The Subjective Nature of Scarcity

‘Mum, I want an iPad too!’, ‘Really?! You’ve got tickets for Glastonbury? Aah…I envy you so much right now!’, ‘You’ve gotten a bonus of 150.000 dollars?! Jesus…well, believe me: in a couple of years from now, I’ve got that too.’

More opportunities and more possibilities create more wants and more needs. Hence it is very plausible that we – the ‘rich people in the West’ – have more unsatisfied desires than the ‘poor in Africa’, numerous of which are starving each day due to a lack of food. After all, we want an iPad, MacBook and iPhone; they only want some bread and water. Hence we are the ones having more unsatisfied needs, thus we are less satisfied than the poor in Africa. Poor old us: it isn’t easy being rich…

Scarcity is defined as the ‘insufficiency of amount or supply’ of a good/service. Note the word insufficiency in this definition, since it is this word that points to the root of the problem. Unlike things as ‘supply’ or ‘amount’ – that are quantifiable and hence (at least partially) measurable or objective – ‘sufficiency‘ is an intrinsically subjective judgement. And the problem with something being subjective, is that it is relative; its ‘value’ is determined by means of comparison to what is going on in one’s surroundings. And if you’re living in a rich environment, an environment in which iPads and MacBooks are within reach for everyone, then this environment is likely to make you want different (read: less basic) goods than you would have wanted if you’d been living in, let’s say, the poorest regions of Africa.

Capitalism is a train, and profit is perishable. Yesterday’s profit is not today’s profit. And it is today’s profit that counts. Standing still is falling behind; you have to keep moving in order to keep your balance. That is the system we’re living in and that is the system we’re constantly trying to prevent from collapsing. Not because we want to keep it on its feet, but because we have to: after all, we are part of the system too, and we have got to make sure that we keep on our feet.

Sure: you could be stubborn and decide not to take part in the ever-continuing rat-race called ‘the economy’. But what then? Where do you – and where can you – turn to? Nowhere, right? You need your money in order to stay alive: in order to satisfy your iPad-needs, your longings, desires and deepest fetish-like obsessions, you have to keep on producing and buying. We’re locked up in a prison: a prison we’re painfully dependent upon.

We could of course turn to communism, an economic system without money. By doing away with money, we might do away with the vicious circle of making each other more horny and horny for bigger and bigger goods. A horniness without an organism to mark the end point of our satisfaction-seeking journey. No money means no satiable goals – or at least no goals that are within financial reach. And no satiable goals would prevent us from having feelings of insufficiency. But communism…hmm…that doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? No: we’d rather keep on hoping for that Lamborghini.

But what do you think?

An Unequal Distribution of the World’s Wealth: Is It Fair?

50 percent of the world’s wealth is owned by 2 percent of the world’s (adult) population; the bottom half of the world’s population barely owns 1 percent of the global wealth; 10 percent of the population account for 82 percent of the world’s wealth; Africa owns 1 percent of the world’s wealth, while Europe and North America account for respectively 30 and 34 percent. These are figures, and figures don’t lie. So: what to infer from these figures, or more importantly: what should we infer from these figures? One thing is for sure: the world’s wealth is not fairly distributed, or at least not in an economical sense.

I am not going to make a plea for worldwide communism, in the sense that the world’s wealth should be distributed equally among all of its inhabitants. That would be unfair, right? To have people working to pay for other people’s laziness? No, that doesn’t seem to be the optimal option. It could work, of course, if everyone of us would be prepared to work his ass off in favor of a more prosperous world overall. But we don’t want a world that is more prosperous ‘overall’: we want our wallets to be filled with more prosperity; we want to make sure that we are fairly rewarded for our contribution to society (or the world for that matter). Because, as is the case with the worldwide pollution and exploitation of fossil fuels: you can play the nice guy but, in the end, the nice guy will get screwed by the more selfish – or more intelligent; depends on your perspective – people. The prisoner’s dilemma seems unsolvable in a world like ours that is crowded by insecure people; people that see each opportunity to cooperate as an opportunity to be screwed.

Nonetheless, I want to trigger your imagination with the following (unrealistic) idea: what if we could take the world’s total wealth as it currently is and divide it by the total number of people living on this earth, and give every individual this average amount of wealth to start their lives with. See it as a kickstarter: when you are thrown in this world of ours, you will be given some certainty; a buffer, so to say. You can decide for yourself what you want to do with your buffer; you can spend it on drugs, or you can use it to start your own business; you can decide to buy a car that you don’t actually need, or you can save your buffer money for buying a house later on. You can even bundle your wealth with the wealth of others in order to create bigger and collectively shared goods (like roads, schools etc.)! It’s totally up to you.

In our world this ‘starting amount’ of wealth would be 26.202 dollars. Note that this is wealth per capita and not income per capita. Income is nothing more than a temporary reflection of a country’s wealth; therefore a one time change in income will not make much of a difference; not without increasing the wealth (factories, technology etc.) that underlie it.

This ‘wealth sharing kick-start idea’ I’ve presented can be though of as a variation of John Rawls’ idea of the the veil of ignorance. This is a well-known philosophical thought-experiment, that goes (more or less) as follows: imagine that every person on this world wouldn’t have been born yet. All of us would be standing behind some kind of curtain separating us from the earth that we are about to enter. We don’t have any idea about what our own capabilities (where we’re good at) and the capabilities of others will turn out to be when we in fact enter the world. Also, we don’t know what our fate will be: we might become a plumber, but we might just as well become a CEO. All you know is that you have to make one decision now, and that decision is: when all of us will enter earth, what will be the ‘fair’ manner of distributing the income we will come to earn and the wealth we will accumulate? Are we prepared to pay for the medical care required for someone’s handicapped son (which, remember, could be you; you after all don’t have a clue about how you will turn out to be), or don’t we find that fair? And if we would find it fair, how much money would you be prepared to lay aside for these expenditures? Again the question is: what is fair?

Rawls’ message with this veil of ignorance is that, if everyone of us would imagine him or her standing their, behind the veil of ignorance, we might come to notice what a truly fair world might look like; irrespective of our own particular situation. Like any thought experiment, one can debate whether it would even be possible to think about ‘how the world should be’ without knowing anything about yourself or the world. Let’s however, for the sake of the argument, assume that we could. Now I ask you: what would you do? Would you commit to the wealth kickstarting plan, or would you gamble and hope you will become the next Bill Gates?

What do you think?

The West versus The Poor: Who is in Charge?

We need oxygen. We need food. We need shelter. We need money. We need so many things, just in order to stay alive. And for as long as we are alive, we are involved in this exchanging relationship with nature. A conversation that we always try to pull in the direction that is best for us. And we have become pretty good in this. We can use nature’s trees to build our houses, we can use nature’s oil to fuel our cars and we can use nature’s drugs to pleasure ourselves. However, there is one natural resource we have difficulty mastering: the human resource.

The human resource is just another resource we need to say alive. However, in contrast to the passive part of nature, we have to be a little cleverer in our approach of the human resource. We can’t just reap the benefits, move on to the next one, and start all over again, right? No, because – in contrast to potatoes – human resources are autonomous; or – in contrast to potatoes – humans understand that they are autonomous. So we have to be smart; we have to use our intellectual super powers nature has endowed us with in order to trick them; in order to make them do what we want. And Bam! There it is: civilization is born.

But let’s – for a moment – shed of the norms and values society has poisoned our brains with; let’s for a moment imagine that we are starting from scratch, and let’s think to ourselves: what would be the best for us? That is: what would be the best for this collection of “Mes” (plural of “me”). What if we could just cultivate people like we cultivate grain? To just have acres full of them, use them when we need them, and move on to the next round? To only extract value without giving anything in return? To use their powerlessness and dependence on us as being their only need we have to fulfill? That would be great, right?

Okay, back to reality: because, aren’t we in fact already doing this? Using the powerlessness of our fellow human beings for our own benefit? The most striking example would be of those people working their asses off in some kind of sweatshop in Vietnam, or any other “less-developed country“. Aren’t we just using their dependency on us – on our money – as being the only reason they don’t leave us? The only reason that they don’t die? Just like grain depends on our water and our fertilizer in order just to stay alive? Aren’t they just as interchangeable as resources like grain and potatoes are? After all: does it matter what piece of grain we put in our bread? And does it matter what Vietnamese made our shoes? The only difference might between grain and Vietnamese is that the Vietnamese might have more potential than the average piece of grain.

But that’s how we want them; vulnerable and fully dependent upon our money just to stay alive. Because the more dependent they are, the less they need. The less they have, the more they can provide us with. And you know what is the best part of all of this? We think that we are fighting the good fight; that we are helping those poor people to stand on their feet. After all, if we wouldn’t be there, those people would have nothing, right? They would die, they wouldn’t be able to take care of their families etc etc.

But is that true? What about those hunters and gatherers we descended from? They seemed to do pretty good without sweatshops, right? They seemed to live a rather autonomous life; not dependent upon “the West” for them to feed their families. Isn’t it that we are in fact preventing those poor people from standing on their own feet? That we are providing them with the illusion of wealth; the illusion of their dependency on us? Aren’t we just rationalizing our immoral behaviors because – in our hearts – we feel that “we are just good people”? Aren’t we changing seats; aren’t we the ones that are dependent on them? And aren’t we the ones that should prevent them from discovering their autonomy? Aren’t they the ones in charge?

Or as Rousseau once said: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. The only question is: who are the guards and who are the prisoners?

What do you think?