The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 25

Hello, friend. Is it Monday again already? I hope the weekend treated you well.

I spent much of it cleaning the house from top to bottom, which–though probably not as fun as whatever you did–always feels good to complete. There will need to be some How To Adult cleaning posts in the future. I’ve learned a lot about what not to do.

In case you missed it, American currency is officially getting a major redesign. Pretty awesome that Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 (though not everyone was thrilled). It’s interesting to see how bills have evolved over time.

This week we found out that nearly half of Americans could not come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to. There’s some serious work to be done to help the middle class.

In more uplifting news, this week also gave us this video of 7 girls on appreciating culture rather than appropriating it.

Season 2 of Chef’s Table is almost here! Season 1 was so good.

Is “a thing” a thing?

We need to get serious about soda.

Is this why we procrastinate? Seems to explain why we’re bored, too. More reasons to do yoga.

Solar-powered planes aren’t practical for commercial flight yet, but they’re its green future.

Similarly, we whiffed on electric cars in the past, but hopefully we can get it right this time.

Have a great week!

Back to the Future

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Common Good, Part 1

When someone says the economy, what comes to mind?

Does it feel like something that applies to your daily routine, or some kind of abstraction–a massive machine running in the background? When the nightly news talks about how the stock market performed, do you directly connect that with what’s going on in your life?

When you think about your job and your income and the things that you’re able to do when you’re not working, would you say that you’re well-off? Or do you wish that things were a bit different?

Why do we work in the first place? Why do you work where you work now (if you have a job)? There are likely a number of reasons. Some people genuinely love what they do–they keep coming back to it with eagerness every day. Others work to keep busy–maybe not in love with their labor, but busyness is better than boredom or unemployment. Still others work one or two or three (or even more) jobs simply because they’re trying to make ends meet. They don’t have a choice.

Even if you’re not in such a desperate and heartbreaking situation as working multiple jobs for low income, surely the great majority of us on some level are working to earn money. Few are those who can do what they love most or who are in such a stable financial situation that the paycheck is an afterthought. And even many of those who are quite well-off with what’s in their bank account continue to show up to work everyday to try to increase that amount.

Money–even for those who have plenty–keeps us returning to our daily grind. Why is this?

Think about what money does. Money is the way we quantify and exchange value as a collective. Increasingly, many things in the world can be bought and sold. All of those goods and services are assessed a value in terms of the dollars they’re believed to be worth or what people would be willing to spend to get them. Anyone with enough earned value–money–can quickly hand it over to acquire things. Amassing money can become an end in itself.

Money enables us to get stuff. The more money we have, the more stuff we can get. The more work we do–more hours or higher wages–the more money we have to get more stuff. More, more, more.

And there’s plenty of stuff.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were predicted to spend over $630 billion on holiday shopping in 2015. That’s spending on stuff that’s purely for fun, in a short period of time. Through the year in 2014, the average American spent over $6,700 on food, $17,800 on housing, $1,700 on clothes, $9,000 on transportation, $4,300 on healthcare, $2,700 on entertainment, and $11,000 on numerous other things.

Each of us, over the course of a year, is spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on fast food, gas for the car, additions to our wardrobe, trips to other cities, medicines and beauty products, drinks at the bar, cleaning supplies for the house, gifts, and every other thing money buys us.

There’s a seemingly endless amount of stuff (to complement our endless pursuit of piling up more money). But what is stuff, exactly? What does it do for us?

Some stuff fills our wants. Some or most of the $630 billion for the holidays could surely be spent on a number of other more important or more meaningful things. It’s not stuff that we must have. I say that as someone who absolutely loves Christmas. I baked cookies and watched classic movies all week (Home Alone, anyone?), and there was more than one present under the tree for my wife. It’s a wonderful holiday of giving and receiving and sentiment. This isn’t about making you feel guilty for the money you spent on holiday gifts. But Christmas and the other Winter holidays don’t have to be so much about stuff. What might we be able to do together besides a drone or hoverboard for all with even $50-$100 billion of that $630 billion–one or two fewer gifts per person?

Of course, there are plenty of times when we should treat ourselves. Life would be utterly boring and incomplete if we were always calculating out and removing things that are merely pleasurable wants. Sometimes it just feels right to have some ice cream, buy a new pair of shoes, or head out for a cocktail. Go for it.

But, crucially, a lot of stuff fulfills a part of our human experience that is an actual need. It’s hard to endure without healthful food to eat, a place to live, a way to get around town, proper healthcare, and much more.

Stuff, whether it’s primarily for pleasure (want) or a fundamental necessity (need), fulfills many of the longings and requirements of being human. Stuff is important. And therefore money is important if we’re going to live comfortably. And to get an adequate amount of money we need a job of some sort.

Jobs, money, stuff, humanity. Our national conversations (in America) usually work in that order.

NEW YORK CITY - SEP 5: New York Stock Exchange closeup on Septem

Politics and political commentary is so often about the simple categories of job creation and unemployment. How many jobs were created last month? What’s the unemployment rate? If those things seem solid, apparently we’re all supposed to think the economy is good–and that each of us is in good shape then.

But if those basic metrics are out of sorts, then we start talking about money–loans, interest rates, inflation, wages, debt. Should we raise the minimum wage? The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates. Student debt is at an all time high. The dollar is weak.

If the money metrics are off, then the chatter moves to stuff. What’s the price of gas? What’s the cost of a gallon of milk? What’s the cost of tuition? Are the social programs in place working for the stuff people can’t afford themselves? Can people buy cars and houses and the rest of the American Dream?

The US leads the world with about 70% of our GDP coming from consumption–in other words, buying stuff. The way things are set up now, if people aren’t acquiring stuff, the economy is a sinking ship. Hence the strong emphasis on the jobs to have the money to get the stuff.

Rarely, if ever, do we talk about our human condition–the deepest, fragile, most profound part at the heart of the whole thing. All of the needs and wants–the ones we all share, and the ones that are unique to each of us individually–that define who we are. No human condition, no humans. No humans, no community.

When you think about the economy, do you think about this?

What if we started there and went in the other direction? Humanity, stuff, value, work. What if stuff, our system of value, and work were all concentric circles that always had to support and strengthen the humanity at the core? What if governments and public policy started not from securing and expanding a free market and gargantuan financial institutions, but basic human needs and desires?

Now that could be interesting.

Perhaps it would change everything about how we understand the economy and our lives together in society.

But that will have to wait for Part 2. We’re just getting started.