Umair Haque at the Harvard Business Review offers a grim appraisal of current society, and our future. The mechanisms of the economy that used to support growth now work towards a singular purpose; the transfer of wealth to an increasingly smaller and smaller segment of the population.
And for far too many people, yesterday’s economic institutions are literally not delivering the goods. Yes, the tools of capitalism have lifted entire nations out of poverty. But for decades, real prosperity has been flat. Now, at a macroeconomic level, our current economic institutions simply transfer prosperity upwards, to the richest 10% –> 1% –> 0.1% –> 0.01% and so on. This is what I call a global “ponziconomy” — a titanic, gleaming whirling, wealth transfer machine.
Youth unemployment hovers between 25% and 50% in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and across the Middle East, and has been pointed to as one cause of the revolution. But wait, the numbers aren’t much better for the US, or Western Europe, while in China the “Ant Tribe” of unemployed college graduates threatens stability. On a global scale, the workplace no longer has meaningful jobs to offer.
A problem can’t be solved within the context of the system that created it. Economic problems are the product of political, cultural, and technological systems. But as wealth is funneled ever upwards, people feel less and less connected to the political system, to the ruling elites, possibly even to each other. The sense of pessimism and defeat that has overtaken America
is linked to a system that fails to reward success, and arbitrary punishes bad luck, in the form of poor investments, or health problems, or simple accidents, with immediate and permanent poverty. Outrage across the Left and Right is driven by a sense that the system is rigged, that winnings privatized and losses socialized, and that whatever color the politicians are, they’re working for the same elites.
Now, I don’t think Americans will take to the streets to oust their government. The challenge of the democratic, developed world is a quieter rebellion: against a bankruptcy not just of the pocketbook, but of meaning. It’s not to take a stand against a dictator, but to take a stand against an unenlightened, nihilistic, hyperconsumerist, soul-suckingly unfulfilling, lethally short-termist ethos that inflicts real and relentless damage on people, society, the natural world, and future generations.
If we want to deliver the goods — enduring, meaningful stuff that engenders real prosperity — we’re probably going to have start with delivering them to one another. Our untrammeled path back to prosperity — should we choose to blaze it — is millions of personal revolutions made up of billions of tiny choices that reclaim our humanity from the heartless merchants of indifference, fear, anger, and vanity.
Some say it’s impossible. Me? I believe that in a world of bogus prosperity, what’s impossible is for the status quo to stand.
I agree. We’re not going to revolt, only the lunatic fringe has so little to lose as to risk violence. But more and more often, we’ll see people opt out, and fall into alternative economies. Meaning is not like cash, it can’t be carried and exchanged freely, but its the only path to real personal fulfillment. But if we’re going to Prevail, it will take more than dropping out, it will take building alternative economies that support a material standard of life commensurate with human dignity, and consist of activities that we find intrinsically meaningful. Currently, our system does too much of the first and too little of the latter, but we should be careful to find a balance, and not fall all the way through into true poverty.
No man knows the nature of evil like Dr. Philip Zimbardo. In 1971, he transformed college students into brutal guards and traumatized prisoners in the horrific Stanford Prison Experiment. The abuse and humiliation that ordinary people could inflict on each other forecast Abu Ghraib, and warns us that even a little power without oversight can turn a decent person into monster.
Since the Stanford Prison Experiment, Dr. Zimbardo has worked instead on the nature of good. The virtues of heroism, such as ethical behavior, leadership, and courage, are not just for great crisis, they are part of the everyday actions of good people, the pillars of strength on which our communities rely. His research into the basis and nature of heroism has culminated in the Heroic Imagination Project
, which seeks to inspire the civic virtue of everyday heroism. The HIP seeks to build a network of heroes to stand up to corrupt institutions and brutal leaders everywhere. Each of us, in our lives, will be confronted with moments of extraordinary tension. Hopefully HIP will help us make the right choice.
As Albert Einstein put it, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do bad things, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”