The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century by Ryan Avent
The ‘current affairs’ shelf in bookstores is one of my favourite sections to browse. Though the topics are broad, the formula for the books is narrow: find a topic (big & well known, obscure but undervalued), synthesise 3 key themes, and add a subtitle such as “How XX can change the world”.
The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Advent will likely end up on the current affairs shelves in most book shops. But it’s an intriguing contribution that tries to break out of this simplifying formula.
This is a book of parts. I underlined hundreds of sentences, even whole paragraphs while reading through. Yet I’m still not sure what I’ll end up retaining from it. In its broad scope and focus, this book reminded me most of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Though without the pity summaries and lasting analogies (freestyle chess) which help to leave an imprint in your memory long after the specific sentences have drifted out.
There’s nothing automatically wrong with a book lacking a clear central message. Indeed, I’m concerned by a publishing industry which regularly publish books of pure sloganeering over substance. Authors seem obsessed with naming and claiming terms to describe the world’s phenomena. A trend which has led to abominations of language such as ‘Chimerica’ and books as unreadable as ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’. Where every second page contains the sentence ‘this is a phenomena I like to call…’. Yuck.
Advent, a writer for The Economist —which he reminds readers slightly too often—tries to provide a tour of the broad thematic changes of the global economy. Like Cowen and others in the genre, technologic change, especially robotics and AI plays an import role in the story. But Avent also wants to tell a story of the changing nature of commercial value. Where 80 percent of a firm’s wealth historically came from its machines and mortar, today just 20 percent does. The rest is captured by ‘social capital’. The idea’s, culture and networks which are championed and challenged by the digital revolution.
Part of the book is an exploration of how these forces are changing global and economic structures. Where technology enabled some poor countries to become part of integrated supply-chains (such as China), the trend towards social capital now risks their exclusion. Both because the savings of offshoring are shrinking, and because the real value is now far more concentrated in the rich world.
Both of these trends spell grave challenges for labour. A global abundance of workers compared to work is holding down wages, exacerbating low global demand and risking political upheaval and revolution. As such, in fits and starts, The Wealth of Humans’ seeks to argue that politics fundamentally needs to recognise and solve the redistribution challenge these trends will require.
Avent doesn’t embrace a specific policy agenda. He sees merit in ideas like a universal basic income, in greater immigration from poor countries to rich ones, in increasing labour’s bargaining position and in ripping away the exclusions and barriers that distort the housing market in particular.
His reluctance to claim ‘one weird trick to fix the global economy’, appropriately fits the nature of his analysis. At its best, the book helps to show just how complex the economic challenges of the early 21st century are. There are no simple villains or heroes here. Stories of evil neoliberal bankers or overspending governments may work well at Sanders/Trump pep rallies, but barely scratch the surface for developing a coherent rhetorical and policy response.
Instead, the real value of this book is not in trying to simplify, but in reminding just how many big themes there are that need serious public attention. And while the ranks of citizens who browse the current affairs section of bookstores is declining, works like this give me confidence that there’s still hope for the serious public analysis and debate the challenges of our time require