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?

Quantitative Economy
Qualitative Economy
Value measured by:
Quantity – more is always worth more
Quality – longevity, aesthetics, relationship-building
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:
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)
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
Massive scalability, accelerated progress, easily mathematized
Sustainability, repairability, open source, satisfies human needs
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.