans created scarcity, and not without some justification. And yet the very notion of scarcity – which is just a word in our lexicon – has a particular history, depends on a perception of conditions on the ground, conditions we have shaped with our incremental and unconsciously directed changes to those conditions, each change part pro-action, part reaction. We “created” scarcity by deciding to deal with certain environmental challenges (such as finding food and shelter) by dividing land up into owned sections; i.e. the beginning of farms. Squabbles over a good resting spot, or a perfect bit of shade under a tree, or out of the rain, or the best meat from a kill, or the best mate, are not really examples of scarcity as we perceive it today. Scarcity as understood today is infinite desire versus finite resources. Infinite desire is impossible, finite resources recyclable. Finite can mean more than enough; there is a finite amount of air, and human desire for it as unending as humans, yet it is not scarce. There is more than enough. There is no greed for it either. Who lusts for more air than they need?

So, can we break the cycle history has revealed to us thus far? Can we culturally generate an attitude to all goods and services that we have towards air? Is that a reasonable design challenge? Is that something we should test? I think so. The Venus Project.

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