In amongst a steady stream of police procedurals, I’ve managed to slot in this slightly more brain-expanding book by Rutger Bregman. It’s incredibly inspiring, in the middle of Brexit-depression, to read someone who is so passionate and creative and optimistic about our future. And about the fact that we can and will make change: and it is an encouraging read, and one that challenges your own personal shibboleths about everything from earning a wage, working hours and, well, work and the entire purpose of your life.
Much of the substance focuses on the ‘universal basic income’ and Bregman has become known as ‘Mr Basic Income’, and his promotion of the idea has seen it gain currency and led to some new pilots. I hadn’t realised how close America had come at various times, particularly under Richard Nixon, to putting something similar into law – a fascinating glimpse into a radical alternative American past and future. Bregman is compelling on the topic, marshalling evidence to his case and also pointing out how poorly previous evidence has been interpreted. I don’t think I’m 100% convinced, particularly of unintended outcomes, but I’ll be interested to see how the various test-beds play out.
There’s also much here that’s very familiar – progress is decoupled from economic progress; GDP growth doesn’t result in growth in life satisfaction; inequality is rising – but Bregman has a fine turn of phrase which bring things to life, and cuts through the jargon. Take this on how the best minds of our generation are using their brainpower to get more of us to click ads for things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like (I’ve stolen that from him too):
Even now, a vast amount of talent is going wasted. If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible, and it makes your head spin. Imagine how different things might be if our generation’s best and brightest were to double down on the greatest challenges of our times. Climate change, for example, and the aging population, and inequality … Now that would be real innovation.
I ended that paragraph with an internalised “Hell, yeah!” As I did when he writes, “The reality is that it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.” This sentence gets to the problem at the heart of tech for good, the future of employment, business ownership, Uber-isation and much more besides; and highlights another reason why simply using GDP as the indicator of success is increasingly pointless. We won’t be celebrating that Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg have got inordinately richer through better AI and robots….or that the benefits of our economic progress have actually been exported to four houses in Silicon Valley. Bregman quotes someone else, who says “Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” Who said that? Simon Kuznets, the man who came up with GDP….
It’s not a balanced book – Bregman is unashamedly progressive and on the ‘left’ (if such a thing exists anymore), even if some of his ideas stem more from the ‘right’ and libertarian-type values. And there will be things you disagree with or that disagree with you (he has a great chapter on our own ability to find the evidence and examples to support the case we already agree with, in which he questions himself as well). But it’s a heartening blast of optimism – and sets a challenge to us all: be part of building a better future, get on with it, and don’t be doomed by the naysayers. At the moment, that feels an important message to grab hold of and to try and imagine a more utopian world.
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