Friday, February 19, 2021

Basic Income - Where Does the Money Come From?

Believe it or not, back in the 1970s, President Nixon's administration was a heartbeat away from instituting what was effectively a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) program for the entire United States (before a few individuals derailed the plan). Today, with 2020 hindsight, everyone is realizing that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would have been the best possible solution to the CoViD-19 economic crisis. The impact of our global pandemic has thus contributed to a renewed awareness of the power of Basic Income schemes, and many people are now pushing for those programs to be revisited.

The concept of a Basic Income for an entire population raises a lot of questions, but the most prevalent is this one:

Where is the money going to come from?


I believe this is a misleading question. The equivalent, for me, is hearing on the radio that a very significant rainfall is forecast and asking where all that water is going to come from. There won't suddenly be less water in your taps or in your well.  Your cistern won't suddenly be depleted. Nor will the lakes and reservoirs go down - in fact, their water level will obviously rise.

Water is necessary for life, just like money is now necessary for today's economy.  But plants and animals don't really consume water - they use it. Water facilitates the processes of life. Water moves in a cycle, and if that cycle were to stop, all life would soon end.

Money is exactly the same. We don't consume money - we use it. Money facilitates the processes of economic transactions. Money has to move in a cycle, and if that cycle were to stop, all economic activity would soon end. (That's what happened in the Great Depression: money stopped moving.)

One of the key concepts to be grasped for basic income programs is that "income" is not the same as "wealth". When we imagine the government handing out cheques to the population every month, it is a mistake to only consider that step of the cycle and wonder where all that money is going to come from. When money goes to people who really need it, that cash does not get added to Wealth - it gets spent. To use the water metaphor, only rich people have huge reservoirs and sealed aquifers that trap water and don't allow it to flow (wealth). Money, for everyone else, moves as streams and rivers, flowing out so that goods and services can flow in.

Here's how the simplified money cycle looks (to me):


The green lines show the cycles of money. The blue lines are also money (and luxury assets), that represent the discretionary transfers to and from Producers or Consumers that have a stockpile of Wealth.  (Other than bringing in money from Wealth and injecting it into the money cycle, retained Wealth is not part of the flow.) The red lines represent the flow of Goods and Services (materials and energy) - I include them just for completeness.

The major flow of money in our present economy is made up of Purchases and Wages. Both of those flows are Taxed so that the Government can meet society's Infrastructure needs. If you introduce a Basic Income, that money does not get added to Wealth (where it can pool and stagnate) - it gets immediately injected into the monetary flow, increasing economic activity. Purchases go up, demand goes up, production goes up, tax revenue increases correspondingly, and the cycle continues. Taxation is like evaporation - the money/water doesn't disappear; it simply reloads the system!

[NOTE: For those who hate Taxation and call for less Government, it is true that the cycle would still work with nothing in the centre, but the main green circle would soon get smaller, and (since the Producers would control the Natural Resources) the blue arrow on the right would effectively disappear.]

Basic income programs do not reduce the number of people willing to work, any more than rainfall results in plants not growing roots, but a guaranteed living allowance does reduce their dependence on dead-end jobs. (In other words, a GBI eliminates the slavery imperative: find a job or starve.) Over time, a GBI can also facilitate increased automation and shorter work weeks for all.

When the system is in balance, there will be dramatically decreased welfare supplements (which are like costly irrigation systems in areas with no rainfall), lower infrastructure costs (due to better health and lower crime rates), less stress for everyone's future, and a higher quality of life for all citizens. And yes, with all of that extra activity, it is possible that a higher Tax rate on Wealth might be necessary just to keep the revved-up cycle from being entirely diverted into the private reservoirs of the billionaires. Remember, they are not creating the jobs or driving the economy any more (if they ever were) - it's the Basic Income that's now doing that.

A Basic Income program does not demand that a nation have more money - it just moves a lot more of it around, and redistributes the flows in such a way that benefits everyone. (Read about its impact on me, for example.)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"Gift Economy" is Misleading

There are a growing number of proponents of a gift economy as being a desirable alternative to our status quo monetary economy.  According to Wikipedia:
"a gift economy or gift culture is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards."

I like the concept of gift economies and I fully appreciate the advantages that they convey.  However, it is difficult to find modern examples of viable gift economies that make any sense.  Most examples of gift cultures are dated and decidedly anthropological.  Such ideals are never going to be broadly adopted so long as people believe that the alternative to an economic life where you simply buy things with money is an economy where everything is given for free - that is entirely impractical and quite impossible for people to wrap their heads around.

One also finds that more pragmatic descriptions of alternative economic systems go well beyond gifts.  I propose that gift economies are simply one manifestation of a much better alternative paradigm: qualitative economies.

What are Qualitative Economies?


My research is devoted to exploring the differences and consequential impacts of quantitative versus qualitative values.  A quantitative (or number-based) value system is one where, by definition, more is always worth more.  The modern status quo economy is a quantitative economy, in that it uses quantitative values (overwhelmingly, money) to measure its success.  A qualitative economy (a term which I'm essentially creating here) is one measured by qualitative values, such as satisfaction, product longevity and reliability, and the relationships formed between people.  (This is not to be confused with qualitative economics, which is apparently a term in quantitative theory when actual measurements are unavailable - a decidedly inferior appropriation of the term.)  Let's look at some examples:

Gifts - As I said, a gift economy is but one of multiple facets of qualitative economies.  Gifts create joy for both giver and recipient.  They also create desirable social obligations which strengthen human relationships, and furthermore motivate recipients to become givers to new recipients (as well as possibly reciprocating the original gift).

Pay-What-You-Choose - Some entrepreneurs and self-employed service providers prefer a less rigid form of transactions whereby the recipient of the service pays what they believe the service to be worth.  This opens up services to a wider market and allows compensation to be influenced by available wealth as well as quality of work, relationship, etc.  Variations on this model are more common than one might think.

Libraries/Sharing - These days, the term "libraries" extends beyond books into tools, seeds, bicycles, cars - any resources which are shared within a community at little or no charge.  (To be sure, it does NOT include Uber, AirBnB, and other access economy corporations that simply monetize your possessions and are the antithesis of sharing!)  Sharing can also include interest-free loans - money is not forbidden in qualitative economies.

Donations - Donations come in many forms, including volunteerism, charitable giving of funds, unwanted household items going to thrift shops, and even free or open source software.  Wikipedia, for example, is part of a qualitative economy, where many thousands of people donate time, knowledge, and editing skills in order to provide the resource free to everyone on the internet.

Refocused Traditional - For those who still struggle with the above examples, I maintain that simply by shifting the focus of value, one can achieve qualitative economics in what might appear to be a traditional monetary transaction.  The key is to emphasize qualitative values such as longevity, environmental friendliness, and aesthetics over price and market share.  Examples include one-of-a-kind craftsmanship, original artwork transactions, community-sponsored agriculture, and local economies which emphasize relationship over cost.

Barter - Because most barter is unique to each transaction and relationship, and barter is often a win-win where the value on both sides goes up, it could probably be included as yet another facet of a qualitative economy.  (One must take care that it does not get redefined in monetary terms.)

What Distinguishes Quantitative and Qualitative Economies?


Attributes
Quantitative Economy
Qualitative Economy
Value measured by:
Quantity – more is always worth more
Quality – longevity, aesthetics, relationship-building
Basis:
Dead relationship between items in transaction
Living relationship between people in transaction
Key to increasing value:
Scarcity, minimizing investment in individual items, ownership
Abundance, maximizing investment in individual items, sharing
Values after transfer:
Won & lost – zero-sum game
Win-win – transactions build value on both sides
Amounts ('price') determined by:
Seller/Receiver
Buyer/Giver
Motivations:
Enjoying the end result (but unreachable maximum)
Enjoying the journey (but not always positive)
Global measures:
GDP (Gross Domestic Product)
GWI (Genuine Wellness Index), or GNH (Gross National Happiness)
Examples:
Purchases, theft (note how theft fits all of the attributes in this column and none in the other)
Barter, gifts, pay-what-you-choose, donations, libraries, craftsmanship
Benefits:
Massive scalability, accelerated progress, easily mathematized
Sustainability, repairability, open source, satisfies human needs
Disadvantages:
Dissatisfaction, ecological destruction, proprietary
Slower, limited scope, trust-based
End results:
Objective comparisons, inequity, oppression, deception rewarded, monetize and consume global resources, dismissal of human values, race to the bottom
Subjective comparisons, cooperation, deception punished, honours interconnectedness of all things, promotes joy and well-being

In Summary


It should be clear that altering our perception of how our economies must work is not all about giving everything away, trusting in the inherent generosity of strangers, and singing Kumbaya around a communal campfire.  The advantages of qualitative economies are things that we all want: Quality, repairable, aesthetically-pleasing products, in abundance, and with joyful relationships.  And, perhaps most importantly, we don't have to replace our status quo monetary economies across the board.  It is entirely feasible and practical to have both styles of economic activity exist simultaneously within the same population - they do so now!

The key is to allow both value systems equal weight so that money does not always trump human qualities, and also to re-examine the role of single-track entities, such as commercial corporations, which are unable to operate in qualitative economies, and are thus incapable of being part of a balanced society.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Left's Case Against Basic Income

One curious thing about calls for the government to introduce a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for all citizens is that they come from all over the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right.  Most people express surprise that such a seemingly 'socialist' proposal can be supported by some ultra-conservatives, but once you grasp their thinking, it naturally follows that some progressive liberal thinkers are therefore (unexpectedly) opposed to the GBI concept.

I have selected an article that expresses this perspective, and gives a fairly comprehensive list of the objections from the left that I have seen.  I leave it to the reader to first review the article, and then we will try to formulate some kind of response to their concerns and counter-arguments:
A basic income would be a major concession to the capitalist takeover of everyday life  (by Nicholas Erwin-Longstaff, York University graduate student in labour geography)
Before we begin, it should be made clear whether Erwin-Longstaff was comparing a Basic Income system to the status quo, or to his preferable system of government-supplied necessities of life (a la Medicare).  Unfortunately, he does not make this clear , and his various objections seem to waver between the two.  I will attempt to do both comparisons.

I've broken down the primary concerns into three general topics:

Deep Cuts to Social Safety Net

This is perhaps the most easily refuted objection to implementing a GBI.  Erwin-Longstaff says there would be "deep cuts elsewhere in the social safety net, resulting in a deepening of government austerity".  The first part is not only expected - it's desirable.  The second part is absurd.

Could there be a more comprehensive social safety net than a GBI - a program that is available to everyone, at any time, no questions asked?  Realistically, no, there couldn't.  Would the existing social assistance programs be reduced, if not, in some cases, eliminated?  Yes - because they would no longer be needed to the same degree.  If, on the other hand, certain programs were still necessary for those in dire need, there is nothing to say that such programs could not be retained.  The arguments for keeping a particular program under a GBI would be exactly the same as the arguments for having it now.  To say that they would all automatically disappear once a GBI is in place is no different from the panic that they could all disappear tomorrow, even under the status quo.  A GBI is not going to cover every single dire need in our society, so we still have to provide for those situations.  However, a GBI would categorically reduce the need for the vast majority of our social welfare system, along with its administration, assessments, failings, etc.

To then complain that a GBI, where the government is giving a guaranteed subsistence income to every citizen who needs it, amounts to government austerity is ridiculous.  I have seen many ardent supporters of GBI programs, but not one has ever suggested that the government would be spending less on a GBI than it does now on existing social programs.  Giving every person an annual income with no strings attached is a very strange definition of government austerity.

Erwin-Longstaff also fears that the government would "whittle away even the most ambitious BI to a barely subsistence-level support".  Of course, this is a danger for any program implemented by any government using a status quo paradigm.  However, I think it reasonable to insist that any true GBI program has to be implemented very differently from the come-and-go social welfare systems that we create and modify now.  A GBI is a long-term total gamechanger.  The only way that it's going to be truly effective is if it's implemented in such a way that future governments cannot later pull the rug out or whittle it down.  (That's part of the "Guaranteed" in the name.)  Perhaps it even needs to be a Constitutional amendment.  (Yes, it is that significant.)

All that being said, the author is correct that Basic Income programs are not intended to replace all current social provisions, but I don't think they should be viewed as complementing them either.  GBIs simply take survival completely out of the realm of social assistance and even out of standard paycheques - for everyone.

One specific present-day program needs to be addressed here - subsidized daycare.  The author makes the pseudo-liberated assumption that all women should choose to be out their having their own job; that the modern-day necessity of two-income families in order to get by is something to be retained.  When it was noted that some GBI trial outcomes showed more women staying at home to raise children, he highlights the absurdity of this with sarcastic quotes: "women 'choosing'  to remain at home".  And yet the authenticity of that choice is the very essence of a GBI.  He fears the ceaseless pursuit of capitalist growth and profit, and yet he wants more people working to produce those very ends.

I get it:  If you remove subsidized daycare, it would at first appear that fewer families will have the easy choice to have two careers going while the kids are shuffled off to an institutionalized baby-sitting service. However, I tend to think in broader strokes.  With a GBI accessible to everyone, I believe that communities will have numerous and superior alternatives to subsidized daycare.  Subsidized daycare, to my mind, merely perpetuates educational and opportunity inequities when the wealthy will be using vastly superior services like in-home nannies, etc.  Let's be absolutely clear: a GBI increases options - for everyone.

Capitalism will Adjust Negatively

I can appreciate the fear that with a GBI in place, capitalism could then attempt to eradicate its effects by lowering wages and increasing prices.  And yet I fail to see how a GBI newly introduces either this possibility or the motivation behind it.  Erwin-Longstaff says: "a BI would leave people vulnerable to rising rents and prices".  So if there was no basic income, people would somehow not be vulnerable to these?  That makes no sense.  The objection is similar to saying "a pay raise leaves people vulnerable to rising rents and prices" - so we should abolish pay raises.  Ridiculous!

And while we're on that topic - a basic income is not  a pay raise or a wage subsidy; it is something completely different.  Employment and wages would still be there to allow one to set and maintain a standard of living, but they would no longer be the determinants of life or death.  Under a GBI, survival is free - it is a basic human right.

To say it again, a GBI, to my way of thinking, should not  be intended to directly lift everyone out of poverty.   The function of a GBI is to remove the question of having or not having the absolute necessities from the whole poverty/wealth equation.  For other things, there will still be haves and have-nots, but a GBI offers those at the bottom of the ladder what our current social welfare system absolutely does not: the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

Philosophical Impact and Preferable Solutions

Another concern expressed in the referenced article is that a Basic Income program would "commodify all aspects of life".  In other words, under this revised paradigm, food and shelter would still be items bought and sold in a marketplace.  I can't argue with that.  Since this is obviously also the status quo, I presume Erwin-Longstaff is now switching gears and comparing a GBI to an entirely alternate solution - one which would "remove the need for cash altogether - reduce or eliminate the costs associated with other vital human needs, such as housing, education and care work".

That entirely socialist solution might indeed be preferable, but somehow I don't see it as having anything like the realistic opportunities that a GBI has for implementation.  The state handing out all food and shelter?  Not a very attractive near-future prospect.  Let's take things one giant leap at a time, please.

The author also points out that "expanding public services reliably pushes back against the logic of the market, whereas BI represents a deep concession to the ongoing capitalist takeover of every aspect of social life".  Again, there may well be advantages to radically altering how each one of us acquires what we need, and to the core definitions of ownership and commerce, but I don't think that we as a society have evolved to that possibility yet.  Indeed, I continue to argue that a GBI has the very opposite effect from the latter part of the concern expressed.  When everyone can access the necessities of life without having to sell their labour to the capitalist system, I would hardly call that advancing the capitalist takeover.  No, it is in actual fact a complete reversal of the extortionate stranglehold that the marketplace holds over practically every living human on the planet.

The article references another critic, John Clarke (writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), who wrote another contrary viewpoint in the context of the CoViD-19 pandemic.  As a bonus, I'll give the critics another shot at things:  The False Hope of a Pandemic Basic Income

Left-leaning critics of Basic Income programs seem to continually view the world using the glasses of the right.  They are understandably wary because we have always played by the right's rules, so our social programs have always been vulnerable to their tinkering.

I, on the other hand, believe Guaranteed Basic Income programs create a whole new playing field, and a very real opportunity for society to shift - perhaps even in the direction that those critics dream of.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

My Life on a GBI

When you think of someone whose life would be radically different under a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) program, what image springs to mind?  Is it a homeless person, or a single mother with children?  Is it an artist, or someone struggling to learn a new trade?  Here's a suggestion:  Why not think about the ways in which your own life might change?  That's what I've done for this post.

Background and Context

In my most active working years, I made reasonably good money and I saved most of it.  (I was never a great consumer.)  The result was that when I final bought a home, I paid off the mortgage in under 10 years.  I continued to save most of what I earned, but that income started dropping rapidly several years ago.  I now earn less than $10,000 annually, which means I have to rely on some of my savings to eat and pay property taxes and utilities.  I could probably afford to see theatre, eat out occasionally, and treat myself to some nice things, but I am reluctant to draw down on my savings any more than absolutely necessary, since those investments represent my future survival.  It also means that while I donate a very significant number of hours to charity and volunteer work, I do not contribute any cash to any worthy causes.  I don't stress about money, but nor do I take good care of myself financially.

Introducing a GBI

Let us assume that the federal government introduces a GBI program whereby every permanent resident receives a guaranteed basic income of, say, $1,000 per month, tax-free.  (A description of the general benefits, justifications, and responses to most common criticisms of GBI may be found in a previous post.)  A Universal Basic Income (UBI) would give this money to everyone - a GBI might have some system whereby those earning more than, say, $48,000 per year would have a relative amount of the GBI paid back at tax time.  It might thus make sense that anyone can opt in or out of the GBI at any time, no questions asked.

Speaking for myself, I could actually live on such a GBI - as in, pay all of the essential bills for my existing home and feed myself.  That might not apply for everyone, and it would not be a wonderful life if I relied on the GBI alone, but it could work.  Now let's explore what would really change...

Perception of Money

Unfortunately, money in the present reality represents survival.  If I don't have money, I will be living a miserable existence on the street, with dire mental and physical health deficits.  With a GBI in place, that perception changes dramatically.  Money becomes something that I can use to improve my standard of living, or use as a tool of change, for myself or others.  The rewards of earning money go beyond survival, allowing me to let my motivation for earning entirely match the incentive of my expected outcome.

A GBI bestows a healthier perspective on money.

Investments

Because my investments have to fund my future, I can't presently take a chance on funding a friend's new business enterprise or select stocks and bonds based on things I believe in and choose to support.  No, I have to put my money into places that will leverage interest and economic growth - concepts that I generally despise.  A GBI, on the other hand, would mean that my future survival is not at risk.  I can keep a store of savings for my own rainy day, and put the rest into projects I believe in - investments that may or may not preserve the original amount.  Personally, I would be okay with that - if it meant that I wasn't putting my total well-being on the line.

A GBI allows me to invest in what I believe in.

Quality of Life

As I said in the introduction, I don't stress about money, but I don't have a good relationship with it either.  Generally speaking, I don't buy anything (except food).  I don't see shows, I don't buy clothing or coffees, I don't spend a dime online, I don't own a cell phone, and the financial aspect of anything is always a carefully considered factor.  While I would argue that you could still have a high quality of life under such circumstances, that won't be easy in today's world, and you will probably be missing out on a lot.

My default behaviour has always been to only spend money on discretionary items when I have money coming in.  Savings are not for such things.  A GBI would change that perspective, in that money would be coming in, so I would be more relaxed about spending it.  I would no longer feel I have to add to my savings, so if there was money left over from my monthly GBI, it could go out freely.

My quality of life would go up, even if my standard of living did not.

Gifts and Altruism

I am a strong believer in the power of gift economies.  (There's not enough space in one post to go into more about those - I'll cover this separately some time.)  Part of that paradigm is that gifts beget gifts.  There is an increased desire to pay it forward, especially when you are on the receiving end first.

Even though a basic income should (to my mind) be a legislated right for all, it could still very much feel like a gift.  Essentially, the community is saying: "You have a right to be here.  You have value.  And you shouldn't be compelled to work at something that we decide has value for us, in order for you to eat and live.  Your survival, just like this miraculous planet and all the beautiful things inhabiting it, is a gift."

Personally, since I can theoretically live as I do now (without a GBI), that monthly payment would unquestionably inspire me to give most of it away.

Perceiving a GBI as a gift, I would give more.

What about you?

There are lots of amazing ways that a Guaranteed Basic Income could completely alter your life - even if you don't live below the poverty line.  Having a safety net, even when you aren't currently in freefall, can give you the courage to take powerful and worthy risks in order to realize your full potential.  Perhaps my essay on Free Survival would inspire more ideas.  So tell us - how would a GBI change your life?

Monday, May 11, 2020

Money for Nothing

Readers of my work will know that the core of my studies is number-based values.  A key attribute of these values is the absence of any inherent concept of sufficiency - by definition, more is always worth more.  Money is the most obvious example of a number-based value, and in the case of our society, money is structured such that the more money one has, the faster one can accumulate even more of it.  In other words, significant wealth has a positive feedback loop.  The implication for some very fortunate people (in the absence of serious risk-taking) is a lifetime of potential near-guaranteed financial growth.  "Lifetime" is the operative word in this case - nature has its own way of limiting the amount of time one has to accumulate and wield financial wealth.

However, there are two exceptions to nature's mortality constraint: corporations and inheritances.  I have dealt with the endless growth potential of corporations, perhaps most interestingly in this musing on a theoretical corporate endgame.  On the other hand, the concept of inheriting wealth is a new exploration for me, but it should be a significant one.  By some estimates, 60% of the wealth in the United States is inherited, and in 2004 one half of the over $200 billion of inherited wealth was attributed to just the top 7% of the estates. (Those numbers have likely become even more concentrated since then.)  [Critics of these assumptions often point to the anecdotal evidence of the very wealthiest people.  For example, more than half of the world's billionaires are supposedly 'self-made'.  But on closer examination, these are (as we might well expect) anomalies - smart privileged men who managed to leverage the pre-existing infrastructure of the global internet to be the first to get their oligopolies out there.  Contrast this with the data gathered by researchers like Thomas Piketty, which included all incomes, not just a few outliers at the top.]

The first thing to note is that society has a long held precedent that the assets of parents should naturally(?) be passed on to their children after death.  There are several important historical differences at play when considering the applicability of that paradigm to the present day.  Lifespans used to be a lot shorter, and social structure was such that your birth lineage determined your social status and position for life.  As times have obviously changed, I began to wonder what moral justification could possibly be made for offspring to automatically claim their dead parents' assets.  I posed the question to several colleagues, and got a great deal of insightful feedback - possibly because they are of an age where (given today's lifespans) they are both recipients and architects of estate wealth management.

In regards to wealth, the briefest summation of this small survey of diverse and intriguing opinions from an astute and thoughtful circle would be:
  • A parent can say where they want their assets go (before and after death), but beyond that, a child does not have any moral claim to such wealth.
     
  • Parents have a valid biological imperative to offer their child every possible advantage in life.
While I recognize the biological impulses, I will go out on a limb and say that I believe the inheritance of massive wealth is a social injustice – power and assets being conveyed to another simple by nature of birth.  Extremely large inheritances perpetuate and are key to greatly expanding global wealth inequity, using principles with shaky moral foundations.

We already know that the children of wealthy parents start life with very significant advantages.  It also can’t be avoided that rich parents are in the position to give significant gifts of wealth to their kids if they choose.  I don’t believe that inheritance rights are the same thing.  Yes, of course, if society were able to limit wealth inheritance (say, by dramatically increasing estate taxes), the actual transfer could also be accomplished through gifting before death.  However, subtly perhaps, I don’t believe the two transfers are the same, and restricting the first would cause all of society to rethink the second.

One more set of figures might be useful:  A 2011 study by Edward Wolff and Maury Gittleman found that the wealthiest 1% of U.S. families had inherited an average of $2.7 million from their parents.  (447 times more than those with wealth less than $25,000 had inherited.)

So I challenged myself to come up with a theoretical proposal - not something that would ever likely be implemented under society's current paradigm.  Rather, it's an exercise in completing the thoughts surrounding my assertion.  If I'm going to question a global precedent, it is only fair that I eventually turn my mind to an alternative that would address the issues raised.  Here's one possibility:
Imagine, a system with no estate or inheritance taxes.  Instead, estates would only be permitted to bequeath a maximum of $1 million dollars in negotiable assets to any single entity or trust (not including for-profit corporations), and up to an additional $1 million in non-negotiable assets (that were non-negotiable assets at the time of death) to any offspring or dependents.  A higher amount could be willed to a charity or other public institution, subject to a review by a standard community board set-up for such reviews.

Any entitiy could also be granted right of first refusal on the purchase of specified assets at fair market value.

All surplus funds would be used by the community/public sector to pay for important programs like national healthcare and a Guaranteed Basic Income plan.  If this resulted in a surplus of public funds, income tax would be lowered accordingly for all citizens.

Note that, prior to their death, any parent would still be free to gift any asset to anyone, without restriction (although there might have to be some mechanism to review massive gifts transacted within, say, the same window that we use for requests of medically-assisted death when such a death is considered imminent).  Beating the 'deadline' by a day or two is obviously cheating!
By tossing this thought out there, I realize that there will be many who will find fault with the experiment.  And I look forward to hearing from them, so long as their criticism advances the philosophical and ethical objectives.  (To begin with the amounts are somewhat arbitrary but should convey the essential intent.  Feel free to comment.)

To those who would protest that such a system would be 'unfair',
...I challenge them to argue for the 'fairness' of the existing system.
To those who would protest that such a limitation would be meaningless if unlimited gifting before death were still allowed,
...I say: "Well then, what's the problem?"  Personally, as mentioned above, I believe that gifts in-person are NOT the same.  Such gifts carry social obligations and also remove wealth from the still-living parent.  Time would tell how that dynamic would play out. 
To those who protest that such a system could never be enforced - that there would be workarounds just as assuredly as there are billionaires with offshore accounts who pay no tax,
...I remind them that, for the sake of this exploration, let's assume that a society could exist where such a system could be realistic and pragmatic, and work from there.
Your thoughts?

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Where Do We Start?

You see this crisis as an opportunity?  Great!
You got a plan?  No?  Well I do.

Not too surprisingly, my previous post here was similar in nature to a lot of other posts that are showing up in progressive blogs around the globe, all saying essentially the same thing:
"This could be our best chance for a better world!"

"During lockdown, the pollution cleared and the birds were singing, showing us the environment that is possible!"

"We've had to lots of time to think about what's important.  Now we just have to make that happen!"
It's all very heartwarming and uplifting.  It gives us hope for a brighter future while we are trapped in our own homes, unable to socialize, unable to reach out and hug one another, unable to share the joy of being alive in-person with others.  A new world is possible!

Please, don't kid yourself.


Personal changes to your life will be wonderful.  They may bring you happiness and renewed purpose.  They may shine new light in your tiny corner of the world.  Don't get me wrong - that is awesome!  But how are we going to take this opportunity that you see and actually do something with it?  What are you actually going to ask your leaders to do that hasn't fallen on deaf ears before?  What do you think is really going to happen?

Whether we follow China's timetable and end the lockdown by the end of May or whether it drags on into June or July, when we do get the green light to return to normal, we will sprint for it.  The marketing might of every industry on Earth will be pulling us back into their line of thinking with every fibre of their very powerful being.  And we'll go back to the old status quo, not because all of us want to, but because we don't know how to fight that.  We don't know anything else.  The world we want hasn't been done before.  We don't know where to begin.  This is all unprecedented.

Economic catastrophes, on the other hand, are not unprecedented, and governments have been continually refining how to restore their monetary paradigm.  After the economic crisis of 2008, and for the next four years, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and others started madly creating money out of thin air in order to avert total economic collapse.  Multiple trillions of dollars were printed with nothing but a prayer for the return of economic growth for decades into the future to back them.  And by their measures, it worked.  Meanwhile, the social values got worse.  Entire countries suffered austerity measures that they have yet to come out from under, millions more displaced peoples wander the globe seeking refuge from conflict and devastation, and populism has made a mockery of democracy and past advances in social justice and environmental protection.

This may be an opportunity to move forward, but all precedents point to a move backward - a loss of past gains and even deeper entrenchment in maniacally obsessive economic growth.  We are nowhere near the end of this crisis and look at what your government has already started.  The business bailouts have begun and the pitches have already started to have our economies roaring back sooner rather than later.  No-one on the news or in authority ever questions that objective as being what we all want.

On the flip side, those who long for change have no meaningful plan.  They are split between climate change activists, environmentalists, social justice seekers, spirituality practitioners, and biodiversity promoters.  Everything that they call for threatens jobs and the economy.  Yes, that is the point, but that point is lost on those that fear for their lives and understand that jobs and the economy are the keys to their survival.  I said it in my previous post, but it's worth saying it again:
The bulk of the world will never change its value system until it sees a real benefit in doing so, but the only way to see that benefit is if you are using a different value system.
I do not doubt that the scope of this pandemic, the pause effect on our lives, and all those other effects on the common person will have an impact.  At best, there will be many more who are drawn to a desire for change.  But chances are, the only real outcome will be a slightly higher proportion of the world population being distressed with the direction we're headed in.  Climate change and all the other global disasters will be back on track in no time.

Except for One Possibility...


Personally, so far, I see one chance for change.  One.

Consider what attributes any real change agent would have to have:
  • Something that did not directly threaten the status quo paradigm.
  • Something that, at face value, might even look like it would support the old status quo.
  • Something that had been tried already and shown to have success potential.
  • Something that does not immediately lower the corporate bottom line or the power of the super-wealthy.
  • Something that already has support on both ends of the political spectrum.
  • Something that could easily gain broad support from all the people.
  • Something that suited the circumstances.
And most importantly...
  • Something that could start small and had the potential of being a total game changer.
To figure out what that might be, I ask you:  What holds us back, every time?  Pandemics aside, what is our universal everyday fear?  What defeats the most progressive decisions of governments the world over?  What is the one thing you see touted on every party platform, regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum?

Jobs.

We must have jobs, preserve jobs, create jobs.  It's a policy with universal appeal because losing our job is the ubiquitous modern-day fear that the non-wealthy have in this country.  What if I lost my income?  What if my savings were wiped out?  What if I want to retire?  Jobs are equated with basic survival.  And so every single decisive move that any government wants to make gets weighed against the all-important job question because they know that's the deal maker or breaker.  So how might we ever escape this paradigm?

With a guaranteed basic income.

I am convinced, more than ever, that a guaranteed basic income (GBI) would be humanity's foot in the door that leads to the change we all want.  Free survival removes the survival imperative of having a job.  It is our best, most pragmatic, most realistic shot at turning this massive cruise ship around.  I see it as a first step towards restoring human values and literally changing our world.  Describing that process would take more time than I have in a single blog post.  I already posted a case for how a GBI might work in Canada, and what the benefits would be.  That article also addresses some of the common objections.  Note that a GBI does not replace jobs - it simply begins to change our relationship with them.  Perhaps in a later post, I will attempt to extract more from my second book-in-progress so that the pathway can be more comprehensively laid out.

Meanwhile, to all of you who have been reading my posts and others, cheering on the visionary writers, and spreading your hopeful optimism - to all of you who can truly see this tragic pandemic for the huge opportunity that it is - where are you going to start?

Let's throw our collective weight behind something that might actually achieve that brave new world.  Demand a federal guaranteed basic income.  That's where I think we should start.  And start now.

That's my idea.  I'd like very much to hear others...

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Lest We Forget

"We can't return to normal, because the normal that we
had was precisely the problem."
spray-painted on a wall in Hong Kong

On September 11, 2001, a group of terrorists launched four coordinated attacks in the United States, using commercial aircraft as weapons.  We later learned that two strategic objectives of the attacks were to goad the United States into initiating conflicts in the Middle East, and the diversion and depletion of the American economy (although the second goal was paradoxically defeated by the first war on foreign soil is always good for business).

However, there was another impact, felt all over the world:  a unilateral drop in civil liberties (and common sense).  For example, for the last two decades, we have all paid the enormous price for continually enhanced screening measures in airports the world over, and air travellers have wasted untold hours in line ups and suffered the frustration and costs of denied items.  Why?  One lesson learned on that September morning was that aircraft pose a unique threat.  If terrorists can take control of an aircraft, or get explosives on-board, the potential loss of life extends well beyond that of the passengers, and the images of destruction will haunt generations.  So you make the cockpits secure and you screen for bombs, right?

What does that have to do with scissors or pocket knives or knitting needles?  How could a person possibly inflict more damage with those on a aircraft than they could on a train or bus or subway?  Why is a drill bit a lethal weapon but a heavy metal ballpoint pen isn't?  Why does the word "knife" make one-third of plastic cutlery inadmissible?  Why was my masking tape confiscated (as a possible hand-binding item) but my computer mouse with the 6-foot wire cord was not?  (True story.)  When will we learn that humans in general are appallingly bad at the simple math of risk assessment in any aspect of their lives?  And when do we realize that even the supposed security experts are mainly putting on a charade, as if all terrorists had the imagination of a carpet tack.

There is nothing new in any of the foregoing we've ranted about it for years.  And this only considers one tiny aspect of the significant changes to our civil liberties and social well-being.  But it tells a phenomenally important story about what we are about to face...

Plenty of people are asking when this CoViD-19 pandemic will all be over.  That depends on your perspective.  The 9-11 attacks were over in a matter of hours, and yet it has been more than 18 years and the 9-11 attacks still show no signs of ending any time soon.  Sadly, I think it very likely that we will be pressured to make exactly the same mistakes all over again.

Pandemic Misery

This pandemic is not just a freak of nature.  New viruses wink in and out of existence all the time.  If they happen to get the perfect chemistry going, they can become virulent and deadly to humans, but that's only a small part of the story.  Pandemics can only spread using the channels that we explicitly create for their transmission.  We carve those grooves into the social landscape, and the virus simply flows along the lines that we have been establishing over decades.  For cholera and typhoid, it was crowded urban centres with inadequate sanitation.  For HIV/AIDS it was unprotected sex and unsafe practices in the use of illicit intravenous drugs.  For something as large and widespread as CoViD-19 the grooves had to be deep and extensive.  Here's a diverse selection of those factors required in order to achieve the resulting human misery, with more coming to light each day:
  • Conditions like those found in live wild animal markets where viral mutations can effectively transition between species.
  • Staggeringly important decisions made, based on economics, not medicine.
  • Millions of people rapidly crisscrossing the globe by air.
  • A scarcity-equals-value mindset that, combined with selfishness, leads to hoarding, even of items that are non-essential.
  • Ongoing trade wars and conflicts being fought with crushing sanctions.
  • Divided populations who treat everything as a partisan issue.
  • Longstanding and continual governments cuts to healthcare, emergency planning, scientific research, and social safety nets.
  • Small regions that create more than half of the world's supply of critical items, such as face masks (Hubei province, China) and nasopharyngeal swabs (Lombardy, Italy).
  • Politicians with zero credibility.
  • Ubiquitous tools for anyone to spread misinformation, panic, and propaganda.
  • The marginalization of bottom-tier labour that (it turns out) is essential to our survival.
  • Treating the movement of medical essentials as a commercial supply chain.
  • Generations of people '(re-)educated' to dispute scientific evidence.
  • Popular crisis reactions being hoarding, price gouging, and scams to steal money.
  • Emergency plans that focus on economic bailouts as opposed to humanitarian imperatives.
  • Complacency or denial surrounding issues that pose a threat to our species or others.
  • A near total absence of community resiliency and self-sufficiency.
  • Huge populations unable to access clean water for washing because international aid was conditional on water resources being privatized.
  • Governments motivated and willing to repress information and/or deny reality.
  • Concentrations of vulnerable populations in places like long-term care homes and slums.
  • The obsessive pursuit of 'economic efficiency' to the detriment of back-up redundancy and resilience.
Each and every one of these characteristics of our twenty-first century world had (and is having) a direct impact on whether or not a pandemic occurred, how many would die, and how we are all affected.  The question, then, is not "When will this all be over?"  The question is "How many of those factors do we wish to retain as part of the brand new status quo?", for there is absolutely no question that, even more than the legacy of the September 11th attacks, a clear delineation will been made between the world of before and the world after.  Our societal norms and value systems are going to change.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are going to be changed intentionally.

Indeed, they already have been, which leads us to an even more immediate consideration.  In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein compellingly documents how states and powerful economic players have taken advantage of (or even facilitated) significant social, political, and economic crises in order to impose profound structural changes on populations who are initially in a state of total shock.  Emergency powers are created or invoked for the temporary management of the crisis, but once in place, those powers never quite completely disappear.  Laws are rewritten.  Neighbourhoods levelled by war or natural disasters are seized and/or transferred to well-connected developers for pennies.  Once again, there is a very real concern for the resurgence of what Klein calls disaster capitalism, especially as projections for the timeline of our current crisis grow ever longer.  To make things even more dangerous, the present conditions make effective discussion, court challenges, and debate of their implications impossible.

It is not just nefarious changes that we have to be fearful of.  As the weeks of self-isolation and emergency coping turn into months, we will unquestionably be forming new habits of our own.  (A study by Phillippa Lally at University College London showed that, while a new habit took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to become automatic, the average was 66 days.)  When we emerge from sheltering-in-place, I think we'll soon return to shaking hands it is the kind of contact we have been craving, but replacement habits such as inflated social media time, online entertainment, videoconferencing, and moderate physical distancing may not be fading quite so quickly.  How soon will the new Plexiglas barriers at grocery checkouts be coming down?  I suspect they'll still be there long past their pragmatic relevance.

So, while the experts seek a vaccine or treatment, it makes sense for the rest of us to take a serious look not at the SARS-CoV-2 virus as much as the context for the whole pandemic and everything that was wrong with our approach to life long before it struck.  I like the way visionary author Charles Eisenstein puts it:  When your goldfish gets sick, do you attempt to treat the fish or do you clean the long-neglected tank?

Brave New World?

It did not take long for some hopeful progressives to see this crisis as an opportunity.  As someone who devotes a lot of time to thinking and writing about value systems, I'm definitely one of those people.  Consider:  I proposed in The Value Crisis that humankind places far too much emphasis on values measured by number those being values where more is always worth more.  They have no built-in sufficiency and thus lead to obsessions with impossible maximization.  Such values now consistently trump non-numeric values such as happiness, justice, beauty, compassion, and so on.  (You might note that most of the pandemic-misery factors I listed above can be derived directly from number-based values related to economic growth, profit maximization, dismissing ecological concerns, etc.)  But there's a Catch-22 conundrum: 
The bulk of the world will never change its value system until it sees a real benefit in doing so, but the only way to see that benefit is if you are using a different value system.
In other words, one point of view says that real change can only come when the existing value system fails (and fails catastrophically).  Many assumed that climate change would be that alarm bell.  Could the natural world be giving us yet another wake-up call (with no snooze button this time)?

The desire to return to the old incumbent socioeconomic paradigm will have powerful leadership, momentum, and broad support.  The previous status quo will be the well-defined default, and life, in general, abhors change.  It is only if the changes imposed by the crisis itself are profound enough (and, sadly, devastating enough) that the opportunity for the acceptance of a new paradigm will open up.  Lasting changes to the way we manage our economies, for example, will require new policies and new legislation.  Such retooling is going to need much longer than a single term of government to achieve, and as such, it's going to need constant and extended support from the electorate.

In March 2020, one week before the pandemic reached Canadian shores, I had just submitted the first complete draft of a second book to my editor.  The objective of that new work was to propose concrete actions to promote human (i.e. non-numeric) values in one's individual life, and to share alternatives to number-based social paradigms in general.  It's not that we don't understand qualitative human values of course we do!  The problem is that they are consistently trumped by quantitative values.  My first goal, then, was to encourage individual readers to experiment with all kinds of actions that would allow them to enjoy the benefits of thinking differently to restore some balance in our choices of which value systems take precedence in different aspects of their lives.  My second goal was to show that, while the current collective systems will often try to devalue such actions or make them appear irrational, there are also fully pragmatic societal solutions that would respect such values at the community and state level.

In other words, I wanted to show that you can experience true joy by easily acting more intentionally on human values, and that there are plausible economic adjustments for society that would actually work to embrace those same values for all.  The idea is not to replace one value system for another  it is to restore a balance so that one does not consistently override the other.  We need both number-based and qualitative values to function in this world!

My hope at the time was that individuals, families, and small communities could conceivably transition in small pockets, and there might be a growing familiarity with societal alternatives, should the opportunity ever arise.  I never expected that the potential for that opportunity might appear within a week of my manuscript being completed and submitted!  Not surprisingly, that work is now being redrafted to reflect some of the new context a non-trivial exercise, since the context itself continues to change.

A Dire Warning

There will be enormous pressure, both from within ourselves and from the world's most powerful players to restore as much of the past status quo as possible when this pandemic subsides.  The only changes the privileged few will want to see are those that even further enhance the ability of the old value system to trump the new one.  The obsessive pursuit of power through financial wealth and devastation perpetrated in the impossible pursuit of continued economic growth will continue to take precedence over sustainability, happiness, justice, compassion, giving, collaboration, creativity, spirituality, and all those other values with no price tag.  Those old values were already hurtling us towards global inequity, biodiversity extinction, climate change, environmental destruction, economic collapses, and more.  We now have an even clearer picture of the before, the effect, and the possible after.

As many of us sit at home in isolation, considering our own mortality and what's really important, and looking out the window at the world we are leaving for our children, there are some among us who will wisely take some of that time to rethink our values.  They will seethe with anger at the way some leaders and industries are showing their true colours and beam with pride for others.  They will begin to read about previously marginalized 'radical' ideas like Guaranteed Basic Incomes and the like.  They will look at grocery store workers and hospital cleaners differently.  They will feel the visceral connection to those in their community desperate to show compassion, and the contrasting gut reaction to those out to profit from despair.  They will regret the untold extra hours they had previously discarded to work and pursuit of wealth instead of being with family and friends.  They will begin to envision how things might be different.

But wishing for a new world will be like wishing for their evening meal  it won't make itself.  The odds are overwhelmingly not in our favour.  We have to talk about this.  We have to be open to change and actively explore new ideas.  We have to live our own lives a little differently, as well as standing up and calling for new paradigms for our communities and nations.

Lest we forget.

[EDIT: I now have a proposal for what should come next.]