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‘For a few to be immortal, many must die.’ Comments on scarcity

April 8, 2012

A while back, I watched the film ‘In Time’ (because I have an embarrassing crush on both Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried). A central premise of the film is that there is only so much time (which in this fictional universe is also money and life) to be had, and the only way that it is created is when people turn 25, when they get a single year. Time must be earnt and spent. There is a fixed amount of time in existance. In order to get more time, you must somehow take it from other people, although as with our financial system, this is often done very indirectly. Vincent Kartheiser’s character in the film is one of the winners from this system, and says the quote in the title. 

Our current economic system may not be so blunt (or, indeed, so predictable once the premise and basics of the plot are outlined, but hey, at least the film was pretty, and was good to knit along to), but the same principles apply. For a few to live in unspeakable luxury, many must suffer.

I dream of the day when we live in a post-scarcity society. If we were smarter about power generation we could be there with energy already. We are mostly there with information and learning through the internet, although access to qualifications is still tightly controlled. It’s fairly well understood that the housing supply in the UK would be less overstretched if some elements of the housing stock weren’t kept empty for financial reasons. Food supplies are stretched in many places across the world.

Let’s take the first case. Currently, there genuinely isn’t enough power being generated to supply everyone with as much as they want. There is currently a scarcity of energy. If we were smart about energy production (and people were less concerned with what wind turbines look like, or actually investigated current nuclear power generation rather than getting scared over 1950s horror stories) we might not be able to supply all our energy wants, but we’d be a lot closer. And without fossil fuels, too. 

How about information and learning? This is more complex. The internet has fundamentally changed the availability of information. Sites like Wikipedia and the Khan Academy make information easy to access. I taught myself to knit from being a beginner to a very advanced level entirely through YouTube videos. (Incidentally, this is where my internet handle comes from. I am fearless knitter in that I am never intimidate by a pattern. I’m plenty fearful in other areas, although I try to combat this instinct.) But not all information is free. Ben Goldacre and George Monbiot have done some good work on the availability of academic research. And when you start getting onto accreditation for learning, qualifications are getting more and more expensive. So what is really scarce here? The learning, the knowledge, or the prestige? And why?

On to housing. Housing prices and rents in the UK are historically and internationally high. There are many reasons and theories about why this is the case, and whether there actually is a shortage of housing, or if it’s just unevenly distributed. 

And then food. There is a fair amount of evidence that there is, at least for the moment, enough food for everyone on the planet. There is no need for anyone to go hungry.

However, here’s the big ‘but’.

The amount of food in finite. In the language of economics, this makes it a scarce resource. In fact, looked at right, oxygen is a scarce resource. And the more one person or group of people has of a scarce resource, the less there is for everyone else.

All of which makes me kinda hate people who say, ‘don’t be jealous just because I have stuff. If you work hard, you could have stuff too!‘ Because that ain’t the case. If there is a finite amount of a certain kind of stuff, there may be enough for everyone, but the more inequitable the distribution of that stuff, the more likely it is that there will be people who don’t have enough.

That’s the heart of socialism, right there, and the basis of all criticism of capitalism. It’s not hard to understand. If there is a limited amount of stuff (money, food, shelter etc) then the more that is taken by those at the top, the less there is available for those at the bottom. Some people think that’s okay, and that you should just develop sharp elbows to make sure you’re not at the bottom of the heap. I am not okay with that. I think we’re better than that. 


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