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Utopia for Realists

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This is a book I picked up only after Bregman made his big splash at the 2019 World Economic Forum - and do I ever wish that I hadn't waited so long to get around to reading this. In this heavily research-backed yet still incredibly readable work, Bregman lays out a path to the future that seems so reasonable and so reachable that it makes it difficult to come away without a healthy sense of hope over what eventually could be, despite all that we face in these times. "Utopia for Realists" isn't just the kind of book you want to tell friends and family about - it's the kind of book you'll be tempted to get several copies of just so you can hand them out.
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Central thesis is for an general unmonitored minimal income to lift all people out of poverty. Very interesting idea and well presented. The problem is that the richest 1 percent of the world's population believe that if you are poor you are stupid and/or lazy and that the 99 percent of the rest appear to agree with them. The idea will probably remain Utopian.
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The timing of this book -- in the disruptive and destructive wake of our new government -- could not have been better. I read it with great eagerness, and felt my enthusiasm wane as I kept reading. I felt disappointed so often as the book skimmed too lightly over material, failed to really engage the topics at any thoughtful depth, and quite often I felt patronized and put the book down in frustration.

It's a great idea, and I loved the topics that were covered, I just felt disappointed by the too-breezy style and tone. I wanted more synthesis, more connection among the topics, and, well, just MORE. I suppose it was a good starting point to introduce me to the various topics, so I can read about them in other books.
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We have lost our vision, Rutger Bregman writes, mired in old paradigms and blind to the possibilities we should be imagining. We could be realizing the world predicted by 20th c thinkers.

Subtitled "How We Can Build The Ideal World," Utopia for Realists is an international best seller, first published in the Netherlands where it ignited a debate and inspired a movement.

Bregman begins by reminding us of how recently life was a "vale of tears," "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as philosophers wrote in the 16th c. With the explosion of new technology and prosperity over the last two hundred years, humanity has achieved a standard of living that Medieval folk would consider Utopia; indoor heat and cooling, flush toilets and clean water alone would make them marvel. So would obesity from an overabundance of easily obtained food, the magical ability to protect ourselves from smallpox and polio, and paved roads we travel at 70 mph--without fear of highwaymen robberies.

Have we reached Utopia? Or is there something we can do to make life even better? How can we solve the problems that remain: fearfulness, unemployment, quality of life, poverty. 

The welfare state 'from a bygone era' doesn't work today. Globalization and the cost of higher education have impacted the stability of the Middle Class. Upward mobility for the poor no longer happens.

Bregman wants to "fling open the windows of our minds" to discover "a new lodestar." He presents studies and experiments about how we treat the homeless and the poor and challenges our traditional mindset that people are to be blamed for their own poverty--they just have to work hard and save. We have created welfare programs for those in need, which are costly and do not solve the basic problem. What happened to the expectation of the 15-hour workweek? Why are we spending more time working, impacting our health and our families?

Bregman wants us to dream new dreams and embrace ideas that can change the world for the better. Thinking outside the box has made a difference: abolition, universal voting rights, and same-sex marriage, he reminds, were all once considered impossible. All it takes is "a single opposing voice.

The basis of Bregman's new Utopia is a guaranteed basic income. He presents studies that demonstrate the success of such programs. In 1967 universal basic income was supported by 80% of Americans and President Nixon submitted a bill to eradicate poverty.

Other changes he offers include shorter work hours, proven to increase productivity, reconsidering the importance of the Gross Domestic Product as our economic standard of success, improving quality of life, open borders, taxing capital instead of labor, and adjusting salary to a job's societal value. At a time when productivity is a record levels, there are fewer jobs and lower salaries. "We have to devise a system to ensure that everybody benefits," he writes.

There is an old saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Instead of holding more tightly to the old ways we need to envision innovation. Perhaps books like this will spur discussions and reevaluations.

One can only hope.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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I loved the ideas behind this book. I'm not fully convinced that if we (as Americans) went out on a ledge to try something this different that it would be successful. The chapter on open borders was excellent and all the more relevant given the issues currently facing Europe and GB. He has a good way of making fairly complicated economic functions understandable, and I particularly enjoyed his views on GDP as an indicator of how well a society is functioning for its citizens.  In no way would I say this book is written as a balanced treatise. It's more of a manifesto. I'm certainly not opposed to dreaming big and we do need to think outside the box to solve the worldwide pervasive problem of poverty. I think a basic income system is worth a good long look and possibly a pilot program. Before reading this book I had no idea that Nixon had already tried it. What I know from experience is that people are trapped in their circumstances in a way that only money can fix. I also enjoyed the foray into the world of The Jetson's, a world I felt that I had been promised and have yet to receive. George Jetson had a nine-hour workweek which seems legit in a society where robots are doing most of the manual labor. Mr. Bregman suggests a 15-hour workweek that I feel is a pipe dream at this point in American history.We would need to reverse the current incentives. Right now it's cheaper for employers to have one person work overtime than to hire 2 part time mostly because health care benefits are paid per employee instead of per hour. Basically, he says that either collective action by companies or countries would have to take place. I would be a fan of both the shorter work week and the basic income. At this point we need to make huge sweeping changes, I'm just not sure enough people understand that. Despite my misgivings about some of the conclusions that the author draws I do recommend this book. It's out of the box thinking and if nothing else can supply readers with plenty to discuss and debate.

I read a DRC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Utopia For Realists is a Left manifesto. It explores three policies guaranteed to enrage right wingers: a guaranteed income, a shorter work week and open borders. Rutger Bregman does it with splendid panache. The book is a totally positive, upbeat read – most unusual for a defensive, defeatist Left. The studies and the facts are all there. Deny them at your peril, he seems to say.

To appreciate and enjoy Utopia For Realists, you must buy into the initial premise that our problem is we can’t come up with anything better than the way things are now. We have run out of goals. We have run out of ideas. We are all about cutting back, servicing less, and ignoring various elephants in the room, like automation overloading us with leisure time. Western society is so wealthy in historic terms that we don’t realize we have reached Utopia. Even at our worst, we are infinitely better off than our forebears. What we need now is a new Utopia to aim for.

Guaranteed income sounds impossibly expensive, but everywhere it has been tried – dozens of places, it has worked spectacularly. For one thing, every dollar spent saves three in less supervision of beneficiaries (eg. Police and court services, pointless workshops, training sessions and reports on everyone all the time). For another, the poor don’t drink away the income; they hang onto it dearly, measuring it out only as needed for the biggest impact.  Poverty is not an attitude; it is a shortage of cash.

Two hundred years ago, we worked 70 hour weeks with no days off. And we were miserable. Today, we can be miserable with 40 hours weeks, two days off and 2-5 weeks’ vacation. Soon, we must face the reality of 15 hour weeks, because artificial intelligence will pick up where automated looms, assembly lines and robots have left off. We can massage it into a Utopia, or let it destroy our fabric.  Our choice, but we need to start acting now.

Borders prevent development and trade. Mexicans used to return from the USA at the rate of 85%.  Now they have to stay put. Finding new markets or even just work is enlarged with a larger territory. Artificially compartmentalizing everyone is stultifying. Economically, politically, and socially. Passports and visas – a totally artificial construct recently invented, benefitting no one.

Bregman doesn’t get into the self-imposed need for growth, though he does criticize the concepts of GNP/GDP. He says governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia.  

He ends with sound advice for the Left: stop caving to right wing dogma. You have access to dramatic facts. Use them. There are gigantic, proven solutions waiting to be implemented if only someone would sponsor them. He points out that the accepted issues of the day, like voting by women, same sex marriage and abolition of slavery were outrageously radical and completely unacceptable just a few years ago. So be impossible and have a thick skin.

David Wineberg
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