Abundance January 2020

If we were in a world of abundance, rather than scarcity, would people even notice? How much excess wealth does the world need in the form of financial capital in order for people to determine that we’ve solved all of the fundamental problems of being? If we were in fact in a world of abundance and not one of scarcity, would people act differently or just be confused?

My assertion is that for most people, we are in a world of abundance. We are running out of ideas to work on that feel like they justify significant personal life sacrifice. We want to go to Mars but we also want to do it as a lifestyle business. It takes willpower and discipline to not overeat or overindulge in media. That points strongly in the direction of abundance.

If you think about the kind of work that most people do on a daily basis, it is increasingly people oriented. Without passing moral judgements, consider what the implication of that is. It means that the amount of work we need to do for our own immediate survival, if you want to argue about it that way, is very minimal. We are putting in extra time for the status it gets us from all the people it benefits. Our own survival needs are often extremely simple to address. We rarely even have to think about them, except in the context of the occasional natural disaster.

The removal cost of most of the work that people do (emails, phone calls, meetings, commuting, idle office chatter, Slack messages, documentation) is probably near zero. The automation we have continues to generate abundance for people and deliver things faster, less expensively, with higher quality and less frustration. If all of these assertions were true, would people notice?

People argue that technology is not having the impact that it claimed it would by looking at the GDP. But the GDP really only makes sense in the case of a world of scarcity, where up is good and down is bad. If I spend less on food because I don’t overeat, GDP goes down but my quality of life goes up. If I automate something that used to require a tremendous amount of labour, GDP goes down, unemployment goes up, but I have more of the things that I want and I have to do less work for it. Is that not clearly good? We should start measuring something else.

There are other oddities still. In a world of scarcity, your competition having more resources than you would round to bad. You would get jealous, you would want those resources, you would indirectly or directly try to take them. In a world of abundance, that would be a confusing waste of time. It wouldn’t make sense to try and take someone else’s resources, because then you would have too much while you’re trying to so carefully pace yourself. It isn’t possible for there to be a difference between tiny houses and tent cities in a world of scarcity. But there is.

In a world of abundance, the only reason people would be without resources would be if they intentionally decided against having them or they had an intrinsic reason for being unable to manage them. There are some strong arguments (people start working later, make way more money per working year, stop working sooner) that we are moving in that direction across society. People talk about how it’s impossible to hire for high paying but unpleasant work, maybe it’s because there is an abundance and they don’t need it? It would only make sense to reject that work in a world of abundance. It may in fact make sense to reject it though.

Even in the higher earning tiers, people are routinely choosing jobs that pay less but offer greater flexibility. That wouldn’t even be on the table in a world of scarcity. Socially we would punish it. We would punish that thinking in our relationships, among our family and in society. And yet we don’t, we encourage people to be sustainable and happy in their work. How do we even afford the time to have those conversations? Again, because it’s a world of abundance.

Governments are struggling with overspending. You know what they aren’t struggling with? Inflation. You know what happens in a world of scarcity when you overspend? Inflation. Know what happens in a world of abundance when you overspend? Deflation, because the scarce resource becomes non-scarce and actually loses its value. Money itself may matter less when we can work, learn and communicate for near zero cost. Wealth itself actually matters less. It’s possible an iPhone results in more wealth than all the wealth in the world did 100 years ago.

The best argument that we’re in a world of scarcity is actually an anthropological one: it’s because we mostly act like we are still. We act like there is a limited amount of resources that will be necessary for our own survival, and so we must benefit from our resources in secret ways but tell others to be frugal and forgo them. We act like someone has to give us permission to be successful, like school or political leaders. In a world of abundance, counterexamples to those gatekeepers and permissioned approaches to success would not exist. And yet they do.

I would take my assertion further and say that most people think we are in a world of scarcity, we are in fact in a world of abundance. And that as our abundance grows, the value of any one form of capital is deflated by the exceptional quality of life we enjoy. As superabundance increases, people will continue to act even weirder. It may be that our source of meaning comes from struggle. That would be problematic in a world of abundance, because the better the tech works, the less happy we would be. Still, we will have a lot of time to have that conversation while we survive with near zero effort. Plenty of time. One might even say, an abundance of it.