Another post in which I try to get a firmer grasp on Universal Basic Income

Yet another post about an article about Universal Basic Income, this one from Charles Murray writing in the Wall Street Journal. (I’m in learning mode about UBI, what can I say.)

A couple of key points from this one:

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.

“It has to be done right” is the key here. UBI sounds great in principle, but so did Public Key Infrastructure for digital signatures (&c) and so does the blockchain. The devil is, as they say, in the details, and Murray offers an approach that makes sense. At least on the surface. (Damn it Jim, I’m an engineer not an economist!)

The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse. I don’t think it would. Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax.

And, besides, so what if it discourages work? Work is not our purpose in life. If someone can get by on just a little bit, more power to them. Or maybe someone’s purpose in life is something that doesn’t count as work, but is still of value. To them or to others.

Murray’s got that one covered, too:

Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear, but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern. And the wealth in private hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imagine the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Americans, left to themselves, have always responded.

And this changes the dynamic for people who say they need help, because everyone will know that they have the basic income. That they have the ability to help themselves if they choose.

The known presence of an income stream would transform a wide range of social and personal interactions….

Emphasizing the ways in which a UBI would encourage people to make better life choices still doesn’t do justice to its wider likely benefits. A powerful critique of the current system is that the most disadvantaged people in America have no reason to think that they can be anything else…. A UBI would present the most disadvantaged among us with an open road to the middle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to people who have never had reason to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

In principle. The devil is in the details.



The dividend of progress

In the lead up to the last US Presidential election (2012) I wrote a post entitled If the government were run like a business… in which I asked (and somewhat answered with more questions):

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model? … It seems reasonable to say that citizens are the shareholders, but what is their investment? How do you measure return on that investment? Are all citizens/shareholders equal, or do some hold more “shares” than others?

With the presumptive Republican nominee being who he is, the question of government as a business has been on my mind again, although this time around I’ve got a bit more reading and thinking on the subject under my belt. I still don’t have any answers, but I’ve got some more ideas I want to explore.

The title of this post was prompted by something that author Rutger Bregman said during an interview on the radio program To The Best of Our Knowledge – which, as I mentioned yesterday, includes several great stories about the future of work in the context of economics – specifically (and this is a paraphrase):

The universal basic income (UBI) is the dividend of progress

This frames the citizen (we’ll keep it at that for now) as a shareholder in the country. The citizen’s investment is whatever they contribute to the progress of the country; be that in a regular job, as an investor, or maybe as a volunteer. The return  on that investment – to the country – is the progress that results from their investment; in some cases this will be the creation of a product, an increase in treasure, or a service that improves infrastructure. (These are, obviously, very basic and simplistic examples.)

utopiaRealistsWhich, in the end, means that every shareholder – every citizen – receives a dividend, in this case as a Universal Basic Income. Yes, everyone. Including the wealthy. Of course, their contribution of treasure will increase as well, which will allow those contributing in non-financial ways (yes, those are valid, too!) to continue to make their own contributions to the success and progress of the country.

But but but…. That’s <gasp> re dist ri bu tion of wealth. Isn’t it? It all depends on how you define wealth, I guess, and at what level you consider the distribution and redistribution. (fwiw, I am likely making a complete mess of Bregman’s arguments and points, since I haven’t yet read the book on which this interview was based, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek; it’s on my Kindle waiting to be read.)

As it turns out I had been reading some stories and interviews about Automattic, the company behind, this past weekend as I attended WordCamp STL 2016 and came across this quote from WordPress creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg

We just look at the company as a whole. Maybe there’s a team of 4 people that throws off like $10 or $15 million in revenue. Or maybe there’s a team of 40 people that barely makes any money, or loses $10 or $15 million. Things basically balance out between them.

— An extended interview with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg

So maybe it’s not a perfect analogy / comparison, but I can’t help thinking that Matt – and Rutger and many many others – just may be onto something here.

If the government were run like a business…

If the government were run like a business, what kind of business would it be? It’s easy enough to think of the President as CEO, and the Congress as the Board of Directors (kind of), but who would be the shareholders? The customers? How would this effect government employees? What would be the “product”?

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model?

Continue reading “If the government were run like a business…”

When “question everything” meets “question nothing”

This past weekend, the NPR program On the Media explored the question, “Does NPR have a liberal bias?” (I’ll let you listen for yourself to find the results.) Of course, the question of bias in the media is ever-present, never more so than during a Presidential election year. As acknowledged by the OTM piece, most charges of bias these days are expressed by conservatives against the mainstream (aka “corporate”) media, which the conservatives say have a “liberal bias”. Some, like Senator Rick Santorum, take it even further, proclaiming that “the media will never be on our side.”

But is it really bias that’s the issue? Or just a different approach to viewing, and discussing, the world.

Continue reading “When “question everything” meets “question nothing””

Government 2.0

Stories earlier this week about President-elect Barack Obama and his Blackberry got me thinking about how our elected leaders and their staffs are (or not) using the potential of  “stuff 2.0” (“stuff” = “web”, “enterprise”, “KM”, etc) in the execution of their duties.

For example:  It used  to make sense for Senators and Congressmen to basically live in Washington, DC and go back to their home districts on occasion; after all, they have to be present in order to vote.  But does that still make sense?

With the technology available for collaboration, and the security of PKI and other technologies to support digital voting, why not flip that around?  Set up your main base in your home state / district and travel to Washington, DC for special occassions.

Autism and the tragedy of the commons

Last summer, I put Cooperation and the tragedy of the commons, from the Anecdote blog,  in my “to blog” pile.  It seemed relevant, but I just couldn’t quite figure out how.  In his post about an Alliance for Autism, Mike Stanton raises the problem of reconciling the individual wishes and desires of parents and adults with autism with the long term goals of autism advocacy, which has helped me better understand the relevance.

The problem Mike raises shows up in many different domains and is known as the tragedy of the commons.  Simply stated, tragedy of the commons is:

a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

The anecdote post references a story on discussing the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the results of a study done by social psychologist W. Keith Campbell.  From the study:

… because the volunteers did not know whether their kindness would be reciprocated by others or exploited by competitors, people raced to cut as much timber as they could and quickly razed the forests to the ground. Groups with volunteers more willing to think about the collective good preserved their forests longer. But selfish people within these groups had a field day exploiting the altruists — and the forests perished anyway.

Campbell’s experiment is particularly relevant to politics, because he found that groups with a larger number of narcissists — people with an inflated sense of their own importance — tended to raze the forests much faster than groups in which people felt less self-important. Politics, unfortunately, happens to be a domain that self-selects people with an inflated sense of their own importance.

Political scientist Edella Schlager offers the following as a solution:

… the only way to prevent tragedies of the commons is to set up structures in advance that reward long-term thinking and punish short-term selfishness. This happens mostly among competitors who share long-term interests and have social relationships of trust: If you and I are Maine lobstermen, we are likely to agree to set up limits on the overall catch each year because we see our future, and our children’s future, inextricably linked. In the absence of trust and long-term relationships, the only way to prevent these tragedies is to have an outside regulatory agency step in to establish — and enforce — limits.

Sadly, many of the “competitors” in the autism community (communities?) don’t seem to think we share any long term interests, despite the fact that I’m sure we probably do.  Nor are there too many “social relationships of trust”; even here on the Hub there is a general undercurrent of mistrust between adults with autism and non-autistic parents, stemming I think from the lack of shared long term interests mentioned above.

On the other hand, it is easy for the Hub’s “competitors”, as exemplified by the folks at Age of Autism, to avoid the TOTC:  they speak with a single voice (“Vaccines are bad”, “Vaccines caused my kid’s autism”, “Neurodiversity believers are deluded and in denial”) and trust that everyone on “their side” will stay on message.  There are, of course, some more reasonable voices among the bio-med group, but it is the vocal (apparent) majority that makes the most noise.

Mike is on the right track with his proposed Alliance for Autism.  The first step is to figure out what our shared long term interests are, and from there work to build the trusting social relationships that we need to move forward.  Who knows, we might even find that we have some common ground with our “competitors” in what we want for our kids when they become adults.  Wouldn’t that be something.

I’ll kick it off with a couple of my own long term interests and goals:

  • My son receives an education (from me, the schools, his peers) that allows him to participate in the world around him to the extent that he chooses to participate.
  • The general public becomes more aware that adults with autism are adults first, that they have dreams, desires, and interests just like everyone else, and should be allowed and empowered to pursue those dreams, desires, and interests.
  • A legal environment that enforces the above, when necessary, in the workplace and other areas where autism, and other disabilities, are treated with disdain and disrespect.