Something of Adaptive Value to Human Life

author: Nathan Acks
date: 2018-02-18
newsletter: Five Futures
volume: 2
issue: 5

The Story So Far

The day job continues to intervene.

When I sat down to write this edition of Five Futures, I knew that I was probably going to be light on links again. But it was only after I opened up my reading log that I realized how little I’d read this past week that was actually interesting. So, only two links for Elsewhen this time.

But there is always the final installment of “The Radical Futures of Growth”. 🙂

I know there are people who manage to work 60 hours a week, keep up with world events, and put together interesting side projects. As much as I like to imagine otherwise, it’s pretty obvious at this point that I am not one of those people.

Some Observations

Three weeks ago I began “The Radical Futures of Growth” by talking about why both the modern notion of unlimited growth and the idea that a zero growth economy is a desirable alternative are problematic. Last week I followed this up by outlining an alternative I called “long growth” which attempts to replace a human-centric conception of growth with one that’s grounded in both deep time/history and a larger ecological awareness.

While the concept of long growth solves the resource problems of unlimited growth and the rigidity and allocation issues inherent in the idea of zero growth, it does not (directly) provide a solution for the more human-scale problems zero growth brings with it - what I’ve been calling “anti-leveling”.

The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 3

There is a long pattern in history of the powerful hoarding resources to the detriment of masses of humanity. So long as the resource pie is always expanding (well, expanding as fast or faster than new resources can be hoarded, then it’s possible for the rising tide of riches to raise all boats. Sure, maybe the rich get richer, but so too can you and your family and your community. Take away the expanding pie, however, and the zero growth world that remains is easily seen to also be zero sum - a world in which efforts to improve my security or standard of living must invariably lead to declines in your security or standard of living.

This would be a serious problem even if we could somehow create a zero growth society ex nihilo, but unfortunately we must start with the world we have, and that means a world where power, and thus access to resources, is deeply and unevenly divided. To move toward a zero growth world from such a starting point means that those with the means to hoard resources will cause far more harm than they currently do. Moreover, the growing hoards of the powerful will mean ever fewer resources available to those without, creating a “double” barrier to those with less power who attempt to fight back.

While long growth does not imagine a world where resource constraints are (functionally) fixed, (non-temporary) growth occurs only over the time-span of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of years. So while a world of long growth is one whose resource pie can be expand, it is extremely doubtful that it will grow as fast as individuals can effectively monopolize this growth. When it comes to the problem of resource hoarding, a log growth future is functionally identical to a zero growth future.

A Manifesto for Modern Levelers

It’s important to remember here that resource hoarding isn’t just some personality defect of the rich and powerful - rather, it’s a very human behavior that often comes from the best of places. Much, in fact, springs from our desire to do what’s best for our children; we make sure they go to the best schools we can afford, we help support them well into adulthood, we give them what wealth we have accumulated when we pass on, and we support laws and policies that encourage and enable these behaviors. We do this not out of greed, but out of love… And yet it drives us to attempt to accumulate wealth beyond what we’d otherwise require, and plays a central role in perpetuating inequalities of power.

In a world of unlimited growth, where the quantity of resources available to society is growing faster than any one person or family can hoard it, the negative externalities of our desire to provide the best possible lives for our children are perhaps forgivable. In a world in which the resources available are highly constrained, even behaviors guided by love can become the social equivalent of the tragedy of the commons.

Whether it’s the insatiable desire for power and control, or simply the desire to do what’s best for those we care about, there are strong human behavioral attractors that lead us to hoard resources. In a low-or-zero growth world, such tendencies will lead to worsening inequalities in security, standards of living, and power. Without growth, to say the future looks medieval is perhaps too kind… At least under feudalism there was some sense of obligation between the lord and his vassals. There is little reason to think that in a world of ever increasing automation even this rarefied sense of social responsibility would re-emerge.

There’s no obvious way to short-circuit the behaviors that lead to resource hoarding and concentration, though there are some intriguing hints in the egalitarian societies of the few remaining hunter-gatherers. Absent a clear understanding of how, or even if, these behaviors could be generalized to a settled, more technologically integrated/dependent society like our own, the best we can do right now is to think about the issue from a policy perspective.

There are two obvious prongs to a policy approach towards resource hoarding. The first is to attack resource hoarding directly, which has traditionally been done through taxation. Taxation can cover one of three broad areas - income, wealth, and consumption - each of which has its own trade-offs. Income taxes are popular in the US, but quickly become complicated when you attempt to account for all of the different ways that (often non-monetary) resources can be transferred between individuals. Consumption taxes, particularly value-added taxes (VATs), are simple to track and administer, but are also regressive because of the higher relative spending of the poor as compared to the rich. Finally, wealth taxes are conceptually the “right tool for the job” (breaking up resource hoards), but are difficult to track and administer.

Given these failings, there’s probably no perfect tax system for discouraging resource hoarding. But there are a few general things we can say with some confidence about such a system.

Wealth and income taxes should be primarily driven by the need to prevent power accumulation (and thus the ability to monopolize resources), while consumption taxes would be driven by larger environmental (both social and ecological) factors. Both of these can be thought of as ways of internalizing the negative social and ecological externalities of our behaviors. (In a long growth world this accounting would include not just humans, but also other members of our ecologies).

The second policy prong for addressing resource hoarding involves reducing the factors that encourage this behavior to begin with.

These can be expensive programs, though it’s worth noting that over a multi-decade period programs that target children almost always wind up having significant positive externalities (sometimes to such an extent that they more than pay for themselves). The rigorous system of taxation suggested above should make it possible to fund these social programs; such a combination has the virtue of providing a synergistic “one-two” punch that both makes it more difficult (hopefully impossible) to sustain multi-generational resource hoarding while simultaneously reducing the individual incentives for most of us to even begin indulging in such behavior.

The strategy outlined above is not without its implementational problems (setting aside the problem of even getting it off the ground in most countries). In particular, how do we prevent these taxes and programs from gradually being gutted by the powerful (who are the only ones who arguably “loose out” in this scenario)? How do we ensure that such programs are effectively administered and kept up-to-date? That tax rates are adjusted in a timely fashion and in accordance with the best evidence we currently have?

These questions highlight how issues of good governance, transparency, and accountability must be considered fundamental aspects of either zero growth or long growth futures. These are tough problems in and of themselves, but may actually be more important to address than a timely transition to a zero-or-long growth future itself: It will almost certainly be easier to transition to a zero-or-long growth future from a world that has already established a robust, transparent, and accountable system of governance than to attempt to establish such a system of good governance after a transition away from unlimited (and unsustainable) growth. Indeed, in the absence of growth it may not be possible to implement such a system of good governance at all.

Time Scales Matter (A Brief Aside)

Dealing with the problem of resource hoarding is at least theoretically possible in a long growth future, as such a future avoids the hard resource limits implied by a zero growth world. But even if you’re a firm believer in the desirability of unlimited, unrestrained growth, the systems of taxation and programs outlined above would still be desirable.

Despite the impassioned pleas for positive-sum thinking, the truth is that even in a world of win-win scenarios our day-to-day experience as individuals is zero-sum. The improvements economic growth brings with it are often spread out over decades, and is quickly normalized (along with the social and technological change that accompanies it) as “just the way things are”. We are often unaware of how much our lives have been changed by growth. Moreover, while growth over years and decades matters to academics and policy makers, it doesn’t matter much to us individually in the “right now”. For example, there’s a great deal of evidence that immigration improves a nation’s economic system. But if both an immigrant and I are applying for a job, a second opening is not going to magically appear so that both of us are happy - one of us is going to get the job, and the other one is going to have to keep looking.

No matter how far-sighted we try to be, day-to-day many of our life decisions are zero-sum. It should therefore be unsurprising that many of us generalize this zero-sum thinking into our broader consideration of possible futures. As a practical matter, advocates of unlimited growth (at least in democracies) should want to minimize this kind of thinking as a way of realizing better policy support. And the most reliable way to minimize zero-sum thinking is to work towards minimizing the uncertainties that make us afraid of risk and uncertainty. If we know we can keep “playing the game”, then cooperative, non-zero sum strategies can become dominant.

Far from being an “extreme” program, the approach outlined above may very well be a way to save capitalism from the demagogues of the Anthropocene.

Study Life Always

It’s worth being honest here… Unless you think that a program of unlimited growth is sustainable, then there are only a limited number of possible futures:

The first two paths wind end, at best, in a depopulated world that looks a lot like William Gibson’s “Jackpot”, and at worst in a sort of neo-feudal state (which may or may not retain a relatively high level of technology). The third path, the one I have described here, seems to me the least likely… But also the most promising. It’s the future worth fighting for, the future where humanity, where life itself, can continue to grow and evolve in ways we have yet to imagine.

“Study death always,” Seneca once advised his friend. Humanity has followed this maxim, one way or another, and often without fully understanding it, for at least six thousand years. We have tried to understand death, to escape it, to accept it. Our society’s relationship with growth - our concepts of unlimited growth, of collapse, of zero growth - parallel our understanding of our own ends. We have learned much, but all journeys end.

It is time we study life.

Elsewhen

Deep Pasts

Nothing this edition.

Near Pasts

Story-telling may be one of the oldest, and most important, human behaviors.

Presents

Nothing this edition.

Near Futures

Environmental degradation and worsening cultural conflict in Nigeria.

Deep Futures

Nothing this edition.

Outro

Finding dark skies around the world.