Warning: this article is a work of wild speculation. The existence of this article does not mean that I condone the extrapolating of a single figure for 500 years under normal circumstances. I am not an economist, so I actually have no clue what I’m talking about. My research tool for this was Google, so my figures are to be trusted :-). However, I am prepared to take instruction. If you can improve this wild speculation in any way, then please contact me: kyb at deferential.net
The tendancy of people to redefine luxuries as necessities has been the fuel to capitalism, to the benefit of the total wealth of the world. Given that capitalism doesn’t work too well without inequality, it has also ensured that many hard working people are wage slaves or in poverty. A utopian future, as Marx might have imagined, or as you may have seen discussed in Star Trek, or the Culture novels by Iain M Banks could not possibly come into existence without a massive labour surplus.
If everyone was happy with the bare essentials, the world already does have enough to provide acceptably for everyone. The surplus is not enough however for people just to do whatever they want. When I say acceptably, looking at the figures, we are talking a very basic lifestyle. Everyone would have to work approximately as hard as they work at the moment (less if the labour is divided evenly), and people just wouldn’t do it. People can’t maintain a high level of productivity if there is no personal benefit to it over being entirely unproductive, except for the nebulous feeling of satisfaction you might get. This is particularly true when you realise that the majority of people probably don’t have jobs they particularly enjoy.
But people are never happy with the bare essentials.
If there is anyone with the desire for more wealth than they have, the whole system breaks down, because inequality is self-reinforcing. In Utopia, everyone must have what they want or they will devise ways to take it from others.
How much surplus do we need?
I’ve often heard it argued that no matter how much money you have, you always want more. After reading quotes and interviews with extremely wealthy people, I’m pretty sure that simply isn’t true. No one contends that great wealth brings happiness, but the quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger is typical:
I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.
But maybe Arnie is being too conservative. How much could anyone ever want to spend, as a rough maximum? This is a fairly difficult figure to estimate. The average person in the UK spends roughly 1.5 million pounds (2.7 million dollars) over their whole lifetime, but I’m pretty sure that every one of them would like to spend more if they could. It’s not until you get to the very wealthy, where they give large portions of their money away, and still die with millions unspent that we could get an estimate for the most you’d want to spend. The wealthiest people in the world really can buy anything they want, yet even the most profligate rarely spend more than 0.5% of their wealth in a year on luxuries.
According to Forbes, Mr Over-The-Top Spender would be Roman Abramovich, who by quite a long way overspends his nearest rival with 700 million dollars over the last two years spent on play things. (Chelsea FC, a yacht with helipad, another yacht, a boeing 767 fitted with a kitchen with goldplated sinks). This amount spent is unusual even for very rich people, but if we say that the most anyone has spent on toys over a single year averages out to 350 million and multiply that up by 80 years, I think we can get a generous estimate as to how much money would be enough for even a big spender over their whole lifetime. I think that at this level, we can ignore other living costs as being negligible.
The lifetime amount is 28 billion dollars. Two people alive have a good bit more than that according to Forbes. Bill Gates (48 billion) and Warren Buffet (41 billion). To spend 28 billion dollars over your entire lifetime you’d need to be spending 40,000 dollars every hour of your life, quite a challenge. If you want to see if its possible you need to see if Bill or Warren are interested enough to try the experiment. It’d still leave either of them in the wealthiest top 10.
If we relied on peoples personal motivation to do work that they wanted to do, rather than work that they had to do, I estimate a drop in productivity to 33% of its current value. This is a complete guess, based on the number of retirees who still do productive work if they are able, plus anecdotal evidence, plus the fact that even if I didn’t need to work, I think I’d still work 2 days a week. If you’ve got any ideas for a better way to estimate this figure, then let me know. The actual figure may be much higher than this particularly if people live in a culture where productive work is highly respected, and if the majority of people aren’t so creative and need suggestions about what to do with all their free time.
If this estimate is correct, then to allow everyone to do whatever they wanted, we’d need a society that produced approximately 3 times whatever level it needs to sustain people. For the truly utopian society where even Roman Abramovich doesn’t feel like he needs more wealth, we would be looking for a GDP per capita of 3x 350 million or 1.5 billion dollars.
How much longer
Is a per capita GDP of 1.5 billion even possible? There are a wide variety of opinions on whether there is an upper limit to possible wealth or not. The Culture of Iain M Banks does it by using the resources of space and having many artifical intelligences of various levels to do all the needed work. Luxembourg is the closest so far with a tiny 58.9 thousand dollars GDP per capita. So they’re 0.004% of the way there.
In the US, GDP per capita annual growth rate has been around 2% since 1975 and has even picked up of late. Extrapolating from 2004 figures of 40100 at a rate of 2%, the US reaches that goal in 2536. The world of course reaches the goal a little later (8800 in 2004, a growth rate of 2.2% estimated from figures since 1820) in 2558. Only 553 years to go!
Cancel the Revolution!
Or at least postpone it until 2558
My best guess is that utopia (also communism) doesn’t work until 2558. All you Marxists should get your nose to the grindstone and work on increasing productivity until then. But those who are alive then will see the demise of money, and a vast flourishing of individual freedom. When people are completely free economically, they’ll have a lifetime to contemplate all they other ways they feel constrained. And we’ll finally be able to test my theory that without limits there is no creativity.
Originally posted at deferential.net