The New Great American Experiment: UBI

We have all heard America referred to as “The Great Experiment”. We remember how Europe chided, doubted that regular citizens could govern themselves without a ruling or privileged class. Determined to prove them wrong, we set up checks, balances, and a bill of rights. We debated for a century and even went to war to find an answer to that question. We debated for another century, and while our country has persisted and made gains, we continue to suffer from dramatic inequality and worse health and success outcomes than many of those old elites we would so like to defy.

The Great American Experiment set the stage for a country where individuals had the liberty to live freely, if they sold their labor and worked hard. Money attained through “hard work” was positioned as our golden ticket to real freedom. This seemed to work well enough through industrialization as we truly did need every hand on deck to staff the plentiful low to medium-skill, decent-paying jobs.

However, times have changed. We are living in an era of great surplus of wealth due to three giant (10X) leaps in technological efficiency. We can see that labor efficiency will continue to increase as the digital revolution spreads to each warehouse and factory floor. We also recognize that poverty is a cash shortage, not a moral failing. We believe that the fastest way to ‘cure’ poverty is to give those people money directly.

And so, I propose we arrange a NEW “Great American Experiment”.

The New Great American Experiment separates an American citizen’s right to live from their ability to contribute to the market, by providing each citizen with enough money to cover their most basic needs.

This type of program is called a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). GBI is a no-strings-attached floor of income from the government to its citizens, paid in monthly installments of roughly $1000 a month, which allows each person to, at minimum, be neither involuntarily hungry nor homeless. However, on this very meager budget, a person may not be able to afford that yearly iPhone upgrade, so our free market should stay as free as ever and that person can get a job if she or he so chooses. GBI FAQ’s here.

Why should we do this?

Because it’s possible. Challenging, yes. But for the first time in history, logistically, all of the basic pieces have developed enough that we have a shot at re-engineering the carrots and sticks that propel our decisions and drive our economy. Here are three major factors that make GBI more likely to be, at last, possible:

1. 3X, 10X technological efficiency

The first 10X efficiency multiplier was agriculture which allowed humans to specialize and form complex non-nomadic society. The second 10X was industrialization which prompted further specialization, utilized human labor extensively, and created outputs at incredible scale.

The third 10X has happened recently and is the digital revolution. With automation and robotics as wind under our sails, mature economies are likely to end up utilizing about 10X LESS units of human labor than developing or industrial economies. A few dozen people in a garage can create billions of dollars of ‘value’ that has no direct relationship to the amount of ‘labor’ that went into creating the product. Giant manufacturing plants employ relative handfuls of people to oversee increasingly automated processes. Digital solutions that are a whole order of magnitude cheaper than using human labor will continue to proliferate. And for the most part, we shouldn’t fight it. At least to start, most jobs that robots can do, humans don’t do very well or dislike doing, and for saving people from the trudge and drear of those daily realities, I am grateful to have robots to lend a hand. I would rather a person have no job than a bullshit job.

2. A trend towards a socially accepting climate

In our society, our greatest obstacle is this:

I work, and therefore, so should you.

This is a moralistic judgment that we have cradled lovingly in our bootstrap-pulling, self-reliant American arms ever since the protestant work ethic hopped the pond.

And it is no longer helpful or welcome in our society.

At its deepest idealogical root, America stands for liberty and freedom — the ability to live a good life in the way that each person chooses. As long as they are not causing any damage to others, what anyone uses their resources (including and especially time) for should be generally irrelevant to everyone.

Instead, I propose an alternate moral imperative:

If it is logistically possible, then we SHOULD aim to engineer an empowered and happy society with the best of the tools modernity has to offer.

In order for the USA to accept UBI, we need leaders to show us a way to make sense of a society that doesn’t use our capacity to contribute labor as the universal yardstick for all value.

3. A good leader / evangelist / champion

We depend on leaders to represent our views and evangelize systemic change. Leaders can bring ideas to life and inspire the public’s imagination, which is exactly what I hope is happening here with Andrew Yang.

Andrew Yang is an American businessman who is running for president in 2020: see I learned about Andrew Yang before ever having heard of UBI — I applied to Venture for America my senior year of college and was rejected. I was disappointed, but I have always admired the initiative: Bring top talent to startups in underperforming cities. Andrew struck me then as a thought leader in the tech-meets-social enterprise space, taking business principles and using powerful new techniques from ‘lean’ startup theory and design thinking in actual settings with actual people. He strikes me now (as a UX designer) as an absurdly great candidate that might somehow make perfect sense in the context of our wild-card Trumpian world.

The world is gone crazy. We see and say it all the time these days, in our offices and uber rides and over dinner tables. Trump, Brexit, and Brazil, oh my. Perhaps this ‘radical’ trend, or whatever it is, could be turned on its head. Maybe all it really signifies is that people are hungry for change, frustrated by modern wage slavery, looking for a better way in all the wrong places. Maybe the visible threat of backwards, regressive social trends in our country and in the world can cause a strong and opposite reaction for us, the American public, so that our minds open to solutions that are not just an iteration better, but an order of magnitude better.

The first of two notes of caution:

As a specie, we are obsessed with the concept of the ‘silver bullet’. The magic panacea, the snake-oil cure all for blemishes, ails, and worries. We must be measured with our expectations for UBI, methodical in our approach, and non-sensational in our claims. I do not know if UBI in America will inherently lead to better solutions to trash collection worldwide, and I don’t know if anyone can really know that. This word of caution is a derivative of Evgeny Morozov’s ‘technological solutionism‘ critique, which I usually find very compelling. In this case, I don’t think the ‘tail is wagging the dog’ or a solution is being created where there is no problem. We are using the technologies of government and money to rise the tide and float many boats at once. A thousand dollars a month means I might spend an extra month job-searching instead of settling for the first offer to come my way. However, as with any ecosystem, changing an input in a major way WILL have unexpected consequences, many of which we will deem ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think of the White Horse Story in those moments, which I also recognize is naive. But it is important to not trivialize the enormity of such a shift as GBI represents, as it heralds an era where most people who work are highly skilled. Andrew Yang can’t have all of the answers, and we shouldn’t expect them. If we can steel ourselves to handle a phase of elevated ambiguity in the course of this great experiment, then I think there is a lot of reward to be received in short time.

Note of caution #2

This is important now in our current moment of Facebook and Instagram alienation and will continue to be important in coming periods of increased automation:

No matter if or how we choose to work, we all MUST stay engaged. This is a matter of individual and public health.

Disengaged people end up lonely. Lonely people end up dead.

We still need things to do and reasons to feel important, even in a society where automation has produced enough surplus that relatively few humans are needed to keep the gears spinning.

However, we should NOT shy away from these great advancements just because we are afraid of being bored. We are so much more creative and full of ingenuity than that. We shall not be complacent while mothers and fathers remain enslaved to multiple shitty jobs just to pay for daycare so they can keep working multiple jobs, just because we are afraid of not knowing what to do with ourselves in our free time. That is cowardly and is shooting for the coconut in a tree instead of the moon, let alone the stars.

Andrew Yang has put forth the idea of Modern Time Banking which is relatively underdeveloped and easy to criticize, but this is the spirit folks. Pick up where he left off. This will be a long, gradual transition over decades or centuries where at first, most people will be busy with work-lives and engaged in communities just as we are today. However, as less people are formally employed, we will need new institutions to structure our identities and keep our hands busy. The roots of those institutions already exist and it is up to us to plant the seeds for our descendants who may live without the same tooth-and-claw struggle that still exists today.

No, capitalism is blind to inequality and rewards only the strongest, which is not okay in societies where we care about each person. Privatization should not apply to prisons, schools, and healthcare.