Poverty and Choice

Self-interest and altruism lead to same results more often than we assume. Because we have not internalised this basic truth we frequently go wrong. Exhibit A in this respect is the Trump administration with its religion of America First. Did that bring America happiness? I think not. 

Fortunately, we are now in a new era. Yet, we continue making the mistake. The competition for vaccines between countries is Exhibit B. Not only are we getting suboptimal results when we compete in the way we do in the rich world, but by leaving the developing world high and dry we are not only inhuman but also undercutting our own efforts. Leaving India and Africa as labs for the corona virus to establish new variants that can defeat our warp speed vaccines is hardly a great idea even if looked at purely from the egoistic perspective.

What we are doing in this situation, as in so many others, is that we are leveraging our wealth of options against the dearth of options of the developing world. The downside of having few options is that you have few possibilities to improve your lot. But a downside of having many options is that that you have a good chance of exercising them wrongly. Given a choice, you would certainly always go with having many options despite the exposure to own stupidity in exercising them. Nevertheless, what is poorly understood is that to achieve best results and most happiness there should be a reasonable balance of options access, be it within a country or between countries. Imbalance is not only a source of tension, but undermines the power of the options of the privileged. There is no point in being able to buy a Bentley if not enough people have the option of buying cars so that proper roads can be built.

Very often the rich and the poor do not compete for the same resources, of course. The poor are nevertheless left in dire straits because of our ignorance, arrogance, neglect. They are left destitute because the rich do not understand that it is in their interest to lift the poor out poverty. It is a wry old Marxist insight that the bourgeoisie is better off with a robust underclass that can produce and consume. Although the recent wealth of the West can be ascribed largely to the empowerment of the lower middle class, the working class, we are racing headlong for disaster because we have again forgotten this truth. The current gaping inequality is testament to our forgetfulness.

Ethical behaviour should be an imperative, but it is shocking that we also ignore a most fundamental win-win. With the number of options increasing exponentially in virtually every domain of human endeavour we risk creating a much larger and more desperate proletariat if we do not make sure that everybody has both the means and the capability to exploit all that choice. 

The idea of a universal basic income has a lot of wind in its sails – hot on the heels of the first inadvertent experiments in this direction in the United States, where coronavirus stimulus cheques were sent to a very broad swath of the population. Universal basic income may not be the only way to ensure that all have the means to benefit from the options revolution, but it is certainly one way, particularly if we are able to achieve such universal basic income on a truly universal scale, that is, in all countries. When the objection comes up in response that this is unaffordable the bourgeoisie should remember the usefulness for capitalism of the above Marxist insight.

As to the capability to benefit from the mass of options, the only way forward is, of course, much better education, both within the rich world and without. Elites have been very complacent in this regard for half a century. They assumed that the education task was achieved with the right to go to school. However, the next step should have been to introduce a process of continuing improvement of the quality of teaching. The rich have, of course, achieved this for themselves but have left the poor to sink. The desolate state of many underprivileged schools has been an important driver of inequality, and will continue being so unless something is done. That ‘something’ should include the revival to former glory of the social status of teachers in the rich world. Accordingly, the starvation wages paid to the teachers of our children at their most impressionable age must become a thing of the past. The professors of Stanford should perhaps be paid less, the teachers in poor East Palo Alto certainly more. 

In the developing world the remedies in this respect are more complicated, yet the optional society has shown how new tools are invented when compelling educational needs so dictate. Zoom teaching is now commonplace in the West because of corona.  If we would understand the needs of developing countries as being equally compelling, the world could, without being patronising, put the same creative mechanisms to use in order to meet their requirements.  Think about the potential of digital avatars as teaching buddies to help overcome teacher shortages.  The result of such efforts would be that we would turn the deprived into effective participants in society. That is not only right but also our self-interest!

Ode to Pettiness

To see oneself reflected in the Other

is something every human wants;

it reassures each doubting soul

that, indeed, it is an island in the stream.


The light of others is, however, not what makes us human, we are a ‘Ding an sich’

– of substance even on a hermit’s pillar!

The person with no core, where emptiness resides inside, is he who seeks attention never-ending,

who uses others as a magnifying glass,

to make the Pudels Kern, so insignificant,

appear as something splendid and heroic.


There, empathy will be the undiscovered land

because, as brother Dracula,

the undead narcissist will gain existence also through the blood of others.

‘What does it mean for me?’ is all that matters

when pestilence appears;

what jubilation when he sends the mob to fight and kill and die!

That good and ready night will find him not-so-gentle –

the anger that he feels and lives will turn, he hopes, his pettiness to grandeur!

Island Self

With horizons closing in on us

we will return to village living –

the siren song of solitude will cast its spell from there.

The inner exile may repulse at first

but offers comfort and conceit to those of introvert persuasion. 


And, in the end, a virtual world, a world without the Other, will let you be the centre of your self-created universe,

a firmament beholden just to you.

Yet, an accomplished life is surely one where solipsism does not rule,

in which you feel that you are truly just an island in the stream,

in which you understand, with heart and mind, that the bell that tolls does so not just for you!

The Imbalance of Creation and Destruction

It is a truism to say that it is easier to destroy than to create. It is simpler to burn down a house than to build it, and a reputation, built over a lifetime, can be destroyed in minutes. Writing books is hard, burning books less so. Donald Trump can destroy but not create.

Of course, destruction is also a kind of creation, although often destruction might just be a return to the ex-ante. When we destroy the international system it may be argued that we are merely recreating the world of the 19th century. But that is not the complete truth, because when multilateralism goes, we recreate 19th century conditions but with nuclear arms. When we kill the rose, the weed that follows may be new.

Creation is exhilarating, as we know, yet destruction carries it own attraction too, unfortunately. In a sense this is strange given our inbred desire to improve. The reason is less Freud’s Todestrieb, and more the envy humans hold alongside the desire for progress. Most fundamentally, though, destruction is the purest exercise of power, and we truly love that. Moreover, killing something gives kinship forever. The hunter creates an unbreakable bond when putting the magnificent tiger to death! In a different context Ibsen said: Eternally owned is but what’s lost. That could be the destroyer’s motto!

Given the competitive advantage of destruction over creation, one can ask how it has been possible for human society to progress to the extent it has. Why did the fatal attraction of destruction not always win out?

One reason is surely that humankind did not take Nietzsche’s advice to heart to abandon what he called self-denying slave morality. Imagine thousands and thousands of Napoleons living their destructive ‘master’ grandeur uninhibitedly. Surely, human progress would have been impossible, and Napoleon himself, of course, saw this as well. His only truly lasting legacy is the Code Civil, which is a wonderful example of codifying slave morality. The progress of civilisation is entirely contingent upon restraint and self-restraint on our destructive impulses.

Even eclipsing this in importance is the fact that good ideas are hard to kill. A cannonball may destroy the house, but still it will not be forgotten how to build a house well. Europe was destroyed by two world wars, yet within 15 years of the last it was blooming again. It had not been forgotten how to build prosperity.

What sets humans apart from other animals is not only our capacity for good ideas, but also our capacity for passing them on. Instead of the endless procession of statues to slavers and warriors surely we should have monuments celebrating the resilience of good ideas. They are the ultimate proof of mind over matter!