Whose Is It?
he subject of the title question of this essay, It, concerns the two most contentious of things: land and wealth. Who owns the land, and why; and how should wealth be distributed, and by whom? Of course these two are not completely separate questions, but they are not identical either, so it is useful to think of each of them separately before attempting to develop an answer to the common question they pose: Whose is it? And this question of course is merely a factual one—we pretty much know who things belong to—that begs the more complex question: Who’s ought it to be?
When I was a boy of eight or ten, our family, Mom, Dad, and my brother and I, had a short vacation in a resort area called The Dells in Wisconsin—it was only a short trip from our home near Chicago. There, my Dad took it into his head to buy each of us, even my mother, genuine Indian bows and arrows. They had been made by a tribe of native Americans at the Dells and were being sold there at a roadside stand by the Indians themselves. These were the first real Indians I had ever seen. They were dressed in some form of Indian costume, presumably for the edification of the tourists.
For a boy of my age, seeing real Indians, close-up, was impressive. Their reality was qualitatively different than seeing pictures of them in books. It thrilled me and planted in my adventurous boyish mind the wonder of what it must have been like for their tribe here, years and years ago, before the white men came. I could easily imagine them hunting deer and turkey—and perhaps each other—with bows and arrows just like the ones they had sold to my father.
When I was a young man of twenty or so (then learning to be a draftsman), my then boss, a Mr. Quilty, rarely had the time to chat casually. An older man, rather tall and slender, and a registered engineer of some dignity of bearing, he had my attention on those rare occasions when he did. At one of those bull-sessions he spoke of his father, who had been a military man. I think he said that he had been a Major in the US Army. (With respect to his father, we are now reaching back into American history to a time probably in the late 1800s.) He told me—and it was easy to tell that he was dead serious—that his father hated Indians and had fought them in the West in what was then called the Indian Wars.
By the passionate way he was speaking, it was easy to tell that Mr. Quilty hated the Indians just as much as his father had. He said they were sneaky savages who stole anything they could, and who killed men, women and children indiscriminately when “on the warpath”. His contempt for them was palpable. Finally he said—and this is the part that got to me—that they very much enjoyed torturing their captives slowly and gruesomely to death. If true, this was a deal-breaker for my fascination with the Indians. This picture of the Indians, the natives of our country, clashed with my former idealized view of them, but since I didn’t have much time to think about it until many years later, this conflict remained an unanswered, niggling question tucked in the back of my memory: What sort of people were these Indians, really?
When I retired and had plenty of time to read I attempted to resolve this difficulty. I tried to choose historical, not popular, selections, those that might finally give me a true picture of the matter. This was harder to do than I had expected; each author seemed to have a predisposition concerning the true nature of these people. So initially I bounced back and forth on the matter, but gradually, over quite a number of books, a picture began to emerge, one that I thought had some truth to it.
The Indian culture seems to have had a number of admirable qualities: their ability to live in and adapt to nature—which is to say that they were formidable woodsmen—first among them; and they formed stable families, managing to raise their children in such a way as to preserve their culture and maintain their respect for their forefathers, and their old people (important to me now); their words, stoically few, direct and earthy—good qualities in my view—seemed almost poetic, at least in translation; their individualism seemed attractive too, almost democratic. Yet among these blessings was buried a curse as well; they seem to have had little inclination to organize for large and difficult projects, preferring individual attainment to complex group goals where credit must be widely shared, especially when satisfaction must be postponed. In short, they seemed not to have much stick-to-it-ivness.
My readings confirmed their proclivity for torturing their captives. Even their admirers admitted it. I could understand at some level the requirement of their culture for these acts—the authors I read were as one in confirming that it was an outgrowth of their admiration of, and need for, personal bravery. Young men were called braves and warriors for a reason. Bravery was necessary for the tribe’s survival. The shared, public torturing viscerally emphasized the dire consequences of loss at battle. It thus upped the ante of warring to the point where battles of insufficient seriousness may have been avoided simply because the consequences were terrible to contemplate. Yet I still couldn’t seem to get over my disgust for it. This reasoning didn’t sufficiently explain to me the joy they seemed to take—even the women and children—in the torturing process.
I’m not especially squeamish, and I try to guard against applying today’s standards to yesterday’s doings. I can admire the Roman Empire in spite of their slavery, their gladiators, their cruelty and their demagogy; they were masterful organizers and their civilized accomplishments were many. The Greeks, ditto. Alexander the Great, ditto. But the Indians—what did they accomplish after all? How did they improve the situation on our planet?
I can see how some idealists—those who feel that life then was as good as it ought to be—might feel that the Indians’ life, blending closely into nature, was idyllic; they are admirers of the Rousseauesque view of natural man, of living with nature rather than attempting to dominate it. But I do not share that enthusiasm: it is not only that, now old, I cherish my high-tech pacemaker and the other paraphernalia and pharmaceuticals of old age; it is not only that I treasure my pleasant winterings in the Caribbean; it is not only that I feel my children will likely enjoy a fuller life than I—and that comforts me; it is mainly that I think man should do what he can to improve his lot in this life, and that of all his fellows as well. I am an activist in this respect and an optimist.
Once, when I was quite a young boy, I was told by my father that the man who owned this one particular store in our small town was a Jew—I don’t remember the reason it came up. I didn’t then know just what a Jew was, nor why the fact seemed to be of interest; and I wasn’t sure how he could tell that he was a Jew in the first place; he seemed to look pretty much like everyone else in our town (there were then no black people living there amidst the huge fields of corn). My parents, relatively liberal for those times, were not disparaging Jews, of that I was sure. As I grew older and the picture came somewhat clearer, I realized that the Semite in question seemed to have plunked himself down in the middle of a small American pond of Midwestern Germans, the ancestry of most of our locals then, in Naperville, Illinois. I suppose my dad just thought that it was a fact that I ought to know.
At about the same time I clearly recall seeing newsreels (there was no television and so the news—brief segments of it—were shown at the end of the double-feature movie for which I had paid 12¢ for admission of a Saturday afternoon) that showed the skeletons, some live, most not, in the concentration camps in Europe as they were liberated near the end of the Second World War. Even at that time there was some question as to whether the Jews should have permitted themselves to be put in such a fix with such apparent docility. So it seems to me perfectly understandable that the Israelis, some months ago, reelected Binyamin Netanyahu, a known political hardliner. They simply are not going to let this happen again with impunity; it is far beyond the rational level now and into the visceral. I have noticed lately that, in the world as a whole, sympathy for the Israelis, at a high point in the West just after World War Two, now seems to be melting away, a spring thaw most visible in Europe, where the Palestinians are now sopping up most of it.
The point I’m working up to here is that, as with the Indians, my feelings toward the Israelis are only now, in my old age, stabilizing: was it right for them to have displaced many the of the local people, the Palestinians, to scratch out a place once more in their ancestors’ homeland for themselves? The convoluted and tortuous legal history of this Middle Eastern region—if it can in any conventional sense be called legal—is practically indecipherable; whatever moral signal that might be broadcast by receiving the nearly endless facts of the matter is practically dissipated by the great noise of the propaganda on both sides.
I’ve chosen these two situations that have personally interested me, both issues that focus on the control of land, one historical, the other current—the original takeover of the Americas by the Europeans and the ongoing conflict concerning Israel—out of a large batch, nearly countless, that might have been nominated for a discussion on how to answer the question concerning land: Whose Is It?
Not very long ago historically, land essentially was wealth, or at least the two were as entwined as the individual fibers of a rope. But during the last few hundred years, only a speck of historical time, this tightly wound composite has been fraying; science and engineering, marketing and finance, communication and transport, all now hyper-activated through what we have come to call globalization, have conspired to marginalize the significance of land, per se. Not long ago, nearly within my lifetime, most working people of the world farmed the land directly for their sustenance; now, on the entire planet, only four percent of us do. So, in the same way that my title question asks about land, it also inquires about wealth in general, as distinct from land. Two examples will make this clear:
· Japan is a rather small country in terms of land, 68th in the world in fact, smaller even than Paraguay. Before WWII, the Japanese—with so little of it—had seen land as the sine qua non for gaining wealth and power; and seeing this, they conquered and ruled Northern China, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan (Formosa), and aspired to the control of yet more of the world’s land. Nevertheless, only half a century after the nearly complete devastation of its industrial base in the war, and now confined to their home islands, Japan, through skilled design and manufacturing processes, produced more than any other country in the world, except for the United States which has a land area more than 25 times larger.
· Germany, (curiously 69th in rank of area) had the same idea at about the same time, and for nearly the same reasons. And as a consequence they too, during WWII, proceeded to conquer most of Europe, North Africa and more. They even aspired to conquer Britain and—fatally—Russia. Yet, less than half a century after the war, rising from the complete devastation of their economic base, and now restricted to a land area shrunk to about half the original, West Germany proceeded to become the third largest producer in the world.
The importance of production that is distinct from land can also be understood by considering the sheer amount that is now being produced annually, much more than at any previous time in history. This prosperity is now only loosely tied to the “ownership” of land itself; more important are the technological processes, the financial management, sophisticated transportation systems, and the cooperative political systems that we now term globalism.
hat rationale ought to be used to answer the title question I have posed: Whose Is It? Of course this is a moral decision, one that depends upon one’s goals and beliefs. Mine are outlined in an extensive essay that I wrote some years ago concerning religion and politics, the two subjects one is advised never to discuss at a party meant to be amusing, as these topics tend to raise the angst and the noise in the room, and may even endanger the glassware. I titled it The Big Ones. It is the story of how I came, willy-nilly, to have religion in the first place, and then, thoughtfully, to discount it. In that essay I ask—and try to answer—whether this loss of religion and belief blasts away all morals or if there still remains, after the explosion, a human need or desire for them anyway. I think that there is. This smaller essay here, concerning only the question “Whose Is It?”, is best seen as an extension, an elaboration, of a certain portion of that very broad, thus necessarily thin, article.
Writing a thesis such as The Big Ones is enlightening for the author—as well as, he hopes, the reader—because he has to think coherently about matters that, in a busy life, he has only considered in snatches as time and inclination permitted. To my surprise, in writing it I came to see our peculiar little monkey-like humanity, all of us folks here on our planet, itself hardly a speck in the universe, in a new and more all-inclusive, brotherly light. I was also unable to avoid clearly seeing the irrationality of a God—we seem to be entirely on our own here. Understanding our condition in this way for the first time had the peculiar effect of enhancing my feelings of brotherhood with all humankind; peculiar because in leaving religion behind, I seem to have arrived, through the backdoor as it were, at one of its universals. I not only came to accept our isolation in this vast universe—and our loss of an afterlife—calmly but, strangely, the notion made me appreciate our own achievements even more. It has been a very rough ride but we finally, and suddenly, seem to be getting somewhere:
As part of my work on that foundation essay I stumbled across a great surprise: toward the end of the 1800s the world’s well-being began to rise sharply. It surprised me because, understanding intuitively that we are better off now than we were hundreds or thousands or millions of years before, I had supposed that we had only very gradually improved our situation. This was wrong. It happened all of a sudden, in historical time. (In another sister-essay called The Curve, you can read more about this unprecedented world change and its potential for further, and even more spectacular, improvement.)
his sudden increase in our well-being over the last few hundred years seems to me to point clearly to the ethics that ought to govern the answer to my title question: Whose Is It? This ethical path has two mandates:
1. Maintain the acceleration of the growth curve that is, for the first time in our existence, making our lives vastly easier, and, at the same time:
2. Assure that all corners of our world benefit from this increase no later than may be necessary in order to support the first mandate.
Significantly, these dual goals seem appropriate regardless of whether one is religious, agnostic or atheistic. For those of us in the last category these dual mandates have more meaning, and seem more poignant, because for us they are all-important; they are all. But nevermind that; why are these mandates not a proper goal for everyone?
(I don’t mean to imply that these are my mandates; I believe them to be merely a statement of the grand—if slow—system within which our species has been operating for a long time.)
There is obviously a certain tension between these two mandates: overemphasis on the first mandate—merely expanding the growth in wealth—may diminish achievement of the second mandate, a just distribution. And, to say the same thing in reverse: prematurely equalizing the distribution may jeopardize the continuing increase in wealth itself, certainly an indispensable requirement of the overall regime. The answer of course is one of balance; to continue moving forward at optimal speed it is occasionally necessary to brake as well as to accelerate, in order best to navigate the curves encountered in the road. Yet the second mandate, distribution, is second for a reason; the generation of well-being is vital.
Each era defines its own balance between generation and distribution. Correct policies for the Ptolemies and the Caesars are not best for today’s Presidents and Prime Ministers: situations change; the cost of error changes. This statement of the issue may seem casual, even flippant, but in fact as the world’s situation changes, the balance between the implementation of the two mandates changes with it:
· In a dangerous situation all must perform as they are able, to alleviate the immediate fraught circumstances in which all have a crucial stake; rule must be tightened; conservatism rises; we return to some extent towards tribalism—now, distribution be damned; preservation becomes the highest value.
· In a benign environment the freedom to choose, to follow improbable paths and even, perhaps, for some to be indulged, is not extravagant and may in the end prove radically beneficial; think of entrepreneurialism, venture-capital, financial flows and the heavy risk-taking that much of this involves; think of the changing role of women and the immense benefits (undoubtedly with accompanying liabilities) that this new thought-pool brings to a technological and political society.
What are the paramount ways of implementing these twin goals: continuing our progress and achieving the widest practical distribution of its fruits? With these twin mandates as guides, I want to revisit the issues I raised earlier: Who has the ethical right to the land and how should general wealth—considered as distinct from land—be distributed?
First, I reconsider the indigenous American Indian and the history of their near-extinction or marginalization by the European colonists in forming what is now the modern Americas. I will concentrate here on the United States of America where the impact was more extreme and, because of that, less ambiguous.
The English Colonies in the east essentially destroyed the culture they found, quaintly leaving behind only the Indians’ names for some of the major rivers (the Ohio—Iroquoian for Great River) and for some of the places that had long existed (Chicago—Potawatomi for Wild Leek). In the process a great many of the indigenous people themselves were destroyed. Using the modern term “ethnic cleansing” for this devastating operation would certainly not be too harsh.
Yet, in coldly considering our first mandate for the curve, generation, it cannot plausibly be argued that the American Indians, left to their own culture and skills, would ever have significantly contributed to the spike of world well-being in the way that the American Colonies, after their continent-wide takeover, have done. (Though certainly the colonists built upon the thoughts—and the capital—of the Europeans themselves.) Concerning the second mandate, the distribution of this generated wealth, I will discuss this topic below. But one must ask in the first place, What sort of world would have been built had the Europeans simply stayed home? Surely a much poorer one—for everyone.
Second, let us rethink, in the light of our first mandate, the current conflict in the Middle East, not at this time close to any sort of resolution. Here I turn once more to the strange case of that grain of sand now aggravatingly embedded in the oyster of the Middle East: Israel. Is not the appropriate question that must be asked here whether it is possible for the oyster to create a pearl of it? For anyone who has lain asleep these last few decades, here is my brief of the story so far:
The Romans, in a pique, expelled the Jews from their home in the Middle East in the year 132, but made an only middling job of it; the Byzantines rectified this lapse a few centuries later. Between the two of these then-powerful blocks, the surviving Jews were scattered, most significantly it seems into Europe. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Germans under Hitler, with considerable assistance from other Europeans, murdered, in an industrial fashion, about six millions of them and, of course, many others fled to other parts of the world.
Even earlier in the twentieth century, Zionists among the Jews, attempting to fulfill prophecies in the Bible, began to resettle into Palestine, from where they, as a polity, had centuries before been expelled. After the Second World War, and the destruction of European Jewry in what has come to be known as The Holocaust, this exodus-redux picked up pace dramatically, as one might imagine, and over 600,000 Jews had returned to the vicinity of their former homeland by 1948. These resettled Jews in Palestine then fought a war of irregulars with the Arabs, and won. Then, to cap it off, the United Nations Security Council acquiesced in the creation of the state of Israel, thus firmly embedding the irritant in the body of the oyster. Significantly, the Arabs and, more generally, the Muslims, did not assent to this decision and have been fighting the Israelis on and off, hot and cold, physically and politically, ever since.
So far this is merely a statement of events and no conclusions have been drawn. But now, in thinking of the first of the dual mandates, generation, it is possible to see that in the right circumstances this small grain of skill and determination that is Israel, this irritant, could contribute to a much needed uptick in the equilibrium and wealth of the entire region. For me, only in this way, can this modern incursion be justified. Mere sympathy for the Jews seems to me insufficient. Importantly, this synthesis cannot be achieved solely by the Israelis themselves, it must be in collaboration with the Muslims to be truly effective. The present situation is having a negative effect on the world’s well-being, the most important thing. Yet this strange and unlikely marriage has substantial potential and for that reason the world ought, in my view, to abide the dissonance for awhile and keep trying to get these cousins kissing. But a purely political, negotiated solution does not appear to be gaining much traction, and that, after enervating diplomatic efforts over the last few decades.
A more practical solution might take the form of economics rather than politics, copying methods that have been used successfully to resolve even more fraught issues in other places and at other times, issues that were at least as difficult as this one. Certainly the Israelis are technologically able to lead this effort, but whether they are psychologically capable of it is less certain.
I think of the America of 1850 or so, of which, prior to end of the Civil War, few people would have believed that the north-south divide could ever have been bridged. Although it was certainly a bloody fix, it was a fix. I think of the communist Chinese just after 1949 and compare that with the situation in that region today; another instance in which blood flowed profusely in the achievement. But the resolution, though still tender, was achieved when the Chinese themselves changed their economic policies, not their politics. Well-being is a powerful determinant. I could go on to many other similar instances—there is a great bunch of them—but my main point is that fundamentally most of these advances were achieved when commercial interests took primacy over purely political considerations.
If I believed that the Arabs, their culture dominant, could achieve by themselves what this shot-gun marriage has the possibility of achieving, I might change my mind. Unfortunately, there seems to me few signs that this is possible. Today, the Arab culture in particular, and the Islamic culture in general, seem irretrievably tribal, though that is certainly a considerable exaggeration; they have shown significant cultural capacity in the past, but it now seems to be blocked.
ow I turn to the distribution of wealth, that directly attributable to the control of land, but also that which is in some sense independent of it, and more important for that: property is limited; intellectual property is not. There are two extremes concerning distribution, each with their proponents, and then there is that vast middle ground which we have trod for some centuries. Let me call one extreme the left and the other the right, since this convention conforms with common terminology.
On the extreme left we have advocates for completely equal distribution, and on the right we have those who advocate distribution solely via market mechanisms. And the stuff to be distributed includes not only wealth in the traditional sense, but what has come to be known as “social capital” and other goods both tangible and not. My description here of these positions may at first seem argumentative in their extremity. They are not meant to be argumentative, it is simply this: it is in their severe statement that they are most useful as a limit. They establish margins, though it can easily be understood that these extremes are positions which few would wish to occupy.
The main argument on the left:
Why should society have rich and poor? Why should those born to wealth continually have a leg-up on those born into poverty when each of them, the well off and the poor, seem to have been established in their position quite by accident of birth? Why should the fourth daughter, born in a dirt-floored, corrugated-roofed hovel in Somalia not have the same opportunity as the lad whose first crawling was over the plush carpet of a Manhattan penthouse? No blame nor righteousness can be assigned to either of these innocents.
Once, in the early 1990s, I read in a newspaper article of an interview that was had after the Cold War had ground to an end and the reintegration of Germany was well underway. German wealth was flowing-in massively to the East from the West—to the consternation of many in what had been West Germany. But the sense of the interview was that many of the former East Germans, all now better-off than under the communists, said that in fact they had been happier before, when everyone had been poor together. Now that some had more wealth than others, those with less than others were less content, even though all had more. It was the equality itself that they treasured and recalled fondly, even more than they did their increased comfort.
I read a similar tale in a completely different context in the book Among The Believers (the Muslims), written by V. S. Naipaul in 1981. Part of it concerned an Indonesian man who had, through considerable effort, been schooled and had taken a decent job in busy, thriving Kuala Lumpur. He had grown up earlier in a small Indonesian village some distance away, in the countryside. He told Naipaul of the contentment he had felt in the village. All there were very poor, yet there was a mutuality that sustained the villagers in spite of that, and it seemed to the teller that he had lost rather than gained in the move; something valuable in his life was now missing. At times it almost seemed as though Naipaul had been interviewing a child, yet on the surface he was an accomplished man with considerable responsibility.
It is not hard to sympathize with passions like these since we have all felt, simply by growing up, that we have lost something valuable. It is difficult to become an adult and accept the new responsibilities thrust on us, to ride the roller coaster of adult life.
Are we in the West not, in a certain sense, the Kuala Lumpur of the world, just a larger version, a newly fast-paced zone still uncomfortably surrounded by the slow and stagnant backwaters of the still-vast poor of the world? One could also compare the North and South of the planet; this seems to be equally as distinct a fault line in respect of wealth distribution. Whichever line one chooses, the needful on the poor side of the fault line seem, even to us on the rich side, in some peculiar fashion, more pristine, spotless and pure than us with our modern technology and systems. And the poor blame us for upsetting them so, for seeding them with the irritation of growth and newness. And they—being adult as individuals, if childlike as a society—see our impurity. Yet, at the same time, they need us; they need our medicine, our technology, our machinery, our schools, our knowledge and our ability to organize grand projects. We, the fast moving, are a dichotomy to them, a magnet with two poles, one attractive, the other repellent.
Can it be that, as an entire species we all must grow up? There are a surprising number of people who feel that no, our interest ought to be less in the accumulation of wealth—and even the well-being that accompanies it—and that we should lean more strongly towards achieving happiness with what we have, to adjust our wants to our means, to accept—even to welcome—a state in which we seek transcendence over materialism.
Rather than trying to answer their argument I will simply leave it to their children, who will certainly do it, and much more effectively than I could.
The main argument on the right:
Wealth must first be generated before it can be distributed, and capitalism and globalism have proved the most successful—if somewhat messy—processes in this regard. As Adam Smith wrote these plain words in 1776:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.
This famous quotation is, unsurprisingly, interpreted by many to mean that distribution—the second mandate—will, through the intercession of an “invisible hand”, take care of itself. But is this true? Here on the right margin it is easy to say that a rising tide lifts all boats. But can it be shown that it will indeed do this? It is easy to see capitalism and globalism as rip-offs of the struggling poor, wealth generated on the backs of the underprivileged by the shrewd and grasping.
In the year 2000, the income of the world was roughly the equivalent of 60 trillion US dollars in purchasing power parity. And, since there are about 6.5 billion of us, if we divide it up equally, each man woman and child on the planet will have a little over $9000—at least for the first year. What a windfall for those poor now living on $2.00 a day, which amounts to only $760 a year. But this “ideal” distribution would completely destroy our magical wealth curve, and in short order.
It is still necessary that resources in the form of wealth be distributed most generously to those who show some ability to capitalize on it. The man in Jakarta who sweeps the streets simply does not have the ability of a scientist or engineer, or of a Californian venture capitalist, or a New York financier to contribute to the generation of new wealth, and the sweeper would inevitably be among those ultimately worst-hurt by an equal distribution stratagem.
So far, in writing of wealth, I have simply used annual income, not wealth at all, as an indicator of relative wealth. It is simply a measure of velocity not of space traveled. The reason I chose income is that no one has much of an idea of what the world’s wealth is. And if they did it is not clear what such a number might mean. But there is another, and more important, form of wealth. Consider:
Just what would be the value of a nuclear power plant in Uganda, absent people with the knowledge to operate it? What would be the value of millions of barrels of crude oil, absent the people with the knowledge to extract it, ship it, refine it, and without the people with the need for it for their sophisticated processes as well as for their comfort? What would be the value of a vast and fertile land where bushel upon bushel of wheat might be grown, except for lack of the technology to till it, nourish it, and harvest it, and without a distribution system and some form of commodity market in which to sell it? You see the problem.
Knowledge is the ultimate wealth, the input without which natural resources, even land, have limited use. Yet what about simply growing and extracting and using a very minimum of the natural goods available locally and naturally? It’s been tried. And it gave rise to Hobbes’s phrase: [a life] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Shall we repeat this? Shall we climb down from The Curve and return to our “natural” place on the earth? Shall we reduce our population to what this natural system can support?
Think of your mother; will you leave her to die when she becomes 50? Think of your children; will you permit many of them to die-off and let the others struggle under the tremendous odds that we have faced before? No! Our species must grow up even if it is difficult and at first unsettling. Difficult decisions must be made and sometimes nasty ones, those for which we must choose the lesser of two evils. We cannot let a perfect answer get in the way of a good-enough one. We are humans after all, the sum in a way of millions of poor choices made by nature, and a few good ones. Perfection is something we strive for, not something we have achieved.
What then can we hope for? If we cannot sustain equal distribution, and we cannot abide extravagantly unequal distribution, where does that leave us? Of course we must choose an intermediate point. But that point need not be, and is not likely to be, a stable point. As wealth generation increases, equality of distribution ought to increase as well. When problems arise and wealth generation slows, distribution must slow as well. The upward curve must be maintained unless we are to slip back to our formerly static existence—not to mention the nutrition-poor and shrunken bodies that this ultimately implies. I think that a long-term look will show that equality of distribution is occurring, and with luck this will continue. Many suppose that our wealth is already sufficient, and that it is distribution that now lags behind. Perhaps…
If one reads very much that has been written by those concerned with the distribution of wealth more than with its generation, very much of it concerns the distribution of wealth within a nation. Charts of inequalities of one sort or another proliferate in modern writing as buds do on spring trees. And those authors’ blood rises most quickly when thinking of their own country where they see inequality close-up. This seems to me shortsighted and naïve:
We are now at the at the very beginning of the greatest distribution of well-being ever known in the history of man. But to see this it is necessary to consider the world as a whole and to understand different forms of distribution. Day by day, year by year, tremendous strides are now being made in several very large developing countries, places which only yesterday in historic time were considered economically irremediable. Hundreds of millions of people in these countries have been lifted from desperate poverty. And one of the key reasons for this has been the inequality that is now being sustained within the developing countries; and, as well, in the developed countries. Both have reason for satisfaction and for hope for the future.
The nuclear reactors being built today in China were not invented by the Chinese. The vaccines for the elimination of poliomyelitis were not developed in India but in the United States, and they are now being distributed freely worldwide by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or, since nothing is free, on the back of the profit of Microsoft, Mr. Gates’s capitalist software machine. The machines used to pave roads in Nicaragua were neither developed nor were built there. The treatment for AIDS was not developed by large pharmaceutical companies in Ethiopia; the expense of its development and distribution has been borne in largest part by the United States of America. The basic technology to design and construct jetliners was not developed in Brazil but is being used there quite effectively to increase The Curve for Brazilians, and secondarily for all of us. The chips, the computer technology, the software, the communications and the spark of the ideas that made possible cellular phones and the World Wide Web: all were developed by those with the wealth, and with the ability to make something of it.
This recitation is merely to indicate that distribution can take place—and perhaps most effectively—not by redistribution, but by the distribution of knowledge that, once developed, initially at great effort, is available to all, either freely or at prices greatly reduced from what it would take to develop these technologies once-more from scratch. And a side effect of this sort of redistribution is that the receiving (or the purchasing) countries gradually have this technology-transferred locally which amplifies and distributes critical knowledge, and perhaps generates more of it.
Finally, one of the critical reasons for this global increase in well-being, this knowledge distribution, is that within those countries which we now speak of as developed, each person does not equally receive $9000 per year.
As wealth increases in developing countries, inequalities rise there as some few, those that are first able to, “take hold” there. And, as well, in developed countries, inequalities arise as well from world advancement and new sorts of jobs must be created in wealthy countries, jobs which previously didn’t exist. It is not inconceivable that, with increasing automation, we can conceive of methods to do work without actually having to do boring, strenuous, even debilitating, work ourselves. This, it seems to me, is where we should aim: at creative thought; at artistry; and at craftsmanship seen as art; even at entertainment, a great source of pleasure; working when we choose, at what we choose to do as we push The Curve just as high as we can.
So the answer to the question, Whose Is It? is messy, and it is unfair—if, by fair, one means equal. But we should take heart; what a future our species can come to if only this messy process can be continued and inequality can gradually be mediated. It is not too much to say that labor, by which I mean work that is not fun, will disappear entirely, and that the creative work that remains will interest and satisfy us.
Futurists, by and large, are nearly always wrong in the short run, and nearly always right in the long run, reflecting I suppose our optimism, the quality that has gotten us to where we are. So permit me to speculate, as a budding, if old, futurist, that the breakthrough of the initial knowledge that we now begin to have concerning the makeup of our own genetics is, I think, as underappreciated by those now living as has been the suddenness of the rise of The Curve of our Well-being. With this knowledge it does not seem impossible that we might for the first time take charge of our own design.
Yes, it’s a scary idea in a way, but it seems to me quite likely to happen eventually. These things are difficult to stop, once started. And it is started. If it is any consolation to worriers, as bad as our mistakes might be in this project, they’re not likely to be worse than nature’s, the definitive messy designer after all, and one that seems to take a hell of a long time to finish anything useful. If we can, by design, improve the organ that most distinguishes us from the other animals, our cerebrums, it is very difficult to imagine what we might not then do.