BIG Ideas

The perception of technological advances allowing customers to check out their own groceries differs radically, depending on one’s perspective. From the viewpoint of the grocer, investing in such technology means an investment in profitability or, indeed, economic survival. But store clerks see such technologies as threats to their livelihoods. Neither outlook is the “correct,” one, yet truth rests within each; context matters. Factory workers across North America and, in fact, throughout the world face existential threats like those facing grocery clerks. And manufacturers, especially manufacturers of complex and expensive products, decide to invest in automation technologies to confront pragmatic economic challenges from competitors who take every advantage to secure business. It is as inevitable as it is painful to watch people lose jobs to machines and technology. In my view, the solution is not to prohibit companies from automating functions formerly performed by humans. The solution, I think, is to radically alter our thinking about economies and to be open to modifying our beliefs about what constitutes market economies and command economies (e.g., capitalism and socialism and their hybrids). Beyond that, I think we must seriously explore ways to merge the two in ways that will challenge our deeply-held beliefs about individual versus communalism.

I’ve read a bit about the potential for governments providing guaranteed minimum incomes and the impact such a move could have (and, in some countries, has had), I think we ought to get serious about exploring the concept. The concept is straightforward: everyone would receive from the government a basic income guarantee (BIG), unrelated to means testing; everyone, from the richest to the poorest, would receive the BIG. Its cost would be borne by taxes on the rich and on corporate profits. The benefits of the BIG would be felt not only by the poor, but by the rich who would benefit from the poor’s ability to spend money that, heretofore, had been unavailable. And the benefits to the state (and, by extension, taxpayers) would be the elimination of enormous and expensive bureaucracies that today attempt means-testing and other fraud-control measures to prevent “undeserving” people from receiving welfare benefits.

Now, with Donald Trump having just succeeded in swindling the majority of the American public out of their choice for President, the prospect of such a concept receiving a fair hearing in government is fantastical wishful thinking. But if, after four years of Trump’s punishing view of humanity, we are still able to elect a President (which, I am afraid, is not guaranteed in the least), we might be able to sweep elections with a progressive wave that would be sufficiently open-minded about ideas that, on the surface, may seem “communist” or “socialist.” (In fact, they are simply ideas, ideas worthy of intellectual trial.)

The longer I live, the more I embrace the concept of communalism (which, in my definition, is a hybrid of capitalism and socialism, with a healthy dose of decency thrown in for good measure). As much as I embrace communalism, I welcome thoughtful exploration of ideas that fly in the face of those we hold dear. If anyone reading this wishes to engage in a conversation on the topics I’ve breezed by today, I’ll happily participate in the conversation.

And, now, I’ll return to the kitchen, where I’ll begin making the soup we’ll take to tomorrow evening’s Christmas Eve soup supper at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. I’m making Berliner kartoffelsuppe mit knacker (Berlin-style potato soup with knockwurst), a soup I first tasted during a visit to Berlin many years ago.  Members of the congregation gather to share soups they make. This is our first experience with the UU soup supper; I expect to enjoy the communal spirit of sharing. Communalism. There it is again.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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