Ryan Avent

The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent  – a senior editor and economics columnist at The Economist – has at its heart the digital revolution and its possible impact on the global economy and society. Along with Democracy for Realists (see this website) it’s rather like having a bucket of cold water poured over ones head – an initial shock but ultimately invigorating. For those of us who believe they have a vision – or at least are building towards one – this book reminds us that in a volatile world it is only one among a multitude of visions, all competing with others on a vast geopolitical canvas. It is John Stuart Mills ‘market place of ideas’ writ large.

One of Avent’s  main themes is the rise of social capital as opposed to the capital of stuff. He defines social capital as a ‘contextually dependent know-how, which is valuable when shared by a critical mass of people’. And he argues that social capital is becoming increasingly important for companies. But he also argues that one of the main problems facing us is that while ‘social capital lives in the heads of people who make the economy go, its benefits flow disproportionately to the owners of financial capital’. If workers decide that social returns on social capital should be more evenly distributed, he writes, that might lead to a more egalitarian society. However, Avent warns us that achieving this will require ‘bitter political battles’.

Of particular interest to Compass activists, I suspect, is Avent’s analysis of two main ways of artificially increasing income in an economy in which labour has limited bargaining power. One is the familiar notion of the minimum wage and the living wage; and the other is the Universal Basic Income (UBI) – an issue of particular interest to Compass. As UBI would be paid to everyone regardless of employment status the incentive to stop working would be ‘slightly’ reduced because a low paid job would not reduce the ‘basic-income level’. Compass’s own research into this shows that the evidence is limited but what there is from places where it has been tried suggests that the number of people dropping out of work would be small.

Despite his reservations Avent sees the positive possibilities of UBI in that it could clear away unnecessary and tedious work that could be done by robots and gradually create the ‘leisure-filled technological utopia’…’if politics allow’ (an interesting aside here is Srnicek and Williams’s plea to ditch our work ethic in their book Inventing the Future). While Avent is concerned that if people are freed from work their leisure-time will be ‘often spent in rather aimless fashion’ (I can almost hear Srnicek and Williams shouting ‘who cares?), he also believes that ‘people of all backgrounds also seem to value narratives of personal ambition and responsibility’. Or, as he puts it in a different way, people ‘desire agency’.

Interestingly, while Avent does quote from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (to which the title of his book is an obvious reference) he also refers to his much less well known Theory of Moral Sentiments in which Smith points out that we often ‘derive sorrow from the sorrow of others’, which is not the most quoted phrase from right wing think tanks. Avent draws on this sense of empathy to move beyond the sympathy we have for ‘people like us’ to argue that ‘to be like us is to be human‘ (his emphasis). Avent concedes that his book can seem ‘rather gloomy in parts’. But he ends on a note of optimism with his ‘belief in the capacity of humanity to develop new and important technologies, and find ways to use them to improve lives’.

Dickie Bellringer