‘Utopia for Realists’

I felt intellectually (perhaps ideologically…) hugged by this book. Not only because it shares my belief in human nature and what constitutes equality and fairness, but because it contained reams of evidence to support what a good idea Universal Basic Income (UBI) is. A good idea and an inevitability. A bit like the next Labour government – an inevitability if we just first imagine it, then believe in it and most importantly work bloody hard to make a reality.

If you’d like to hear from the man himself rather than read my take on his book, watch his TED talk:

I can’t recommend more highly reading ‘Utopia for Realists’ (borrow it for free from your local library). Alongside UBI he eloquently argues for open borders, something that I don’t cover here. The main themes that hit me are as follows.

Politics

Rutger refers to our current Western world as ‘The Land of Plenty’, a term that sits well with the ideas shared by Wilkinson and Pickett in ‘The Spirit Level’. Looking purely within our own national borders – we have so much. The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. Yet we still have immense income and wealth inequality, and many people (plenty of them working) in poverty. What’s going wrong?

Politics, is where the finger is pointed. Uninspiring leaders trapped in boring debate:

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget – that’s about the extent of our vision”

This is something I am really reflecting upon recently. What is politics, and what do we expect from our politicians?

Rutger also spoke to my discomfort with ‘nudge’:

“Nudges are hugely popular with politicians in our modern Land of Plenty, mostly because they cost next to nothing… The nudge epitomises an era in which politics is concerned chiefly with combating symptoms.”

Do you agree with this view of politics? Do our elected representatives concentrate too much time trying to stick plasters over problems rather that being bold, innovative leaders articulating alternative ways of doing things?

Poverty

Rutger is clear on how he feels about universality versus means-testing:

“a system that helps solely the poor only drives a deeper wedge between them and the rest of society”

I am firmly on the side of universality, both because it just ‘feels’ fairer, but also because evidence suggests it leads to a ‘better’ welfare state where more people are protected, more generously, from the negative impacts of ‘the market’. Scandinavian countries are often used to show that their citizens are willing to substantially contribute via taxation to their welfare state as benefits are shared between everyone, not reserved the the ‘undeserving poor’.

Furthermore, Rutger runs through evidence that shows the lunacy of our current welfare conditionally regime (benefit sanctions, ESA assessments etc) by presenting evidence that the giving people living in poverty no-strings cash results in them actually working harder.

“Emerging data from cash transfer programmes, conditional or unconditional, largely dispel the counter arguments that these programmes prevent adults from seeking work or create a dependency culture which perpetuates intergenerational poverty. On the contrary, children—especially girls—from households given cash transfers are more likely to be in education, are in school for longer, and have higher incomes as adults. Immediate effects on local trade are also positive in most cases.” Source

This isn’t the place to talk about the the Poor Law and the evolution of the UK welfare state, but Rutger seems to understand the legacy as he concludes…

“Capitalist of communist, it all boils down to a pointless distinction between two types of poor, and to a major misconception that we almost managed to dispel some forty years ago – the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve.”

Measurement

Do we need to change how we are measuring how well we are doing? This is what I have thought about the most since reading ‘Utopia for Realists’. I’ve googled variations of ‘what is GDP’ in the past and I’ve read all sorts and wondered why it all seemed so very complex, and now I know why:

“When the United Nations published its first standard guideline for figuring GDP in 1953, it totalled just under fifty pages. The most recent edition, issued in 2008, comes in at 722. Though it’s a number bandied out freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.”

(The final claim in the quote above is taken from a book I have on my bookshelf waiting to read ‘GDP – Brief but Affectionate History‘ written by Diane Coyle. Very excited to read this).

It’s not just GDP that is a highly questionable way to measure the success of our societies however. I agree with Rutger that we need to fundamentally reevaluate value. We need to reject the trope that bankers (for example) need to be paid extravagant wages as that’s the only way to attract ‘the best’. The best at what, making us all poorer?

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So, what can we do? Rutger suggests:

“I’d argue it’s time for  new labour movement. One that fights not only for more jobs and higher wages, but more importantly for work that has intrinsic value.”

It’s not just how we tax different types of work that needs questioning. There is a problem with the type of businesses that are dominating ‘the market’. I’m talking the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.

“Whereas in 1964 each of the four largest American companies still had an average workforce of about 430,000 people, by 2011 they employed only a quarter of that number, despite being worth twice as much.”

Compare Kodak, inventor of the digital camera who filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In the late 1980’s it employed 145,000 people. Fast-forward to the modern day and look at Instagram, the app used to share free online mobile phone photographs that was sold to Facebook for $1 billion, and was staffed at that time by 13 people.

“The reality is it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.”

There is a problem that centres around productivity and growth, and politicians focusing on either or both of these as measures of a country’s success are shielding an important truth that concerns the living standards of workers:

“It began around the year 2000, with what two MIT economists called ‘the great decoupling’. “It’s the great paradox of our era” said one. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs.”” Source

Power of ideas

Linked to the problems identified above are how we relate to each other as humans, and who/what is ‘powering’ our culture?

“Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that pay for prime-time advertising. If a political party to a religious sect had even a fraction of the influence that the advertising industry has on us and our children, we’d be up in arms. But because it’s the market we remain ‘neutral'”

However, there is hope. Think about the members of Mount Pelerin which included the ‘fathers of neoliberalism’ Hayek and Friedman. They fought hard for their ideas to gain prominence. They were the outliers, the oddities. Let them be an example of the power ideas. While the substance of their ideas have been wildly negative in impact, let the fact they are and were just ideas give us great hope. Let us use them as an example of the utility of embodying the patience and the courage to be utopian.

“Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.””

While being utopian in our thinking may be the first step towards a different future, it’s no good just discussing these ideas in our echo chambers. ‘Thinkers’ are important in helping us imagine alternative paths, but they must be understandable to the average person. Surely one of the lessons from recent political times is being from the ‘middle-class urban elite’ is a barrier. I am worried about the left not learning this lesson well enough:

“If you can’t explain your ideal to a fairly intelligent twelve-year-old, after all, it’s probably your own fault. What we need is a narrative that speaks to millions of ordinary people.”

Rutger is an excellent example of a writer who perfects making his ideas thoroughly accessible. Yet, who outside of the echo chamber I inhabit (people who read contemporary political non-fiction/people active in a local political party) will be reading this? My family members won’t be reading this, or most of my friends. They’re busy living their lives; looking for a new job, squeezing in food shopping around children activities, watching TV.

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Hillbilly Elegy Review

Hillbilly Elegy written by J.D Vance is an interesting story about the life of an individual living in a part of the world I know nothing about, the Appalachian region of the United States of America.

On the front cover of the book is a claim from a critics that the book is “profound… a great insight into Trump and Brexit.” While I have come away with a slightly deeper appreciation of why some people may have voted for Trump in the last presidential election, to suggest the experiences of a self-professed American hillbilly can be translated to our recent British political experience seems a little far-fetched. In fact it seems a little insulting when considering the very personally specific experience Vance shares with us about his Hillbilly identity and culture.

Improbable claims from reviewers aside, the story itself is an interesting and moving portrait of a man who faced a very difficult upbringing yet managed to find a ‘way out’ of the welfare dependency Vance sees around him. The love of his family, and the hard-work of Vance as an individual can only be applauded.

Welfare dependency is described by Vance as an objective fact, the reality of many, and often the fault of the individuals concerned. This is where I start to feel uncomfortable. Not only because the welfare dependency thesis is highly disputed, but because his opinion and experience conflicts with my academic understanding and if I’m really honest, left-wing bias. Am I being arrogant, to consider my own reading (and experience in a different culture and country) may give a more accurate picture of where to draw the line between personal responsibility and the efficacy public policy? Probably not, because I believe in pluralism and it’s interesting to read something that I disagree with, a chance to sharpen my critical analysis.

The source of my discomfort is more tied up with recent political debates around the role of expert knowledge (in itself something I find positive for bringing epistemology for the layman into public discourse) and a concern around the power of implicit ideology. Vance presents as a ‘normal bloke’, someone at the coalface, and that makes me and no doubt others want to truly believe his perspective on the world, not just on his life but as able to explain why so many people in the area he has lived and loves chose to vote for Trump. In terms of Trump specifically, this book did give me an insight into the deep love of country felt by some, and how the ‘make America great again’ campaign could play very nicely into this sentiment. Past that, and in terms of Brexit, nothing more.

Vance is just one man and this is not a political scientist account of voting behaviour. Yes, he has a unique insight I will never have because he is part of a particular group and deeply connected to others in it. Yet, Vance is speaking from a particular position of conservative ideology; he cites Charles Murray without question, a man famous for castigating many people as belonging to an ‘underclass’. This is a highly political view that clouded the entire book for me. This notion of people choosing a ‘lifestyle’ of welfare dependency is highly disputed, not just within academic circles but within UK popular culture, my personal favourite being Charlie Brooker and friends using satire to show just how hateful this view is.

My recommendation would be to enjoy this book as an interesting story about an individual living in a place different to where you live, while being aware that the views espoused about welfare dependency are just that, one mans view.