The current slow, inexorable drift toward progressivism, or “socialism light,” will end—eventually. As I (and Charles Krauthammer) have said, something unsustainable will continue until it can no longer be sustained. Based on our fiscal behavior, we may not get to see the full evolution and implosion, though. It took about 70 years for the Soviet Union to fall and I don’t think our quasi-capitalist economy will last long enough in light of current circumstances.

Even before the bust in 2007, however, I anticipated an inevitable drop in our standard of living. Ignoring the debt (something we’ve always been adept at), we still face the challenge of competing in a global economy with an uneven playing field. Americans have hard-fought rules that prohibit unfair practices and exploitation (i.e., minimum wage laws and safety standards to name a couple) that increase the cost of production here relative to the international workplace. While there has been some effort to discourage domestic consumption of goods from foreign “sweatshops,” it’s clear from the migration of jobs overseas that the benefits of  lower prices are being offset by fewer workers here earning enough to purchase them. I don’t see an easy way out of this conundrum until our standard of living falls and that of the international worker rises, a homogenization of wages, so to speak. And that will take time.

There is another elephant in the room. As a fan of science fiction, I often speculated on the effect technology would have on the economy. Already we’ve seen examples of consumer items that can be made cheaply and last for years—or decades—for a fraction of what it would cost to produce the technology they replace. A good example of this is the LED lightbulb. While the price hasn’t fallen enough for most of us to shell out the tens of dollars per bulb to replace our incandescents and fluorescents yet, it illustrates the principle. If you make something without built-in obsolescence, you either have to charge a lot of money, regardless of what the cost of production is after R&D and overhead are recouped, or you go out of business. And more and more of the manufacturing can be done robotically, so the employment opportunities keep diminishing. There may have to be an entirely new economic model to deal with this. A fascinating three-part article dealing with the interplay of technology and jobs can be found here.

I’ve also tried to speculate how this new economic model might be implemented. Perhaps the greater scope and number of service-related and software-related jobs would absorb some of the slack. Still, with less work and more free time, more leisure-, music- and art-related industries will crop up. The problem is figuring out how the distribution of wealth will be adjudicated. In unfettered capitalism it’s decided by the marketplace, a system that, eventually, reliably defines worth. It also has the benefit of conforming with the natural human desire to be rewarded proportionally to one’s effort (although arguably we’re in the current mess because too many have come to feel entitled to rewards for little or no effort). Socialism goes against the grain of human nature; hence its ultimate, inevitable failure as the takers outstrip the producers. The Star-Trek saga regales us with a world of plenty without money, but they never make it clear just how this worked. They imply a gratifying change in human behavior that, idealistic as it is, I don’t see coming in the next 400-600 years (sorry, Captain). Good and evil, the yin and yang of our nature, in the aggregate hasn’t really changed much over the past 10,000 years. We’ve just found ways to devise more efficient means to self-destruct.

So, in the world after capitalism, I haven’t a clue as to what will grow in its place. Perhaps some hybrid that will better fit a changing world. The only certainty is that there will be hard workers struggling to keep what they earn and thieves and socialists (in some view two sides of the same coin) trying to take what they don’t.

There’s a certain comfort in predictability, isn’t there?


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