Why can't we make things better?

Have you noticed the latest TV advertisement from the Salvation Army? It goes like this:
"We keep making better things. Why can't we make things better? It's time to end poverty in Canada"
I don't know whether they actually want an answer to their question. Perhaps it's only a rhetorical device in the service of more snappy fundraising.

But if the question is ONLY rhetorical then one would have to conclude that the Salvation Army is either cynical or delusional, or both cynical and delusional.

On the assumption that they are sincere (and, thereby, sincerely delusional), I'll answer their question. There are all sorts of things that cause poverty.

Being young or being inexperienced along with having poor health or disability can make it difficult, even impossible, to earn a living. Such poverty is an unavoidable part of Nature and we all experience it when we are children. Helping children is an evolutionary must do. There is clear evidence that from Paleolithic times to the present that our social instinct is to also help the old and disabled. I think that it can be fairly said that humanity has evolved to ameliorate natural poverty. The Salvation Army has long capitalized upon this evolved instinct in order to push its religious agenda.

But there is another sort of poverty which is not natural and for which there is no evolved fix. It is a type of poverty that was invented when people shifted from being wandering huntergatherers to living settled lifestyles, like those associated with farming and cities. I'll call this "structural poverty" because it is a function of the structure of the modern lifestyle. I could equally call it "unnatural poverty" but that might confuse people who have normalized themselves to living in a city.

It is written in the Bible that Jesus of Nazareth said "the poor will be with us always". Notably, Jesus did not explain why the poor will always be with us. Neither does the Bible consider the anthropological evidence that many huntergatherers were outright egalitarian.

The biblical position seems to be that we must unquestionly accept that poverty exists and ameliorate it through charity. In our society it is good to give but receiving is a more abiguous matter. Acollades are seldom heaped up those with their hand out.

Before I get to the reason for structural poverty, let's consider some of the other "solutions" that have been employed. During the latter part of the Roman Republic, Marius hit upon the idea of employing the poor as soldiers. Previously, the poor were excluded from the Roman Armies, partly because soldiers were expected to equip themselves. Marius changed that. He loaded them up with equipment (they called themselves "Marius's mules") and turned them into a deadly force.

Modern governments play the same game; making soldiers from that pool of people who can't otherwise find gainful employment. The difficulty is finding something to do with these men after they have served their useful term of duty. Our Canadian government can't figure that one out. The Roman leaders were smarter, they just gave over some conquered territory to their retired soldiers... Unfortunately, the Canadian Army never won anything that they could be given.

"Why did the Roman Empire fall?" is the wrong question for our present purpose. The right question is: "Why did it last so long?" Again, the answer is to be found in how the Roman Empire delt with it's poverty problem. The "solution" was simple. Breed lots of people in a farm called "Rome" and make sure that they are all fed and entertained. Create a powerful army and conquer those around you, then steal their stuff and enslave them so you can better provide for your large breeding herd back at Rome. Don't worry if occasionally one of your armies gets wiped out, there are plenty more back in Rome. Just be persistent. That's why Rome lasted so long.

Of course not all Romans were rich. But even the "poor" Romans were well provided for compared to those who had been conquered. It was at the grimy edges of the Roman Empire that you would find the really poor sods... That's where Jesus grew up. And that's also where Jesus pontificated and made himself a general nuisance until he got crucified for being disruptive to the Roman political agenda. Make no mistake, when Jesus said to "love your neighbour" he was not talking about your Roman neighbour.

After the Romans, the next significant empire was British. Favoured with a fertile island and a climate moderated by the Gulf Stream, the British population fell over itself with growth. The British far outdid the Roman Empire for absolute aggression. Engagement of the enemy was mandatory, no matter the cost. As Voltaire put it, Admiral Bing was executed "Because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death." Little wonder that "Great" Britain --- that little island --- ended up conquering a third of the world for the booty. British settlers pushed the natives off all likely-looking land. And they did most of that without fossil-fuelled machines.

Then something quite different happened. The machine era began. Now fossil fuels could do the work! After a rocky transition that included two world wars, the machines were getting pretty damned good. And they really did deliver.

For a few decades during the 20th Century it really did look like all of humanity would be lifted by machine labour. It seemed at the time that people of the future would work less and live much better. Machines produced so abundantly that consumption came to be seen as the economic limiter! The world slowly began to shrug off the chains that had bound most men to be the servants and slaves of a privileged few. Egalitarianism glimmered.

Before the end of the 20th Century it had all gone pear-shaped. Most people were back to working long hours in order to earn barely enough to get by. Of course, the privileged few still lived well by riding the poor, just as they had for thousands of years before the machine era. What went wrong?

In a word, what went wrong is that machines increased productivity and that increased productivity was expended on enormous population growth. Technologies saturate and resources are limited. Eventually the means of production could no longer provide an expansive lifestyle for the expanding population. In other words, the old order of privilege and poverty was reestablished before it had even been overcome. That is the "power of population".

OK, I can hear someone saying but it's the rest of the world that is overpopulated, not Canada. Nonsense, I say. In a globalized economy Canadian jobs go offshore to wherever others will do them at slave-rates. Canada's resources are not consumed by Canadians, they are consumed by others who pay more for them. Privileged Canadians do very well out of this arrangement. But experience is showing us, painfully, that already there are too many people living in Canada for them all to be so privileged!

Clear thinking people have always understood the power of population. Malthus tried to explain the power of population to stupid people. But stupid people are incapable of learning. The Salvation Army has still not learned. They will never learn.