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America: The Last Bastion Of Poverty - Elf M. Sternberg
America: The Last Bastion Of Poverty
The United States will never grow up.

I don't mean that in the sense that we're primed to elect Donald Trump to the presidency, or that we're still way too goddamn squeamish about sex. I mean that in the sense that we in the USA will never get our maturity fast enough to treat ourselves fairly.

In every fully mature country in the world, countries like Sweden, Japan, Norway, and South Korea, poverty is understood to be a contingency: it happened not because there was something wrong with you, or even with your parents, but is a result of a great many things, most of them historical in nature. Where you were born, the quality of schooling available there, the quality of food available there, the prevalence of clean water, the wealth, knowledge, and habits of thought your parents inherited from their parents, all of them contributed to your ability to navigate the modern world effectively and to your advantage. Yes, innate ability is a part of it, but only a tiny part, a fifth of all the influnces at best.

Ijeoma Oluo captures American attitudes toward this reality perfectly. Americans internalize early on, young in life, that innate ability is the only thing that matters: everything else can be overcome if only you're good enough, strong enough, Darwinian enough. And if you aren't, you deserve the shit life pour on you. You don't deserve a single goddamn good thing in life. (There was another beautiful story about a young boy growing up in poverty whose brother saved every penny he could to buy the kid a Nintendo handheld game, but the kid could never bring himself to play it. He felt ashamed to have something so shiny when his family was so poor. I wish I could find it again.)

Oluo says that every pleasure poor people buy is turned into a form of self-loathing. She hated her mother for buying an indulgence, and now she regrets the hatred American culture heaped upon them both for their shame.

So when Timothy B. Lee points out, we're all in that same boat, what are we gonna do?

It's popular in lefty circles to claim that capitalism requires constant growth, which is a quadratic factor on consumption: that is, if growth continutes as a static percentage, consumption must increase exponentially. The Earth is a finite resource: exponential growth will ultimately overwhelm the carrying capacity of the Earth and doom us all.

We may already be there.

If we're not doomed, let's press on. It's popular in righty circles to argue that the lefty claim is wrong: what people want changes over time, and that can be expressed as "growth" that isn't really consumption. After all, we want more and more exciting electronics, but they consume surprisingly smaller amounts of electricity as they get more and more efficient at meeting our needs. We want better and more wonderful houses, but they're also marvels of efficiency and insulation. "Growth" and "Consumption as a factor of the Earth's carrying capacity" are separate and unrelated, according to this view of economics.

I would call bullshit on this stance, but doing so may actually be completely unnecessary. Something more significant is at play nowadays: The end of significant technological improvements.

(Yes, I'm perfectly aware of then-Commissioner of Patents Charles Duell's infamous "quote" in 1899 that "Everything that can be invented has been." Duell never said it. In fact, Duell wished he would live longer to see what the 20th century would bring forth. I wish Duell were still with us; I'd love to share a drink with the man.)

As economist Timothy B. Lee (no relation to "Sir" Timothy, I believe) points out, outside of IT, medicine, transportation, we are out of room for technological improvements. The low-hanging fruits of food distribution, clothing, and housing have all been super-saturated.

I'm not sure Lee's inclusion of transportation is even vaild. Transportation of people is actually a political problem.1. Intermodal cross-ocean transportation of heavy goods has other technologies that are only now starting to come on-line as shippers look for ways to reduce costs.

Medicine and IT still have a long way to go, but I believe they're the only spaces really left. Services may have a long way to go in the US, but that linked-to article isn't really far off (I'm already ⅓ of the way there myself). Medicine and IT are also, like IT and transportation (or IT and dating!), about to become one and the same.

But if, outside of medicine, all economics becomes signalling economics ("I'm richer than you are, na-na na-na boo-boo") (Gods, I love that there's a Wikipedia entry for that!), then what for the impoverished? Especially if you're disciplined enough, or simply not interested, that you have time to spare? Some guys may be busy fucking their sexbots, and others may just be lost in virtual realities, but short of the Introdus, there's going to be an awful lot of people who haven't had the luck, circumstance, or (circumstantially-given) will to acquire the resources or (if they have the resources) the interest to play the signalling game.

What becomes of them?

Jacobin has four possbilities. I would love for "Egalitarianism and Abundance," but in a world of utter abundance, those in power would chafe having to share their world with the likes of you and me.

Which is why I say America will never grow up. America is the perfect place for "Hierarchy and Abundance" to emerge, because those who know Egalitarianism is the right outcome would never admit it, and those who chafe under Hierarchy have spent their whole lives not merely accepting it, but promulgating it not only to others, but to themselves.

1 Transportation is such a solved problem that I have had some thoughts about how to exploit it.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
resonant From: resonant Date: May 13th, 2016 12:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Housing is ripe for technological disruption. Construction in North America is still largely craftwork. Some of the construction techniques in China will revolutionize it as much as the Toronto Slab revolutionized high-rise construction.
elfs From: elfs Date: May 13th, 2016 04:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't disagree. For pre-facade Brutalist architecture, KITE Systems construction offers an amazing way to build buildings with insane speeds, and you can apply a lovely facade afterward if you care.

But these are problems with distribution, not technology. Like transportation, there are a large number of solved problems that, like the future in general, are not yet widely distributed.
2 comments or Leave a comment