Why Not Utopia?
by Mark Bittman
SOME quake in terror as we approach the Terminator scenario, in which
clever machines take over the world. After all, it isn’t sci-fi when
Stephen Hawking says things like, “The development of full artificial
intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
But before the robots replace us, we face the challenge of decreasing
real wages resulting, among other factors, from automation and
outsourcing, which will itself be automated before long. Inequality (you
don’t need more statistics on this, do you?) is the biggest social
challenge facing us. (Let’s call climate change, which has the potential
to be apocalyptic rather than just awful, a scientific challenge.) And
since wealthy people don’t spend nearly as high a percentage of their
incomes as poor people do, much wealth is sitting around not doing its job.
The result is that we’re looking at fewer jobs that pay the equivalent
of what an autoworker or a teacher made in the ’60s and ’70s. All but a
lucky few will either have the kind of service jobs that are now paying
around $9 an hour, or be worse off.
And if robots can think, be creative, teach themselves, beat humans at
chess and even Jeopardy, flip burgers, take care of your aging parent,
plant, tend and harvest lettuce, drive cars, deliver packages, build
iPhones and run warehouses — Amazon’s “Kiva” robots can carry 3,000
pounds, stock shelves and select and ship packages — it’s hard to
imagine what these jobs might be.
Welcome to the Brave New World, one featuring even fewer haves and more
have-nots than the current one. The winners and losers are the same, but
the polarity is even more extreme.
And although this is morally detestable, as Robert B. Reich, the former
secretary of labor and current professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, told me a couple of weeks ago, it’s also “a crass
economic issue. Because as you have more and more people who are getting
paid relatively little, the question in most economic heads is, where is
the aggregate demand going to come from?” If no one can buy, there’s
very little to sell; again, relative to their income, rich people don’t
buy much. (A hundred million people with $100 each spend a lot more than
one person with $10 billion.)
In other words, almost everyone agrees that income inequality stinks,
but what’s to stop it from getting worse? (Certainly not this week’s
proposed budget!) Defeatism will only guarantee defeat, but there are
short-term solutions that can come from both top and bottom. The
government’s role should be to stop corporate handouts, accept that
rising tides do not lift all boats and prioritize a decent life for all
citizens through a desperately needed enormous public works program, one
that would create at least some dignified and well-paying jobs.
Those unable to get those jobs — and, given that one in six Americans
qualifies for food stamps, it’s clear that there isn’t enough good work
to go around — can survive only if income distribution is addressed. One
way to do this is through the earned-income tax credit, a kind of
reverse income tax, similar to Milton Friedman’s proposal and therefore
acceptable to many Republicans.
But this assumes that people have work that pays a taxable income, and
that’s not a safe assumption. Better is the Guaranteed Basic Income,
which is not universally despised (it’s at least as old as Thomas Paine,
was endorsed by the economist Friedrich Hayek and was recently
considered by Switzerland), because it would simplify matters and help
keep the economy moving. How all of this would be financed is of course
a question; we could make the income tax look like it did 60 years ago,
when the top rate was 91 percent (and, by the way, the economy was just
fine), or we could institute a 100 percent tax on wealth over $1
billion, or ... well, there’s no dearth of ideas. The way to address
income distribution is to redistribute income.
A combination of public works and guaranteed welfare (not, by the way, a
dirty word) is the best top-down solution for the short term. But the
bottom-up situation has even more potential for a more equitable
economic system. What we’re seeing, on a small but growing scale, is a
world where energy and even power may become increasingly decentralized,
and communities are building more on local and regional levels, creating
organizations that benefit more of their members. Worker ownership —
which, for obvious reasons, combats income inequality directly — is
becoming more common, and these organizations are talking to one another
locally. Even something as simple as the farm-to-school movement means
that economies are becoming more local and communities are supporting
their own businesses.
The historian and economist Gar Alperovitz, who details these efforts in
his book “What Then Must We Do?” (a Tolstoy quote about, essentially,
inequality), recently said to me, “The political game is beginning to
resemble a checkerboard strategy: Some of the squares on the board are
clearly blocked, but others are open. The goal, of course, is to expand
the number of squares that are receptive to democratization efforts —
not just to restore economic health and sustainability in struggling
communities, but to demonstrate viable alternatives.”
None of this is short term, but neither are the robots taking over
tomorrow, and it’s safe to say that nearly all the humans on Earth 20
years from now would prefer an economic system that would guarantee a
decent life, whether their “rulers” are heartless robots or merely
gazillionaires. We just need to do short-term work with a long view, and
remember that few predicted the great changes of our time: the civil
rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring. Nineteen
years ago, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which
allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages blessed by
other states — and look what’s happened since.
Between the recession (which is only over if you were making real money
to begin with) and the crushing of our spirits by death-ray-wielding,
40-foot-high titanium monsters, perhaps there’s time to reimagine society.
It’s not as if this question hasn’t been well considered. There was Karl
Marx, whose analysis was largely correct but whose reputation was soiled
by the alternatives developed in his name. There was Edward Bellamy,
whose popular 1888 book “Looking Backward” anticipated a kind of
Internet and the ease with which things are made and delivered, and
painted a picture of cooperation instead of competition, describing in
sensible detail what was once called a socialist utopia. (We’d have to
pitch this differently, of course, as both those words are forbidden in
neoliberal society.) And there was even John Maynard Keynes, who
suggested that a 15-hour workweek would eventually be considered full-time.
And why not? We need equally big thinkers now, and dreamers, and we need
to be acting with them.
We have achieved a level of social equality barely imagined by
progressives 50 years ago, but economic equality has gotten much worse.
No one knows what the world will look like in 50 years, but if we resign
ourselves to dystopia — in which capital has full control, as it nearly
does now — we’ll surely have one.
Let’s resolve to build something better. In the long run we know that
we’ll make the transition from capitalism to some less destructive and
hopefully more just system. Why not begin that transition now? If there
is going to be a global market that will further enrich capitalists,
there must be guarantees that the rest of the population can at least
afford housing and food. And things can be even better than that: We’ll
have the robots work for us.