Thursday, February 18, 2021

Utopia for Realists

We have come very far as a civilization, across many measures of wealth and health. But despite our advances, there is a lot of neglect. What should we do differently so that our society is even better? In Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, Rutger Bregman seeks to answer this question.

I agree with Bregman that inequality is a problem. Even though the poor in developed countries are extremely wealthy by historical standards and relative to the rest of the world, they compare themselves to the rich, and that causes all sorts of issues, both for them and for everybody else! Bregman's remedy to this is a universal basic income, which I'll discuss more in another post since I'm still trying to do the work on it before having an opinion.

We also agree that there are a lot of jobs that advance the course of human welfare, but there are a ton that don't. Bregman would tax these "bullshit jobs" (like say, high-frequency trading) away. I shudder at this kind of bureaucracy, as most jobs are firmly somewhere in between these extremes; imagine the "bullshit jobs" that are created by regulatory bodies (and their accompanying lobbyists) that get to determine which jobs advance humankind and which should have special taxes, or maybe shouldn't exist at all. I prefer that such individual freedoms are not trampled on when the exercise is so subjective that it is unlikely to even be able to properly determine whether a job advances humankind or not.

Bregman also fears the robots. Yes, a lot of jobs have been automated out of existence, and he agrees that this has created even more jobs, but this might not always be the case. Bregman's solution of a mandated reduced work-week baffles me. We still have massive populations that are at subsistence levels, and people everywhere dying prematurely of diseases we have yet to solve, but we should put the brakes on and force people to work less? Imagine how much less we'd have today if we had forced yesterday's innovators to watch tv all day instead of building the mountains on which we currently stand? We still have mountains to build, and so I hate this idea.

I also take issue with his idea that "new jobs are concentrated mostly at the bottom of the pyramid - at supermarkets, fast-food chains...". If you just look at US employment data, it's very clear that it's the good jobs that are in demand. Wage growth rates are the highest for workers with higher education levels, which means employers are having trouble finding enough people in those groups compared to others. This is consistent with low unemployment rates for those with bachelor's degrees or higher (4.1% per the latest release, and a ridiculous 2.0% (!!) last year at this time (pre-pandemic)) vs 10.7% for those with less than a high school diploma. In other words there are jobs, but they are high-skilled jobs. There is wage growth for high-skilled jobs, not because employers are so generous, but because there aren't enough of such workers!

With free trade, goods and services are free to traverse borders and most of us are better off for it. But one thing borders do not allow freely across is people, so you can find ridiculous wage differences simply across artificial, human-imposed geographic borders. I agree with Bregman that society would be an overall winner if we relaxed the flow of people across borders as we have with goods and services. I liked ones of his lines on this so I'll quote it here:

"Perhaps in a century or so we'll look back on these boundaries the way we look back on slavery and apartheid today...If we want to make the world a better place, there's no getting around migration. Even just cracking the door would help."

I also really liked Bregman's hypothesis of why the poor appear to make such bad decisions (they don't save, they have bad habits like smoking/drinking, they eat unhealthy etc.): there's a scarcity of brain power we all have. When we have to think really short term, as the poor often have to do, we don't have the brain energy available to think long-term, as the rich are free to do. I suspect there is some validity to this, but in any event it's something to think about.

I was amazed at how similarly I see the world to Bregman, and yet that same view often resulted in very different conclusions about how to arrive at a better society going forward! The book gave me things to think about and made me think, and so I recommend it.

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