Are we there yet?
Poets, priests and politicians have periodically predicted the imminence of a post-scarcity society, one in which everyone has enough to meet their basic material needs.
The land of milk and honey. Star Trek’s food-replicator-filled worlds. Marxist communism.
Some, like leaders of the Soviet Union and American utopian communities, have claimed to have reached that stage of development . . . at least for a little while.
But how do you really know whether you’re living in a post-scarcity society?
What milestones do you have to pass on the road there?
When the answer is “yes” to the five following questions, I think you’ll have arrived.
First, a heads-up that this guide uses only the purely material definition of “scarcity.” There’s a chicken-and-the-egg debate to be had about whether such non-material values as freedom and liberty are necessary precursors to an end of material scarcity or vice versa. But for these purposes, let’s just be grubby materialists.
And to keep things simple, I’m only mapping the United States. (The following also applies to Western Europe. It also applies in relative terms to much of the rest of the world, but not in quantitative terms. That is, we should not be under any illusion that the world is now productive enough so that everyone can consume as much stuff as today’s average American.)
1. Is there a consensus on how much stuff is sufficient?
Not yet, but we’re getting close.
Many academics and activists working on the concept of a Universal Basic Income have settled around a figure of $12,000 per year being enough to adequately house, clothe and feed an American for a year, with some left over for the better things of life. For a family of four, that comes out to $48,000, which is about 71% of the current median household income.
There are differences of opinion about whether the figure should be lower for children and seniors and higher for people with special needs. There’s also a debate about whether it should differ for different locations.
But we’re close enough to ask the rest of the questions.
2. Is there enough stuff for everyone?
Absolutely, positively (for now).
One relevant but crude measurement of how much stuff we produce is the U.S. per capita gross national income (GNI). That’s essentially the total amount of money earned by U.S. residents and businesses in a year, divided by the U.S. population. In 2020, that figure was $64,475 (despite COVID severely hampering the economy). That’s more than five times the $12,000-is-sufficient figure.
We should be wary of overstating the abundance implied by that amount. Things like treating victims of air pollution or rebuilding a city after a climate-change-charged hurricane are counted as income in the calculation. We’d be better off reducing those problems, the heck with the impact on the GNI.
And much of today’s stuff is made of or by natural resources that aren’t infinitely available. Unless we radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and rare earth metals, we’ll start cutting it close in the not-too-distant future.
On the other hand, taking care of an aging parent or a newborn child or writing a song for the pure enjoyment of it isn’t included in the GNI. And who wouldn’t trade a bunch of widgets for that precious time?
3. Does everyone actually have enough stuff?
No, but the number without is smaller than you probably think.
The official poverty rate for the U.S. in 2016 was 11.4%. That’s about 37.2 million Americans who, according to a long-standing Census Bureau methodology, were in a family that earns less than the federal poverty line. (That’s now $13,465 for a single adult under 65 living alone; $8,866 per person in a household with two adults, plus several thousand dollars for each additional household member, with the amount differing for children versus adults.)
However, that methodology is badly flawed. Critics on both the Left and Right note that the calculation doesn’t take into account non-cash benefits (such as Medicaid and food stamps) or the Earned Income Tax Credit. And, for 2020, it didn’t include the stimulus checks and refundable child tax credit measures.
Adjusting for those factors, economists peg the “real poverty rate” at somewhere between 4% and 11% — which translates to 13–36 million Americans. Getting those Americans out of day-to-day scarcity would cost less than $200 billion a year. In a $21 trillion economy, that’s a small drop in a very large bucket.
4. Does everyone believe they have enough stuff?
No . . . and, aye, there’s the rub.
Every American seems to have a different definition of “having it made.”
Many think about it relatively: “Do I have as much as the Joneses?” Some primarily think about whether they have enough to pay this month’s bills, plus some for an emergency. Some are driven by harsh memories of the past. (My Depression-born father never stopped grouching about the cost of plastic garbage bags, which, I frequently reminded him, didn’t exist when he was a kid.) Some focus on whether they have enough for when they hit the big 6–0 and beyond.
And changing political and economic times notoriously warp people’s perception of their economic security. For example, when a Democrat gets elected president, many Republicans immediately become much more pessimistic . . . and vice versa.
Sociologists have tried to calculate the “marginal happiness point.” That is the amount of income after which earning more makes no difference in one’s happiness. Recent analyses range from $75,000 to $105,000 to $161,000 per household.
Regardless of which number you prefer, more than half of Americans don’t make that much.
And when you take wealth into account, the figures are more grim. Only 44% of Americans claim that they could pay an emergency $1,000 bill out of their savings.
That seems absurdly low, given that — as noted above — the vast majority of Americans have more than enough money to cover the basics. (Those dollars may be in assets other than the old-fashioned “savings accounts” that this and other polls ask about.)
But regardless of its validity, perception matters a whole lot. And changing that perception is perhaps the biggest challenge to those who want Americans to focus on far bigger problems.
5. Do people blame problems on post-scarcity dynamics or a lack of enough stuff?
It’s a mix, but too often the latter.
Most of the “dinner table” issues that Americans care about — inflation, the Russia-Ukraine War, COVID, pollution, crime, corruption, discrimination, loneliness, etc. — have been around forever (sometimes with different names in different places) and will continue to wax and wane, regardless of material conditions.
What’s often different now than, say, 200 years ago, is the primary reason for those problems: post-scarcity systems and technology. But today, most Americans’ reflex is to blame the old causes.
For example, take inflation.
For most of human history, sudden spikes in prices for ordinary items were usually the results of local catastrophes — natural or man-made — drastically reducing supplies. Think of droughts or locust invasions wiping out a year’s harvest, a Viking raid on a market-town, or a speculator buying up and hoarding a precious metal.
But starting in the 1800s and accelerating today, inflation has often been an unintended side-effect of efforts to reduce such scarcity. More precisely, it can be the result of breakdowns in the increasingly complicated, long-distance, just-in-time systems that make the post-scarcity era possible. A microchip factory in China has to close for several weeks because of a COVID outbreak, which causes a car manufacturer in Canada to suspend production, which reduces the number of new cars on the lot in Missouri, which drives up the prices of used cars auctioned off in Ohio.
But Americans are still overly prone to rely on the millennia-old textbook of blaming nefarious countries (e.g. China), villainous non-governmental institutions (e.g. Exxon), and inscrutable Acts of God (e.g. droughts, earthquakes). Of course, sometimes those forces really are the main causes of those woes or make things worse.
Even when they glimpse some of the post-scarcity dynamics at the heart of the problem, they too often express it in crude xenophobic ways that detract from efforts to solve the dilemma. For example, many are quick to post tweets blaming China for pretty much anything, including the current bout of inflation, without recognizing that they’re able to afford the computer or cell phone on which they’re tweeting due to parts manufactured cheaply in the country they’re bashing.
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So, are we there yet?
No, but I think we’re getting pretty far down the road. There are still plenty of unpaved roads, unmapped terrain and detours ahead. And there’s no guarantee we’ll reach our destination.
It’s all too possible that an ecological collapse or nuclear war could send society back to the bad old scarcity days. (Call that the “Mad Max” scenario.)
Or we could evolve into a “Wall-E” world, where everybody lives in fully-automated luxury, but longs quietly and desperately for meaning and connection with nature.
Or we could see a “Hunger Games” America, an even more unequal, stratified and alienated society where people no longer needed to produce material goods can be sacrificed for the sake of “entertainment.”
The biggest danger, though, is that too many of us will just hang on for the ride, assume that the arc of civilization bends inevitably toward prosperity and happiness, and let old-schoolers keep driving us into a catastrophic ditch.