Saturday, May 9, 2015

What is Prosperity?

I would define the sensible aspect of prosperity as a proportion: a proportion of the people who can afford a basic "middle class" life: good basics.  Enough even to send one child at a time to state college, enough for two solid cars (needed nowadays for a decent life in many cities, or an alternative extra cola for places like San Francisco where you don't need a car but other expenses are higher), a starter (the cheapest) home mortgage or equivalent rent.  (Doing all I just said they would have to be incredibly frugal also…or less frugal not doing those things.)

I'm guessing this is probably around the median income in the USA now, or around $60k for family of 4.  That translates to two full time working incomes of about $15/hr for two working persons.

So the USA currently scores 50% or 0.50 on my prosperity index by my own guesstimate.  I am not permanently putting this at 50%, I am not considering status or ranking, only what is required for a decent life.

(Has it been better?  Perhaps, and especially if other factors like risk are included.  But generally USA prosperity has been about stagnant since the 1970's, with the last year of the old New Deal being 1973. Prior to that prosperity had been growing since the 1930's.)

Why quantify something like "a decent life" instead of things like our "poverty line" based on the minimum calories one can get away with?  Well a decent life for all is exactly what we should be interested in.  I admit it may be harder, more subjective, but most people understand roughly what I'm talking about, and it's important.

And it is a thing not based on status, being above others, etc.  Status is not included in this basic measure.  So, the cheapest able car, code-compliant house, etc.  (Many people get by without those things…but that's poverty, not prosperity.)

In this measure it doesn't help for some people to be extremely rich--that doesn't make us any more prosperous.  But here we are also, as I said, focussed on the sensible aspect of prosperity…what we feel with out senses generally.  What we are creating for the future is another thing, and another thing entirely from much economics, investment analysis, etc.

While the financial structure we are creating is indeed important (and we would be doing better to be creating a simpler, more tractable, fairer, less gamed, etc., financial structure as well as greater equality) what we are creating for the future begins with what we are doing to the physical world.  Are we making it more nice (say, the possibility of having a decent life in places where it has generally been, in the last 10,000 years, possible to have a decent life) or less nice?  What is the prospect for the future?

I would say clearly we are disinvesting from the world in this way.  We are making it far less nice.  We are using up natural resources, generating pollution and environmental destruction, mass extinctions, global heating and acidification, and possibly far worse.  Such areas as have been great wild lands are turned into intentional uses, even the most basic one--farming--being destructive even if done organically (but far less so, of course).  The very best thing we can do with any land anywhere is to leave it alone--leave it to nature and the other species.  Or in many cases now--restore it to what it was, including the species if we can.

So much as we may pride ourselves on our productions even more perhaps than our extractions and utilizations and excretions, it may all be a negative in the long term creation sense.  (Sure, it was nice having the mobility and the comfort…but that's sensibility and not investment.)

Investment would be the creating of sustainable infrastructure for sustaining a sustainable number of humans…and toward the end of 100% prosperity, and a minimal decent human footprint for maintaining a technological society (another reason why 1billion or so might be the number) capable of such things as space travel.  AND leaving the rest for the rightful use of wild creatures in their natural ways.

We are, of course, doing anything but that, going mostly full throttle in the reverse direction now.

So investing also means building the society that can lead to fairly reducing population through birth control to achieve these ends.  If the ultimate sustainable population were to be around 1 billion humans, as I believe it to be, the required average birth rate could be calculated to achieve this within a reasonable time, say 150 years, with the maximum prosperity.  We might even have to achieve the goal sooner to avoid the worst planetary damage, perhaps 75 years, or some combination of environmental impact change and population reduction.

If we don't, I would imagine the same thing happening involuntarily and under horrendous circumstances over 250 years.

Or some mixture of restraint and catastrophe--that's actually the most likely thing, and with the human population temporarily undershooting the sustainable level, down to perhaps 10 million "survivors" who build the new human civilization 300 years from now.