“Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There” is a policy version of “Black box thinking”. Rutger Bregman would like Freek Vermeulen, a fellow Dutchman and is likely to be a fan of Naseem Taleb. A lot of things we believe to be true are false. Particularly in science, economy and medicine. Look up the Lindy effect, confirmation bias and reignite your common sense. Don’t believe anything you read, hear or see. Go one step further, start with detoxing your brain. Read “Breaking the habit of being yourself”
Utopia for realist
About the reality that although the press and social media try to tell you otherwise (fear sells better), we never had it as good as right now. Starting with the disappointment of what all the new technology has brought us, a plea for some fresh “utopian” thinking and some rock solid suggestions around basic income, ending speculation, rethinking foreign aid and immigration. Based on facts and stats, instead of beliefs and politic opportunism.
Land of plenty
In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful. Where 84% of the world’s population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.1
The global economy is now 250 times what it was before the Industrial Revolution – when nearly everyone, everywhere was still poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.
“To the medieval mind,” the Dutch historian Herman Pleij writes, “modern-day western Europe comes pretty close to a bona fide land of plenty. You have fast food available 24/7, climate control, free love, workless income, and plastic surgery to prolong youth.”
In fact, we are living in an age of biblical prophecies come true. Take the Argus II, a brain implant that restores a measure of sight to people with genetic eye conditions. Or the Rewalk, a set of robotic legs that enables paraplegics to walk again. In 2013, the new Xbox One video game console relied on a chip that contained an incredible five billion transistors. Science fiction is becoming science fact.
People with chips implanted in their brains are operating robotic arms with their minds. Since 1980, the price of one watt of solar energy has plummeted 99% – and that’s not a typo. If we’re lucky, 3D printers and solar panels may yet turn Karl Marx’s ideal (all means of production controlled by the masses) into a reality, all without requiring a bloody revolution. Africa, too, is fast shedding its reputation for economic devastation; the continent is now home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. By the year 2013, six billion of the globe’s seven billion inhabitants owned a cell phone. (By way of comparison, just 4.5 billion had a toilet). Worldwide, life expectancy grew from sixty-four years in 1990 to seventy in 201212 – more than double what it was in 1900.
The author calls it a bleak paradise, where life has been reduced to “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. A bit like “Humanity versus technology”
Crisis of imagination
With all our capabilities the most significant inventions are Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google. Yep, the big four. We have a crisis of imagination.
It is all economy. Optimism and pessimism have become synonymous with consumer confidence or the lack The expectations of what we as a society can achieve have been dramatically eroded, leaving us with the cold, hard truth that without utopia, all that remains is a technocracy. Slowly but surely, quality is being replaced by quantity.
Driving it all is a force sometimes called “liberalism,” an ideology that has been all but hollowed out. What’s important now is to “just be yourself” and “do your thing.” Freedom may be our highest ideal, but ours has become an empty freedom.
On every street corner we’re baited to booze, binge, borrow, buy, toil, stress, and swindle. Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that can pay for prime-time advertising. If you’re not following the blueprint of a docile, content citizen, the powers that be are happy to whip you into shape. Their tools of choice? Control, surveillance, and repression.
Meanwhile, the welfare state has increasingly shifted its focus from the causes of our discontent to the symptoms.
We’ve been brought up on a steady diet of narcissism, but as soon as we’re released into the great big world of unlimited opportunity, more and more of us crash and burn. The world, it turns out, is cold and harsh, rife with competition and unemployment. It’s not a Disneyland where you can wish upon a star and see all your dreams come true, but a rat race in which you have no one but yourself to blame if you don’t make the grade. Read “Buddhist economics“.
According to the World Health Organization, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number-one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. In the 1950s, only 12% of young adults agreed with the statement “I’m a very special person.” Today 80% do,32 when the fact is, we’re all becoming more and more alike.
Is it any wonder that the cultural archetype of my generation is the Nerd, whose apps and gadgets symbolise the hope of economic growth? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.
Progress has become synonymous with economic prosperity, but the twenty-first century will challenge us to find other ways of boosting our quality of life. While young people in the West have largely come of age in an era of apolitical technocracy, we will have to return to politics again to find a new utopia. We have to do what great thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes were already advocating 100 years ago: to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” It’s time to return to utopian thinking. We need a new lodestar, a new map of the world that once again includes a distant, uncharted continent called “Utopia.”
Let’s start with basic income. Have you ever been without money, or worried about paying the bills. You can’t take a break from poverty. To quote Woody Allen; money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame.
Even the Economist had to conclude that the “most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them.” Free money does not make people lazy. Studies from all over the world offer proof positive: Free money works. Rwanda, Canada, USA, Holland
Kill the bureaucratic rigmarole
We can get rid of the whole bureaucratic rigmarole designed to force assistance recipients into low-productivity jobs at any cost, and we can help finance the new simplified system by chucking the maze of tax credits and deductions, too. Any further necessary funds can be raised by taxing assets, waste, raw materials, and consumption. Eradicating poverty in the U.S. would cost only $175 billion,
Shorter work week
Combine that with a shorter work week. We know that (work) stress kills. Countless studies have shown that people who work less are more satisfied with their lives.
- Climate change? A worldwide shift to a shorter workweek could cut the CO2 emitted this century by half.
- Accidents? Overtime is deadly. Long workdays lead to more errors.
- Emancipation of women? Countries with short workweeks consistently top gender-equality rankings.
- Ageing population? An increasing share of the older population wants to continue working even after hitting retirement age.
- Inequality? The countries with the biggest disparities in wealth are precisely those with the longest workweeks.
Do you have a bullshit job?
The harsh truth is that an increasing number of people do jobs that we can do just fine without. Were they to suddenly stop working the world wouldn’t get any poorer, uglier, or in any way worse. Bizarrely, it’s precisely the jobs that shift money around – creating next to nothing of tangible value – that net the best salaries. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes there’s something else going on. A few years ago he wrote a fascinating piece that pinned the blame not on the stuff we buy but on the work we do. It is titled, aptly, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”
In Graeber’s analysis, innumerable people spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless, jobs like telemarketer, HR manager, social media strategist, PR advisor, and a whole host of administrative positions at hospitals, universities, and government offices. “Bullshit jobs,” Graeber calls them. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous. In a survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission. Another recent poll revealed that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a bullshit job.
Imagine just how much progress we’ve missed out on because thousands of bright minds have frittered away their time dreaming up hypercomplex financial products that are ultimately only destructive. Or spent the best years of their lives duplicating existing pharmaceuticals in a way that’s infinitesimally different enough to warrant a new patent application by a brainy lawyer so a brilliant PR department can launch a brand-new marketing campaign for the not-so-brand-new drug.
Creation versus speculation
Imagine that all this talent were to be invested not in shifting wealth around, but in creating it. Back in 1970, American stocks were still held for an average of five years; forty years later, it’s a mere five days. If we imposed a transactions tax – where you would have to pay a fee each time you buy or sell a stock – those high-frequency traders who contribute almost nothing of social value, would no longer profit from split-second buying and selling of financial assets. For every dollar a bank earns, an estimated equivalent of 60 cents is destroyed elsewhere in the economic chain. Conversely, for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 and often much more is pumped back into the economy.
In other developed countries, from Germany to Japan, wage growth has been stagnating in most occupations for years even as productivity continues to grow. The foremost reason for this is globalisation. For example, Nutella chocolate spread. The Italian brand is made in factories in Brazil, Argentina, Europe, Australia, and Russia with chocolate sourced from Nigeria, palm oil from Malaysia, vanilla flavouring from China, and sugar from Brazil. The big question is: Who’s profiting? The smaller the world gets, the fewer the number of winners.
Winners take all
Whereas in 1964 each of the four largest American companies still had an average workforce of about 430,000 people, by 2011 they employed only a quarter that number, despite being worth twice as much. The reality is that it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.
Scholars at Oxford University estimate that no less than 47% of all American jobs and 54% of all those in Europe are at a high risk of being usurped by machines. And not in a hundred years or so, but in the next twenty. Today, new jobs are concentrated mostly at the bottom of the pyramid – at supermarkets, fast-food chains, and nursing homes. Those are the jobs that are still safe. For the moment.
The world’s fastest computer at that time was the ASCI Red, developed by the American military and offering a peak performance speed of one teraflop. It was the size of a tennis court and cost $55 million. Sixteen years later, in 2013, a new supercomputer came on the market that easily clocked two teraflops and at just a fraction of the price: the PlayStation 4. By 2011, computers were even appearing as contestants on TV game shows. In that year, the two brightest minds in trivia, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, pitted their wits against “Watson” on the quiz show Jeopardy! Welcome to the Second Machine Age, as this brave new world of chips and algorithms is already being called. Machine power was replacing muscle power on a massive scale. Now, two centuries later, our brains are next. We could take a tip from Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner. When asked what his strategy would be if he were pitted against a computer, he didn’t have to think long. “I’d bring a hammer.” Just as we adapted to the First Machine Age through a revolution in education and welfare, so the Second Machine Age calls for drastic measures. Measures like a shorter workweek and universal basic income.
The Western world spends $134.8 billion a year, $11.2 billion a month, $4,274 a second on foreign development aid. Over the past fifty years, that brings us to a grand total of almost $5 trillion. Sound like a lot? Actually, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost about the same. So then the question is: Has it helped? Here’s where it gets tricky. There’s only one way to answer this: Nobody knows. According to a study done by the World Bank, 85% of all Western aid in the twentieth century was used differently than intended.
Bizarrely, the first Randomises Controlled Trial (RTC)of foreign development aid didn’t happen until 1998.
Thanks to RCTs, however, we know that $100 worth of free meals translates into an additional 2.8 years of educational attainment, three times as much as free uniforms. Deworming children with intestinal complaints has been shown to yield 2.9 years of additional schooling.
Open borders would make the whole world twice as rich. Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Opening up our borders, even just a crack, is by far the most powerful weapon we have in the global fight against poverty. In a world of insane inequality, migration is the most powerful tool for fighting poverty.
- They’re all terrorists; immigration is actually associated with a decline in terrorist acts.
- They’re all criminals; in 2004 the first extended study exploring the connection between ethnicity and youth crime got underway in Rotterdam. Ten years later, the results were in. The correlation between ethnic background and crime, it turns out, is precisely zero. None, nothing, nada. Youth crime, the report stated, has its origins in the neighbourhood where kids grow up. In poor communities, kids from Dutch backgrounds are every bit as likely to engage in criminal activity as those from ethnic minorities. Asylum-immigrants are actually underrepresented relative to the native population.
- They will undermine social cohesion; an analysis of ninety studies found no correlation whatsoever between diversity and social cohesion. So, if diversity isn’t to blame for the lack of cohesion in modern-day society, what is? The answer is simple: poverty, unemployment, and discrimination.
- They’ll take our jobs; the alternative to hiring immigrants is to outsource work to other countries. That, ironically, does force wages down.
- They’re too lazy to work; in reality, if you correct for income and job status, immigrants take less advantage of public assistance. Overall, the net value of immigrants is almost wholly positive. In countries like Hungary, Ireland, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, they even bring in more tax revenue per household than the native population.
- They’ll never go back; this brings us to a fascinating paradox: Open borders promote immigrants’ return.
Here we are, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and from Uzbekistan to Thailand, from Israel to Botswana, the world has more barriers than ever. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are living in veritable open-air prisons. Three-quarters of all border walls and fences were erected after the year 2000. If all the developed countries would let in just 3% more immigrants, the world’s poor would have $305 billion more to spend, say scientists at the World Bank. That’s the combined total of all development aid – times three.
Become a rebel
The book finishes with a passionate plea to become a rebel. None of the above is popular. Fact-based and true, but not accepted as the norm. A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.
When reality clashes with our deepest convictions, we’d rather recalibrate reality than amend our worldview. Not only that, we become even more rigid in our beliefs than before. Researchers at Yale University have shown that educated people are more unshakable in their convictions than anybody. After all, an education gives you tools to defend your opinions. Intelligent people are highly practised in finding arguments, experts, and studies that underpin their preexisting beliefs, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to be consumers of our own opinions. Smart people, concludes the American journalist Ezra Klein, don’t use their intellect to obtain the correct answer; they use it to obtain what they want to be the answer.
The power of an idea
Can new ideas genuinely change the world? People are most likely to change their opinions if you confront them with new and disagreeable facts as directly as possible. In essence, that the Enlightenment model of how people change their opinions through information-gathering and reasoned deliberation, is really a buttress for the status quo. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in. A single opposing voice can make all the difference. When just one other person in the group stuck to the truth, the test subjects were more likely to trust the evidence of their own senses.
September 15 2008
So what happened after September 15, 2008? The Occupy movement briefly galvanised people but quickly ebbed. Meanwhile, left-leaning political parties lost elections across most of Europe. Greece and Italy more or less canned democracy altogether and rolled out neoliberal-tinted reforms to please their creditors, trimming government and boosting labour market flexibility. In northern Europe, too, governments proclaimed a new age of austerity.
Fast forward to today: Fundamental reform of the banking sector has yet to happen. On Wall Street, bankers are seeing the highest bonus payments since the crash.“It’s like standing at Chernobyl and seeing they’ve restarted the reactor but still have the same old management.” You have to wonder: Was the cognitive dissonance from 2008 even big enough?
Perhaps, then, crisis isn’t the right word for our current condition. It’s more like we’re in a coma. That’s ancient Greek, too. It means “deep, dreamless sleep.”
The window of Overton
Why is it that so many good ideas don’t get taken seriously? Overton realised that politicians, provided they want to be re-elected, can’t permit themselves viewpoints that are seen as too extreme. In order to hold power, they have to keep their ideas within the margins of what’s acceptable. This window of acceptability is populated by schemes that are rubber-stamped by the experts, tallied up by statistics services, and have good odds of making it into the law books. In fact, for several decades now this window has been migrating to the right on both economic and cultural issues.
These days, however, the left seems to have forgotten the art of Politics. The underdog socialist forgets that the real problem isn’t the national debt, but overextended households and businesses. He forgets that fighting poverty is an investment that pays off in spades. And he ignores that all the while, the bankers and the lawyers are polishing turds at the expense of waste collectors and nurses.
A narrative of hope and progress
The underdog socialists’ biggest problem isn’t that they’re wrong. Their biggest problem is that they are dull. Dull as a doorknob. There is storytelling again. They’ve got no story to tell, nor even any language to convey it in. Sadly, the underdog socialist has forgotten that the story of the left ought to be a narrative of hope and progress.
- Reforms? Hell, yes. Let’s give the financial sector a real overhaul.
- Meritocracy? Bring it on. Let’s finally pay people according to their real contributions.
- Innovation? Totally. Even now, a vast amount of talent is going wasted. If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible,
- Efficiency? That’s the whole point. Think about it: every dollar invested in a homeless person returns triple or more in savings on healthcare, police, and court costs. Just imagine what the eradication of child poverty might achieve.
- Cut the nanny state? Spot on. Let’s ax those senseless, overweening reemployment courses for the out of work (the ones that actually prolong unemployment) and let’s quit drilling and degrading benefit recipients.
- Freedom? Sing it, sister. As we speak, upwards of a third of the workforce is stuck in “bullshit jobs” considered meaningless by the people doing them. Not long ago I gave a talk to a few hundred consultants about the rise of pointless work.
The author realised that my so-called lack of realism had little to do with actual flaws in his reasoning. Calling his ideas “unrealistic” was simply a shorthand way of saying they didn’t fit the status quo. Time to rebel (as a verb) with him. Read “Rebel talent”. Don’t wish at your death bed you had the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life others expected of you. Don’t let anyone tell you what’s what. If we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible. You need to explain yourself to your grandchildren one day, or to quote the All Blacks; are you leaving your jersey in a better place. Read “Legacy”.
To finish with Galeano
Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps, and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.
Let’s march instead of walk.