There was a shocking headline
in today’s Guardian newspaper: World’s
eight richest people have same wealth as poorest 50%
. Shocking, from
several points of view:
First of all,
reading further into the article, two years ago the sixty-four wealthiest
people in the world held that title. Last year the number has been reduced to
eight. Most fair-minded folks will feel such a statistic is beyond their
ability to comprehend such a fact. Others will decry the system that supports
such uneven distribution, while a third bunch will make a call for pitchforks
and barricades. The wretched and poor of the planet have no voice, so we are
unable to ask their opinion. They are, to a large extent, too concerned about
simply making it day-to-day without losing a child to starvation.

I make no claims against the fairness, comprehension, revolution or silent
deaths of tens of millions. Nor do I decry the motives of the wealthy. Many are
those I call the ‘accidentally rich,’ like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of
Facebook, or those who lucked in to early investment in industries as rare as a
lightning-strike. Others built businesses with dogged determination or a dream
in mind and the money came as a side issue. That might include Bill Gates,
Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg. They are not any of the eight evil men
and most are among our largest benefactors to charity.
My claim is that such trends are unsustainable
and that we must therefore find a way to reverse what cannot be sustained
before we crumble to dust as a civilization. Surely such horrendous income
inequality is simply one of many. Regardless of our general ignorance and
eagerness to consume, global climate-change is swallowing the planet’s
biodiversity. We can do something
about that, but short-term politics and a downward spiral to cheap labor and
investor-returns stands in the way. Political power is in chaos across the
world and investor-returns are busily eating their own young.
Our heady ‘consumer
economy’ is at the brink of killing off the consumer-class that feeds it, as
individuals and families struggle to survive, much less buy a new car or retire
the old refrigerator. Our best young people suffocate under educational debt,
while only a few can find jobs. Who will be left to consume, as society slowly
sinks to the bottom?
Robots and algorithms
are not the scare of the future, they are
the future and we must find a way to equitably support those they make jobless.
More economists (and even politicians) are talking seriously about guaranteed
national incomes because we dare not break the future that technology has
chosen to thrust upon us.
Nor should we, as technology, in its current state is the driver behind
steeply rising standards of living throughout the world. According to Pew Research,
from 2001 to 2011, nearly 700 million people stepped out of poverty, but most only barely. Those who Pew
defined as middle income lived on $10-20 a day, a far cry from Western
standards. Those massed below them often struggle on a single dollar a day. Steeply
rising is more a statistic than
definition and, as we know, if you torture statistics sufficiently they will
confess to anything.
Technology has risen at a blindingly fast rate over the past several
decades and the metaphor is accurate. We are apparently blind to its promise,
blind to its social and economic possibilities and blinder yet to its equitable
distribution. The human condition is at stake and we are blind to its salvation
economically and environmentally, at least in the short-term. And the
short-term may be all that is left.
The long-term as we currently practice it, is unsustainable.