Let’s face it, capital is winning. (watch this video if you haven’t already seen it)
The statistics show that the game of growing capital has been getting easier over the years, whereas that other game of finding a good career and slowly accruing wealth through honest labor seems to be only getting harder. The millenials are the best educated generation ever, yet their prospects for career security and wealth accumulation seem to be only getting worse. The baby-boomers love to poke fun of the younger generations, but seem oblivious to the fact that the game is rigged in favor of those with healthy investment accounts and against those looking to build new ones.
Yes, it seems that now is a good time to make money if you already have money, and a bad time for making money if you don’t already have some. More importantly though, I do not see any likely shift away from this trend in the near or even medium term. In a future (present?), where the magic of automation allows wealth to be directly transmuted into productive capacity with a diminishing requirement to acquire human labor, I see no likely shift in the imbalanced advantage of capital over labor.
In the future there will be owners and there will be losers.
Even if strong new social policies such as basic income become adopted, and I am very much optimistic that these kinds of programs should and will be adopted widely in the coming decades, I am not so optimistic to believe that they will be adequate to address the accelerating wealth gap. Ironically, basic income could actually serve to impede the biggest threat to the capital class, the ability of lower classes to accrue and grow their own capital investments.
At its core, basic income is mostly envisioned as an economic mechanism to establish an absolute floor for the social safety net. Where exactly we decide to install that floor is a matter for debate, but it seems most believe that in order to maintain an incentive for work and entrepreneurship, basic income should be set close to subsistence levels. Enough should be provided for people to eat, clothe, and house themselves, but basic income is not likely to leave a great deal for savings.
Even if basic income exceeds this “basic” mandate and does provide more than enough funds for families to enjoy a comfortable life, it still provides no incentive for people to save. If people know that they can rely for the long term on a steady basic income every month, then those people may see no reason to save much money. Why would I save for retirement if I can be assured of receiving an adequate amount to meet my needs for the rest of my life?
Of course, there will always be some percentage of individuals who will have the foresight to save as much as they can, but I would simply suggest that this percentage might actually be smaller under a regime of basic income. The psychology of foresight might be the single greatest factor which differentiates the most successful individuals in life, there is no reason to think that basic income would change this in any way. Other tools such as education should be used to encourage people to have more foresight about their lives and make better long term decisions (but that is for another post).
So what is to be done about this? Ultimately, I think that the long-term emergence of powerful technologies such as strong artificial intelligence and molecular-scale manufacturing will eventually make individual wealth somewhat irrelevant. For the medium-term however, without the total collapse of the capitalist system, something that I believe would be too painful to suffer through no matter what the ends, I do not see any likely end to the acceleration of wealth inequity. For the next two decades, people who own things will do well and everyone else will get by.
Still, the message of the accelerating value of capital is not entirely doom and gloom. Yes, those who control huge sums of the world’s wealthy will benefit disproportionately from the automation revolution, but the more important disparity might actually be between those who can see the future and those who cannot. If your parents can’t understand how to use their email, how could they hope to make sound investment decisions in a world revolving around technological innovation? Similarly, those wealthy individuals who are heavily invested in the successful industries of today, may lack the maneuverability to respond to the kinds of disruptive technological innovations we are seeing with increasing frequency.
So, perhaps the most important question is not how much you have to invest, but how well you can predict the coming landscape of innovation? Being able to predict which technologies are going to be successful has been of immeasurable value since the inception of the market. Despite its ebb and flow over the years, a balanced investment in technology companies over the last 30 years would have provided unprecedented gains. I expect that the future-smart investor can realize similar gains in even shorter time over the next few years.
So however meager your savings might be, do not despair. Invest what you can, because those of us in the technology generations, who understand technology better than the rest, stand to reap enormous gains. Those who can see the future and invest in it are going to be well positioned to join the capital classes in the coming years. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The future is going to belong to those who can see it.