Do You Believe a Universal Basic Income will Save Society? Think again.

Elysium
Elysium – “Would You Like To Talk To A Human?”

I can’t help but get a bad feeling whenever a universal basic income is pitched as the next big thing that will fix poverty. Having paid attention to ed-reform, I’ve heard all of this before. Wasn’t No Child Left Behind going to do that? Or Obama’s poverty fighting, opportunity creating tool The Every Student Succeeds Act? We’ve been fed a string of promises from philanthro-capitalists that have failed to deliever. Why would a universal basic income be any different?

With the news that Stockton, California is piloting a universal basic income (UBI) program, I want to take this opportunity to raise an uncomfortable question: Are the philanthro-capitalists using the idea of a universal basic income as a way to save society or themselves?

I can’t help but get a bad feeling whenever a universal basic income is pitched as the next big thing that will fix poverty. Having paid attention to ed-reform, I’ve heard all of this before. Wasn’t No Child Left Behind going to do that? Or Obama’s poverty fighting, opportunity creating tool The Every Student Succeeds Act?

We’ve been fed a string of promises from philanthro-capitalists that have failed to deliever. Why would a universal basic income be any different?

About that Stockton universal basic income pilot, from CNN via MSN news:

The concept of Universal Basic Income has gained traction and support from some Silicon Valley leaders, including Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg. It is seen as a way to possibly reduce poverty and safeguard against the job disruption that comes from automation.

“We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” Zuckerberg said at a Harvard commencement address in May 2017.

The Stockton project has its roots in Silicon Valley, too. Its financial backers include Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes’ organization, the Economic Security Project — a fund to support research and cultural engagement around Universal Basic Income. It contributed $1 million to the Stockton initiative.

Oh, and don’t think for a moment this “free” money doesn’t come with a cost.

The project, expected to launch in 2019, hopes to use data to address the policy questions about UBI. For example, does a guarantee of a basic income affect school attendance and health, or cause people to quit their jobs or start new businesses?

The project is also interested at looking at how the funds impact female empowerment and if it can help pull people out of poverty.

The hidden cost to a universal basic income system will be personal surveillance and data harvesting combined with “nudges” from the state to help citizens make the “right” choices.

If you still don’t get the hint and continue to miss your behavior targets, these nudges will be combined with disciplinary actions.

What exactly is a nudge? I’ll let Wrench in the Gears explain:

Behavioral economics is the study of how psychological, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural factors influence the economic choices a person makes. It challenges the idea of homo economicus, that people maintain stable preferences and consistently make self-interested choices in relation to market forces. The field was popularized in the United States by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kaheneman. University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler built upon this work. Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his research last year.

Thaler worked closely with Cass Sunstein, who headed Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008, they co-wrote Nudge, a book espousing “libertarian paternalism.” People make “choices,” but systems can be designed and implemented to encourage a preferred “choice,” generally one that prioritizes long-term cost-savings. “Choice architects” create these systems and weave them into public policy. Through strategic application of “nudges,” citizens,  otherwise “irrational actors” in the market, can be guided to conform to economists’ expectations. Through nudges, human behaviors are redirected to fit mathematical equations and forecasts. David Johnson’s 2016 New Republic article Twilight of the Nudges, provides useful background on this technique and the ethical implications of applying nudges to public policy.

Here’s some examples of how nudges could be incorporated into a universal basic income program:

  • –Miss your target monthly steps or blood glucose numbers? Expect a penalty to be deducted from your universal basic income account.
  • –Didn’t buy enough fruits and vegetables to be considered “healthy”?  Penalty.
  • –Your kid has an unacceptable number of tardies or unexcused absences from school. Penalty.

God forbid you get flagged for purchasing what is considered an “unhealthy” amount of booze or spend too much time on Weedmaps or Leafly.

In a solutionist world, getting flagged could land you on an anti-social watchlist. Being flagged as an anti-social actor in the program would carry a significant penalty. If the algorithms administering your account determine you have become a serious threat, expect an unannounced human intervention.

This clip from the movie Elysium illustrates the serious nature of a human interaction with an agent of the surveillance state.

With nudges and total surveillance, a universal basic income has all the makings of a dystopia. Not exactly a world I want my kids to inherit. How about you?

But what if it’s much worst?

Remember after 9/11 when President George W. Bush urged everyone to go shopping? I’m starting to feel like the universal basic income plan is the billionaire prepper equivalent.

What if the super-rich designed a system where the 99% keep the economy running with a universal basic income, while the 1% get to retreat to the safety of their high tech bunkers –away from the destruction they helped unleash on society and the environment.

Besides social control, what if the point of a universal basic income is to keep some sort of currency circulating so the bitcoins, dollars, or hoarded cans of tomato soup – whatever currency the 1% are counting on to keep them secure and comfortable – is still being traded by the masses and by doing so retaining its value.

From Survival of the Richest:

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.

I encourage you to read all of Survival of the Riches. Afterward, I challenge you to answer this simple question: Do you still believe the predatory philanthro-capitalists have your best interests at heart?

I don’t.

-Carolyn Leith

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Test Scores and Child Hunger: The Cold Calculus of Pay for Success Predators

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

Food for Children

Through outsourcing and the imposition of hard metrics, “what works” lobbyists intend to push the poor, and those teetering on the brink of poverty, into an abyss of impact-driven digital slavery. They’ll pull the non-profits in, along with their clients, since “what works” government hinges on their complicity. Moving forward, non-profits will increasingly run outsourced programs and will be required to deliver the data demanded by outcomes-based contracts. Services will be reengineered to fit the constraints of data dashboards-human life reduced to numbers to meet the demands of global capital.

When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist. Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian Catholic archbishop and important figure in liberation theology (1909-1999)

Wrench in the Gears is primarily a blog about education, and the dehumanizing influence technology wields over classroom instruction. In doing this work, I’ve come to understand that, at its root, the shift to digital “education” is about aggregating vast datasets on children than can be mined for profit in the impact-investing sector. This tactic is not limited to education. In fact, it threatens to engulf ALL public services.

Through outsourcing and the imposition of hard metrics, “what works” lobbyists intend to push the poor, and those teetering on the brink of poverty, into an abyss of impact-driven digital slavery. They’ll pull the non-profits in, along with their clients, since “what works” government hinges on their complicity. Moving forward, non-profits will increasingly run outsourced programs and will be required to deliver the data demanded by outcomes-based contracts. Services will be reengineered to fit the constraints of data dashboards-human life reduced to numbers to meet the demands of global capital.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law this February, created a new $100 million Pay for Success Fund at the US Department of the Treasury. Merchant banking firms like Ridge-Lane have marshaled teams of advisors to get in on the action. Financiers and tech billionaires are grooming candidates across the country, hoping their chosen ones will usher in a wave of Pay for Success initiatives that will rival the stock market.

At its core, the new theory of “economic thinking” promoted by INET is riddled with rot. While George Soros, James Heckman, and Robert Dugger attempt to cast social impact investment programs as socially conscious and “progressive,” the public deserves to know the truth. That truth is that these predators will NOT feed hungry children UNLESS they can profit from it.

Feeding people through mutual aid has always been a radical act. The Black Panther Party knew it, which is why those in power considered their free breakfast program so dangerous. In January a dozen activists associated with Break the Ban were issued criminal citations for feeding the homeless in a public park in El Cajon, CA. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, mutual aid became the backbone of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Food is central to the human experience. Food insecurity drives poverty.

After reading the exchange below it appears impact investors have not YET found a way to track cost-offsets for feeding people, but they are trying. It is likely the tool they need will come in the form of digital identity systems linked to public assistance benefits. The Illinois Blockchain Taskforce is already envisioning ways they can use blockchain technology to track and manage a person’s food choices. See the screenshot below taken from the Illinois Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Taskforce Final Report to the General Assembly, January 31, 2018

The built-in incentive to make a “healthy choice” is part of a larger shift that will combine digital identity and payment systems with choice architecture to control the behaviors of all who utilize public benefits. We definitely need a Plan B lined up before THAT program comes online.

Below is an exchange shared during the Q&A portion of a Federal Reserve-sponsored panel presented in January at an impact investor gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah. Janis Dubno moderated the panel. She works with the Sorenson Center, served as a Pay for Success Fellow at the US Department of Education in the lead up to the passage of ESSA and designed the Salt Lake City pre-k social impact bond. Click here for interactive map.

Participants discussed Pay for Success initiatives involving justice-involved youth. The conversation between Gina Cornia of Utahans Against Hunger and the promoters of social impact investing lays bare the truth of “innovative” finance. Far from being a silver-bullet for poverty, Pay for Success doubles down on inhumane, neoliberal practices that flow from a culture of white supremacy.

The upshot is if they can’t figure out a way to predict and track a future cost savings, they won’t pursue it. What is so very sad is that instead of confronting the panel about the inhumanity built into this “innovative” finance system, Cornia attempts to figure out a way her non-profit can work WITHIN the oppressive structure…perhaps as a strategy rather than a stand-alone outcomes-based contract? It sickened me to listen to adults saying they may be able to fund a child’s breakfast if they can link the food to a rise in third grade test scores. This is an abomination that cannot be tolerated. The machine we are confronting is not just eviscerating education; it’s so much bigger than that. The stakes are so high. Now is the time to create a Plan B. Who is doing that work in YOUR community and how can you support them?

Watch the video clip here.

(Gina Cornia, Utahans Against Hunger) Hi, my name is Gina Cornia. I work for a policy advocacy agency, Utahans against hunger. And in my experience just in talking about a lot of these issues, nutrition is frequently just not even mentioned. We talk about housing. We talk about healthcare. We talk about a lot of things like that, but food insecurity and hunger is not, I mean hardly ever, mentioned. So to what extent are your projects looking at food insecurity both on the family, on the family level, and on the kids who are going into juvenile justice? Thank you.

(Caroline Ross, Sorenson Impact) Sure, I’ll go ahead and speak to that. I think it’s such an important issue, and in a couple of our projects we’re looking at actually integrating food security components. For instance in our homelessness projects integrating a piece where at least there’s food, sort of as a consideration, or provided as part of the program. As far as outcomes-based payments, we haven’t really thought to that level. Again, I’m curious if folks, anybody else on the panel has thoughts?

(Ian Galloway, San Francisco Federal Reserve) I’m so glad you asked that question, because it’s such a great example of what I kind of consider to be these sorts of nested outcomes. And there’s a lot, always you know, a lot of these determinants of success, and some of those more narrow determinants are difficult to fund with a performance-based contract or an outcomes-based funding stream. There are a lot of reasons for that; part of it has to do with the fact that it’s difficult to find savings in the system.

I know I just went on a diatribe about how we shouldn’t use that as a basis for establishing value, but the truth is a lot of people do. And you know improving nutrition; it’s hard to follow the money if you can’t follow the money to an agency that saves when you increase nutrition, then it’s difficult to re-route that money to pay for projects that address the underlying needs. So that’s one of the big reasons that we don’t do this. The larger challenge is that it’s one of many component pieces to a larger anti-poverty strategy that tends to not get included as much as I think we all wish it were.

I say that coming from, I believe and I don’t think I’m making this up-I think Oregon is the most food insecure state in the country-which is kind of nutty, because it’s an agricultural state and if it’s no longer number one it’s certainly up there. So it’s an issue that is very personal to me, working in the state of Oregon. But I have not seen any examples of using a Pay for Success contract to address food insecurity and nutrition, yet.

(Gina Cornia) I don’t, I guess I’m not suggesting it as a Pay for Success project, but using access to nutrition to improve your outcomes in Pay for Success.

(Ian Galloway) So just, yeah, I think you’re spot on. I think that this is one of the beauties of paying for outcomes instead of programs. If your outcome that you’re being paid for, for example just to sort of set up the straw man, is improving third-grade reading scores. Well if kids are not adequately, you know, being fed at home, and their nutrition is poor…good luck, right? So that is a really important building block to academic success, but what we need to do is recognize that the outcome that we want is an education outcome, but the intervention is a food intervention. And that’s one of the things that Pay for Success and Outcomes-based funding hopefully makes a little bit easier, but we haven’t seen it yet.

(Gina Cornia) But I would encourage you that that should be the first conversation you’re having as you look at Pay for Success projects, especially in education. Are kids getting adequate nutrition? Do they get breakfast in the classroom? Are their families eligible for SNAP? Because, you know hungry kids can’t learn, and if that’s not the first thing you’re talking about then I don’t think the programs will be successful.

-Alison McDowell