SIM­PLIS­TIC SO­LU­TIONS

UNI­VER­SAL WELL- BE­ING WILL NOT BE EASY TO ACHIEVE IN SPITE OF THE DUTCH HIS­TO­RIAN’S PER­SUA­SIVE VI­SION AND BOLD THINK­ING.

Business Today - - THE BREAKOUT ZONE - By Vivek Kaul

MUCH OF WHAT the British econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes had pre­dicted turned out to be true. But there are al­ways ex­cep­tions to the rule.

In 1930, Keynes wrote an es­say ti­tled Eco­nomic Pos­si­bil­i­ties for Our Grand­chil­dren. And the main point he made there was: In the years to come, peo­ple would en­joy a life full of leisure and their work­ing hours would come down. Keynes said that in 2030, in­di­vid­u­als would be work­ing just three hours a day, five days a week. Hu­mankind would face the chal­lenge of fig­ur­ing out what to do with all the time at their dis­posal.

Keynes was not the only one who thought so. In his book Utopia for Real­ists, Dutch his­to­rian Rut­ger Breg­man points out how No­bel Prizewin­ning play­wright Ge­orge Bernard Shaw pre­dicted in 1900 that, at this rate, work­ers in the year 2000 would be clock­ing just two hours a day.

Some of it had played out. Breg­man ob­serves that in 1855, the stone­ma­sons of Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, were the first to se­cure an eight-hour work­day. By cen­tury’s end, work­weeks in some coun­tries had al­ready dipped south of 60 hours.

The trend con­tin­ued. In 1926, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany, im­ple­mented a five-day workweek at his com­pany as he thought a well-rested worker would be a more ef­fec­tive worker. By the time Keynes got around to pre­dict­ing a three-hour workweek, there was enough ev­i­dence of the workweek be­ing short­ened from the days when the tex­tile work­ers of Man­ches­ter used to work 70-hour weeks. The un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion of the econ­o­mist was that by 2030, we would have solved all ma­jor prob­lems such as poverty. But nearly nine decades later, things have not turned out the way Shaw and Keynes thought they would.

Un­doubt­edly, the world is a much bet­ter place now than it was in 1930. As per the book, 94 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lived in ex­treme poverty in 1820, but by 1981, that per­cent­age had dropped to 44 per cent, and now, it is un­der 10 per cent.

Also, world­wide, life ex­pectancy grew from 64 years in 1990 to 70 in 2012. It is more than twice of what it was in 1900. Fur­ther, be­tween 1990 and 2012, more than 2.1 bil­lion peo­ple have got ac­cess to clean drink­ing wa­ter. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, the num­ber of chil­dren with stunted growth was down by a third; child mor­tal­ity fell by 41 per cent and ma­ter­nal deaths were down by 50 per cent.

So what is the prob­lem with to­day’s world? The au­thor says that the rich­est 8 per cent earn half of all the world’s in­come and the rich­est 1 per cent own more than half of all wealth. The poor­est bil­lion peo­ple con­sume just 1 per cent com­pared to the rich­est con­sum­ing 72 per cent. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the rich and the poor is very sig­nif­i­cant now, with the rich be­ing filthy rich. In­ter­est­ingly, a poor per­son in the US be­longs to the rich­est 14 per cent of the global pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther, some­one earn­ing a me­dian wage in the US be­longs to the rich­est 4 per cent.

The fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence is, as Breg­man puts it, “In the 19th cen­tury, in­equal­ity was still a mat­ter of class; nowa­days, it’s a mat­ter of lo­ca­tion.” The Western coun­tries are way ahead of the coun­tries in Africa and large parts of Asia. The West is the land of plenty.

What is the so­lu­tion to get rid of this in­equal­ity? The au­thor says, “One thing is cer­tain… If we want to make the world a bet­ter place, there’s no get­ting around mi­gra­tion. Even just crack­ing the door would help. If all the de­vel­oped coun­tries would let in just 3% more im­mi­grants, the world’s poor would have $305 bil­lion more to spend, say sci­en­tists at the World Bank. That’s the com­bined to­tal of all de­vel­op­ment aid – times three.”

But just like the ti­tle of the book, this is a utopian so­lu­tion. No so­ci­ety will open the gates for an un­lim­ited num­ber of im­mi­grants. Only if it were as easy as that, Keynes would have been proved right by now.

Utopia for Real­ists: And How We Can Get There By Rut­ger Breg­man Pub­lisher: Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing Pages: 336 Price: ` 599

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