Thursday, August 23, 2018

Forget the Humans: A very long post with perspectives on Basic Income

Sometimes my friends or family might wonder how I can support a "crazy idea" like a Basic Income. I won't get into the specifics of my conditional support, but after reviewing the data on the current costs of poverty, and seeing what it would take to move towards a minimum standard of living at a full level of social participation and no fear of bodily needs, I found it's the best idea so far.

The problem isn't really whether it's too expensive or impossible. The question is whether people want to do it, which they don't. They are too mad about the freeloaders getting by without working while they have to work hard and sacrifice. They are too righteous to ignore how terrible it is for people to be idle. We have been taught to ignore the needs of our bodies so we often don't realize how much time it takes to take good care of a body, mind, spirit, household and community, completely aside from work and luck. They don't realize all the data I've read that shows it's economically not only feasible, but likely cheaper and more productive, to keep everyone safe, fed and housed, but even if they did, they won't believe it because it doesn't match their idea of human nature. In any case, it's a question of will. People just don't like the idea.

Which brings me to the first voice.


Human nature is fascinating. Arriving on this planet a pure spirit encased in helpless body, the hard-wiring combined with elements of environment result in very interesting programming that always runs under the surface of thought. Humans are ridiculous, evil, maddening, lovely, beautiful, loving creatures who barely know what they're doing at the best of times. They are selfish and giving, and you can't be sure which you're gonna get today, though over time, maybe you can guess. Knowing what people are like, we can set our expectations of them accordingly. Between me and most people, there is enough overlap and I have enough knowledge, experience and imagination to guess how they are likely to act in situations we are likely to find ourselves in together. From here, we can build trust.

Often, when people disagree with the ideas I choose to support, it's because our knowledge of human nature is different. The way we see people, what we expect of them, how much "should" we're willing to apply to our judgment of their behaviour, is different. I look at the circumstances people find themselves in, and I see they are almost always doing the best they can with what they have. The only humans I have found who are not interested in doing the best they can with what they have are severe addicts. They are addicted to different things, it leads to different behaviours over different timelines and to different degrees (some of which look like success and others, failure), but what they have in common is that they are all addicts. Like me. Like you.

We are all addicts. Whether it's TV, our apps, sugar, opioids, coffee, food, water, oxygen, or other ways we feed our body-based needs on a day to day basis, we are all 100% dependent on some basics of life to stay alive in our bodies, regardless of circumstances, effort, intention, past mistakes, current misfortunes or future better efforts. Right now, we have a body demanding and we feed the need.

Although we are addicts, we all work. We've been trained to assign value only to certain types of work. But the work of staying alive, dealing with whatever your addictions are, and being productive somehow, is work worth paying for. Further, the work of caring for children and adults who need help is work worth paying for. It's only done for free because it's the work of women.

Basic Income is the latest scheme that promises to solve it, and I provide it with my conditional support because it's the only thing on anyone's radar that even looks like it's headed in the right direction. But it's not about what scheme gets adopted or how it ends up getting messed up in the implementation. It's about agreeing that we should set a minimum income anyone gets, just for participating in society, and set it at a level that lets people take a breath and be their best selves.

I know it feels wrong when you think of all those deadbeats laying around while you work, but I disagree with you about human nature. I've looked around and the only deadbeats I've found have been severe addicts or the victims of major traumas; people who need our help, not our scorn. Everyone else, every single other person I've met, has been on a path to somewhere, hoping for their next break, looking for love and acceptance, trying their best to participate and matter. But no one is their best self under stress. Ensuring that a large percentage of our population lives in fear and stress means we don't see what their best might contribute to the endeavors of society. We see their worst, and we fear it. So the snake eats its tail.

Ensuring that people have an income that allows food, a safe place to live, and a high level of public access to social participation, including work, makes society better. We should enable it, like we enable infrastructure. If we took on the task of making roads all across giant swaths of land so there is nowhere you want to go that you can't get to by road, why can't we pave the way for people to have a happy life? Set them up right, like we would our children if we could, get them started knowing they can try things, take risks, and they will never fall below the level of being able to take care of themselves and participate in society.

Healthy people with the capacity to deal with all the hard challenges that life throws at everyone make for better neighbours. Eliminating desperation associated with the basic level of social participation will make for fewer costs in Justice and Health Care, two of our biggest costs, to pay for itself, yes. But, in addition, we can achieve the added benefit that life will feel better for all of us. People will be less stressed out and worried. They will, as a result, yell less at their kids. Who will, as a result, be nicer to each other and focus on school. Which will, as a result, provide higher levels of high-tech-ready graduates, ready to work in the new economy where there isn't much need for human effort. It will also produce graduates who are not suited to that, but have a better sense of how to take care of each other, take care of our spaces, and take care of ourselves and our addictions, who find ways to participate that the elite of today can't fathom. Community can blossom like a wild garden if you stop mowing it down before it seeds. 

We will do better, as a whole, if we bring the minimums up and take away the most basic levels of fear - security around day to day bodily needs, and the ability to participate with my gifts in society.

And anyway, there's no point trying to control them. Just watch how they act. But when they have access and capacity, they try hard to live in healthier ways, and that does bring down the potential costs of poor health, which stretch beyond hospital visits into the day-to-day functioning of every aspect of society. When they aren't afraid they tend to be less combative, more co-operative, better learners, and more enthusiastic contributors. They often bring incredible ideas forward when they are feeling creative and happy, challenged in a good way, in trust with their peers. You've seen it. At their best, humans can do anything. Even figure out how to make a common quality of life that we can be proud of.


To understand, you need to forget you're talking about people.

You have a machine. It's a huge, complicated machine, but when it's working it produces a product that sells itself, and makes you a fortune.

It's also a greedy machine. It needs you to constantly go out and gather the materials it runs on, so you need help to gather materials, and help to run it. You hire people. You try to keep it chugging all the time.

Unfortunately, at the centre of the machine is the old, original machine, around which all the fancy parts were added to make the product so special. This middle section breaks down often. It has mis-shapen cogs that miss or slip. It produces product, but the product is often dirty, broken, or otherwise scrap. Your workers have found that, if they bang on it with a hard object at just the right place, it seems to click a cog or two into place, and they get a higher yield of quality product for a few minutes. But it never lasts. There is a big dent where the spot is. Some products can be produced bypassing this machine, but that's already been optimized. This one part of your machine is limiting the number of quality products, which keeps your profits low, which stops you from paying for the repairs it would take to upgrade that part of the machine. 

What is the right business decision? Of course, one must bite the bullet, and find the money to invest, or shut down.

It's not so simple, though. Your engineer tells you, the original machine is the heart of the whole operation. It is what everything else is attached to. Mostly, those new sections can produce product themselves, but every so often, they need to move a particular way, and they interact with the original machine directly, cog-to-cog. All the other parts are working fine, except when they interact with that part. When it works well, it works well, but when a cog misses, it can affect the entire machine, section interacting with next section, resulting in a lower yield of quality, and increased scrap for the whole day, or a line stoppage. 

In order to upgrade this part of the machine, one must shut down another part, fix the place they come together, and then put it back together. This is true for every other part of the machine, and there are thousands. Thousands of interacting parts. And each part interacts with the next. Of course, the worst of the rot is at the heart of the machine. You can't get there and keep the whole machine intact and running. 

Oh, and by the way, they don't make this kind of machine anymore and you can't get another one. This is it.

To fix the outdated parts of the machine, we must take the cost of stopping and looking at the connection points for every other part. That can't all be done at once, but that doesn't mean that we should give up and let our machine rot itself away, producing ever-lower quantity of quality products and more and more scrap. The Engineer will tell us, we need a map of all the connection points, an understanding of how shutting one down affects the rest of the machine. We need a plan of action to replace the worn and broken parts, yes, but we also need to look at where they've worn away at the cogs on the working parts of the machine, where they come together. It's not simple. It's the cost of doing business.

Not investing in upgrading the heart of our system, the rot of out-of-bounds capitalism and money in politics, has broken and dented the cogs of people's day-to-day lives. Up and down the economic ladder, people are living every day, with all the challenges you can think to tell stories about. The entire system is clunking along.

This is not a good business decision. It has nothing to do with individual people (it has everything to do with individual people). They are the parts of the system that are chugging away, doing their best. They are the parts of the system that wear away where they interact with the rot. But they aren't happy about it. They don't choose pain or suffering or difficulty. Maybe they don't always respond to it the way another person thinks they should, but that is not up to any human to decide, as one is no better than the next, on scale. It doesn't matter.


Maybe we support people because our human hearts tell us that we can't leave any of our family behind in the path to a quality experience of Life on Earth, or maybe because they are clogging up our system and ruining the quality of things with their pain and suffering (how can I enjoy my happy life while they suffer or worse, complain? you can't get good service these days).

I don't care why. I care that we do it. I don't want the whole machine to grind down and be unworkable. I want to enjoy what we're creating. I want that for everyone. It's a simple upgrade at the end of the day. Put a cap at the top and make the money stay in the system, then use it to make peace possible. 

That it will take a long time only means we better be clear about what we're pursuing and get to it. 

It makes no difference what we think people should or could do about if's and when's that we as Judger aren't likely to experience. It's none of our business. We can't know we'd do better and we can't blame the disadvantaged for the ways their disadvantages compound to hold them down and make it harder than I could have imagined until people told me. 

I have talked with people who are strong, loving, capable, and much harder-working than I have ever managed, who could be bringing great things to this world if they weren't restricted by poverty. They have learned things about grief, healing, overcoming, and working through adversity and failure, that could benefit people who haven't had to practice those skills because of where they started or help along the way, or simple good fortune to never face an unexpected trauma.

People want to care for their elderly and children, which we want them to do. They want to volunteer in community and engage in recreation, which we want them to do. They want to be good neighbours, which we want them to do. Poverty takes life down to the bare minimums - what is the maximum I can extract from this minimum of energy, money, food, time that I have? When people are constantly engaged in those calculations, they can't be engaged in the innovation business seems to crave, or the consumerism that business seems to want to encourage. They can't teach their kids about life skills, or learn how to take good care of their minds, bodies and spirits. They can barely even manage to get through their days of expending energy that they never get back. And that's if nothing goes wrong (stuff always goes wrong). That's what it's like for the humans I meet no matter where I meet them. 

This way of living is a drain on their life-forces, and thus a drain on our whole system. They are not operating at capacity. They are worn and broken, when they could be creative and whole. The places where they interact with the "working" parts of the system tend to be worn and broken down by their broken-down-ness. But they are not lost or incapable. We can upgrade our system, by breaking down the problem, understanding the ways the systems interact, and supporting people to find their own way through the mess that life has thrown at each of us to work with, trusting each other to bring our best when we, as a group, make sure no one is constantly suffering.

And we'd better. Because unemployment is coming, 47% of all jobs gone in 25 years is the latest, and that's Oxford, not me. No more middle class. So let's make sure the bottom looks more comfortable than it does now, because most of us will see each other there. I'd rather not see you in Hell. 

It doesn't matter if I like people, feel sorry for people, respect people, admire people, tolerate people, dislike people, avoid people, blame people, judge people, love people. What matters is whether every part of our system is operating at capacity on the journey towards peace on Earth. If the systems we built don't support maintenance, they were badly designed and are not good business to continue without upgrades. It makes sense to set a minimum standard of quality of life. It makes sense to upgrade the heart of our system so that it beats twice, to give back the oxygenated blood to the system instead of starving it.

Every system needs control levels, the minimums and maximums for optimal output. Without a maximum, the energy in our system just dissipates and pools outside the system. That's a bad machine and a bad business model, and it's bad for people, too. We don't have to choose it. There's nothing natural or inherent in it. It's what powerful men built for themselves to make the world their sandbox. We don't have to let them keep playing this way. They don't have to choose to, either. They are humans, just like the rest of us. They could choose to raise the bar, use all the power they accumulated for something worthwhile. They could force government to provide a combination of effective government regulation that limits the amount of wealth concentration, creating adequate income to build a higher minimum standard quality of life, supporting the pursuit of peace.

Knowing humans, maybe they will.

But in the meantime, we need to at least ask it.