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Beyond Scarcity: Reinventing Wealth in a Progressive World

We had better be sure we have the right values in mind as we think about ourselves in this historic transition.

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1. Wealth is anything that creates well-being.

2. Clean air increases well-being, so it is a form of wealth.

3. Dirtying the air reduces well-being, so it is a loss of wealth.

4. Keeping the air clean is preserving wealth.

Put another way, as progressives we recognize that even the hardest working person will starve if there is no food. Conversely, we believe that the Good Life is about more than money (beautifully depicted in this video by Free Range Studios).

Contrast this with the conservative understanding of wealth:

Wealth is Material Accumulation

Wealth is seen as (1) money accumulated by corporations and their investors; (2) "created" through resource extraction and labor; and (3) owned by whomever controls it.

According to this view, people are actors who seek to maximize their profit. Industrious individuals are seen as "creating" wealth through the process of production. Wealth created by industry will "trickle down" to the people. There is no need to protect the common wealth - shared resources of general benefit to society - because there is no concept for common wealth in this perspective. The central consideration is protecting the profits of hard-working individuals (and, by extension, the corporations that represent them).

In other words, conservatives believe hungry people should just work harder and "earn" their necessities or suffer the consequences.

Progressives can challenge this notion - and end the plague of scarcity in our politics - by recognizing the real source of wealth in the world. As a community, we depend on one another. Economists call this "mutual provision." A simple example is the division of labor in a complex economy. One person grows crops that another grinds into bread. This feeds yet another, who manufactures tools that enhance farming practices. Shared effort is built on the common wealth of the land that supports everyone. The wealth of society grows as people cooperate and share the benefits of their efforts.

At the core of this is the Principle of Human Dignity. Every person is valued for the part they play. Work is dignified because it (a) provides for the provision of the worker, while (b) enhancing the capacity of society to support its people.

The ironic thing is that the very people who seek to promote well-being - progressive philanthropists - are running their institutions based on a model of human exploitation. People are seen as an "add on" to the grant offering. Focus is given instead to a set of material goals for some marginal group. An example would be to fund poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa while keeping aid workers at a subsistence level in our own society. Another is the use of unpaid interns to "externalize" costs and "outsource" the workload - the standard model of worker exploitation cultivated and refined in the corporate world.

Our Own Stereotype - The Protector of Well-Being

We can change this. The first step, famously articulated in Alcoholics Anonymous, is to admit that we have a problem. Our concepts for wealth and prosperity are obstacles to success. We cannot build a fair and prosperous society without living the values we profess. And it all starts with how we think about ourselves.

A good place to start is with the stereotype that "represents" us. We may not be selfish gluttons who bask in the glory of conquest, but neither are we self-sacrificing fools who would rather suffer than join the rat race. What we really are is Protectors of Well-Being. We understand that we are all in this together. It is clear to us that many of the vital life supports we depend upon are being ransacked by runaway capitalism. So, we dedicate ourselves to ensuring that those around us are protected against harm and have the opportunity to seek fulfillment.

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