It’s … difficult. It’s also difficult to discuss without getting into politics because people are like that; although Soylent donates to the World Food Fund so I’ll dip in a little.
Essentially, all things are produced by labor. Money represents labor. If you work for $20/hr, you can induce someone who earns a $10/hr wage to work for 2 hours. Likewise, if 10 workers can produce 100 of a thing per hour, that thing’s cost is 1/10 of all those workers.
Note: the cost thing above is highly simplified. Businesses employ labor, plus buy materials from other businesses (who employ labor to produce those materials), plus pay for power, legal, administration, etc. The sheer number of people whose time is fractionally involved in any product is enormous; many people’s contributions represent less than a second per unit of product produced, while the direct line workers represent more. Ground shipping (trucks, trains) is huge, while intercontinental bulk is tiny (it costs 6 cents per pair of pants to import pants from china, but nearly half the cost of a pair of pants is the truck drivers getting them from the docks to WalMart).
So technology is essentially the reduction of labor to make a thing. In economics, it’s called “technical progress.”
Around 1920, the wooden shipping pallet came into use. One test with a docking crew managed to load and unload canned food into a shipping container in three 16-hour days work days. The same crew palletized, loaded, and unloaded the same canned food in four hours. That means it takes 1/12 as much labor time to load and unload that same product–and thus 1/12 as much wage is paid for that task, even though the dock workers make the same hourly wage.
That reduction in wages per product means a person working as a dockworker would have the same yearly income, yet can afford to buy more things because he doesn’t have to pay for as many labor hours. More product is bought, requiring more shipping; and fewer dockworkers are needed per product bought.
In the end, you necessarily end up with fewer dockworkers, because the total of all income can still only pay for the same number of working-hours at the same wages. If you’re buying more products, it means that someone must be making those products instead of loading them on the ships, trucks, and trains. Half your dockworkers become factory workers, retail cashiers, or mechanics keeping the trucks and trains working–you know, the other people you need.
So what’s this all mean?
It means food can either be half your income or damned-near none of your income.
In 1900, the median-income American household spent 44% of its income on food. In 1950, the median-income American household spent 33% of its income on food. Even then, if 5% of all American households need food supplied, then everyone in the 1950s must cough up 5% of 33% of their income–1.65%. Not much; at the $54k median income, you’d pay $891/year or $75/month. If you’re in the top 10% making $154k, you’d pay $212/month–enough to feed someone all by yourself!
Our level of technology bolted between 1950 and 1990. Take a look. The green is the cost, the blue is the amount of food made, and the red line is the amount of food made per cost. Today, the expense share for a household’s food is about 12%.
12%. That means feeding 5% of all households would cost 0.6%. at the $54k median, that’s $324/year or $27/month. Even the top 10% guy pays only $77/month.
In other words: Feeding everyone can be impossible, or it can be cheap.
There’s another part to this.
We already have welfare. We take money from you, give you nothing, and use that money to feed someone. If we implement another system to replace this, then its total cost isn’t the issue; its cost relative to welfare determines the impact. That $77/month could be versus $83/month, making the system cheaper.
In a UBI system like the Universal Social Security I mentioned, you take a portion of the money and give it back to everyone.
My Universal Social Security makes you an equal shareholder in the economy: everyone receives a percentage of the total productivity. That means you’re still poor or middle-class, and the rich still have like 300 times as much as the average American–and that’s just fine. The poorest American, however, gets a piece of the whole pie–a piece the same size as everyone else gets.
The USS as I’ve proposed it cuts the cost of current welfare out of the general tax (which remains a progressive tax), replaces that portion with a flat 17% tax on all income (business and individual), and then divides that income among everyone. This is handled by the Social Security Administration the same way as Social Security: money is withheld from income each pay period, and it flows through the SSA and into recipients’s hands. Everyone over the age of 18 is a recipient, so a part of what you pay in comes back to you.
As you can imagine, this kind of system relies on wealth–on technical progress to have reached a certain level such that the cost of basic needs are a small fraction of our income.
If the United States implemented my proposed system in 1950, we’d have had a Soviet-Marxist wet dream, and a Soviet-style collapse way before the USSR. Think like the poor get $40k, the middle-class get $50k, and the rich get $60k. It might satisfy the emptiness in some angry idealists’s 501s, but it’ll also basically overturn the entire socioeconomic structure–which doesn’t work even if the end result is better than current. As well, having no class of rich people means you can’t profit from anything expensive, so a lot of next-generation technology can’t be made without government control and an economic dictatorship that basically takes away the people’s wealth to pursue what a small oligarchy decides is worth pursuing (which, granted, isn’t much different than current, if we count high-luxury business executives as an oligarchy–although they do pursue what the rich will buy).
As it stands, it can be done without raising taxes; and incorporating everyone in a share of the economy as such means most people end up with more money. That’s due to an elimination of waste (the welfare system fails to do its job, consumes a lot of resources in failing to do its job, and then leaves us with a damaging level of poverty that consumes more resources; correcting that reclaims those resources, meaning that money can be spent on other things).
The rich end up paying the same and getting back a tiny fraction of that; the middle-class end up paying more while receiving the same absolute number of dollars back, but it’s more dollars than the extra they pay in and so they walk away with more money in total (which is equivalent to just paying less in taxes from the get-go); and the poor… a fraction of a poor man’s income is nothing, and he receives a fraction of a middle-class income in return.
Frame that against the philosophical ideal of getting everyone enough food.
It’s really hard to implement universal food, or universal basic needs in general. It’s not just a complex policy problem; it’s that the cost has to be smaller than the cost of alternative welfare schemes–and, in an absolute sense, it has to be small enough to not exacerbate the problem of poverty in its own right.
Our level of technical progress has reached that point just barely in some wealthier nations. If we can bring technology to developing nations and establish a productive economy, then we can profit from their labor–they make stuff not being made now–and they can trade the products they produce for the things they need to continue making the things we want to buy. That includes food and shelter for the workers, which means suddenly the amount of productivity in Africa is enough to cover everyone’s basic needs as a standard welfare service.
The robots won’t take all our jobs; they’ll just spread us out among more jobs, with fewer people involved in each thing. That means everything’s cheap, we’re all rich, and we can do things like end world hunger. It’s unfortunately not something we can magic into existence (and if technical progress occurs too fast, it generates unemployment faster than the market corrects, and you get an economic collapse).
Annoying, right? We’re literally a mathematical model.