America’s Choice: Poverty or Wealth, Which Shall it Be?

Naysayers who pooh-pooh bold progressive programs (such as the proposals which Bernie Sanders has made in his presidential campaign) often have no clue about economics and the potential of our modern industrial age. Many claim that there is not enough wealth to fix our problems and create a better world. They are wrong. Oh, so very wrong.

Many people believe them because of family economics. The situation of a family household whose wealth is limited by outside factors, however, simply does not translate to a modern national economy.

A quick look at past and present shows just how wrong this notion of limiting scarcity is. For example, before the agricultural revolution in the nineteenth century, the common belief would have been that there simply wasn’t enough food to protect against famine. Furthermore, the vast majority of people had to work in agriculture back then. With the invention of artificial fertilizers and agricultural machines like harvesters, this completely changed in a very short time. Today, almost nobody in the advanced nations on Earth works in agriculture, and yet everybody there eats (sometimes to much). A very similar thing happened with the industrial revolution. All of a sudden, people who previously had owned no more than they could carry could have lots of things, without everybody having to work at making them. Most of our stuff today is produced primarily by machines.

We now stand at the brink of another such revolution: “Artificial intelligence”, while often over-hyped, can simply stand for nothing more than industrial robots with learning ability so that not every move they make must be carefully programmed by a human programmer. Automated drones can deliver packages. And ever more service jobs, including white-collar jobs, are being taken over by computer technology. No longer is it only in manufacturing where people are being replaced by machines.

A 15 minute video released two years ago makes this pretty clear: Humans need not Apply

This forces a choice upon us: when we are replaced, shall we stew in destitute poverty from unemployment, or shall we continue to live well supplied with our society’s products and services while having more time to spend the way we would prefer? Depriving people of their time just so they do jobs which machines can do as well or better makes little humanitarian or even economic sense. And rolling them into a ditch after they have been replaced with machines whose purchase they financed through their work is highly unethical. As is being callous among ourselves in any shape, size, or form, period.

In the past, other jobs developed which the replaced workers could learn to do (albeit frequently under great hardship), but this option will increasingly disappear when machines become able to do most of the jobs society needs to have done. The activities in which machines can least replace us are those where human beings show each other love and interest or simply live their lives. I am replaceable in all the jobs I have ever held or will ever hold, but I am not replaceable for myself in my life.

At this crossroads, we are therefore called upon to get involved in the planning of our future. Back when I was a kid, futurists foretold us a future where we would live like aristocrats with machines doing all our labor. Instead, we got smartphones, social media, music and video streaming, and many more kinds of mass entertainment alongside ever more humiliating and unproductive jobs in hamburger-flipping, public relations (aka BS), advertisement, sales, and other sorts of marketing (including the ever popular telemarketing). Everybody is trying to sell something nowadays, it seems. When the productive jobs are gone but the production stays, what else is there left to do for money but to try and sell what you didn’t make to those who don’t even want it?

This goes to show that we don’t get the world we want when we leave all the decision making to the rulers of industry or their campaign-financed or otherwise bribed henchmen in government. CEOs simply work for their company’s profit or their own bonuses, sometimes even both; and to heck with the world. The world isn’t their business. Neither is a nation’s people. Those kinds of things are our, the people’s, business. To come up with the right ideas, we need public discourse (one idea briefly discussed during the Nixxon years and soon about to be tried in advanced nations other than our own, in case you are interested, is an unconditionally guaranteed basic income like a citizen’s stipend paid for by the machines which took over our jobs). Then, to implement our ideas, we need government to be accountable to us instead of a handful of CEOs and billionaires who are not concerned about the big picture or the sufferings of people they don’t socialize with.

Once we “put the people back into government”, as making government accountable to us has been called, we can implement a more social economic system in which the goods produced by our society are shared fairly with everybody’s needs in mind.

What I have described is neither a technological nor an economic problem. It is purely a political one. Hence, bold political candidates like Bernie Sanders – who wish to represent not the special interests but us – merit our support. We need a shift in thinking and the political action to match it. And we don’t have forever.

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