Scarcity is often considered a natural, eternal condition. There is not, and cannot be, enough for everybody, wrote Thomas Malthus in 1798:
“…the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
Because of resource scarcity, life is not free; we must earn our livings. Surely, life has never been ‘free’. All species appear to organize their lives around the pursuit of vital resources, and secure them with expenditures of dollars, or labor hours.
But what if, for the first time in the history of sentient life on earth, humans in the 21st century have enough accumulated cultural technologies, ingenuity, and wealth to discard the condition and dynamics of scarcity as life’s organizing principle?
What if there is enough for everybody, and ‘earning’ a living is a vestigial imperative we can all discard in this lifetime?
In 1971, the social theorist Murray Bookchin wrote: “A century ago, scarcity had to be endured; today, it has to be enforced.” Buckminster Fuller, a pioneering, polymathic engineer wrote that it was exactly in 1969 when conditions flipped and scarcity became obsolete:
“Neither the great political and financial power structures of the world, nor the specialization-blinded professionals, nor the population in general realize that sum-totally the omni-engineering-integratable, invisible revolution in the metallurgical, chemical, and electronic arts now makes it … highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a ‘higher standard of living than any have ever known.’ It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival. War is obsolete.”
In this sense, scarcity is a specific term. It suggests the sum-total of resources required to sustain all humans at high living standards is greater than existing resource availability. Malthus believed this was an eternal condition, that resource requirements for a growing population would always outsize resource availability:
What Bookchin and Buckminster suggest is that Malthus was wrong, and the graph is already flipped. Scarcity remains, not as a result of natural conditions, but social arrangements.
Social and Technological Innovations
There are at least two varieties of innovation capable of lifting us from scarcity: technological innovations, and social innovations.
Technological innovations fuel a process Buckminster called ephemeralization — our ability to produce “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing”. We learn how to more efficiently convert the stock of finite natural resources into life-supporting forms, until our efficiency becomes such that we need not deplete resources at a greater rate than natural cycles regenerate them.
Social innovations, by contrast, frame things as design problems. Imagine you’re sitting on your hand, and it falls asleep. A technological approach would seek to build a new kind of hand incapable of falling asleep. A social innovations approach would study the configuration of the body, and report that we simply need to stop sitting on our own hands.
The same applies to resource flows in society. One approach is to invent evermore efficient resource providing technologies, perhaps until we can each 3D print every material good we need using biodegradable materials available at negligible costs.
Another is to study the configuration of society, the dynamics, laws, and ideologies that govern resource flows, and ask if there’s a better way to organize ourselves and our resources to achieve more desirable outcomes.
Certainly, there’s no reason to focus on one method to the exclusion of the other. But in this essay, I want to explore a particular neighborhood of social arrangements — economics — and how the taxes, policies, and dynamics that govern capital flows contribute to the outdated maintenance of scarcity.
The beauty of a well-functioning democracy — setting aside the question of whether or not we live in one — is that it grants us the power to agree to do things differently. If it appears that our economic arrangements are outdated, we can rearrange them. We don’t need to wait for a technological innovation to decide to organize the economy in different ways.
Abundance may already be achievable, now lying dormant, buried under old habits.
The Topology of Capital Flows
What does abundance mean in economic terms? And on the ground, in the arena of one’s daily life? In 1930, John Maynard Keynes described the transition:
“I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom the problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.”
Abundance is the process through which more and more citizens gain unconditional access to the material resources for survival and participation in society. Abundance is not receiving an income high enough to afford all you need, because income is conditional upon labor, which retains scarcity, or the conditional access to resources, as the organizing and motivating principle of one’s time use.
Rather, abundance has more to do with wealth: unconditional access, or ownership, to all the material resources one requires. The distribution of wealth, then has much to say about the distribution of abundance.
In 2018, U.S. households held over $113 trillion in assets. Distributing that evenly across the entire U.S. population, that’s enough for everybody to receive $343,000. I’m not advocating an equal distribution, but that gives an idea of how much we already have.
We know the story about wealth distribution. Figure 1 displays the middle 40%’s share of wealth decreasing since the early 80’s while the top 1% increases, and Figure 2 displays the top 0.1%’s share of wealth nearing 25%:
This growing tendency of wealth to trickle upwards is ill-suited to a democratic, wide-spread realization of abundance. From the slew of complex factors behind these wealth dynamics, I’d like to explore two:
- The magnetics of money
- (Lack of) progressive taxes
1. The Magnetics of Money
There is a certain point after which accumulated money generates a mass sizable enough to attract further money, like a planet curving spacetime towards itself. I have no idea where this point is, maybe $200,000, probably more. But at some point, just possessing a sheer quantity of money is enough to attract more at exponential rates, whether through investment portfolios, venture capital, or real estate.
Put simply, for the vast majority of the wealth spectrum, capital does not attract more capital. But after a certain threshold, it gets easier and easier to acquire more. Making money makes it easier to make more money.
The situation looks like this:
At the lower end of the income spectrum, increasing your income does little to increase your ability to increase your income. Moving from $30k to $65 might be a serious lifestyle change, but this additional capital alone is unlikely to snowball into further gains.
Imagine, rather, going from $85k to $400k. Now, you can invest your money and earn interest, requiring minimal labor on your end, and subject to far lower capital gains taxes than the labor taxes typically affecting lower and middle incomes.
To summarize: low to medium levels of capital generate low returns, while very high levels of capital generate exponential returns. As such, some degree of wealth polarization is probably inherent in the nature of capital as presently conceived (for an alternative conception, see Charles Eisenstein’s study of negative interest rate money, where capital is incentivized to circulate rather than accumulate).
With the right taxes and incentives in place, we can jiu-jitsu this upward momentum of capital to bootstrap the collective towards distributed wealth and abundance. Without them, history suggests our present course of extreme disparity leads towards collapse.
2. Lack of Progressive Taxes
A tax code that accounts for the magnetics of money would be similarly top-heavy. Marginal tax rates would increase in tandem with incomes, capital gains taxes would at least equal labor taxes, and we’d tax the wealth concentration that lies upstream of income inequality.
At present, we tax labor far more than capital gains (labor taxes average ~30%, while capital gains taxes are either 0%, 15%, or 20% max), we don’t tax wealth at all, and a recent New York Times article reports that in 2018, the wealthiest 400 households paid a lower tax rate than any other income group (22%):
Taken together, implementing higher capital gains tax rates and a wealth tax — or however we choose to construct a more targeted progressive tax system — could go a long way towards democratizing the lived experience of abundance.
Basic Income: The Revolution of Everyday Life
An economics for democratizing abundance would seek to flip the magnetics of money graph. It would try and change this situation:
Into this situation:
In this inversion, it’s easier to increase one’s income up to a certain threshold, after which continued accumulation grows progressively more difficult.
Now, let’s imagine a step further. Using the dashboard of taxes that’d help invert this curve (wealth taxes, capital gains, VAT/sales taxes, land value taxes, higher top marginal tax rates, financial speculation taxes, etc.), we could fund a basic income guarantee that would move everybody’s starting point up the curve. Doing so takes advantage of what economics knows to be true: The returns on well-being for each additional dollar of income grow larger as you move lower down the income distribution. Eliminating that lowest bracket of income would have significant impact on aggregate well-being:
But increasingly, UBI is receiving criticism from progressives — the likes of Douglas Rushkoff, or Marianna Mazzucato — who worry UBI alone will not change the underlying upward curvature of the economy. Rather, UBI would pacify and squash efforts at more meaningful reform. Without associated changes in our governance of wealth — the underlying source of income inequality — whatever money UBI redistributes might simply flow right back to those who own all the concentrated assets.
But I don’t think we should underestimate the potency of UBI as a catalyst, a flip to be switched alongside others, providing space for a profound evolution in how we live from the ground up.
UBI might not change the economy’s underlying wealth inequality, but it directly modifies the decision-making pressures of millions of citizens in the most crucial of places: daily life. UBI dampens the imperative to earn that monopolizes how un-wealthy people use their time. Thus, the long-term effect of UBI is difficult to foresee, because it’s undetermined. Rather than imposing a particular idea of how we should change, UBI plants an unknown seed. It creates more favorable, autonomous, and abundant conditions for a bottom-up emergence of however people choose to live when increasingly released from earning imperatives.
Cultural logic is the aggregation of millions of decisions, made everyday, in response to the existing ecosystem of incentives and imperatives. UBI reduces the power of existing incentives and imperatives over these micro-decisions, affording space for new decisions, and new aggregated patterns and logics to emerge.
So to some extent, implementing UBI is outcome-blind. We cannot know what will happen, for we do not know how people may — or may not — choose to live differently. UBI is about designing for the initial conditions that give rise to richer complex systems, rather than trying to clumsily impose preconceived outcomes upon interdependent systems that we cannot fully understand.
The complexity of modern life calls for this pivot from designing outcomes to designing initial conditions. UBI is a mechanism that designs for distributed abundance — what Keynes described as dampening the imperatives of economic necessity — in the initial conditions of daily life.
And as Bookchin writes in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, meaningful revolution is a “concretization in daily life of the great liberating universals:
“Out of the revolution must emerge a self that takes full possession of daily life, not a daily life that once again takes full possession of the self. The most advanced form of class consciousness thus becomes self-consciousness — the concretization in daily life of the great liberating universals.”
What Would Abundance Mean?
“Most of us like to talk about freedom in the abstract, even claim that it’s the most important thing for anyone to fight or die for, but we don’t think a lot about what being free or practicing freedom might actually mean.”
An economic abundance would invert the logic of daily life. Utilitarian labor — that is, work not for itself, but for earning — would recede to the margins. Any further labor taken on would become increasingly voluntary, uncoerced by the imperative to earn one’s living that incentivizes commodified life-forms.
Our lives would cease to be one long means to a hypothetical end, becoming more of a succession of ends in themselves.
Abundance is a new composition of daily life for all, where the marginal utility of commodity logic is decreased by the equitable affordance of basic needs. Increasing our capacity for voluntary cooperation would reconstitute the prevailing dynamics and incentives that aggregate across our millions of micro-daily decisions to co-construct the complex cultural system.
Increasingly, our cultural ecosystem could become a crafted work, built of people doing things for their own sake, with the skill and care that comes only from end-in-itself devotion to an undertaking. In the simplest sense, I’d rather sit in a chair built by a craftsmen who loves building chairs, rather than a capitalist who uses the production of chairs to maximize profits.
Similarly, I’d rather live in a culture that emerges from individuals and communities doing whatever they do for their own sake, because they want to, rather than doing so because they need the money to earn their living.
Abundance offers a new daily landscape of possibility. A culture of abundance is driven by the fruits of leisure, rather than labor. But there will be no utopia. There’s critical work to be done that requires greater skill and collaboration than ever. We cannot afford to imprison the majority of the population through earning their living in vestigial scarcity, or to continue dulling creative minds with factories of anti-education.
Glaciers are melting, school children are being shot, and we’re realizing the old American Dream™️ was a product manufactured and sold to us (I see you, Edward Bernays). What comes next will depend on the initial conditions we design for, the ground-level incentives and imperatives that govern daily life. Insofar as we manage to design for conditions of abundance, increasingly voluntary patterns of self-organization will give rise to unknowable futures.
We know the story of scarcity, it’s been playing out for millennia. I hope to witness the story of abundance unfold in my lifetime. If Buckminster and Bookchin are correct, social innovations will reveal that there is now, in fact, enough for everybody.
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