Books/Utopia for Realists

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Subtitle: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek

Author: Rutger Bregman

The author starts the book by making a case for the idea of a utopia and how the imagination of people keeps shifting over time leading to newer versions of utopia in each age. The medieval person's utopia was simply the land of the plenty where there's enough to eat. Most of the western world can already be classified as the Land of the Plenty.

Front Cover

As the subtitle suggests, the book makes the case that a utopia fit for our times should have three things:

  1. 15-hour Workweek
  2. Universal Basic Income
  3. Open Borders

Though the concepts are known to the general public, the USP of this book is myth-busting around these topics and offering a historical perspective on things (the author is a historian).

15-hour Workweek

In our Land of the Plenty, though our productivity has increased a lot, we are still very poor in time. Increased productivity has led to the notion that time is money, and we kept chasing after money that can buy us more stuff and losing time in the process.

The author challenges the notion that people should work to make a living. A farmer from 1300s worked only half as much (1500 hours) as compared to a worker from the industrial revolution.

The author talks of 1960s vision of the future, embodied in TV shows like the Jetsons which depicts a drastic reduction in work hours for humans and most work being automated. There are historical examples of reduction in work hours from the drudgery of the industrial revolution to Henry Ford's 5-day workweek which actually proved to be more productive. Others experimented with 6-hour workdays which caused a big improvement in the social lives of the employees, especially in child care.

<rant> All the silicon valley pundits these days talk about AI and automation but never once mention taxes, which if they had paid properly would've enabled people to have UBI, decent work hours, better quality of living etc. Leisure should've been our biggest problem in the 21st century, instead it is unemployment, precarious gig work and bullshit jobs. </rant>

Productivity is for robots, humans are meant to waste time, be creative and playful.

Poverty and UBI

It is estimated that a one-time expense of $175 billion can eradicate poverty in the USA, which spends $600-700 billion a year on military expenses. The most efficient way to eliminate poverty is just by giving money to individuals since they know best what their needs are. The author debunks many myths around poor people being stupid, irresponsible or careless with their spending (victim blaming in action). George Orwell's experiences of being poor are discussed.

Poverty causes bad decision making due to scarcity mindset, leading to a measurable drop in IQ of up to 15 points. The author urges fighting poverty and not fighting poor people. People make bad decisions because they're poor. Lifting people out of poverty cures the bad decisions as well.

The welfare state currently insults poor people for being poor and makes it too difficult to obtain its services for the already disadvantaged (this reminds me of how reservations work in India). A universal, no questions asked, basic income for all would eliminate this red tape and make accepting help more tolerable for the victims of poverty.

<opinion> Poverty should be treated as a disease that the government and civil society must try to cure. </opinion>

85% of the western world's expenditure on foreign aid gets spent on things not directly involved with eliminating poverty. Unconventional solutions discovered through experimentation like lunch for school children, distributing mosquito nets etc. proved to be most effective.

Despite the popular American belief that a quarter of the annual government expenditure goes to foreign aid, the actual expenditure is 1%. (I believe NASA's expenditure is similar).

There's a case study about a government welfare program from 1796 in Speenhamland in the UK is discussed. The report on its affects was completely fabricated with false statistics leading people to believe that a basic income was bad for the poor. This affected future policy decisions by American President Nixon and all those who came after him. This also led to the implementation of an unfriendly welfare system for the poor.

We live in an age of bullshit jobs and jobs that make a lot of money but add no value to society. A bank strike in Ireland didn't shake the country as much as garbage men going on strike in New York City. Work done by public servants like teachers, nurses, garbage men etc. has hidden benefits to society, whereas work done by a lot of private entities has hidden costs.

GDP was created in wartime to measure a particular statistic which can correlate with how much an economy is growing, where economy is itself an abstract concept. It implies making great sacrifices to personal happiness and well-being to help the country survive the war. Applying this wartime tactic in peace time is a major source of unhappiness to entire populations. But GDP is unfortunately an easy but unhelpful statistic to measure, just like BMI is.The creator of GDP regretted creating it. GDP actually increases due to wars and natural disasters since more goods and services will be produced to restore what is lost.

We should instead focus on measuring things like human happiness and quality of living in a country.

Open Borders

In the part about Open Borders, the author debunks many myths some of which I believed myself. A lot of apprehensions about things like cultural integration, drop in wages etc. can be solved with simple policy changes.

One interesting thing the author points out is, wages drop when people in developing countries are denied access and are instead forced to work for low wages through outsourcing. But wages actually rise if the borders are opened and qualified people are allowed to enter.

The strict borders and passport system we have today didn't exist a century ago.

Closed borders are apartheid on a global scale denying people opportunities and forcing them to live in open-air prisons.The poor in the US are still among the richest 14% in the world, while the global poor live on less than $2 a day.

<opinion> Where you are born determining your life is no less unjust than the color of your skin determining your life. </opinion>

The author estimates that $65 trillion would be added to the global economy if borders are opened up.

A closed border causes people to stay back since the barrier to entry is so high that they cannot imagine making the perilous journey into the border again. Having stricter regulations at the US-Mexico border causes a surge in illegal Mexican immigrants by 7 million since 1980. The author's opinion is that most people would want to go back to their own country and people if there weren't such restrictions in doing so.

The discussion about open borders also got me thinking about corporate diversity programmes for minorities and the underprivileged.

The book ends on the note that ideas whose time has come will change the world. Hope the ideas in this book will have their time in my lifetime.

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