In this podcast, Seth discussed what does it mean to live in surplus and the concept of surplus as a critical ingredient to culture.
In his “Stone Age Economics” book, Marshall Sahlins pointed out that it is probable that traditional hunter-gatherer societies worked for a few hours a day to find enough to live on and spent the rest of the time creating culture. Culture is a result of our decision to put our surplus to work.
Spending surplus on culture creation also creates a ratchet. The ratchet is a situation that spending our surplus also improves our productivity and efficiency. Productivity creates more surplus and the surplus can lead to further improvements. The cycle of surplus begetting more productivity, and the productivity begetting more surplus is where sustainable culture comes from.
One of the largest ratchets in the history of this idea of putting surplus to work is engineering. When we conduct the practice of engineering, we are substantially investing our surplus in the future. Good engineering work may not pay for itself immediately but can pay a considerable dividend down the road.
The Internet is an example of engineering work that had a humble beginning and required a large amount of surplus from society to get going. Decades later, the engineering efforts that went into building the Internet are allowing the society to reap benefits many times over the original investment.
If we have a surplus, the next natural question is, how should we spend it? We must think hard about how we are spending our surplus because it is leading to the systems we put into place. Those systems we put into place ultimately lead to a culture we all choose to create.
Modern societies used the surplus to create the systems, and those systems build more surplus, which improves the people’s life. This surplus also continues generation after generation. At the same time, the surplus is too precious.
We can choose to squander our surplus, or we can choose to invest it. Once we see that we could invest surplus, both for ourselves and for others, it is essential to do something worthwhile. Investing the surplus is about the opportunity cost, and it is enormous. In the end, the surplus that is not invested is surplus wasted.