A New Social Contract

fortnite

“Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
The Social Contract & Discourses

What do Fortnite, New Year’s Day, and the USA have in common?

They all exist because we believe they do.

Political theorists call this kind of communal belief a “social contract.” According to Rousseau, that’s the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes said this in Leviathan:

“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”

In Fortnite terms, life is a battle royale:  everybody against everybody else, with only one left standing. As Hobbes famously said, that makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.”[1] A social contract suggests we can do better.

Can we really create something out of nothing, by mere belief? Yes, of course — we do it all the time. My daughter can’t figure out why New Year’s Day is a holiday. “It’s just a day!” she says, unmoved by my explanation that it’s a holiday because everyone thinks it is. Same with Fortnite — as 125 million enthusiasts know, it’s not just an online game, it’s a worldwide reality. And same with the United States — the Colonies’ deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom until the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence[2], the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That social contract + 250 years of history = the USA. We are a nation borne of imagination and belief, continually re-defined and updated through interpretations and amendments to the terms of our social contract.

Our economic system works the same way. Adam Smith’s capitalism survived the trip to the new world, produced astonishing quality of life improvements in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and then was recast into the neoliberal framework that powered the world’s recovery from WWII. That version of our economic social contract thrived for three decades, but began to falter in the face of several unforeseen developments:

  • the democratization of knowledge in the information age;
  • accelerated automation, mass production, and eventually robotics;
  • software that at first only did what it was told but later morphed into machine intelligence; and
  • globalization, which shrank the world, homogenized culture, opened international trade, and recast national borders.

Neoliberalism couldn’t keep up. Tensions rose until the year 2016 became a worldwide referendum on the social contracts of democracy and neoliberalism. New social contracts would have required a new freedom/chains balance. 2016’s response was, “Not on my watch.”

That’s the context into which universal basic income would now be introduced. For that to happen, the American Dream of independence and upward mobility fueled by working for a living must give way to a belief that basic sustenance — job or no job — is a human right so fundamental that it’s one of those “self-evident” truths. As we’ve seen, that radical belief is slowly changing the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation’s culture of poverty, and has caught the fancy of a growing list of techno-plutocrats. As Mark Zuckerberg said, “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.” Law professor James Kwak makes the same point[3]:

“We have the physical, financial, and human capital necessary for everyone in our country to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and within a few generations the same should be true of the entire planet, And yet our social organization remains the same as it was in the Great Depression:  some people work very hard and make more money than they will ever need, while many others are unable to find work and live in poverty.

“Million if not billions of people today hunger to live in a world that is more fair, more forgiving, and more humane than the one they were born into. Creating a new vision of society worthy of that collective yearning … is the first step toward building a better future for our children.”

To be continued.

[1] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016),

[2] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as ideals of one contract conflict with another’s.

[3] James Kwak, Economism (2017).

 

The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog post sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980’s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest  written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007-2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.