Artificial Scarcity In A High Surplus Society
The only thing between us and what we need is an illusion of money.
I’m not rich. I’m not poor. I’m fairly middle class. I have a decent house not quite out in the boonies, but close. I have two cars I hardly ever drive anymore. I have a pantry and refrigerator full of food that, combined, would last a couple of weeks if I were to stop buying food today. I have enough heat in the winter and enough cool for the summer. I have space to roam in my house during the winter. I have more than enough TV to watch, with gigabit internet service and a soft data cap of 10TB, that I will never, ever touch, even working from home.
I live a life of relative abundance, even while supporting a family of four on just one income. My wife works, but she works in a nail salon for fun. It’s kind of her hobby. She might bring in some chump change from a voice job, too. But she’s not working if she decides not to. We’ll still be OK.
There was a time in my life when I did not know abundance. I rented rooms. I didn’t go on vacation often. I spent a year on disability trying to figure myself out. I spent a few more years working under the table, scraping by, not really living to my potential, not really using my talents. Back then, I was selfish, isolated, and jealous. I think it’s fair to say that to the extent that I was selfish, I was poor. I did not know then what I know now, that when I help others, it always comes back, and I usually get back more than I put in.
There was a time in human history when we were just scraping by. We began to band together in groups to better defend ourselves from predators. We lost most of our body hair to become predators. We developed the ability to sweat to outrun our prey. Our prey had hair, couldn’t sweat, and could only run a sprint. We developed the capacity to run for miles. We were a low surplus society if you can call it that.
Then we developed the capacity to grow our own food. Our surpluses began to grow. We formed groups, dug irrigation ditches, we built walls and armies to defend our group. In Mesopotamia and Sumer, most people had land they could not lose in return for labor expended on building walls, digging ditches, and serving to defend the group from outsiders. They were still a low surplus society then, but they had a surplus.
This surplus is what distinguishes man from the rest of the animals. Animals tend to live for the moment. They can go for a few days without food if they needed to. We could too, but we don’t like being hungry, so we started to grow and store our own food. In ancient history, taxes were paid with food. The rulers of ancient societies imposed taxes that were paid in food measured by weight or volume, in return for the safety provided by the land, the water service, and the defense provided by the army.
In times of drought, flood, or other calamities that disrupted the harvests that were usually enjoyed by the family farms, the rulers issued debt amnesties, for there was no surplus to tax. But there were other creditors that didn’t want to stop collecting, and the rulers were aware of them, too.
Some of the people in ancient times figured out how to loan their surpluses out at interest and they accumulated wealth in the process. They were not so interested in getting paid back as much as they were interested in using the debtor's default to lay claim to wives and kids for their labor. Ancient creditors began to amass wealth in labor and they began to compete with the ancient rulers for labor. Then creditors began to go after the land.
Creditors began to accumulate the land and the labor to themselves. The rulers found that people would flee the land to escape the debt. This deprived the ruler of the labor required to dig the ditches, maintain the walls, and serve in the army. Ancient rulers issued decrees to annul the debts of the agrarian peasants to stave off the competition from the creditors and loan sharks.
This cycle of debt accumulation and debt annulment recurred for 3000 years of early human history. We are no longer a low surplus society, yet the debt remains.
I look around me and I see a society that tosses much of its food. We buy clothes even when we have clothes we no longer wear. Women are notorious for collecting shoes. Some people buy a new car every 3 years. We buy houses that take nearly a lifetime to pay off, and then we fill them with shiny, pretty things. I admit to doing this myself, I know.
During this pandemic, I have seen lines of cars that stretch for miles, filled with people waiting for food. One study says that 54 million Americans are not getting enough food. This, in a society awash with cool, shiny gadgets on the cheap from Amazon, Target, and Best Buy. This is a society where housing prices continue to rise. According to The Guardian:
A report by Swiss bank UBS found that billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter (27.5%) at the height of the crisis from April to July, just as millions of people around the world lost their jobs or were struggling to get by on government schemes.
Judging by the number of people still living with their parents, starving or losing their jobs and losing access to health care, we wouldn’t know that the United States is one of the richest countries in the world. So if we live in a high surplus society we now have some idea of where all that surplus is going.
Remember all that talk about how automation was going to make our lives better? I sure do. No matter how productive we have become with technology, most of the surplus generated by that technology is being scraped off at the top. If billionaire wealth has increased by 27% in less than a year during a serious recession, shouldn’t that mean that wages would rise by 27%? It’s almost as if the wealthy are doing great business, but sharing none of that with the rest of us. It’s like they’re passing most of their business between each other, excluding the rest of us. When the stock market hits a new record high, that’s great for the 10% of the people who own 85% percent of the stock, but terrible for the rest of us. Wages don’t go up when equity markets go up.
There is another thing that distinguishes humans from other animals: our capacity to cooperate and collaborate. We invented language just for the purpose of cooperation. We live in a society that is rich enough to take care of everyone, but that’s not what’s happening. The disparity we see in the rate of growth in wealth between the wealthy and the rest of us is not a sign of cooperation or even collaboration. That disparity says exploitation.
That same article in The Guardian goes on:
Billionaires’ fortunes have swelled by $4.2bn (or 70%) in the three years since Stadler warned about the threat of a global uprising against the super-rich. “We’re at an inflection point,” Stadler said. “Wealth concentration is as high as in 1905, this is something billionaires are concerned about. The problem is the power of interest on interest — that makes big money bigger and, the question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
That’s a really good question.