🎁 You Have More Than You Think
First the pandemic, then inflation - lots of us have been dealing with or thinking about scarcity, especially those with less. This week, I challenge my own conception of scarcity. Perhaps a lot of it is more artificial than it seems.
Money is one of the few things we can create in unlimited quantities. It can be reprinted, minted, or replicated on the blockchain. But we purposefully limit its creation to artificially create scarcity, one that pushes our animal brain to accumulate resources, often at the expense of the common good and sometimes to such a great extent that we are willing to harm our friends, family or coworkers.
Most of the ultra-wealthy have more resources than they can leverage. In fact, they are highly inefficient economic actors as most of their accumulated capital is never utilized (how many pairs of jeans can a billionaire buy?). The fixed income or interest payments they receive from their holdings alone can equal the GDP of entire nations - enough to house the entire houseless population of Los Angeles, without ever reducing their principal wealth.
There is no scarcity of money in this country. Only a scarcity of will.
One in five children suffer from hunger around the world. But we produce plenty of food, enough to feed the whole planet dozens of times over. Over 50% of the food we produce in the “developed” world is wasted. Land that could be used to feed the world’s hungry is instead devoted to producing ethanol or plastics. More water goes per acre to water the lawns of Americans than almost any other productive use.
Food is not scarce because we lack land, water or labor to produce more - it is scarce because we just prioritize other uses, some purely cosmetic (literally artificial) instead.
Recycling is dying. Trader Joes sells fruit wrapped in plastic. Tremendous amounts of water are wasted to produce almonds in areas inhospitable to their growth. Conservation technologies require tremendous political effort and buy-in to get off the ground (just look at the latest environmental justice bill that took years to pass and even that as a shadow of its former self).
There’s no reason we can’t get by with less or with what we have now. Many of us (myself included) are trained to re-purchase, not reuse.
On a recent trip this week, I saw two passengers get into a scuffle over who would board the flight first. Witnessing this, the gate attendant looked at me and rolled her eyes. “You’re all headed to the same place,” she said, “Why fight over who gets to sit first?”
Why indeed were these people behaving irrationally? She was right, we were all headed to the same destination in the same plane, with our seats already pre-chosen. Why fight over an inevitability?
But then I began to think further. Though the pre-assigned seats were no longer a scarce resource, bin space for carry-on’s was. “It’s not the seats,” I said, “Its the bin space. People want to board as soon as possible so that they don’t have to gate-check their bags and then wait for them after landing.”
The artificiality of these constraints becomes glaringly obvious when you see how airlines respond to consumer pressure like they did during the pandemic by dropping made-up costs: everything from baggage fees to flight change fees.
Arguably, this is a hard one. We all ostensibly have access to the same time every day, irrespective of our identity. But stay with me on this one: time is at least partially, an artificially scarce resource. We are the only creature on this planet that tracks time in terms of loss or gain. While other creatures think of the day ending or the night beginning, we also think of it in terms of our life shortening. Our religions and secular philosophies try to break this conception of time as a scarce resource by emphasizing the afterlife or the cyclical nature of existence, but we continue to think of time in terms of a single finite span limited to our own biographical existence.
You could be using your time more productively. There are people excelling while you are just chillin. More for you, is less for me … even though your use of time doesn’t actually diminish mine! In fact, in modern and historic cultures that were more cooperative, one person’s use of time (e.g. to hunt or build structures) was a net gain for the entire community.
Rivalry need not be the same as scarcity.
When was the last time you thought of time this way?
Because of the massive productivity benefits we enjoy, most modern humans actually have far more time now than they ever did in the past (household chores alone used to take entire days: imagine life without dishwashers, laundry machines, vacuums). Nonetheless, by adding more to our plate we’ve artificially created scenarios where everyone has less time than in the past.
And so …
Scarcity, artificial or otherwise, is often found side by side with excess. This is a kind of weird symbiosis that I want to explore further. In New York, millionaires walk past beggars, the American West is experiencing record drought while the South floods, there is an epidemic of loneliness but online communities are blossoming, credit card debt is increasing while the assets of the 1% hit record highs.
Scarcity is sticky. If you think in scarce terms, its hard to break the habit even if you are very rich:
The majority of those with an average net worth of $20 million in a 2011 Boston College study said they regularly experienced financial insecurity. Most said they needed 25% more $$ to feel financially secure 🤯
We don’t need to sacrifice much, or in some cases anything at all, to have more food, money and access to more services. We already live in a world of abundance.
But we use artificial notions of scarcity to build a world where many of us have very little, even though there is no practical reason why such structural inequality should persist.
🎧 Now Playing on the UnfairNation Podcast
While we record a new episode (today!), check out the past year’s season!
Colleagues at Arizona State University are recruiting a Chief Human Resources Officer (replacing a fantastic and beloved colleague). Drop me a note if interested.
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New Zealand | October 14 - 20
Australia | October 20 - 24
📅 Reading & Watching
Prey on Hulu, “a rare tribute to the indigenuity, strength, and survival of indigenous peoples”
Reynolds and his wife Blake Lively donated $500,000 to Covenant House in Vancouver and Toronto to assist homeless youth, $1 million to Food Banks Canada and Feeding America, and to organizations like Pacific Wild, SickKids Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation among countless others.
And Canada loved him back.
A day before sharing the video above, Reynolds announced that he and Lively were donating to the Canadian Red Cross to assist in recovery efforts from the floods and mudslides that have devastated British Columbia.
Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.