Can we create a world that works for all if the elites in charge don’t want us to?

Buckminster Fuller’s vision was to create a world that works for all. Technological advances since Bucky’s time mean we should be closer than ever to a world of abundance where everyone has the opportunity to live a meaningful life. The only thing stopping us is us.

Imagine we are in a rowboat, rowing in the direction of a world that works for all. We might disagree about the best route to get there, causing different factions to grab control of the tiller and alter our course. But if we are all aimed at a world that works for all, if we are all watching for signs about how to get there and following the clues, we will make it.

Now imagine a faction on our boat does not want to get there, but instead wants to go to a world that works for some and too bad for everyone else. Maybe this faction doesn’t believe that a world that works for all is really possible — they think a world that works for some is the best we can hope for. Or maybe instead of defining their tribe as “humanity” they define it as some narrow subset, and only really want the world to work for that subset (too bad for everyone else). Publicly, they say they are heading towards a world that works for all so that we — the rowers — won’t revolt and take back control of the tiller. We can see signs that the boat may be off course, but we trust that this is an honest difference of opinion about navigation, not intentional misdirection.

The longer this faction controls the tiller, the more we get used to being stuck in a world that works for some and too bad for everyone else. The longer we row without a world that works for all coming into sight, the more rowers start to lose hope and believe a world that works for all is a fantasy. People start to figure that since the world can only work for some, their best bet is to jockey for position and push someone else down so at least they, or their children, can be one of the lucky few.

What are the rest of us rowers — those of us who believe that a world that works for all is not only possible, but the only acceptable destination for humanity — to do?

We must take the tiller back from those who are leading us astray.

Elites are at the tiller

A recent study told us clearly who is at the tiller in the United States: economic elites and organized business groups. Elites get the policies they want, while average citizens (the rowers) empirically have “little or no influence” on American policy.

Steering away from a world that works for all

Another study gave us a pretty good idea of where American elites are steering us: towards a world that works for some and too bad for everyone else.

David Roberts at Vox put together the chart below to compare the policy preferences of elites (orange bars) to what the rest of us want (grey bars). (In the research cited, “elites” means people at or near the top 1% in wealth and with an average income of $1M per year or more — much higher than the top 1% in income.) It looks pretty clear to me that most of us want a world that works for all: where those who want work can find it and get paid enough to support themselves, where all children can get an education. But the elites in charge disagree.

Could this just be a different route?

Roberts’ colleague, Tim Lee at Vox, argues that elites are just pursuing a different route to the same place — they prefer to go via free markets, while the masses prefer big government. He urges us not to wrest the tiller away from the elites. I see his point that the policies above are structured heavily around the government providing and guaranteeing things. Could he be right that elites also want everyone to have opportunity, they just have a different idea of how to provide it?

Full-time workers living in poverty

The research in the chart above says 78% of Americans believe the “minimum wage should be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the poverty line.” But only 40% of the richest Americans agree. In other words, most rich people think that if someone has found a full-time job in this tough economy, kept the job, worked hard every day, it would be totally acceptable (to rich people) for that worker’s family to live in poverty, with all the accompanying costs to the family and to society.

Tim pivots away from the ugly question of why rich people think it’s OK for working Americans to live in poverty, and instead delves into some nuances about a $15 minimum wage. Sure, there are good arguments that a federal $15 minimum wage may be too high in some parts of the country. Those could be legitimate arguments about navigation. But that’s not what elites in the survey said. Elites said they think it is fine for full-time working Americans to live in poverty. How can that be a signpost towards a world that works for all?

In a world that works for all, no one would live in poverty.

I wish the policy polling had gone beyond currently politically acceptable ideas like minimum wage, and asked about policies that truly create a world that works for all, without a proliferation of government programs. Perhaps Tim is right that elites want a world that works for all, and most would agree with conservatives Milton Friedman and Charles Murray that a basic income is the best way to guarantee that no one lives in poverty.

In a world with few jobs for humans, a minimum wage will not keep all Americans out of poverty. A basic income will.

Steering towards a world that works for all

A world that works for all is a world in which every person belongs, every person is worthy of autonomy and dignity, and every person has the opportunity to pursue a meaningful life.

Forcing people to work full time but still live in poverty will not get us there. If that’s the direction elites want to go, and if they are at the tiller, it’s time for a change in direction. If the policy preferences above are deceiving and elites actually want to eradicate poverty just as much as the next guy, then it’s time for them to step up and say that, to spell out their path to a world that works for all, instead of fighting policies that would help families struggling to make ends meet.

If we are all watching the signposts and reading the clues, I think we can see that the era of a strong middle class supported by one bread-winner making enough to comfortably support a family is over. But the solution is not to let the middle class fall into poverty. The solution is a universal basic income and other policies that will get us closer to a world that works for all.

It’s time for us all to steer towards a world that works for all.