There is a song by the Beatles, which I know but many people younger than me surely do not, called “With a Little Help From My Friends“. I used to listen to The Beatles a lot when I was a kid. My brother loved them, so he had all their records, and I benefited from that. I am privileged to have had that as a childhood experience.
Years later, I read “The Lathe of Heaven” of Ursula Le Guin. It references the song heavily — I remember thinking it was curious. I hadn’t expected references to the Beatles from other books of her. But I’m glad the reference was there, and ever since reading the book I’ve liked that song more.
I had an idea and I feel I need to write it down. I want to use my privilege (I am happy, I have a good job) and my anger (the world is full of pain and injustice) and try to use it for good. For the best plan I can come up with.
I think we can implement Universal Basic Income. Stay with me here — I think I have a plan. Has anyone thought of this particular plan yet? Who knows — probably yes, and I just don’t know what to Google, or I haven’t read the right books. But I have an urgency to find out — if you read this and can correct me, please do. I want to learn and improve, get better at coming up with ideas that improve the human experience. But I don’t know enough to know if I could be good at it yet — and I feel the need to overshare, as the topic is too important, and my urgency is too great, to just let it slip.
I’ve been reading and listening a lot about Universal Basic Income. The way I see it, it’s just a clear golden idea — it’s good because it can be made practical. Whatever other faults we might have as a society and a species, we do like practical. Practical trumps conservatism, most of the time — some people are conservative because they are practical, they like a certain quality of efficiency, and they live by it. Some set of people that are conservative because of this, or other reasonable, reason, could choose to embrace an idea that is just so eminently practical.
So, once we agree to believe that Universal Basic Income is good and practical, we just need to think about it as a project. Milestone one: come up with a way to make it practical. It should not break the economy, at any level; starting with being too expensive for the people that pay for it. Could we all (or the sufficient majority) agree to pay 1% of our income for a Universal Basic Income that works, a perfectly efficient program that makes it so that we solve hunger, exposure and several other sources of pain with a reasonable quantity of money? Imagine people getting a nice, eventually 3D printed, flat. A bit small to begin with, perhaps a bit far from work, but it exists. Good, tasty, balanced food. Perhaps not expensive food, but good. Good healthcare. What is there to object about it?
I guess people could fear the economy could break. What would the inflation be like? I wonder if anybody knows; need to look into that. Anyway, even then, we’re talking about neighborhoods, cities, countries, filled with pain. Relieving pain seems worth an informed risk. You can imagine this working.
Of course, the 1% is fake. I don’t know which fraction of the GDP would be necessary for giving everyone the conditions that I described, but come on, the numbers must be out there! I’ll look it up after I finish writing this. Whatever the number is, we can all agree to improve it. Milestone 2 is getting a list of questions that we can solve to advance our objective; getting the fraction of GDP necessary lower and lower, so it eventually becomes small enough to be paid for by redirecting the taxes that all people are willing to pay. Of course, it also includes figuring out what exactly is that number. Talking about stuff for years in shady political debates (where candidates are just playing the game of “annoying as few people as possible”!) seems wildly suboptimal. We need a platform for informed discussion; what I call an Agora. Implementing it, or just designating it (some versions of it exist out there, right now, today), seems easy enough. Different people just have to agree on something, some common ground, to work on individual problems to solve.
We do this until we get enough money, without killing each other. We get by. But then…
Let’s talk about that later.
But now: there is another way to implement Universal Basic Income, and it doesn’t have anything to do with governments accepting the vote of people to do so. Yes, even libertarians can like this idea.
We, the privileged, decide on a number: how much money is enough? How much money is enough for you, reader, right now?
After we get that much money, we don’t get any more.
It goes into a non-Universal Basic Income. Hey, you have to start somewhere.
You start with your friends.
You give enough money, whenever you can, eventually monthly — to the people you care about. The good people, however you choose to define good. I’d like to think that eventually we could all give to all.
Now, there are billions of good people out there, right now. I know it’s hard to choose. But as I said — you have to start somewhere. So you start with the people you know.
I know my friends could use a little money. I have more than them — it’s painful to write. It’s unfair. I got lucky; I work in IT, I’m very well paid, and I come from a developing country so I’m born and grown thrifty. I save a lot. I may be one of the lucky few nowadays that start relatively poor, work a reasonable amount (I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am no stevedore), and can work themselves up to that magic number — all the money I really need. The 1%.
Are you one of the 1%? If you are, wait — it’s important that you read this. You can decide not to believe in it after having read through it, that’s fine — other people don’t even finish it. But leaving now doesn’t make sense, does it? You could do something, you know? But you can always just not do it. It seems safe enough, and what are you going to do instead for the next five minutes? The idea is simple.
If you are one of the 99%, and you are angry at me because I am doing a lot better than you: I’m sorry. You are right to be angry. I am lucky, and I’m sorry you aren’t. But I want you to be lucky too.
See, it’s all a game of draws — as the world gets fairer, you need less and less luck to live well on the roll of the dice. I believe we are stuck in a global minimum now; we need to become unstuck, and it takes ideas to do so. We need an idea, and a plan to execute it. I want to come up with that plan, and I think you should want that as well.
Regardless of who you are, let’s all just agree to do this: think about how much money you want. Get up to that money. Then, give whatever else you earn away.
You can give it to strangers in the street, if you’re chaotic good. To the homeless or the “down on their luck”. I mean, I do this. Not lots, but sometimes enough to really cause a spike of short happiness. It sounds crass to say this, right? Like I’m both announcing my virtue and being cringey about it. Sorry, I know it’s sort of gross — talking about me this much — but I think we should take more about what who we are, and what do with our money. I mean, come on — you can give it to people that need it more than you, and we barely do — is that really something not to be at least considered from time to time? Reconsidering a taboo such as this could yield new solutions to problems . Discussing things is almost always better than not discussing them.
A weird example: there’s a stereotype about people from a certain culture being both good with money and caring a lot about money (it’s out there, regardless of whether it’s true — I don’t mean to offend by mentioning it). It could be that both have to do with the fact that they talk about it more than others, and this allows them to be smarter about it. In this mindset: being caring and talking about stuff makes you smarter. So, see, that stereotype may have a silver lining. We wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t looked.
That uncomfortable aside behind us, once you get to your personal threshold, you can chose to give money away in whatever way you want. You can also give it to your friends that are less well off than you. How much? However much they need and you can give, for however long you can. Monthly probably would put the most minds at ease.
If you keep getting richer, you give to more and more people. In essence: you think about who else you want to be friends with, you arrange it with them, and then you extend your help to them in whichever way suits them.
The thing I like about this idea is that it’s distributed, so it’s subject to this wonderful phenomena (but, you know, also dangerous) of meme/virality that the Internet has accelerated in the last few decades. It might be an idea whose time has really come.
What could prevent people from sharing this idea? Well, not many things that matter. If you don’t have the money to give away, well, that’s unfortunate, but that’s: you are no worse off due to this idea being out there. So it’s not worth suppressing. And, if a richer person reads it, they might have some probability of believing it, and then doing some or all of it. That money goes to other people. Eventually, potentially, the people you care for.
It has another property: it’s easy.
Really, how easy is to give your money away? Our society has evolved to make the transfer of information and value easy and cheap. Giving the money is as easy as it gets: everybody wants it. I mean, I’ll take money from anyone; I can always do stuff with it, and I can always choose to give it away again, but to someone that needs it more. Everybody is willing to take it, so giving it away is probably the easiest thing in the world.
If you don’t do this, there’s only two rational ways to justify it:
1) You don’t have enough. Well, you know, you should just put a number to enough then. The rest we covered already. 2) You don’t think it’ll make a difference.
I’m here to tell you we can make a difference. Because the idea has legs. It has another property: it creates network effects.
Who is a friend? A friend is someone you love, and with whom you are not necessarily related by ancestry. Friendship is the most perfect human relationship. You don’t lose anything by having more friends. You gain a lot.
Queue a very corny Youtube video: I want to have a million friends.
You can be friends with everyone, you know. You just both have to agree on it. And then you can work together. Help each other, you know. Like in the song. Remember? The Beatles.
Someone on the street that is “down on their luck” could be your friend.
Someone that is starving could be your friend.
Someone in a developing country that needs a bit more money per month to live, to pay rent, to study — they could be your friend.
If enough people do it, at some point the states (city-states, nation-states, perhaps even neighborhoods?) will do it. If they don’t for long enough, they might not have to. We might not need them.
No, I’m not a libertarian. But if you are and you like the idea, I won’t be offended by it.