Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S3. EPISODE 4
Pardons, Guaranteed Income, and “Superabundance”
Featuring Gale L. Pooley and Marian L. Tupy
Has anything changed since #MeToo started? When is Indigenous Peoples Day? What’s the deal with guaranteed income? Plus, maybe the world is doing better than we thought. Authors of the book “Superabundance,” Gale L. Pooley and Marian L. Tupy, argue that we are capable of more progress the more the world’s population grows.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am here with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of the Progress Network. And we are looking at some of the stories that get short shrift in the face of a tendency of both media and human nature to focus on all that’s going wrong. You never hear the question “What could go right?” You always hear “What could go wrong?”, “What could come next?” So as we are all focused, as we should be, on crises, international and domestic, bombs in Ukraine, challenges in East Asia, politics in China, partisan elections in the United States, all these things deserve our attention, but there’s a lot of other things that deserve our attention as well that don’t get our attention, largely because in the old news adage, if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead. And so we don’t end up focusing on these things the way that we ought to, which is why we are doing these conversations. So we’re gonna talk a little bit about what we haven’t been talking about, we being the collective, not we being The Progress Network. And then we’re gonna have a conversation with the authors of a new book called Superabundance, which makes the argument that the world is indeed showing more progress and more positive change over the past several hundred years, and indeed even over the past couple of decades than most people tend to believe. You know, one item came up from our discussion last week about the rise in crime is that most Americans believe that crime has been rising every year for the past 30 years, even though it is only in the past 18 months the crime has actually risen statistically. For the other 28 of those years, it was going down. So perceptions about change and progress are often negative, and the reality of change and progress, at least in terms of numbers and hard facts, is often positive, even if sentiment doesn’t necessarily track those numbers. So we’re gonna talk a bit about what is Superabundance and is there plenty or is there scarcity? And what does the future hold? Emma, what should we be looking at that we haven’t been?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So we have a marijuana update. I thought maybe we would start there since [laughs] it’s always fun. So Biden pardoned federal marijuana possession charges last week. And, you know, we mentioned the numbers on a previous episode of the podcast. It’s not that many people, it’s like 6,000 people in the last 30 years, something like that. So the numbers are small. That’s just federal, right? Biden obviously can’t do anything about the states, but he was urging state governors in his announcement to also pardon marijuana charges. So we’ll see what happens next. But it doesn’t seem to be like, you know, I can imagine a world not too long ago if when this had happened that there would be a huge cry against it, but there wasn’t. It’s kind of a bipartisan issue at this point.
ZK: Yeah, I guess the next thing will be whether or not Congress passes these various laws that have been percolating, but never really reached a president’s desk to decriminalize marijuana at a federal level legally, as opposed to what Biden did, which was an executive decision, but it doesn’t actually change the law.
Audio Clip: So today I’m taking three steps to end this failed approach. First, I’m announcing a pardon for all prior federal offenses for the simple possession of marijuana. There are thousands of people who are convicted for marijuana possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result of that conviction. My pardon will remove this burden on them. Second, I’m calling on all governors to do the same for state marijuana possession offenses. Third, the federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, the same as heroin and LSD, and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense. So I’m asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate a process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
ZK: And I think that’s the thing that a lot of advocates of actual decriminalization of marijuana are pressing for because, as we’ve talked about, the state by state approach, while it’s incredibly valuable, still crashes against the illegality of marijuana at a federal level and creates all sorts of headaches. Although, again, if you’re opposed to legalization, it’s the one thing standing in the way between what the states are doing and the apocalypse.
EV: Yeah. The one take I saw on this recently, that was like, oh, this just seems like kind of new information that I didn’t know, was that the marijuana that circulated today, even the marijuana that’s, you know, being sold legally, is like a new, more potent form than, you know, pot that maybe was being smoked back in the ’70s.
ZK: Correct, it absolutely is. But then again, people then tend to smoke less of it. Anyway, let’s not go into the specificity, the how tos of [laughs]-
EV: [laughs] Right.
ZK: -how to best get stoned by The Progress Network.
EV: [laughs] What Could Go Right? [laughs]. But yeah, so moving past that, another thing that happened on the federal level actually last year, but it’s sort of coming into play this year for the first time, is sort of a representation win, but also leading to just a little bit of confusion on the ground, at least in my experience. And that’s the artist formerly known as Prince, in other words, the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and which day is a holiday on. Some companies did Monday, some companies did Tuesday.
ZK: You know, my Outlook calendar is clearly confused about this as well because when I looked at it today, it actually lists both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day side by side as the holiday today, as if it wasn’t really sure which side to come down on, and it decided, as a good AI, to be value neutral about this. Like, I don’t wanna offend anybody. This is my computer talking, of course. Look, these are really freighted discussions, clearly, and have been for the past years. And finding a way that kind of respectfully embraces what are seemingly antithetical points of view is a real challenge. And, you know, the idea that it has to be one or the other, or we have to get rid of the old because the old is tainted, like I personally find the continual rebranding of the past problematic in that you then run the risk of actually forgetting your past because you’re so busy scrubbing it of the things you don’t like, which purportedly is the thing that you’re scrubbing it for, meaning there’s a lot of people feel like too much of the American past has been whitewashed, so we’re gonna change that and create a much more complicated picture. But if you do that excessively, you then erase the very thing that you’re trying to get people to remember. And, you know, calling it Indigenous Peoples’ Day brings in a whole other part of our history, but not calling it Columbus Day erases part of our history in the process.
EV: Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s where the confusion lies too, is that Biden actually– he announced Indigenous Peoples’ Day as October 11th, so yesterday, last year, 2021. And clearly, he was caught in this tension that you’re describing because he didn’t wanna just say, “You know what? Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples’ Day” because people would’ve had reactions about that. He did wanna celebrate, you know, indigenous people in the way that they haven’t been celebrated up until now. So he just went with Tuesday, October 11th versus Monday October 10th, and now you have this practical reality where, like I said, half people are off Monday, half people are off Tuesday. I’m sort of on the side of like, I think that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is great. I wonder whether doing it on a completely other day would’ve been better because it seems like we’re trying to thread the needle here and it’s just not quite working out. And I would’ve loved to see like a full-throated like, hey, we’re doing another holiday for indigenous people ’cause they’re also important to our history, period.
EV: So another thing we wanna talk about today is basic income pilots.
Audio Clip: The Promise Pilot will provide $500 monthly payments, no strings attached to 3,250 Cook County residents for two years. When people in our communities are struggling to make ends meet, the most helpful thing we can do is give them cash. Decades of research show that participants use the cash benefits wisely, and that there are significant positive impacts, including economic, physical, and social wellbeing.
EV: So, you know, we can thank one of our Progress Network members, Andrew Yang, for really popularizing the idea of universal basic income in the last presidential elections. So people are really familiar with universal basic income. Guaranteed basic income is a little bit different. It’s not passed out to everyone. It’s in a certain amount of money, somewhere between a few hundred to $1,000 per month to very particular portions of the population. , so people just at the poverty line, just above the poverty line, sometimes single mothers. And around the country, people have been running pilots to see how this is gonna go. And they just came out with the data for that, for 20 different pilots around the US and, you know, what people were spending the money on. And it turns out it was retail services for the most part, and then food [laughs]. So necessities.
ZK: Yeah, and I mean, you’ve had also some of the people who have been the champions of it at a political level, like the mayor of Stockton, Mayor Tubbs, who lost reelection even though he was a champion of basic income. So as an electoral hinge, even if it’s popular notionally because people tend to like getting money, it hasn’t been a winning proposition politically. The question is, is it a winning proposition economically? And the point of UBI has been, unlike Western European societies, which have guaranteed certain levels of basic services in a non-means-tested way, you know, basically if you’re born into the societies, you’ve got healthcare, you’ve got education, you have housing. You have education in the United States, but you don’t necessarily have healthcare and you certainly don’t necessarily have housing. Whether or not just sending people direct payments is a way of making sure people are secure in their basic necessities. And the study tries to look at what the legacy has been so far. I think part of the challenge has been, it hasn’t been quite enough money, you know, it’s been more of a supplement to other benefits like Social Security or Medicaid or some of the housing programs. And if it’s so selective, I’m not sure you get the social buy-in of what would this mean writ large. That’s not an argument against it. You have to start somewhere, right? I’m just more wary of what the early signs are, whether we can really conclude that much from them.
EV: So I have a fun fact about this too, because Credit Suisse did a global wealth report a couple of weeks ago, and they studied in particular where wealth was moving in the US during the pandemic and part of a result of these, you know, stimulus checks. And what they found is, you know, there was this interesting narrative during the pandemic that the wealthier are just getting wealthier. And that is true. What was interesting was that they found, you know, in the percentiles during the pandemic, that the wealth was moving towards the 1% and then towards the bottom 50%. So if you’re in percentiles 99 through 51, sorry, it might have not been a good time for you by the numbers, but if you’re at the very top, I mean, okay, they’re already 1%, they’re fine, we’re not gonna worry about them. But there was wealth that moved towards the bottom 50%, which was very– you know, it’s interesting to see that, you know, data back up what you’re saying.
ZK: And one of the negative consequences of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates and potentially cooling off the job market is it’s the first time in generations, in the United States at least, that you’ve seen meaningful wage gains in the bottom 40%, you know, the bottom two quintiles. And yes, some of those gains have been eroded by inflation, meaning if your wages go up 10% and inflation goes up, you know, 6%, your real wages are only going up 4, which means you’re not feeling as good about it, and you may be more focused on the prices going up than your wages going up. Nonetheless, it’s the first real wage growth, and some of that’s attributable to those direct payments, some of it’s attributable to those direct payments, then leading workers to demand higher wages as a price of going back to work after having not been at work physically, or some of them not at work physically, during the pandemic. So it’s a really– you know, it’s a fascinating time, and I think the idea that we need to squelch this recovery because of inflation, which would also then mean potentially squelching the wage growth that hasn’t gone on for decades, is something we need to think much more seriously about when making public policy, we being Federal Reserve, we being people who try to influence policy.
EV: So our last [laughs] quick topic for today, which is not so quick of a topic, is we are coming up on the five-year anniversary of #MeToo. Seems like a lifetime ago, to be honest, [laughs], but, you know, Pew Research did a study to see what the lasting effect of #MeToo was. More than 50% of people say that it has had some kind of positive effect, namely that if you sexually harass someone at work, you’re more likely to be held responsible and those who experience it are more likely to be believed, which seems great. The caveat to that is that it broke down in a highly partisan manner, so that’s one interesting piece. And the other interesting piece is that I think it was 46% of the men surveyed said that #MeToo movement made it more difficult to know how to behave with women at work, which I find interesting [laughs].
ZK: Maybe not a bad thing, like a little uncertainty, a little unsettledness, a little more open discussion about, okay, how should I behave? Rather than an assumption of here’s how I’m going to behave. That could be a very positive thing, at least as stated as I’m not sure. Like, I don’t think this uncomfortable uncertainty is a bad thing.
EV: You know, I appreciate your positivity about that because I read that completely as a complaint, [laughs], but maybe that’s a negativity bias of my own. [inaudible]
ZK: No, I think to a lot of people, it was a complaint. I’m saying that I don’t think that that is a complaint that should be taken as a bad thing.
EV: That’s true. Yeah. No, change by its nature is difficult. My, like completely sarcastic, you know, response to this, which I will try to swallow, but it’s not working, I’m just gonna say is like, really? Is it that difficult, guys? [laughs] just don’t sexually harass people, You’re gonna be fine.
ZK: I think yours is at least a good starting point.
EV: [laughs], yeah, just baseline level. Try not to sexually harass people and you’ll probably– everything will go right. [laughs]
ZK: I think we can rest on that as a good foundation.
EV: [laughs] Perfect.
ZK: Let’s move to another conversation about certain uncertainty, which is basically, is the world getting better or worse? Are we beset by too much or too little? Is our challenges going forward going to be environmental catastrophe juxtaposed to insecure populations around food, shelter, clothing? Or are we reading the past, misinterpreting the present, and forecasting the future in a way that reflects what was a problem a hundred years ago and doesn’t reflect the progress that’s been made and continues to be made? And we’re gonna have a conversation with two authors who have a very particular view on this, are very clear about what they think, and hopefully we’ll engage them and maybe get them to think as well about their uncertainty about what they think., just like I try to do with myself and Emma tries to do with herself, and we hope everyone does with themselves, which is always question what you think you know.
EV: So today we’re gonna be talking to Gale L. Pooley. He’s the associate professor of business management at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. He teaches economics and statistics and is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, a board member of humanprogress.org, and a scholar with Hawaii’s Grassroot Institute. And our second guest is Marian L. Tupy. And together, they’re the authors of Superabundance, as Zachary mentioned. Tupy is the editor of humanprogress.org, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He specializes in globalization and global wellbeing as well as the politics and economics of Europe and Southern Africa.
ZK: Gale and Marian, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon. And your book, Superabundance is very much in the spirit of why we started The Progress Network, which was there is a lot of attention on everything that’s gone wrong. There isn’t as much attention on things that have gone right. And some of that is a misreading of what’s happened historically over the past few hundred years, a misreading in terms of our sentiment about what’s going on. And I wonder if one of you could just, kind of in a nutshell– I know you talk a lot about this aspect of economics being this toggling between scarcity and abundance, but maybe give us a like a 90-second [inaudible] of the book. I mean, Superabundance as a title obviously helps us get there, but a little bit more than that.
Marian Tupy (MT): Well, I guess I’ll start by basically saying that people have been wondering about the relationship between population growth and availability or affordability of resources for a very long time. And the logical expectation is that as the numbers of people around the world grow, resources will become more scarce and consequently more pricey. And we are not the first scholars to look at the actual data, other people have done that before, but we have simply extended this sort of empirical research into the relationship between population growth and abundance of resources. And what we found was that actually resources are becoming more affordable. They are becoming more abundant For every 1% increase in global population, we have seen the prices of resources decline by 1% and become about 4% more affordable to people around the world. So basically, what we are saying is that more people produce more ideas, which make resources more abundant.
ZK: And this is also an idea that if people like Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, and you cite a whole series of people. I think Julian Simon is one of the heroes of the book and the famous contest he had with Paul Ehrlich about whether or not resources were gonna rise or fall as population rose, which, at the end of the day, clearly fell on the resources got less expensive as population and demand went up, which was contrary to the belief that we were gonna run out of stuff, you know, that the planet wasn’t gonna be able to carry extra people.
MT: That’s correct. Certainly, Julian Simon is one of the heroes of the book, his famous wager with Paul Ehrlich back between 1980 and 1990. But the reason why we thought that another look at this particular problem is necessary is because Malthusianism hasn’t gone away. It is still very much a part of the discourse. Not only do a lot of people and international organizations talk about the problem of running out of resources, but of course we do have even instances of Malthusian violence, mass shooters around the world who left behind them a Malthusian manifesto, basically saying there are too many people in the world using too many resources. Therefore, we have to take the matter into our own hands. So, whereas I think that the intellectual debate has moved on somewhat, smart economists and smart environmentalists don’t really worry about running out of resources. The public still believes that more people will lead to exhaustion of resources, and therefore, more people is a bad idea, which is particularly timely now that on 15th of November, the United Nations says there will be 8 billion people in the world.
EV: So how do you both see addressing the general public about this? Because certainly, it can become a discussion that becomes very mathy, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I mean it in a way that you can hear someone say, “Well, actually, these are the percentages that, you know, resources have become less pricey. This is the way that resources are gonna rise.” But your mind, you know, a layperson’s mind automatically goes to well, there are shanty towns in India, and I saw these images of this person, you know, starving somewhere in Rwanda. So how do we hold, you know, this visual image against the stats? How do you communicate the story to them?
Gale Pooley (GP): First of all, I think, you know, we buy things with money, but we pay for them with time. And so our first analytical step is to try to convert money prices to time prices. And I think this is very intuitive for most people. It’s, well, how much time do you have to work to earn the money to buy that thing? And so that’s our first step. And then look at that time price over time. If it cost me an hour to earn the money to buy that item last year, and it only takes me a half an hour to earn the money to buy the item today, then that time price has fallen by 50%. We get into percentages and, yeah, you know, that’s the mathy side of it, but essentially, you get twice as much for the same amount of time, and that’s the measurement that we go to. How much is your time able to purchase you? And then from there, we apply that framework to all kinds of things. We go back and look at all kinds of commodities, products, and services and see what’s happened to the time price. And what we see is this abundance kind of all over the place from basic commodities, you know, iron ore, to the price of beef, to the price of wood, to something like a toaster, you know, a consumer appliance. So we see this abundance in terms of it takes us less and less time to buy these things. So that’s the first kind of concept. And then acknowledging that this process, it doesn’t occur around the planet at the same time for everyone, it occurs at different places, but over time, this new knowledge, and it’s really this time price as a function of this growth in knowledge. One of our other economists that we look to is George Gilder. He offers these three interesting propositions that wealth is knowledge, growth is learning, and money is time. And from those three, we derive this theorem that you can measure the growth in knowledge with time. So when we see a time price going down, what we’re really seeing is a growth in knowledge. We recognize that, look, we do live on a finite planet with kind of a fixed number of atoms, but economics is not about atoms. Economics is about the growth in knowledge and the difference really between our age and the Stone Age is entirely due to this growth in knowledge. So that’s what we’re attempting to do. The second thing that we try to do is, you know, you can compare yourself to another person today, or you can compare yourself to who you were yesterday. And that perspective of changing and thinking about who you were yesterday or your parents or your grandparents reveal something entirely different about where you stand today. And we also think that that’s actually a more proper perspective to use in thinking about what our standard of living is. Yeah, we’ve got shanty towns in India, but, you know, New York was a shanty town, [laughs] Shanghai was a shanty town. And over time, all of these places have emerged and evolved and developed because of our ability to create value for one another in these markets as we’ve discovered new knowledge, shared that with one another, and actually consume knowledge. When we consume knowledge, knowledge grows. So those are kind of the foundation principles in our framework that we use to look at the world.
MT: One of the calculations that Gale did was– you know, Gale mentioned, I think it’s worth emphasizing that, you know, progress happens in different places at different time, and actually, in some ways, progress happening in developing world, the poor countries has been at a higher rate than the progress happening in rich countries. Gale calculated it back in 1960. It took an Indian about seven hours of work in order to earn enough money to buy a meal, whereas an American, it would have cost him back then in 1960, about an hour of work. Today, that Indian has to work an hour of work, which means that he has gained six hours in which to do other things in his life. So, you know, instead of just working to buy food, he can now maybe, you know, read a children’s story to his children or go on a holiday or just work in order to do other things than just earning food, maybe buy a fridge or a bicycle. And finally, of course, in our work, we don’t look at the price of Lamborghinis or yachts. What we are looking at is basic commodities, chicken, beef, rice, coffee, tea, things like that, which ordinary people, especially the poor people use on daily basis.
GP: So I would just add to that. You know, we kinda have this little bit of an obsession with talking about income inequality. And we think that the proper way to measure inequality is time. We all have 24 hours a day and what we’re able to do with that time in our day, that difference is really, I think, what counts. I mean, Bill Gates, Elon Musk has got a billion times more wealth than you and I, but does he have a billion times more time? No, he doesn’t. And then the question becomes, well, what does he get to do with his time versus what do I get to do with my time? And if you’re at the bottom and you’re spending all your time trying to earn the money to just buy your food, and if that food price goes down, you suddenly have all of this additional time now with which to devote toward learning and creating. So we see that as much more of a proper measure, time inequality, and that’s much more compressed than this income inequality. And that’s ultimately, I think, what people are interested in.
ZK: It’s funny, you know, listening to you, it seems like you also have a– it’s kind of a radical challenge to the statistical framework that we’ve come to be sort of captured by or imprisoned by in the world that we’re living in. I mean, I did a book a bunch of years ago about how we invented our economic numbers and what their limitations are. Your approach and framework is a much more radical– `you know, we don’t measure time, we don’t measure the time benefits. There’ve been a bunch of economists, you guys included, who have begun to do this and think like using income and money as the sole gauge, particularly when fiat currency, you know, inflates, but it doesn’t necessarily change the time factor, and it doesn’t even account for the time factor, right? Like, what does one really do about that?
MT: Yeah, I mean, it would be very interesting to convince somebody like the people at Walmart or Amazon to start producing their prices not just in terms of dollars and cents, but also minutes and seconds of work, you know? And when you realize that actually it takes you only a few minutes of work to earn, I don’t know, a vacuum cleaner or a food item, then maybe that would change perceptions of people in terms of how they are living. But I think that there is a much broader problem here, and that is that we have pretty much stopped teaching history of standards of living or economic history. I don’t think we’ve ever done a very good job. You know, our history has always been taught in terms of rulers and battles and things like that, whereas the world would really benefit from trying to understand what life was like until like five seconds ago in terms of the evolution of our species. And it was incredibly difficult. And I think that if we don’t have that historical framework, then it’s very difficult to make people appreciate what they have. In other words, you can look at the present from the perspective of the past, and then you realize how lucky you are to be alive in the west today, and the response, in my view, is gratitude. But if you compare today to some sort of utopian future where everything is going to be working out for everyone everywhere, then of course you are filled with disappointment and rage and resentment. And maybe that’s part of the reason why people don’t feel particularly satisfied with their lives today, is that because, you know, they’re comparing themselves either with some sort of a perfect future, alternatively with people who are much better off rather than people who are much worse off, which of course includes everybody who was ever alive until like 50 years ago.
EV: Yeah, Zachary and I have made this joke before, like if you feel disappointed, adjust the expectations, then you’re gonna feel a lot better. [laughs]
GP: Yeah, just look in the mirror. You’ll feel a lot better if you look in the mirror and see what’s behind you. That’s what we kind of claim. I think back to this fundamental issue, you know, when economics got off, kind of, we think it got off on the wrong road a little bit when it started to count things in money, when it started to count atoms instead of knowledge, and then it started to measure things with money. So the first correction is, let’s move from money to time. Time offers these five benefits over money. First, a time price fully captures innovation because innovation will show up in lower prices, but it also shows up in higher incomes. So it’s that relationship or that ratio between the price and your hourly income that really is the measure that we should be focusing on. The second value of time over money is we can transcend all of this stuff that we’re trying to do to convert nominal prices to real prices. You know, what’s the base year and what should the GDP deflator be in? Who’s calculating that? Lots of disputes and contentions over that, that we can completely transcend. The third benefit is you can go to any place, any time and measure any product with any currency. I can go back to France in 1850 and figure out what the time price of a loaf of bread is using their currency and their local products, and compare that to the time price of a loaf of bread today in New York City. So it allows us this ability to measure with a standard unit of measurement. The fourth thing is that time is this universal recognized measurement of the seven standard units of measurement. Six of those go back to time. So if we can move economics to time, then we can base it in this unit that’s really a scientific unit that we all recognize. It’s constant, but it’s continuous, and we all recognize it. And I think the fifth benefit of time is it also allows us to think about equality a different way. Once again, we all have 24 hours in a day, so how do we use that perfect equality each day? That’s also a feature that gives time a benefit over money. And then measuring atoms or counting atoms, this idea that we have a fixed number of atoms, that that’s what counts. No, not really. It’s knowledge that counts. It’s knowledge that makes atoms valuable. And this growth in knowledge. How do we do that? This fundamental definition we had in economics that economics is the study of choice under scarcity. Well, that’s true, but what does that really mean? I mean, what does scarcity mean? It means that you have these unlimited wants and you compare them to what you have. So it’s really not measurable because you’re measuring what you have against infinity. Abundance, on the other hand, you can measure that because it’s what did it cost you today in terms of time, what did it cost you yesterday? So it’s quantifiable. So we really think that if you move from a scarcity framework to an abundance framework, you suddenly now have this way to quantify and measure it, and you see things from this perspective that reveal much more about our lives than trying to count atoms with money.
ZK: So that’s a good segue into two other aspects of your book, which are also two major sort of societal animating questions, which is clearly in a material sense writ large, most of the challenges of the present are challenges of abundance. You know, we’ve gone from starvation being something that most human beings faced as a proximate threat to life, to obesity and diabetes and attendant issues of longevity and caloric abundance, hollow calories versus no calories. And we’ve also then gotten into the whole question of what are the environmental consequences of abundant use of planetary resources? And you delve into that a lot about sort of this twined effect of what you talked about, Marian, of the Malthusian mentality, right? That too many people are gonna consume too much stuff and society is gonna collapse into the weight of that, which obviously Ehrlich sort of continued as a Neo-Malthusian in the 20th century. You know, you’re both quite critical of the environmental apocalypticism, and I think we are as well too, but not necessarily from the perspective you are. So maybe talk a little bit about that. And also, you know, one thing I’d like if we have a little bit of time to push on is the population question. I know you both say that population growth has been a driver of some of these creativities and innovation and progress, which has clearly been true. And there may be animus toward population growth in the present, but even if there weren’t animus, people are just having less kids, you know, affluent, particularly women, educated, urban dwelling, the population of the planet is cresting. So even if it has been a driver, and even if it is a good thing, it’s not clear that it’s gonna be either a driver or a thing. So maybe talk a little bit about some of those questions which you go into at great length in the book.
MT: Well, maybe I can start with the question of, you know, obesity. To me, prosperity, progress is about increasing choices for men and women around the world to do with their lives what they please, what gives them greater satisfaction. And that doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to make the right choices. You know, here in the west, obviously, in some countries we eat too much. In other countries, we eat just the right amount, and they don’t have problem with obesity. I guess what I’m saying is that people, in abundant world, can use their time and their abundance in order to enrich their lives and make them and their families better, or they can use it in order to make everyone suffer. And that is not something that I think can be helped. I mean, there is a lot of information out there that, you know, people should moderate their eating habits, for example, their smoking and drinking habits. And not to mention that this problem of overeating, whilst it is true in many advanced societies, it is not necessarily true for other parts of the world where they still need to get hold of more calories than they currently have. Your second question, you have to remind me, can you repeat the question?
ZK: Just the way in which too many people and resource demands have led to concern about environmental degradation and environmental harm. And you do push back against some of that in your book.
MT: Yes. So, you know, Gale and I accept that the world is experiencing warming. We accept that increasing CO2 in atmosphere is caused in large part due to human activity. But what we are saying is that through human ingenuity, we can do a lot. In fact, we are already seeing, as we live in 2022 today, a lot of very positive signs on the horizon. The tree coverage of Europe and the United States has increased by 35%, in China, by something like 25% in the last 20 years. That’s one example. Richer societies can protect more of their land, or rather leave more of their land unexplored by humanity, leave it for the animals, leave it for the biosphere. We have more money and more resources to protect our oceans and our seas from human exploitation. We can engage in aquaculture to grow our fish rather than catch it in the wild. Instead of using so much land acreage for production of food, we can start shifting toward hydro plants or hydro culture and even other forms, like for example, vertical growth inside cities with LED lights in an environment which is hermetically sealed and therefore you have no need for pesticides and/or fertilizer. We are living in a world where increasingly we can create meat that tastes well and is affordable by simply printing it in a lab. So there are many different ways in which humanity is addressing the problems of human consumption on a planet with finite atoms so that the environment can be progressively returned to nature. Let’s not forget the other tremendous trend happening in the world today, which is the issue of urbanization. By 2050, 80% of human population will be living in the cities. Studies show that people who live in the cities consume less energy and have less of an impact on the environment than people who live on farms and who are widespread throughout the countryside. So there’s just a lot of stuff that’s going on. And then of course, the holy grail of it all is coming up with a source of energy, which is going to provide plentiful energy for all of humanity without production of any CO2 into the atmosphere. And I think that if there is a fundamental philosophical question that people like us have to answer, or the fundamental philosophical division, it is this, there are people on the environmental side who believe in degrowth, who, if they were presented with the holy grail of fusion energy, would say that we shouldn’t produce it because they are opposed to human flourishing and economic growth, full stop. And then there are those of us who are concerned about the environment, but who are saying that it would be wonderful to live on a planet where we can produce all the energy we need without any CO2 into the atmosphere. We are pro growth but we’re also pro smart growth, and that has to be a result of of human ingenuity.
EV: So I wanted to swing back around to the question of income inequality, ’cause we touched on it before and it’s such a strong topic in the United States in particular right now. And, you know, when I think back to the example that was given about, you know, me and Bill Gates, how much time I have compared to how much, you know, time Bill Gates has to how much time it cost for me to feed myself and then I have free time, right? And how that is not so large of a difference between me and Bill Gates, even though our monetary wealth is quite different. I think where people start to rub against this in the United States is that income inequality is really a problem because you have people struggling with the baseline in the US, and Zachary and I were chatting about this before. So I feel like the time argument might not feel as strong. You have people that are down at the bottom of Maslow’s, you know, hierarchy of needs. But you have this really interesting quote in the book that really hit me, which was “Income inequality is the midwife of progress.” And I was wondering if you could explain what that means a little bit and whether that addresses at all what I just said about this sense of like moral injustice or unfairness that’s going on in the United States right now.
MT: Well, I guess since I wrote it, it’ll be up to me to try to defend my views. It’s not that income inequality alone is the midwife of progress. Almost all forms of inequality are midwives of progress in the following sense that, you know, when everybody’s equal, there is a stasis in society and inequality is the great disruptor. Let’s say that you have a company like the Ford Motor Company, right? And you introduce into the world a new form of production creating cars, whatever it was, the Model T was produced every 20 minutes or something like that, that made Henry Ford into one of the richest people in America, but it also massively reduced the cost of a motor car so that an ordinary American could have it. So here is an example of a stasis. You know, cars are produced by hand and they’re extremely expensive and only rich people can have them. And suddenly, you introduce this disruption, this inequality of production, which makes somebody extremely rich, but it improves lives for everybody else. And you can take this concept of inequality in any direction you want. For example, let’s say that we are all living in caves and suddenly it occurs to somebody that I can live on a hill and build a hut with a nice view, you know, and I can get sunshine. That in itself will produce inequality of housing. You know, that’s just a trivial sort of example, but it shows you the importance of being the first mover in any kind of situation. And when you are the first mover, when you come up with that new idea, provided that it’s a valuable idea, it’s going to make you extremely rich, but it’s also going to move the entire society forward. And that goes not just for production processes or ways of living, it goes for personal virtues. You know, are you a sporty kind of guy who eats well and then, you know, has a long life expectancy? Are you the kind of guy who eats bad food, gets obese, and dies at the age of 35 due to a heart attack? So, yeah, I guess that’s what I was aiming for.
GP: Yeah, I would just add to that in terms of when we think about new products that get developed, in many cases, these products are very expensive to develop the first unit, but the marginal cost is very, very cheap. Think about a new drug, for example. It might cost $1 billion to produce the first unit of that drug, but the next pill is like $1. It costs $1. So what should the price be? Should it be $1 billion? Should it be $1? If you have a large population and you have members in that population that can fund that initial development, that is key. It allows us to create things where the wealthier actually funding the development of these new knowledge that then the rest of us are able to benefit from. Back to your question about money and time, what would you prefer to have, twice the income or twice the time?
EV: It depends where I was on the income scale, to be honest. If I was making $30,000 a year, I’d prefer twice the income. If I was making $100,000 a year, I’d prefer twice the time, right? And depending on what country you live.
MT: [laughs] That’s a brilliant answer. I don’t know where Gale is going with this question because we’ve never done this before, but I can tell you that it’s very interesting what’s happened to the hours worked as societies become richer. They are sort of like a bell curve. You know, when you are living in a very poor and agricultural society, you work very few hours because that additional effort is not met with, you know, sufficient reward. But then as countries industrialized, the number of hours that people are willing to work just skyrockets. You know, we see it all over the world, most recently in places like South Korea. You know, in the 1970s, just skyrocketing amount of time that people worked. And then at some point, people start trading off time versus leisure and income and time you spend at work declines. And actually, throughout advanced countries, we are seeing a gradual decline in the hours worked throughout rich populations.
GP: Kind of back to your question, Emma, here’s what I’d say is you don’t run outta money. What you run out of is time to earn money. Most people would say time will allow me the ability to earn more money. So as we move as a society where people have more and more control over their time, that really I think is gonna give most people, in most cases, a higher sense of human worth and value, being able to have more time to choose what they do with that time. And that’s a function of are we able to increase prosperity on the planet for everyone? And it really benefits these people at the bottom. If you have a 90% reduction in the price of rice, for example, the people that are the prime beneficiaries of that are people that now have met their food requirement but now have six or seven more hours a day to now devote to other activities. And I think if you ask them, do you still wanna work seven hours a day and get twice as much rice or would you prefer to have the same amount of rice and get six hours a day benefit? So I think that once again, the trade-off there, yeah, there is a trade-off between income and time, but ultimately, money is time.
ZK: On that note, would we rather have more time for this conversation or more people listening to it? Of course there’s no real correlation in podcast land between time on a podcast and number of listeners, but it does add a good coda to what you’re saying and a good way to end the conversation for now ’cause we do not have limitless time, even though I would like to have a lot more time to continue the conversation. I’d urge people to read your book, Superabundance. I think there’s a lot to engage there. There’s a lot of really good history as well. A lot of your work is really reexamining, as I think you began with, Marian and Gale as well, that we haven’t really adequately written the history of economic progress and as a way of kind of relooking at the past through that lens, given that we’re all constantly in the process of reinvestigating our past as we understand more about our present and presumably that steers us into the future. So there’s a lot there. We could have gone on much longer and I would have actually liked to have done so. But I wanna thank you both for your work, and I hope everyone engages it and perhaps we will continue the conversation with more time at another time.
MT: Thank you for having us.
EV: Thanks to you both. So that was a really interesting conversation. I feel it will probably be the first time for a lot of listeners that they’ve heard this framework about measuring things in time instead of money, but it was especially interesting to me because in modern Greek, we actually use the same word for cents and for minutes. So I wish I could explain the etymology behind that. I don’t know what it is, but I can say that it can lead to some dialogue confusion if you’re not familiar with the language.
ZK: I mean, that’s so fascinating ’cause Americans often think about particularly southern Europeans as having long engaged in choosing quality of life, which is how you spend your time over like income maximization and work. So I’m not saying for one minute that I know why that really interesting question of why the same word for cents and minutes, but it is true that, you know, we’ve thought a lot about the trade-off, particularly in an American context and in a Chinese context between endless amounts of work to what end versus you only have so much time and maximizing your quality of life. And quality of life really is like how you’re spending your time. It’s not been part of our particular equation, right? Our sort of western capitalist, and in many ways, modern China conception of an economy is work more, work harder, earn more, live to work, not work to live. So you raised this question, and it’s one that we should also ask all of the listeners and ask ourselves, of would you rather have more time? Would you rather more money? And maybe that depends on where you are in life, maybe it depends on your income, but it remains a question that we should all ask much more. What is the point of the time we’re spending? And would you rather double your time or double the amount of free time you have so that you could make more choices about what to do with your time rather than all of that time having to be devoted to income maximization? I think the one thing that isn’t adequately addressed in Superabundance and clearly is a problem that we would engage more with them about if we were gonna talk to them is there are still a vast number of people who absolutely don’t have the luxury of that equation, and that’s a problem. It is certainly true that everybody has more food and shelter and clothing than any equivalent human would’ve had 300 years ago or 200 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly has the luxury of, you know what, maybe not. Although we did see as the part of the great resignation and quiet quitting and these things we’ve talked about that are out there, that clearly a lot more people have some latitude to make choices about how they’re gonna spend their days and their time and not at the peril of completely jeopardizing their basic necessities. Even so, it’s not as if a sufficient portion of the planet really has the luxury of choosing between.
EV: Yeah, and I think this is where this kind of gets out of an economic discussion and into a politics and policy discussion because for instance, in the book, they have this interesting little section where they talk about housing ’cause it’s one of those examples where economically, the cost of building a house have gone down, you know, the raw materials required and the labor, but the rising cost of houses doesn’t reflect that. And that’s a result not of the economics but of policy. So yeah, it would’ve been nice to get into that with them a little bit and also just into the entrance of the four-day work week conversation into the western world because that has as its philosophical basis exactly what you were talking about. You know, can we just keep our income levels and work one day less?
EV: Please. [laughs]
ZK: And then when we began this episode with the discussion of universal basic income, which is also a way of saying there’s an insufficient number of people in affluent societies who share the affluence to make those choices, right? And that we actually have sufficient means to make sure that everybody shares those choices, but we don’t have political and economic systems that allow for it. So even if the macro discussion of it requires less time to produce a bushel of wheat, it requires less time to clothe yourself, house yourself, feed yourself, then it would have at any point in time prior to this moment, that even time benefits are not equally distributed, even if they’re true at a big picture, aggregate level and kind of there’s the rub and those are the kind of things that we’re gonna keep looking at. But I do like that this is a different framework to think about prosperity and abundance and economies, that money is a measure, it’s not the only measure, but it’s become the only measure and it’s become the only measure at some significant limitations about how we understand progress, how we understand like where we actually are materially, globally, nationally, individually, communally. So we’ll keep having those discussions.
EV: Sounds great, and we’ll be here.
ZK: Thank you, Emma.
EV: Thanks, Zachary. And thanks to everyone for listening. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org.
Meet the Hosts