Optimistic thoughts on inequality

Sat, 04 Apr 2015

A friend of mine forwarded me a blog post (https://levels.io/a-future-of-two-extremes/)that he had read on the future of work, knowing that I’d be interested. I highly recommend reading it - it clearly explains a lot of the facts on how the jobs market is changing, making some sensible suggestions, and offering some not unreasonable predictions.

The gist of the argument is one I’ve heard before - that most people will end up out of work as technology advances, and all the wealth will end up in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of creatives and capital owners.

That is certainly a possible outcome, and not a good one. But it isn’t inevitable, and I’m optimistic that we can avoid it.

I agree that technology will replace much of what is currently done by human labour. I can see that the earning power will become less equal. Those that harness technology better, and invest in it optimally, will be at a massive advantage. But for that to imply that wealth and opportunity will become limited to too small a segment of society assumes a zero-sum logic: that the only (or best) way that the rich have to improve their situation is to take from everyone else.

But I don’t think it is in the interests of anyone, especially the richest in society, to let wealth and opportunity be limited to too small a segment of society. Being a rich minority, surrounded by huge majority that is disengaged and disempowered, is not a good position to be in.

Starting positively, I am convinced that human resourcefulness will still be capable of creating things of great value to the rich. Technology will change what we’re capable of, but I see no intrinsic reason why humans wouldn’t be capable of working with and alongside the technology to create things that make other people happy. We are still going to want humans in our lives, inspiring us, listening to us and responding to us in a way that I don’t believe a computer will ever be able to do. Yes, people could become demotivated or stripped of the ability to add this value, but the rich have got a large self-interest in preventing this.

Next, the rich benefit from being in a diverse society. They enjoy relationship with a wide range of people of different backgrounds and experiences. I don’t think many people, if given a choice, would actually choose to only interact in some super-elite - it would feel like endless string of Downton Abbey dinner parties (just without the drama or witty lines dreamt up by creative script writers).

Thirdly, as some are more strongly influenced by fears than hopes, as the rich end up with a larger share of wealth and opportunity, the costs of maintaining that position become prohibitive. The incentives for other people to steal from you, perhaps even kill you, will rise. Expecting other people to support the rule of law, when it is of less and less benefit to them, is unrealistic. You’ll have to resort to more and more extreme actions to protect yourself, at a huge cost to your own wellbeing.

Just because something is in people’s interests, doesn’t guarantee that they will do it. I’m not suggesting that everyone else should just sit back and wait for the rich to decide to contribute to maximising overall potential - there is a lot that the government can do to reduce inequality that I support. But I do think that there is value in helping those in a position of power to see that maximising wellbeing isn’t achieved by maximising their share.

Postscript - since starting this post, I've read two other articles on the subject that I recommend: