Scarcity vs plenty

2017-12-29 19:15:18 -08:00

I’ve been thinking a lot about political rhetoric here in the US, and one thing I’ve identified in it is a dichotomy, or maybe a spectrum, between poles of Scarcity and Plenty.

A politics of scarcity says that the pie is only so big, only big enough for so many to get their share of the pie.

A politics of plenty says that we can and should make the pie bigger to include everyone.

In a politics of scarcity, you have discussion of who should get a share of the pie; everyone else is to be de-prioritized at the very least, or intentionally excluded at most.

In a politics of plenty, you have discussion of investment in society so that everyone can get a share, and of taxing those with more than enough so that those with less than enough can be included and raised up.

Some examples:

Plenty Scarcity
Health care
  • Health care is a human right
  • No-one deserves to go untreated or die for lack of means
  • Medicare for all (or other proposed universal-health-care scheme)
  • No-one has a right to someone else’s labor
  • Health care is expensive because this is what the market has decided is a fair price
  • Just work harder/more so you can earn enough to afford health care
Income and work
  • No-one deserves to die/become homeless because they can’t work (because disability, injury, or illness), or because the work they need is out of their reach (because education, cost of moving, cost of finding/obtaining it, etc.)
  • People should be able to remain close to friends and family, not have to leave to find a living
  • People who do work should not have to also be on income assistance or food assistance (e.g., SNAP) in order to live—minimum wage should be a living wage
  • Automation (e.g.: self-checkouts, self-driving cars) should liberate us from having to work to live
  • Austerity (societal and individual) kills people
  • Universal basic income: Pay everyone a living wage
  • No-one deserves money for doing nothing
  • No-one deserves a job without earning it
  • There are only so many jobs to go around, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Automation will kill people by eliminating their jobs
  • People who buy “luxuries” (snacks, entertainment, cable TV, iPhones, etc.) are obviously not poor
  • Just work harder/more so you can earn enough
  • No-one deserves to be locked up in a camp/sent to another country/killed because of where they’re from
  • Let them come here and be our neighbors and become Americans
  • Their children will be part of the next generation of Americans
  • Their arrival grows the economy; that growth enables the economy to support them as well as existing Americans
  • No-one deserves to live here unless they were born here or come here legally
  • Immigrants take jobs/live in housing that could have gone to Americans
  • Immigrants get on American welfare
  • [I’m intentionally leaving out a lot of racist scaremongering that doesn’t have to do with this topic]
  • We can house everyone who wants to live here if we build enough housing
  • The problem is we don’t have enough housing
  • The solution is to build more housing, including affordable not-for-profit/public housing
  • Long-time residents vs. recently-arrived techies
  • Single-family houses vs. apartment complexes
  • Ground-floor retail vs. one-story retail
  • Trickle-down housing policy (building at the high end to reduce displacement at the low end) vs. induced demand (building at the high end attracts more high-income residents)

(I’m a techie living in SF, so I may have a personal stake in that last one.)

Notice how scarcity rhetoric sets people against each other. Often this means specific groups: immigrants vs Americans; techies vs non-techies. One group is cast as outsiders coming in to take what rightfully belongs to the other group.

There’s a broader level of division underneath that and independent of it, present even on issues where there aren’t two specific groups. This is the notion that people, individual people, should be in competition with each other for (jobs/housing/membership in society/etc). Those with the most “merit” (whether this is defined or not) “earn” what they are able to get. That this definitionally creates a society of Haves (who did “earn” the thing) and Have Nots (who didn’t) goes unstated and unquestioned.

I should also point out that a person can hold views that are of plenty on one topic while holding views of scarcity on another topic. For example, supporting universal health care (plenty) but also restrictive immigration policies (scarcity).

Plenty is something to strive for

The problem that I see with politics of scarcity is that focusing on parceling out the existing pie leads to the pie dwindling: Both because without investment, there is no growth to counter people’s consumption of the pie, and because many of these policies have their own costs. In cold economic terms, when people die for lack of health care, medicine, housing, or food, or are priced out or forcibly deported, they’re no longer taxpayers in your jurisdiction and they’re no longer participating in its economy.

Politics of scarcity screws both the society and the individual. In a society in which more affluent people pay more in taxes, keeping people from becoming affluent keeps the government starved for tax revenue, so it can’t use tax money to pay for growth projects or (ultimately) even basic maintenance. (Which incentivizes the rich who are on the hook for that tax revenue to push for tax cuts, further starving the government.) And the individual loses out on the freedom and enjoyment they could have if they weren’t scrabbling with all their time and energy just to continue scrabbling.

Poverty is a trap, at both ends.

Politics of plenty is politics of investment and growth: Make sure everyone has enough to live and function, both because it’s the humane thing to do, and because (again, in cold economic terms) they can then continue participating in the economy and paying taxes. The poor can become comfortable and then affluent, buoyed by the economy supporting them. And the economy/society can grow, fed by the people in it, as they rise in means and accumulate in number.

We can end poverty and homelessness, and build a welcoming, inclusive society. It’s possible. It’s imaginable. But we have to want it, we have to advocate for it, and we have to demand that our government—at every level—enact the policies to make it happen.

Otherwise, we continue grinding ourselves into dust forever.

Updated 2019-05-23 to reflect some nuance my housing politics have absorbed over the years.

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