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Pessimism Amid Progress

Within the space of just a few generations, humanity has created the material conditions for establishing the kind of society that our ancestors could hardly imagine. But everything now depends on whether we can figure out the politics of wealth distribution.

BERKELEY – Humanity as a whole is wealthier today than at any time in its history. And yet, from the short-term challenge of the pandemic to the existential threat of global warming, there is a widespread sense that things are going badly wrong. The start of a new year is an occasion for hope, but is pessimism the more appropriate default?

To answer that question, we should consider our current situation in a broader context. For the first ten thousand years after the invention of agriculture, humanity had no chance of achieving any approximation of “utopia,” regardless of how one defined that term. Then, within our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, something approaching that ideal came into view. Yet we have repeatedly failed to grasp it. As my friend the late Max Singer used to say, a truly “human world” will remain out of reach until we have figured out the politics of wealth distribution.

Until just a few generations ago, humanity marched to a Malthusian drum. With technological progress ploddingly slow and mortality extremely high, population size was everything. In a world where almost one-third of elderly women had no surviving sons or grandsons, and hence no social power, there was immense pressure to have more children in one’s childbearing years. The resulting population growth (without commensurate growth in the size of farms) offset any gains in productivity and incomes from better technology and kept typical living standards low and stagnant.

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