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This Slack discussion by austin, Dane and Patrick Lee (Mentor) occurred in hackernoon's official #slogging-beta channel, and has been edited for readability.
Universal Basic Income: "Threat or Menace?"
first off, for the uninitiated: Universal Basic Income, or UBI, means everyone gets a regular stipend from the government, enough to live on, paid for by taxes. that's the basic concept, although people spin it a few different ways. in short, i'm in favor of it.
the thread is titled this way, because i think people have this visceral, ingrained reaction against UBI from the ideas we have around work, namely that: 1. "you have to work to live" and 2. "other people not working while i'm working hard is wrong".
the first "problem" is just a fantasy, a falsehood driven into our brains from an early age -- it used to be true, that you had to work to live, but automation can make that a flat out fiction. it's hard to accept because it's almost in our genetic memory at this point, but we have to accept the simple fact that in the future, you won't necessarily have to work to live. hell, there may not even be enough jobs for all the people!
i'd say the second is a valid concern, though. for the people who do the jobs that still require a human hand, why should others who are able be allowed to not work while i work? it's not just a "fairness" issue -- it's a motivational one. a lot of people might say "well if they're not going to work, i'm not going to work" but i think once we hit a certain critical mass of automation, this also becomes a non-issue. i mean, if you automate away all the jobs that are boring or tedious, and all the other jobs are done by default, by people who just enjoy doing them...what's the issue?
the real problem is going to be the people who profit from the current system stopping UBI from happening, or stunting it so badly that it fails. Dane, we've talked about an "automation tax" before...what's to stop those companies who automate everything from running to timbuktu or wherever where they don't tax automation? do we set a trade embargo on those companies, that don't play by the rules? that could be a rough road.
another issue: if people don't work, and they don't have anything they're passionate about...what do they do? that would be a pretty unfulfilling life, to do absolutely nothing but consume all day, internet or tv or whatever. some even say that work is an essential part of human experience -- i would argue that making things happen external to you is the important part. like if you make a painting of a tree, that's fulfilling as "work" but most people don't have that as a "job", exactly. maybe education and creative skills training should be a big part of this...like if you want to learn chemistry, go learn chemistry! it should be tax-subsidized, which will create even more resistance from some, but in the end, i always consider education an investment.
i'm getting into a rabbit hole here but my point is, many of the perceived issues with UBI are not actually problems, but we do have a problem in convincing the people who profit most from the current system to play along.
p.s. tagging Natasha as well because i bet you have some good ideas around this 🙂
I agree with a lot of this but it seems that you are making the assertion that work is universally undesirable and therefore, it is unethical to create a system where some people can choose to not work by exploiting those who do. If that assertion were true, this would essentially be slavery and I'd agree with your second point being valid.
In reality, there is a huge list of things that each of us personally find desirable and undesirable. Sometimes things like being a mechanic and working on a car can be relatively undesirable for some people and highly desirable for other people.
For me, the purpose of UBI is not to create an environment where humans become consumers of things produced by autonomous robots. UBI is more about creating an environment where people can choose to contribute in alternative meaningful ways. Some people might find it highly desirable to do things that they couldn't otherwise make a living on. If they are free to pursue those desires, they might produce little to no value for decades but they continue to be mentally invested in the problem and eventually they make a breakthrough. That breakthrough could benefit society to a far higher degree than if they were to invest their lives maintaining the status quo in a dead-end job.
The enemy of UBI is dead-end jobs. The goal is for everyone to live happier, more enriched lives.
I also think that positioning this as a government stipend makes the whole thing feel like a communist welfare program which immediately triggers a Red Scare reaction from people. I see UBI as more analogous to the
yes, absolutely agreed! with most of what you said at least, aside from the first paragraph -- i think there's a misunderstanding.
i do think it's unethical to make someone do a job they don't want to do. maybe i phrased it badly, or came across the wrong way.
but i would say that we do have a system, right now, where people choose not to work by exploiting those who do. the rich exploit the poor, here in the states. and all across the world, for that matter. i wouldn't go so far as to call it slavery -- we have the freedom to choose our jobs, of course.
well, some of us do. others, they're stuck where they are by education level, location, racial or other bias by employers, discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, current income and savings, etc. a lot of people simply can't just change jobs that easily.
that inequity is what i'm mainly ranting against 🙂 besides the fact that most people just flat out don't like their jobs and a good percentage, at least here in the states, live paycheck-to-paycheck.
but near the end of my post, what i was getting at is that people do need to create things. they need to make stuff happen. and people should be free to do what makes them most happy. i absolutely agree with the rest of your first post.
the second post there, i agree, it doesn't have to be framed that way. but i would also argue that not all of communism's ideas are necessarily bad by virtue of being communist. that's sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. fuck stalin and mao though.
but yes, it does trigger a "red scare" type reaction as well, and that should be addressed
sorry for the long-ass messages btw. my screen on my desktop is 2K and the messages look shorter when they're not in the thread view 😅
I agree that our current welfare system is garbage. People are exploited and get locked into an undesirable life by being forced into compliance and shamed for collecting. We need to throw that system away and imagine something better.
oh i wasn't even referring to the current welfare system. but it does suck ass...everyone just assumes you're leeching off the system, the whole "welfare queen" myth...
If you aren't talking about the current welfare system then I don't understand how people are being forced to do jobs. To me, UBI is exactly the opposite of that. If you have a reliable source to take care of your basic needs, you are no longer forced to take jobs that aren't desirable.
i'm talking about the working poor being effectively forced into jobs. not under a UBI system, that wouldn't make sense. i'm talking about currently
Right, so I assumed that you considered welfare to be part of that broken system.
ah! i see. it is a part of it, for sure, but i'm talking more about people just not having a real choice of what sort of work they do.
which disproportionately affects the poor, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks...pretty much anyone who can be discriminated against. i mean, you and me, we do alright. we have a choice, generally speaking. but a good number of people don't
Ok. So I think there are a lot of contributing factors here. Welfare is only one of many. Systemic "isms" and anything that empowers discrimination disempowers those who are being discriminated against.
right, these are really wide ranging problems. gigantic problems. systemic, as you said, but i don't think that word conveys just how fucking huge and intertwined with our society the problems are 😬
I don't think UBI is a silver bullet to solve every problem we face as a society. But I do think it would do so much to empower people who are currently being exploited. The more empowered they are, the more they can fight back against some of the other things in life that drag them down.
there's this bobby kennedy quote:
"Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul."
that always stuck with me. i found that before you posted that last bit -- i do agree, it's not a silver bullet, but it's a damn fine step in the right direction 🙂
Just think about life in a dead-end job. If your boss knows you are living paycheck to paycheck, they know they have power over you and some people will choose to exploit that situation.
If we live in a society where everyone can choose to walk away from their current job, it becomes far harder to exploit people. It would still absolutely happen. But people would have less power over other people.
absolutely. in the end, i don't think anyone should have any undue power over anyone else. and "due power" would be like, restraining a murderer or something so they stop murdering.
i'd be curious to explore some of the mechanisms by which UBI could be implemented. the alaska fund is interesting...funny how the government made a corporation, then they could say "well it's not government money!" pretty solid strategy, to start with, i think
All of this is incredibly important, but UBI isn't just about preserving dignity. I think we'd be so much more efficient if people can choose the work they invest their time in. Reminds me of that commercial
happy cows produce better milk
YES. that's much much more interesting to me than preventing the bad. i'd like to raise up the good, too 🙂 and yes, happy cows produce better milk 100%
so how do we better enable people to do what they enjoy?
I wonder how many more people would choose to invest their time in R&D or something where the value generated is potentially very high but the value captured is very low.
i think a lot of people would start with an ambitious project in that vein, by default, but get discouraged if it doesn't give quick returns...then default to something else. at least, that's my prediction, my 2 cents. how can we encourage people to persist in their efforts? maybe community feedback?
I think you might be thinking about people bootstrapping companies and expecting fast returns. Some of that will happen. I'm thinking a little more broadly than that. Imagine if you are highly interested in an open source project that doesn't have any revenue model or any obvious way to "capture value".
I suspect that a lot more people would contribute to open source projects.
ahhhh i see. yeah that's a hard problem...i think feedback loops, positive feedback loops, are the answer. or at least 80% of it. like if you're working on open source, getting comments on the project or downloads or whatever, some sort of indication that what you're doing is valuable to others
mainly when i say feedback though, i mean discussion and positive comments
or at least constructive comments 😛
Right, I think the feedback loop is basically what people would crave in a lot of cases. They want people to recognize the value that they're creating.
But, a lot of people can't choose to invest time in projects that don't provide monetary rewards at this stage. So fewer people are able to invest time contributing to open source.
definitely! and maybe that's a "job" in and of itself, to be a sort of cheerleader for others. encourage their work, contribute where you can...idk. just an idea
Andrew Yang brings up other examples of worthwhile jobs that are underappreciated in our current system. Like raising and educating a child. Mothers and teachers are insanely important but the investment doesn't pay off in a monetary way for decades so it's very hard to capture the value they create.
UBI gives us a generalizable tool to invest in the future.
wow, that's quotable...you're 100% right though. on both counts -- mothers and teachers are incredibly underappreciated.
But going back to the "cheerleader" comment. I think that is entirely valid. People can and should be more active consumers. It's an entirely valid investment of time.
absolutely! encouraging people takes effort, time, and a positive attitude to boot. but to butcher that classic latin phrase: "who cheers on the cheerleaders?" is it just intrinsically rewarding so that it needs no encouragement for people to do it? personally, i'd do it just for the enjoyment of it
We could go over thousands of examples where people are free to better invest their time if their basic needs are being taken care of. Sceptics will always say things like "Yeah but would people actually do this? I think people would just invest more time watching TV."
right, exactly. i hate that argument, because i personally wouldn't, i know you wouldn't...in fact, almost everyone i know would do something that's considered "productive" or creative or what have you...it's just such a lazy argument, really
I do think a lot of people would sqander their expanded freedom. That doesn't invalidate the idea though. Even if only a small portion of the population take advantage of UBI, it's worth it.
It's kind of like saying lazy people don't have the right to live. Of course they do. You might not agree with how they choose to invest their time but that doesn't mean we should take away their human rights.
right. a lot of people who argue against UBI would also make the argument that lazy people don't have a right to live, through circuitous arguments, but still. like if you present some people with a situation where someone simply can't work due to disability, and doesn't have certain access to services, they just sort of shrug it away. i know because i know people like that
I'd much rather see a society where people are lazy and unengaged consumers by exploiting the fact that their needs are being provided for...than a society where people exploit other people for personal gain.
that's what it comes down to, yeah. i agree
We should also be able to explore UBI by starting with small experiments and iterating on what works and fixing what doesn't. I'd really like to look at some of the data from existing experiments.
that would be ideal. might help with the "red scare" sort of reaction too, rather than a big gigantic program all at once, you introduce it gradually
some sort of independent research agency would be nice. although i don't trust the federal government right now as far as i can throw it
maybe universities can pool their resources...just a thought
I do think making a dramatic change and implementing a UBI program would be better than our current system. But people tend to resist change. It would be good to give people confidence over time before introducing a multi-trillion dollar per year program.
Or we find out our best efforts for UBI fail and we need to address the problem in a different way. As much as I believe in a UBI-like system, it isn't a given that it would work.
I wish people were more willing to experiment and accept change. Then maybe we could just try a system like this for 5 years then change as needed. But change feels perminant and scary.
Maybe countries could even fund it by signing a temporary treaty and agreeing not to kill each other for a few years.
definitely, i'd like to see about 80% of society's functions stable and relatively slow to change, and the other 20% experimental, in general. like if we could make the justice system more adaptable and open to change, that would be nice, if we could say, make a more experimental bail system that favors people who aren't actually flight risks, regardless of their cash balance... then again, we are talking about things that could make or break someone -- it could ruin someone's life. experimenting with UBI, the justice system, and so on could be dangerous. so i'd be really careful what's implemented and how
We should think about a better algorithm for how we think about explore vs exploit as a society. When the ratio is too heavily skewed towards exploit, we end up with an Easter Island scenario and everything is great until we run out of trees.
Here is an interesting article that
If people start new businesses at a much higher rate with UBI then that is a very positive signal.
One negative signal highlighted in the Alaska dividend is people having more babies. That might not seem bad at face value but there have been studies that suggest it is better for women to have fewer babies on average. This isn't to say a forced quota is a good thing. There have been a lot of negative side effects from the one child policy in China. But we seem to be much better off with an average of 1-2 babies compared to a dozen.
I wonder what ideal KPIs would be to measure the success of UBI. I feel like we should be tracking overall happiness and overall productivity.
Sorry, didn't fully read everything above. Just wanted to jump in with some quick thoughts. I've thought about this issue quite a bit since Andrew Yang ran for office. My idea would be to PAY people to go to school (all the way through college). There would have to be some rules in place to make sure folks didn't game the system of course. Folks that already finished college would be ineligible to go back. Folks that had student loans would have those loans forgiven or reduced. So the money would only be going to the folks that need it most -- the ones that didn't go to college at all.
For example, imagine if we implemented this at all the prisons and paid the prisoners to study. Imagine if everyone getting out of prison now had a college degree and some savings on top of that. How many would end up going back to prison? Almost definitely it would be a small fraction of what it's at now.
I'm definitely not opposed to paying for education. I don't necessarily see that as a perfect solution but it is a nice starting point.
The one thing I really like about paying for education as opposed to a more general program is the ROI could potentially be higher and I think we could start with a much smaller budget.
It also just seems like a less risky way to start. This could build confidence and set the stage for a more ambitious program.
Paying for education (at least the way I envision) would also solve the problem of only using resources on the folks that need it. It doesn't have the issue of giving $1,000/month to millionaires.
Paying millionaires $1,000/mo isn't a major concern for me when it comes to UBI. Given how heavily skewed the distribution is towards people making less than $50k/year, I think some of those edge cases are a small price to pay for progress. But I do think cases like that hold people back. So I'm in favor of starting smaller with fewer distractions opponents could use to derail voters.
Also, depending on how UBI is funded, it is very possible that millionaires might end up paying far more than $1,000/mo in taxes. So I think that loophole balances out.
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