Human society stopped working for the majority of people on the planet sometime in the last 30 years.
The top 1% of people own over 54% of all global wealth. Eight people own what the 3.6 billion poorest people own. 10% of the world’s population survives on less than $2 per day. We live in a lopsided world. The road we took that got us here, continued on, will lead us to perdition.
Consider this – USD 32,400 is the threshold income level of the top 1% of global population. Most of us know people earning that and more. They’re still on the wheel, rushing from pillar to post daily, trying to make ends meet and raise their families. People making that amount each year still struggle. If that’s the lot of someone who’s in the top 1% of income earners in the global population, something is really wrong.
Flawed but dominant narratives in many societies accelerate the centrifugal forces that are pulling societies apart. Some of these narratives are:
- that hardworking people made it by themselves;
- that those who earn more must deserve it;
- that those whose labour the market places a lower price on, are lesser;
- that if you’re not economically active and successful then it must be because you’re lazy;
- that if you need long-term help you’re a parasite on society;
- and the most dangerous one – that everything that innovation and technology bring us is good.
What led us to this point?
At a global level, hugely influential and pervasive American business principles: Ronald Reagan’s fundamentally flawed trickle-down economics; the myth of the frontier mentality that celebrates self-reliance while ignoring the many steps up that privilege gives to the few; a need for champions and strongmen that finds its latest incarnation in the worship of the captains of the tech industry; the use by wealthy corporates of legal and accounting loopholes to squirrel tax revenue away from governments; the norm of business leaders looking after themselves first and caring for their rank and file employees only as an afterthought; disdain for the poor; a celebration of money and its pursuit (‘Greed is Good’); copious and conspicuous consumption; accepting unquestioningly the tradeoff of ecological destruction for ‘growth’; and slavish adherence to incidia like GDP which say nothing about the health of societies.
So here we are as a global society:
- Over 99% of the population of the world struggles, lives with daily or near-term insecurity;
- We’re approaching the point where innovation will throw people out of work without societies being able to redeploy them or reabsorb them into meaningful employment. Most of the openings of the future will require increasingly specialised skills and the deftness of years of experience. This cannot be achieved with modest retraining – anything relatively easy for people to be trained for will be done better by machines.
- We celebrate the sacrifice of job losses to innovation, because … Innovation!
- Governments shortsightedly push for marginal gains from deployment of job-destroying technology in the name of ‘productivity’, oblivious of the bigger picture that they haven’t a clue how they’re going to look after the coming waves of hungry unemployed masses;
- Most societies have enough people who struggle financially that it’s becoming easier to convince people that an ‘other’ – usually outsiders, typically a racial or religious minority group – is responsible for their stress, and to make that group the scapegoat for public anger and insecurity.
- We don’t act like we know what it means to live in a society any more.
Human society has traveled this road the last almost 40 years without much thought. Capitalist societies have little need for philosophers and oracles; the consuming masses lurch from one distraction to another in a rinse-and-repeat cycle. Hate finds purchase easily. Insecurity and fear provide a fertile soil.
Singapore is not immune to this global malaise. Bonds in our society are weaker than a generation ago. Income inequality is high and getting higher. Our economy has been experiencing disruption from technology for some time; this will accelerate.
We can continue a while more on the roads we’ve taken. Our mantras of self-reliance, conformity, not rocking the boat, and meeting the numbers, make it the easy decision to change nothing.
But we’re small enough, and with still enough holding us together, that we may be able to chart a different course for Singapore against the backdrop of deteriorating global societal health.
We seem to realise though that course adjustments are needed. For example, the recent decision to institute universal health insurance coverage shows a consciousness that the times ahead require more thoughtful solutions and systemic improvements to the protections that people enjoy.
More significant adjustments will require us to prioritise what is important to us, and then deliberately beat a different path ahead, to preserve that:
- Mass unemployment resulting from automation and artificial intelligence will impose tremendous social stress. Where so much of our dignity and status revolve around what we do for work, can we afford to ignore the social costs of automation-driven unemployment? Do we have the courage to insist that companies that benefit from this automation carry more of the load that falls on families and the state as a result?
- We almost cannot unlock additional productivity without putting some people out of work. Must we always be at the forefront of productivity-enhancing technology? Can we be proud of choices that accept less than the best technology because it means people retain their livelihoods?
- Should we reward corporates for creating and sustaining employment instead of just recognising them for profit and revenue?
- The convenience and vast choice of e-commerce means that many of our neighbours, family and friends who work in retail will be made redundant or, if they’re lucky, be reduced to stacking shelves and packing boxes at e-commerce fulfilment warehouses for little money. Can we choose to shop differently? Can inconvenience be a badge of honour?
- Without objective market pricing to help us value people’s time, and people themselves, how will we ascribe value and dignity to our fellow citizens who are not employed and ‘productive’? How would we want to be valued if the microscope is on us?
- Can we strike a balance between fostering openness to innovation and inhibiting adoption of technologies that worsen unemployment?
- And most important: How can we ensure that those that have benefitted from our economy stay emotionally invested in the wellbeing of the rest?
As a capitalist, these are discomforting and unorthodox questions. The answers to these will define our future. All the roads are behind us. Ahead of us, is untrodden ground. Can we beat a path where society can continue to work for the majority of people?
Harveen is an entrepreneur. After some years as a lawyer with top-tier firms in Singapore, he has spent over a decade in lead roles in technology ventures. These include co-founding a leading B2B technology venture builder in Singapore. Harveen also co-founded a third-party logistics business in East Africa. He presently leads a blockchain venture building trust ecosystems to catalyse trade in emerging markets. Harveen views Singapore’s future with considerable concern.
This essay was first published in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take. As Singapore turns 53, the book includes 53 reflections on the journeys and paths we take, as individuals and as a society. The book can be purchased at bit.ly/2MIlUFg.