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Brave New (Post-Scarcity) World

The Editorial Board
June 24, 2013

An Editorial

From the Summer, 2013 Jewish Currents

On Sale Today!WE ARE LIVING IN A BRAVE NEW WORLD of technological wonders, with scientific and entrepreneurial creativity unleashed by computers, by the decoding of DNA, by the harnessing of solar power, by the enormous popularity of social media, and by other generative breakthroughs. In the past month alone, we have read reports about cars that drive themselves, which will mercifully extend the mobility and freedom of elderly and disabled people; about a new packing material, made from the biodegradable stuff of mushrooms, that could rapidly replace the environmental blight of Styrofoam; about cancer treatments designed for individual genomes, which will let patients avoid broad-spectrum chemotherapy; about laboratory-grown meat (no need for industrial slaughterhouses); about solar-powered airplanes (non-polluting); about 3-D printers that could someday soon enable individual communities or households to “manufacture” just about any appliance for minimal cost.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Perhaps. Certainly, the generations that founded and have sustained our magazine for sixty-eight years will always feel like immigrants in this brave new world — and, given the shift in our own lifetimes from salvational science (e.g., Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine) to Frankenstein science (e.g., widespread chemical pollution), we may always be suspicious of each so-called breakthrough. Our children and children’s children, however — many of whom will live to 120, perhaps to 150 — are native-born citizens, and many of them think it’s all quite cool, indeed.

As a magazine aspiring to live as long as them, Jewish Currents has recently been pouring a large part of our energy and resources into expanding our presence on the Internet. We’re well aware that the People of the Book have become the People of the Screen: Our website already attracts visitors every month numbering more than four times the total circulation of our magazine. So we’ve just recently unveiled a redesigned version (jewishcurrents.org), with an art gallery and multi-media room and lots of other up-to-date features; and so we’re in the process of creating a Jewish Currents app for iPhones and other gadgets; and so we’re posting on Facebook, and tweeting, and blog-shmogging, and all the rest . . .

THE WEIRDEST THING IS THAT WE'RE GIVING IT ALL AWAY FOR FREE, in hope of capturing the hearts of young readers and sustaining our non-profit survival model as a tsedoke-supported institution. In truth, we have no choice: Young people expect information and art to be free, or to be “earned” by viewing a few ads. Yet there is something more profound than a business model implicit in this concept of “free” — and it dovetails nicely with JC’s longtime harboring of socialist sympathies.The miracle technology that we’re describing hints at a world of enormous, sustainable abundance, a post-scarcity world that could, with just a bit of reorganization, give it all away, all of the essentials of life, for free.

There are some communities of thinkers and activists who are promoting the post-scarcity concept. There is an international “degrowth” movement, which conceptualizes a downscaling of both production and consumption to preserve the planetary environment and create a more equitable global economy. There are post-scarcity anarchists, many of them inspired by Murray Bookchin (1921-2006). There are “steady state” economists, from E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) to Herman E. Daly, the cofounder of Ecological Economics, who advocate a no-growth economy (which echoes, interestingly, the way the rabbis in the Midrash conceived of ancient Israel’s economy, according to Jacob Neusner’s analysis).

Far fewer news reports are devoted to these visionaries, however, than to the Horatio Algers of the 21st century, who include several young Jewish billionaires among them: David Karp, 26 of Tumblr, Mark Zuckerberg, 33, of Facebook, and Sergey Brin, 39, and Larry Page, 40, of Google, to name a few. Accompanying their new legends, unfortunately, is an old ideology: that it’s fabulous individuals who make fabulous fortunes, and an unregulated marketplace that inspires them to do so, and their smart philanthropy that will ultimately save the world. As for those of us who don’t understand algorithms but still want our slice of the pie, we should just sit down and wait for the crumbs to fall from the table...

OF COURSE, IN THE CASE OF APPLE, even the crumbs are being swept into the corporate treasury! U.S. Senate investigators have revealed that more than $72 billion in Apple’s profits fell into a bookkeeping netherworld to escape taxation — and that Microsoft and Hewlett Packard have played similar games. IT corporations have thus joined the banks and energy companies as leading gluttons at the public trough.

All of which makes our speculations about a post-scarcity economy seem little more than mishegos. We should dream on, yes‚ but the truth is that we live in a country in which the disparities of wealth and power are at an all-time high, and the referee — our government — is being deliberately paralyzed by a Republican party that prefers rule by oligarchy to rule by an elected, representative government. The truth is that forty-four of a hundred of the world’s largest economic entities are corporations — Walmart alone has revenues that exceed the GDPs of 174 nations, according to globaltrends.com — and none of them are talking about scaling back economic growth, or sharing the wealth more equitably.

As it was in his day, so it is now: “The rich,” said Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), “are puffed up, and the poor burst.” That, like many of the great Yiddish writer’s barbs, would fit nicely as a tweet.