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06 April 2010

The Ultralight Society

David Brin writes of what he calls the 'diamond-shaped society;' shape in this case being the shape of the socio-economic structure of society. This is proposed as an alternative to the 'pyramid-shaped society,' which is very small at the top and very large at the bottom:

Ever since human beings discovered metals and agriculture, nearly all complex civilizations shared a common structure, a hierarchy of privilege reminiscent of a pyramid, with a super-empowered few on top, directing the labors of obedient masses below. Across 4,000 years and nearly every continent, aristocracies (and the clerics who preached on their behalf) colluded to ensure that the ruling oligarchy would stay on top.

The 'diamond' configuration is wide in the middle and small at both top and bottom. This represents a society dominated by its middle class:

The so-called "American Dream" represents a radical departure from this near-universal theme. Our ideal of a middle-class society is best pictured as a flattened diamond… with a few people getting rich by providing honest goods and services, but the vast majority living not far below this elite in comfort, education, and even political clout. In such a society, a respected millionaire will have earned his or her wealth personally—by helping engender competitive services, solutions and products—rather than just inheriting it.
Below the middle class, numbers are supposed to narrow again. (Hence the diamond shape.) If we must cynically accept that “the poor will always be with us,” then they should be few—sporadic unfortunates who have fallen temporarily, due to bad luck or perhaps bad habits. Either way, society ought to be able to lend a hand so they can rise up again. Or if not them, certainly their children.

I have a number of problems with this:

  • I'm not willing to cynically accept that the poor we will always have with us. My political economy agenda is to prove Jesus wrong on that particular prophecy.
  • While poverty may be more avoidable in the diamond configuration than in the pyramid; it is a more humiliating experience in the former. Combined with America's cultural tendency toward 'kick-em-when-they're-down,' this could be a positively hellish experience.
  • When poor people are a tiny voting bloc, the interests of poor people are especially poorly represented.
  • I've been rebelling against middle class social norms for most of my life. Likewise, I reject the popular notion that the middle class is uniquely qualified to implement democracy and other forms of accountability.

These objections raise the question: What social geometry is palatable to me? The mandate to abolish poverty necessitates a form that is not in contact with the ground. The socialist (yeah, guilty as charged) ideal of a 0.5 Gini coefficient is exemplified by a zero-thickness or planar object, such as a horizontal sheet of paper. So, the ideal social geometry is a sheet of paper hovering above the ground. Perhaps a small amount of equality can be traded for some efficiency by folding the sheet into a paper airplane. Unfortunately, every glider must run aground sooner or later. It's a point I must concede for the sake of realism, in spite of my distaste for the hacks and snarks at the American Petroleum Institute and similar astroturfs who delight in such dismalities. In the spirit of the dismal science, we now attempt to negotiate a tradeoff between the fact that we insist on a poverty-free-society, and the Iron Law to the effect that energy-consumption-driven technologies (such as the steam engine) are an apparent prerequisite for the development of a mass middle class; a 'middle mass.' For the sake of sustainability, efficiency should be heavily emphasized over power in this tradeoff; hence the ultralight society.

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