Thinking Out Loud About UBI: Introduction

  • The deeper questions about morality and motivation and where they come from and where they lead are beyond the scope of this topic, as far as I’m concerned, but being aware of those questions is probably a good idea, because UBI is, in my mind, a fairly fundamental shift not only in an economy that chooses to implement it, but in the hearts and minds of everyone participating in it. Not everyone will consume Harris and Peterson and others on these topics, but we can see the thinking when topics like welfare and unemployment and college tuition come up in public discourse, particularly around elections.
  • I personally believe that in order to have a “successful” society, which for this discussion we can constrain with borders that form the United States of America (since I live there), the people in that society should thrive. While every person has instants and periods of negativity, in general life should be “good” according to a substantial sample of the population (really, not just statistically).
  • I assume that in our bounded geographical economic society, that if we can maintain a thriving population at or near the carrying capacity of that geography, that the society is self-sustaining. In other words, the people matter.
  • Along that same line of thinking, proactive health care (for longevity, not profit), social education as far as a student can go, and even some aspects of production that contribute to the success of the society, the economy, and the welfare of the population seem to be good ideas. Unfortunately, previous attempts at Socialism haven’t gone so well, and the perception of these ideas today doesn’t help. These things make sense but they are not popular to talk about, and we really can’t know how they might be implemented effectively without the baggage of popular opinion and political angst. Later we can cover farm subsidies, tariffs, medicaid, public schools, student loans, welfare, social security…
  • I am reticent to make fictional media references (ie books, movies), but for the fact that they are useful for the sake of illustration. At some points it will be useful to be familiar with the Morlocks and the Eloi of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It might also be handy to have seen The Matrix. I’m sure there will be other such references to illustrate points.
  • I have become a fan of Prof. Mark Blyth, currently a political economist teaching at Brown (that’s an understatement, for more information start at http://watson.brown.edu/people/faculty/blyth ). There have been many Blyth lectures, interviews, and other presentations to consume, about all sorts of relevant topics. He has touched on UBI, but he has covered a few things that figure into my perception of it in more detail. That full employment tends to be inflationary, for example, is interesting to me since if everyone in an economic region (ie The US) is virtually employed by a UBI, then how will the total economy react over time? These we shall revisit.
  • I am aware of some number of UBI experiments that have taken place, many on community or city scale (in the US in particular), some on country scale (most recent news about the UBI experiment in Finland). I have referred to these as “anecdotal” largely because if one knows one is in an experiment, one knows the status of the cat. As well, there are people not participating in the experiment in the smaller-scale scenarios, and the entire economy is not predicated on UBI as it would be in a real deployment. Thus, these are interesting and idiosyncratic, IMHO, and not normative, though I have only recently commenced by proactive journey down this path, my humble opinion could change.
  • I haven’t yet delved into the blockchain and crytpocurrencies as I believe both are a mixture of hype and fraud at this point. The former is technologically interesting, the latter doesn’t pass my smell test. However, it is entirely possible that a fiat currency or currencies could be a part of a UBI economy to augment the “real” money with other forms of value transfer.
  • I have concerns about the Pareto Principle as it would apply to a UBI economy, and I believe the principle is not tested in UBI experiments. Would much of the UBI pool distributed to a population end up moving from the many to the few? Pareto has been correct at least 80% of the time, thus I believe this is a valid concern that I’ll touch on at least 20% more over time.
  • As I am an engineer by education and profession, my view on technology’s role in the future economy is not surprising. Eventually it seems likely that some form of AGI will be self-sustaining, developing new “software” and associated hardware on its own. The illustrative media references will be many here, but reality is as interesting on its own. I automate things for myself all the time so I can focus on other things, but what happens if I automate everything I do? What if it is automated for me and I don’t even have my current level of participation in that process? Small caveat, I’m all Linux, and I find Android to be far too constrained on customization… I realize that a great many people don’t know if they have a problem when tech is hidden away.
  • I believe the privatization of an automated economy (ie robot workers as the growing producer population at the expense of human employment) is troublesome, and I have pondered the democratization of our robot overlords as an alternative. As a family might raise children to work on their farm or to take jobs and contribute back to the household at least for some part of their lives, so to might families “raise” a robot through some form of investment, so that income lost to automation might be made up through this investment. Not thought through completely, but I don’t like a binary view of this situation where people or corporations benefit from automation on the production side.
  • Possibly along these lines, I have some thoughts on the Personal Income Tax we enjoy in the US. I have a lingering notion that the personal income tax should really be replaced by taxes on business, with the associated regulatory changes to make corporate tax dodges and havens less effective to avoid paying into the system. The economy should, in my opinion, be fueled by profit, not living.
  • If people matter, it should be simple to convince ourselves that no person should suffer for being born. Basic sustenance seems to me to be a humane baseline, and a benefit to the whole of a sustainable society.
  • Merely providing goods and services removes choice, which is important to a thriving population. UBI could be spent as any individual sees fit, even to their detriment. The proceeds re-enter the economy and the circle of money continues.
  • If every person in an economy can participate in that economy and society at a basic level via UBI, then indeed some percentage of our population that might not have ascended to “greatness” could attain that activation energy not otherwise available. Too many success stories that are the result of hard work, ability, and an inordinate amount of luck to ignore this potential.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans working for the federal minimum wage is at about 2.7% as of 2016. While this doesn’t address local minimum wage earner statistics (the percentage earning a local minimum wage is almost certainly higher), there is some fuel there for the hope that UBI as a new floor for a minimum wage is not an automatic invitation to chill on the couch. Minimum wage made a true living wage seems like a reasonable approach to continuing with a minimum wage.
  • The machinery of an economy operates when there is money flowing through it. Government injection of capital into an economy has shown to have stimulative effects, hopefully this would have similar effects on national scale over the long term.
  • In the US, UBI on a national basis would be a boon to some and insufficient for others. We already see that with the federal minimum wage versus local minimum wages as an attempt to account for the dramatic difference in cost of living. Have a glance at this article http://money.cnn.com/2017/12/29/news/economy/2018-minimum-wage-increases/index.html . UBI might introduce new dimensions to the local and regional differences in how much it costs to live, much less contribute to society. This is another can of worms.
  • The social security system comes to mind as an example of [arguably] good intentions gone awry. For example, those who reach the FICA cap in January may or may not need to receive a check from social security later on, though it should be available. Depending on the actual implementation of UBI, it may or may not make sense that every single person automatically receives this stipend for every pay period, and this makes an extremely complicated system. Complicated no matter what, IMHO.
  • There is that inflation issue… if everybody has at least the UBI, then prices on goods and services and in general the cost of living can adjust accordingly, which could be good or bad. I might be wrong about this, but if everybody has at least enough, then everybody else could charge just enough, or just a little bit more. I’ll throw in a specific movie reference as food for thought for now, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Time

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Software Engineer and Architect, entrepreneurial working on MuniBits among other things, Friend of Makers, Maker of Friends, Fan of Food Trucks…

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Dan Hugo (แดน)

Dan Hugo (แดน)

Software Engineer and Architect, entrepreneurial working on MuniBits among other things, Friend of Makers, Maker of Friends, Fan of Food Trucks…

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