Thoughts about basic income, surviving disasters, and the future we must escape from
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At some point in all of our lives, we all try to escape from something. There are few things more universal to the human experience than the act of escape, of running from some predator or some danger. To even be where I am today as a human being alive in the 21st century, I know I’m here because of all the things that didn’t manage to kill my ancestors before they were able to pass their genes and knowledge down the ancestral line. To escape is human.
I write these words as an evacuee having just escaped Ida, the fifth strongest hurricane to ever hit the continental U.S. in recorded history. I write these words as a pandemic kills human after human around the world, their lives snuffed out of existence by the ravages of a microscopic replicator whose sole purpose is to reproduce. I write these words as a human pondering the human experience, living in the unknown space between having a home and wondering when I can return to living in it.
It may feel like we live in a unique time of crises, one after the other, be it climate-related, or health-related, or democracy-related, in a seemingly endless chain of tragedies large and small, but really, it’s always been this way. This isn’t the first time we’ve fought a virus, or a hurricane, or a flood, or a wildfire, or an earthquake, or the rise of authoritarianism. These crises have always been with us, and so far, as a species at least, we have managed to overcome them.
Along the way, we have lost members of the human family. We have left people behind. Not everyone has been able to survive everything the challenges of human existence has placed before us, but the collective we do survive, and we do it together. That concept is key - together. Our torch as a species would likely have burned out long ago, were it not for this kind of superpower of togetherness. We are social beings. We work best when we work together, when we collaborate, when we maximize the concept of “us” and minimize the concept of “them.” We are interdependence machines. By dividing the work of survival, we’re able to minimize the amount of time spent on surviving, and grow the amount of our limited lifetimes spent on everything else. By working together, we’re able to escape more, and be trapped less.
Having just escaped a hurricane, and having recently escaped a pandemic through a vaccine I could have never created on my own, I sit here in wonder at what humanity has accomplished together, while at the same time I sit in trepidation of our collective future as I watch the refusal of vaccines and the return of authoritarian leaders around the world successfully dimming the light of democracy. We have accomplished so much, and yet we are so short of our full potential, things might just turn around and start going the other direction. We can’t let that happen.
We must escape that future and together discover a better one.
As I write these words in a hotel I didn’t build, in a city that is not my home, in a country I was born into that was built upon the collective effort of millions of humans long past, my own experience is slightly different than most of my fellow evacuees. What’s different about me and my experience is that unlike most people, I feel a degree of economic security that is unknown to most except recipients of dividend income, or savings interest, or Social Security checks. I have a crowdfunded monthly income, and because of that, my income is not directly connected to some specific amount or type of work.
My income is disconnected from work. My income is independent of work. It is its foundation. By starting each month with a known-in-advance and dependable amount of money, that money enables whatever type and amount of work I choose to do. That money is the seed out of which my work grows. This is counter to the popular misconception that income is the fruit that the seed of work bears. In a world where everything requires money, money is required in order to do anything, and the knowledge of future money creates the security where thought can focus on more than mere survival.
In my case right now, I am experiencing a level of financial security that I feel so fortunate to have, I hate that so few others have it. Unlike many of my fellow Louisianians, I was able to afford the gas money to evacuate my home in New Orleans. I have a car because I had enough money to buy one years ago. I have enough savings and credit to afford to live in a hotel temporarily. And because I know I’ll continue starting every month with income, I don’t fear any potential loss of ability to afford the basics of life in this time when so much temporarily remains unknown. Because my basics are secured, my level of stress right now is undoubtedly lower than many others whose lives have currently been turned upside-down by yet another catastrophic weather event made more severe by climate change.
I want everyone to be able to escape and to live a more secure, less stress-filled life. If you are in an abusive relationship, I want you to be able to afford to escape it. If you are in an abusive work environment, or one is being offered to you, I want you to be able to afford to escape it. If a hurricane is bearing down on you, or a wildfire, or a flood, I want you to be able to afford to escape all of it. I want you to feel every day of your life, that no matter what happens, you will have enough money to survive, that no matter what danger faces you, you’ll always be fully free to escape it.
We tell ourselves that there are already mechanisms in place to help each other, but although some do exist, they do not mean they will always help us, and rarely do they attempt to try to prevent us from needing any help in the first place. By default, they are built on the fulfillment of conditions, and if we do not meet those conditions, for any reason, there is no help. This is why 13 million Americans living in poverty in 2019 were living in poverty without a single dollar in federal assistance. This is why I’ve been denied my renter’s insurance claim on the technicality that my evacuation was only urged, not mandatory. By requiring specific conditions be met in order to help people, be it a specific form, or an action, or a deadline, or anything else bureaucrats come up with, many people in serious need of help end up getting none as a result when those very specific conditions aren’t met.
We can do better. We can embrace universality and unconditionality so that no one is excluded and everyone always has enough to survive and also always has something in case of emergency, because something is always there, regardless of any emergency. Instead of only trying to rescue people who have fallen off a cliff, we can do more to prevent people from ever falling in the first place. We can catch people before they fall. We can feed people before they go hungry. We can achieve lifelong unconditional economic security for all.
I’m not the first person to suggest we guarantee income unconditionally and universally. Nor will I be the last. This idea now widely known as basic income has existed for centuries, independently born in the minds through the ages of those who looked at social ills like hunger, and the crimes born of hunger, and thought, “Why not just provide people with enough money to live?” Why not? The production of food now collectively takes up about 1% of society’s total collective time, so why is work still considered a requirement for the obtainment of bread? And if the lack of bread creates so much crime, to the point the cost of the provision of bread is less than the cost of the provision of punishment for crime, why are we still punishing instead of feeding? Why the conditions to escape hunger? Why do we look at hunger itself as a motivator for the poor despite the rich not having had hunger as a motivator for thousands of years?
I want humanity to escape poverty.
We have the resources. We have more than enough food for everyone and more than enough housing for everyone. As we enter the age of automation, we even already have enough machines for everyone. We have enough artificial intelligence for everyone that has even been trained by the data produced by everyone. We have enough. We have had enough for decades, if not centuries. The only thing we lack is the collective will as a civilization to lift each other up, to universally recognize that all humans are equally worthy of existing, and that no one human can stand between another and what they need to live.
That understanding is the heart of UBI. It is the recognition of a right to existence, made possible by a society deciding that it is right and just to guarantee existence in a way we could never do as individuals, in the same way that We the People recognized long ago that justice, tranquility, common defense, and general welfare required the teamwork of representative democracy. The achievement of our higher ideals is a collective project, not an individual one. To escape the worst, we must escape together.
We can decide right now to make it possible for everyone to escape poverty, and to escape the many other disasters that befall us throughout our lives, and where not possible to escape them entirely, to at least minimize the effects of the disasters, and the time we spend suffering their effects. We can acknowledge the fact that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and respond in kind with the kindness of building a floor under all our feet so that when we fall, there is always a limit to how far we fall.
We can do this together, and only together. And if we don’t do this, I worry about what we can escape.
Can we escape the ravages of climate change so long as we can’t escape the ravages of the chronic stress of month-to-month survival?
Can we escape the limits of short-term survival thinking so long as we all aren’t free to focus on long-term creative thinking and the dreaming that’s a prerequisite for building a better world?
Can we escape the rise of authoritarianism so long as fear and anger burn like a wildfire through all of society to the point nothing of democracy is left but the cinders of hate?
We can build a better world. I know we can. We can escape this dystopian present for a utopian future. It’s possible. But to build a better future, we must finally build the foundation that our civilization has been missing all along, and that foundation is basic income for all. We built a world that requires money to live, but we never provided money to live. It’s time to change that. It’s time we entrust each other with enough access to resources to lift each other, empower each other, and free each other to pursue more than just survival.
We can escape together, and we can thrive together. But first, we have to decide together.
I wrote the above thoughts as part of my hurricane Ida evacuation experience when I had no idea how long I’d be unable to return home to New Orleans. I have since returned home to an apartment that was fortunately undamaged, and has also regained electricity and internet.