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Hullabaloo


Thursday, July 11, 2013

 
Looking forward to a progressive future

by David Atkins

On nearly every non-social-issue front, it seems that progressivism is taking a beating. Supply side economics continues to dominate despite its manifest failure; austerity fever still grips the world; the surveillance state has eclipsed personal privacy; asset growth has shadowed over wage growth; climate-killing burning of fossil fuels continues to increase; money in politics is worse than ever; the list goes on and on.

It would be easy to despair and imagine that the battle is lost. After all, if the Bush Administration, the financial crisis, the dramatic failure of austerity economics and all the rest wasn't enough to change elite minds or at least foment enough unrest to change policies, what will? It seems hopeless enough.

Such despair seems rational from one perspective. But history shows us that things can change suddenly and dramatically, sometimes for the worse but very often for the better. What had seem immutable can change quite rapidly. Better yet, those changes seem to come ever faster as our technology increases, accelerating speed ever since the industrial revolution. If today's economic and social structures seem too resistant to major change, what things might change as a result of technology in the future that will require progressive solutions?

Well, last year Kevin Drum had a few thoughts:

1. Climate change. Needs no explanation, I assume.

2. Robots. Explanation here. Even Paul Krugman is tentatively on board now.

3. Immortality. Laugh if you want, but it's hardly impossible that sometime in the medium-term future we'll see biomedical breakthroughs that make humans extremely long-lived. What happens then? Who gets the magic treatments? How do we support a population that grows forever? How does an economy of immortals work, anyway?

4.Bioweapons. We don't talk about this a whole lot these days, but it's still possible—maybe even likely—that extraordinarily lethal viruses will be fairly easily manufacturable within a couple of decades. If this happens before we figure out how to make extraordinarily effective vaccines and antidotes, this could spell trouble in ways obvious enough to need no explanation.

5. Energy. All the robots in the world won't do any good if we don't have enough energy to keep them running. And fossil fuels will run out eventually, fracking or not. However, I put this one fifth out of five because we already have pretty good technology for renewable energy, and it's mainly an engineering problem to build it out on a mass scale. Plus you never know. Fusion might become a reality someday.
I would largely agree with Drum's list. It could be expanded significantly, of course, but this is a good start.

I would particularly want to focus on items #2 and #3, which will likely have a dramatic impact in many of our lifetimes.

I do believe that my generation will be the last to die of old age, and that medical technology will give the generation after the Millennials the blessing--and the curse--of potentially living for hundreds of years.

I also believe that as machines start to swallow up the jobs not only of blue collar workers but also white collar workers who have greater impact on elite policy decisions, the economic impact of machines on the job market will start to actually be noticed by policy makers.

It's a pretty simple equation: 20th century capitalism simply cannot exist in its current form when people have the ability to live hundreds of years, but machines can do most of the available jobs better and more efficiently than most humans. The world will look vastly different, one way or another.

If the plutocrats are the only ones preparing for such a future, then it will be a dystopia worthy of science fiction, with a two-tiered economy divided between the wealthy few with access to immortality, and the hoveling impoverished masses without. If, on the other hand, progressives organize and prepare for such a future with ready-made policy prescriptions, we can own it and do away with the dead weight of old economic systems.

But one needn't look so far away as immortality and machine jobs to see the same dynamic. Take privacy, for instance. The day is coming very soon when your retina (or other intensely personal trait) will serve as your credit card and ID; when everyone will have an undetectable form of Google Glass on them at all times; when everything is being recorded by everyone else; when driverless cars requiring your personal ID to enter phase out steering wheels; where lightweight drones replace patrol cars; et cetera. That day is coming, sooner than most people think.

When it does, the old battles over privacy and government surveillance will be almost moot. Privacy will functionally cease to exist unless privacy guarantees from both government and corporations are expressly written into constitutional law. Nor will guarantees from a single nation's constitution be adequate given the hyperconnected world. In this context, a progressive approach to privacy law would focus less on shoring up a 4th Amendment groaning under the weight of Big Data, and more on what a 21st century guarantee of privacy should look like.

Banking would be another example. In a world where companies are starting to force employees to take payment on fee-prone charge cards, many progressives are leaning toward a postal banking system. The problem with that is that in a few decades the written check will be nearly a novelty item, and the post office itself will be on its last legs as we know it. The move to a world in which all transfers are performed electronically is coming sooner rather than later. So how do progressives ensure that financial institutions don't extract rents from that scenario, and how do we ensure that the unbanked are also treated fairly?

There are a myriad of similar policy questions from trade to economics to anti-terrorism and everything in between, that will render 20th century economic structures obsolete. It will be a battle of ideologies, ideas and above all organization to make certain that what follows the destruction of the vile status quo is something better rather than something worse.

Over the next few weeks I'll be taking on a few of these subjects, examining what the future likely holds for humanity, and determining what a progressive approach might look like in the years ahead to prepare for it.

It should be a fun journey.


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