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There Are Better Ways To Do This

Of all the books I read over the summer break, I find myself coming back repeatedly to Rutger Bregman’s ‘Utopia for Realists’.  I have already highlighted his thoughts about education, most notably that we need to teach children values ahead of skills.  No one knows for sure what skills they may need for a labour market where most of the jobs have not yet been invented, but we surely know the values they will need to ensure that whatever world they create is a decent place to live.

Bregman’s arguments range across a host of ideas and I found myself agreeing with him far more often than disagreeing, for example when he made the point that the advertising industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand.  Or that we are throwing more and more of our resources, including the cream of our youth, into financial activities remote from the production of goods and services, thereby generating high private rewards disproportionate to social productivity.  And surely our response to healthcare workers, teachers and even delivery drivers during the worst of the pandemic showed us which occupations we really ought to value.

We are living in a generation where so many children are told they are special and can be anything they want, which Bregman says has led to a steady diet of narcissism.  However, for many, as soon as they are released into the great big world of unlimited opportunity, there can be a tendency to crash and burn.  The world, it turns out, is often cold and harsh, rife with competition and unemployment.  It is not a Disneyland where you can wish upon a star and see all your dreams come true, but a rat race in which plenty fail to make the grade.

As the debate about the reduction to universal credit rumbles on, Bregman makes some clear and simple statements about poverty, highlighting how, following the success of a project where homeless people were simply given money to improve their lives, the Economist concluded: ‘The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them.’

Studies from all over the world offer proof positive that free money works.  Research has correlated unconditional cash disbursements with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth and gender equality.  Bregman concludes bluntly that poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash.  It is not about stupidity or laziness.  You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.

Countries with big disparities in wealth also have more bullying behaviour, because there are bigger status differences.  The psychological consequences are such that people living in unequal societies spend more time worrying about how others see them.  This undercuts the quality of relationships, manifested for example in a distrust of strangers and status anxiety.  The resulting stress, in turn, is a major determinant of illness and chronic health problems.

With ‘Levelling Up’ dominating the political agenda, Bregman points out that when inequality goes up, social mobility goes down.  For example, there is almost no country on Earth where the American Dream is less likely to come true than in the United States.  Anybody eager to work their way up from rags to riches is better off trying their luck in Sweden, where people born into poverty can still hold out hope of a brighter future. 

But he also highlights that it is important to remember that society cannot function without some degree of inequality.  There still need to be incentives to work, to endeavour and to excel, and money is a very effective stimulus.  Nobody would want to live in a society where cobblers earn as much as doctors.  Or rather, nobody living in such a place would want to risk getting sick.

Nonetheless, in almost all developed countries today, inequality far exceeds what could reasonably be deemed desirable, with a recent report from the IMF revealing that too much inequality even inhibits economic growth.  Perhaps the most fascinating finding, however, is that even rich people suffer when inequality becomes too great.  They, too, become more prone to depression, suspicion and myriad other social difficulties.  Income inequality makes us all less happy with our lives, even if we are relatively well off.  In the USA, the gap between rich and poor is already wider than it was in ancient Rome, which was an economy founded on slave labour, so it is little wonder that there are so many issues to try to deal with.

Some of the statistics he provides are truly remarkable.  For example, a person living at the poverty line in the USA belongs to the richest 14% of the world population, and someone earning a median wage belongs to the richest 4%.  In 2009, as the credit crunch was gathering momentum, the employee bonuses paid out by investment bank Goldman Sachs were equal to the combined earnings of the world’s 224 million poorest people.  And just eight people – the richest people on Earth – own the same as the poorest half of the whole world, meaning that a mere eight people are richer than 3.5 billion put together.

As our ideas about what we might want to do at our new school start to take shape, Bregman at least needs to be part of the discussion, even if he may not be the answer to everything.  As he says, if we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible.  Those who once called for the abolition of slavery, for the suffrage of women and for same-sex marriage were initially branded as lunatics – until history proved them right.  The inability to imagine a world in which things are different is evidence only of a poor imagination, not of the impossibility of change.

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