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quotations from the book by Rutger Bregman

Two Centuries of Stupendous Progress

For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly ... Where 84% of the world's population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, [2017] just a few decades later, it us under 10% [page 1]

The Pampered Generation

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented. [19]

The Secret of the Expanding Government

It’s no accident that countries that score high on well-being, like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, have a large public sector. Their governments subsidize the domains where productivity can’t be leveraged. Unlike the manufacture of a fridge or a car, history lessons and doctor’s checkups can’t simply be made “more efficient.” [120]

To look solely at the price of a product is to ignore a large share of its costs. In fact, a British think tank estimated that for every pound earned by advertising executives, they destroy an equivalent of £7 in the form of stress, overconsumption, pollution, and debt; conversely, each pound paid to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability. [121]

As writer Kevin Kelly says, “Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” [122]

The Forgotten Dream

“My grandma didn’t have the vote, my mom didn’t have the pill, and I don’t have any time,” as a Dutch comedienne pithily summed it up. [135]

And according to Korean research, the smartphone has the average employee working eleven more hours per week. [137]

Cornflake Capitalism

Research suggests that someone who is constantly drawing on their creative abilities can, on average, be productive for no more than six hours a day. [141]

And paternity leave, in particular, is crucial: Men who spend a few weeks at home after the birth of a child devote more time to their wives, to their children, and to the kitchen stove than they would have otherwise. Plus, this effect lasts — are you ready for it? — for the rest of their lives. [143-4]

Nowadays, excessive work and pressure are status symbols. Moaning about too much work is often just a veiled attempt to come across as important and interesting. Time to oneself is sooner equated with unemployment and laziness, certainly in countries where the wealth gap has widened. [145]

National Strategy

Not coincidentally, the countries with the shortest workweeks also have the largest number of volunteers and the most social capital. [148]

There is Another Way

...Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, twenty years later, the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.

The upshot is that we’ve all gotten poorer. For every dollar a bank earns, an estimated 60 cents is destroyed elsewhere in the economic chain. Conversely, for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 — and often much more — is pumped back into the economy. [169]

Trend Watchers

...take an ordinary elementary school teacher. Forty years at the head of a class of twenty-five children amounts to influencing the lives of 1,000 children. Moreover, the teacher is molding pupils at an age when they’re at their most malleable. [170]

Increased prosperity — and the increased robotization of work — would finally enable us to “ value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” The purpose of a shorter workweek is not so we can all sit around doing nothing, but so we can spend more time on the things that genuinely matter to us. [172]

Our Location Bonus

An American earns nearly three times as much for the same work as a Bolivian, even when they are of the same skill level, age, and sex. With a comparable Nigerian, the difference is a factor of 8.5 — and that’s adjusted for purchasing power in the two countries.

...In the twenty-first century, the real elite are those born not in the right family or the right class but in the right country. [221]

Falsifying the Fallacies

...in 2004 the first extended study exploring the connection between ethnicity and youth crime got under way in Rotterdam. Ten years later, the results were in. The correlation between ethnic background and crime, it turns out, is precisely zero. None, nothing, nada. Youth crime, the report stated, has its origins in the neighborhood where kids grow up. In poor communities, kids from Dutch backgrounds are every bit as likely to engage in criminal activity as those from ethnic minorities. [223]

Michael’s thoughts

It's worth noting that every one of the factual assertions copied above is thoroughly documented in an extensive index.

I found this book compulsively readable, even though I think I figured most of this stuff out a long time ago. (I guess I was one of those Harvard grads that went into research: what does a good life look like?) The style, due I’m sure in part to a graceful translation from the original Dutch by Elizabeth Manton, is conversational and easy, despite the fact that it is highly seasoned with interesting but hard to swallow facts.

The author makes three major points:

  1. We need to implement a 15 hour work week. This solves the unemployment problem, and there’s research that proves that if we were all doing useful good work (not banking!) for fifteen hours a week, we’d be just as productive, and justify being paid just as much, as now.
  2. There should be a universal basic income, because (a) we can afford it, because this would end the spectacular waste of the poverty bureaucrats and (b) that would solve innumerable problems, such as homelessness, poor healt, and malnutrition.
  3. Borders between countries should come down, because they are incredibly costly and inhumane, and utterly out of step with the need for global agreement about climate change.

Along the way, as he proposes each of these innovations, he works through and thoroughly debunks the prevailing arguments against doing these things.

I was let down (only a little) by the fact that after page 223, there were fewer chunky, memorable, and quotable bits. But that doesn't mean the book fizzles. It makes the points that (1) we can all individually do much of what’s suggested, and (2) that most of us are conditioned to resist these changes, and smart people (like us) are presently much more likely to use our intellects to protect our ideologies and prejudices than to open ourselves to better ways. We need to work on that.