What’s wrong with the world?

tl;dr

two fundamental causes of Brexit & Trump; one real (falling prosperity) and one perceived (fear and distrust of “others”)

- the solution is a system that disburses the benefits of globalisation and modernity more widely and prepares for the self-sustaining fully-automated economy, artificial general intelligence, life by design, etc, that is already emerging.

solutions to prosperity:

- use technology to drastically reduce cost of critical systems such as housing, transport, energy & healthcare (examples provided)

- technology produces a beneficial deflation that can be used to fund the introduction of a substantial universal basic income, no additional taxation required!

- replace GDP with a gauge of economic growth that measures human prosperity instead of production (examples provided)

- intro a semi-automated legal system that acts as an efficient and fair dispute resolution platform (full details given)

solutions to fear:

- use of technology to counter misinformation (examples provided)

- tighter regulation and stronger repercussions for those that spread mis-truths for political gain

Joining the dots so we end up in a better situation than where we started.

Many, many people are talking about the current political issues stalking the western world, and the underlying beliefs, values and societal problems that have led us here. Far fewer are proposing solutions.

In this report, I look at how we arrived at this point, identify the crux of the problems, and make a case for how technology can be used to solve these problems and overhaul our governance and policy systems.

  • Part 1 outlines the problems, both real and perceived, that have created the current political division
  • Part 2 tackles the genuine issues around prosperity, and introduces a new system that increases the money in your pocket, whilst simultaneously reducing the need for it.
  • Part 3 outlines a legal system that finally provides the sense of fairness that so many people feel is lacking, and an education system suitable for the choices that people will have in an age of mass automation and universal basic income
  • Part 4 addresses the problems people believe they face, even though in reality they rarely do — the seemingly irresistible ‘fear mongering machine’ — the systems that drive this machine and how to overcome them.

The social divisions within the western world exploded on to centre stage in 2016; Trump, Brexit, Austria nearly electing a far right President, Hungary and Poland’s openly bigoted governments, and the rise of Front National’s Marine Le Pen to pole position for the upcoming Presidential election. Russia is a dictatorship with a charismatic leader using fear and passion to establish a cult around himself. Now Turkey is too.

What’s the answer?

Firstly, let’s reassure ourselves. In the US comparisons are being made to the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. But as Noam Chomsky notes, “the US is a far more civilised place now: women’s rights, civil rights and racial equality, gay marriage [and] environmental concerns,” even the ability for the media to be so openly scathing to an incoming President — these are all democratic advances. “The struggles today start on a much higher plane than they did several decades ago”, Chomsky concludes optimistically.

In the UK a collapsed pound and increased prices are a signal of the economic damage that is materialising. Yet sticking with the status quo isn’t the answer. Millions of people used their vote in the referendum to denounce the status quo. These people were overwhelmingly poorer…

% voting ‘Leave’ — Source: NatCen

…older…

…and less educated.

% voting ‘Leave’ — Source: NatCen

The Remain campaign relied on voters being unwilling to take risks with Britain’s economic future. Yet a lot of the public already felt they had little to lose.

People who felt they were just about getting by backed ‘Leave’ by 60/40, while those saying they were struggling backed ‘Leave’ even more strongly, by 70/30. This effect was even more telling among people who felt they personally were doing worse than most people as a result of how Britain had changed in the last 10 years — those who felt left behind.

% voting ‘Leave’ — Source: NatCen
% voting ‘Leave’ — Source: NatCen

Many of these voters did not often turn out for general elections; 60% of those who said they didn’t vote in the 2015 general election backed Brexit, 80% of people who said they had no interest in politics did so as well.

These people felt — correctly — that the referendum was a chance to be heard. They saw themselves as completely marginalised, and in many cases they were right. This isn’t just a British phenomena, as there is a clear correlation between nativism and a lack of growth in purchasing power.

David Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect magazine, has diagnosed this new divide in Western societies as a dominant minority of people from “anywhere” against a majority from “somewhere”. The first group, says Mr Goodhart, holds “achieved” identities based on educational and professional success. Anywheres value social and geographical mobility. The second group is characterised by identities rooted in a place, and its members value family, authority and nationality.

Whereas Anywheres, whose portable identities are well-suited to the global economy, have largely benefited from cultural and economic openness in the West, he argues, the Somewheres have been left behind.

Some 65–70% of households in rich countries saw their real incomes from wages and capital decline or stagnate between 2005 and 2014, compared with less than 2% between 1993 and 2005, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

This economic repression has nurtured a collective narrative, one that traverses the Atlantic. The renowned sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her insightful new book ‘Strangers In Their Own Land’, embarked on a thought-provoking journey deep into Louisiana to get to know, and befriend, many of those who live in “red” America. Hochschild goes beyond the commonplace liberal idea that these are people who have been duped into voting against their own interests. Instead, she finds lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream and within this melee a collective narrative she calls their “Deep Story”.

I’ll let Hochschild tell the story in her own words…

A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.
Like a play it unfolds in scenes.
Waiting in Line
You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not.
Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of color — poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It’s scary to look back: there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You’re patient but weary. You focus ahead. Especially on those at the very top of the hill.
The American Dream is a dream of progress — the idea that you’re better off than your forebears just as they superseded their parents before you…The source of the American Dream is on the other side of the hill, hidden. Has the economy come to a strange standstill? Is my company doing okay? Will I get a raise this year? Are there good jobs for us all? Or just a few? Will we be waiting in line forever? After all your intense effort, all your sacrifice, you’re beginning to feel stuck.
The Line Cutters
Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, and they hold a certain secret place in people’s minds. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — when will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day…It’s not fair.
Women: Another group is cutting ahead of you in line, if you are a man, women demanding the right to the men’s jobs. Your dad didn’t have to compete with women for scarce positions at the office. Also jumping in line ahead of you are overpaid public sector employees — and a majority of them are women and minorities. It also seems to you that they work shorter hours in more secure and overpaid jobs, enjoying larger pensions than yours.
Immigrants: And now Filipinos, Mexicans, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese on special visas or green cards are ahead of you in line. Or maybe they snuck in. You see the Mexicans work hard — and you admire that — but they work for less.
Refugees: Four million Syrian refugees are fleeing war and chaos, thousands a day, appearing in boats on the shores of Greece. President Obama accepted 10,000 of them, two-thirds women and children, to settle in the United States. But word has it that 90 percent of the refugees are young men, possibly ISIS terrorists, poised to get in line ahead of you and get their hands on your tax money.
Blacks, women, immigrants, refugees — all have cut ahead of you in line. But it’s people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you. They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do. So do your friends. Fox commentators reflect your feelings, for your deep story is also the Fox News deep story.
You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy — especially if there are some among them who might bring you harm.
Betrayal
Then you become suspicious. If people are cutting in line ahead of you, someone must be helping them. Who? A man is monitoring the line, walking up and down it, ensuring that the line is orderly and that access to the Dream is fair. His name is President Barack Hussein Obama. But — hey — you see him waving to the line cutters. He’s helping them. He feels extra sympathy for them that he doesn’t feel for you. He’s on their side. He’s telling you that these line cutters deserve special treatment, that they’ve had a harder time than you’ve had. You don’t live near the line cutters or have close friends in most categories of the line cutters, but from what you can see or hear on Fox News, the real story doesn’t correspond to his story about the line cutters, which celebrates so many black people, women, and immigrants. The supervisor wants you to sympathize with the line cutters, but you don’t want to. It’s not fair.
The year when the Dream stopped working for the 90 percent was 1950. If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, it did not. In fact, as economist Phillip Longman argues, they are the first generation in American history to experience the kind of lifetime downward mobility “in which at every stage of adult life, they have less income and less net wealth than people their age ten years before.” Some become so discouraged they stop looking for work; since the 1960s, the share of men ages twenty-five to fifty-four no longer in the workforce has tripled.
This stalled American Dream hits many on the right at a particularly vulnerable season of life — in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. It is a time during which people often check their bucket list, take stock, and are sometimes forced to give up certain dreams of youth. It’s a season of life in which a person says to him- or herself, “So this is it.” Who could one blame for such disappointments? Oneself, of course. But that only increases your intense focus on your place in the line.
Catcalls
“Crazy redneck.” “White trash.” “Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.” You realize that’s you they’re talking about. You hear these terms on the radio, on television, read them on blogs. The gall. You’re offended. You’re angry. And you really hate the endless parade of complainers encouraged by a 1960s culture that seems to have settled over the land.
You are a stranger in your own land…Through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

Many of us may find this difficult reading, but when Hochschild runs this narrative past the disgruntled people she’s been studying she gets responses like “I live your analogy” and “You’ve read my mind”.

Tone down the issues regarding church, and this story plays just as well in the UK. I’ve run it past the strident Leavers within my life, and the idea of ‘others’ cutting in line resonates loudly. Swap Fox News for The Sun and the Daily Mail and you have equally disgruntled and enthusiastic narrators.

Yet a great many of the young voters who overwhelmingly voted to remain also feel the system does not work for them. And once again, they are right. This is the ‘Generation Fucked’ cohort that gets whiplash from trying to catch a glimpse of the bottom rung of the property ladder, and has put off having children for so long they’re worried about being mistaken for “Gramps” when they (eventually) do the school run.

They marvel at the standard of living and accumulation of assets that their parents were able to achieve on ‘normal’ jobs, whilst racking up tens of thousands in student fees only to have to firstly intern for three years in the hope of a living wage, secondly spend more than half of their take home pay on rent, and/or thirdly be part of the 25% who still live at home (even just part-time to take the edge off).

21% less well off than previous generations at the same marker, they convince themselves that freelancing equates to freedom, all the while craving a stable monthly salary.

And this anxiety spreads even to the demographic that has seemingly won it all — Baby Boomers. They may be sitting pretty with all the money, pensions and detached houses, but swathes of them are realising that a good chunk of that wealth is permanently assigned as financial life support for their Generation Fucked offspring. And of course there’s the emotional strain of seeing their children struggle far more than they did.

Warnings from history

The Western World is haunted by the past — with no vision for the future. It has become pessimistic and backward-looking.

I very much doubt anyone in 1914 thought the killing of a minor European royal would lead to the death of 17 million people. But as the events that led to the First World War unfolded, there were a few brilliant minds who started to warn that something big was wrong, but they were dismissed as hysterical, as people who worry about Putin, Brexit, and Trump are dismissed now.

Then after the “War to end all Wars”, we did it all over again. For a historian it was quite predictable. Humans have a habit of going into phases of self imposed mass destruction. Lead people to feel they have lost control of their country and destiny, people look for scapegoats, a charismatic leader captures the popular mood and singles out that scapegoat. He talks in rhetoric that has no detail, and drums up anger and hatred. Soon the masses start to move as one, without any logic driving their actions, and the whole becomes unstoppable.

We should seriously consider whether 2016, and in particular Brexit, was our Archduke Ferdinand moment. The Doomsday Clock was set to the closest to Doomsday since 1953 upon Trump taking office. Already the rabid British press has moved on to bombastic headlines over war with Spain “to defend British interests in Gibraltar.” Such apparent farce was also part of the story that took us from an assassination in Sarajevo to the Battle of The Somme over a century ago. Being mindful of this cyclical pattern within human history can prevent events from rapidly spiraling out of control until they become unstoppable.

If you look close enough, history shows us that not all potential Archduke Ferdinand moments inevitably lead to catastrophe. If we join the dots and address each in turn, apocalypses can be averted.

So what now?

Yet despite this, 2016 could still be a blessing. Providing the impetus to create a new fairer system — one that disburses the benefits of globalisation and modernity more widely, and addresses the issues (real or otherwise) many people feel they face.

Here is that system. Here is our future…

Click here to read the second part of this series

For more analysis you can follow me on Twitter @nickwasmuth

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