I need to say something, and I want you to promise me you won’t get angry.
You see, I’m just really afraid you’re going to get angry and defensive, and you’re not going to listen to what I’m saying. Please, just take some time before you react.
I’ve been listening to my friend David Graeber again, (remember him?) and he’s got me thinking. I know, you told me I shouldn’t be talking with him anymore. You don’t like how I get after our talks.
The thing is, I think he really helps me see the world in a way I haven’t seen it when left to my own devices. He shares ideas that give me a hope I find otherwise hard to harbor given the current state of the world.
I know you think I’m melodramatic.
I guess I don’t care that many people are angered by what David has to say, or perhaps they write him off as a utopian dreamer with no grounding in the “practical” world.
I, for one, want less of what is practical. I want less of what currently “makes the world go round.”
Because it’s a very horrible and demoralizing way to live. You don’t have to look very far to see that.
I need to believe that things can be different.
I have friends who are entrepreurs and/or are very supportive of the entrepreneur community.
But when I listen to them talk, I don’t hear them talk about the economic system.
They are busy discussing ways to raise money within the current landscape: Network. Build entreprenurial communities. Find yourself angel investors.
To me, it represents a blindspot in their approach to the world and their passion — it represents a poverty of thought.
If we really want more entrepreneurship and creativity, we need to strive toward a new economic structure within which to work.
David (who does not like being called an anarchist, by the way) gave me some perspective that I want to share with you:
Throughout most of recorded history, the only people who actually did wage labor were slaves. It was a way of renting your slave to someone else; they got half the money, and the rest of the money went to the master. Even in the South, a lot of slaves actually worked in jobs and they just had to pay the profits to the guy who owned them. It’s only now that we think of wage labor and slavery as opposite to one another. For a lot of history, they were considered kind of variations of the same thing.
Abraham Lincoln famously said the reason why we have a democratic society in America is we don’t have a permanent class of wage laborers. He thought that wage labor was something you pass through in your 20s and 30s when you’re accumulating enough money to set up on your own; so the idea was everyone will eventually be self-employed.
One idea that could be worth looking at is a guaranteed basic income. It’s not a new idea, as Bruce Bartlett demonstrates in this New York Times piece. But it’s a concept that I’ve seen talked about more in recent times, and David offered some thoughts on it.
I know, you’re worried that such a system will just make everyone lazy and the world will crumble around our sloth. Listen to what David had to say about that while talking with PBS:
Philosophically, I think that it’s really important to bear in mind two things. One is it’ll show people that you don’t have to force people to work, to want to contribute. It’s not that people resist work. People resist meaningless work; people resist stupid work; and people resist humiliating work.
But I always talk about prisons, where people are fed, clothed, they’ve got shelter; they could just sit around all day. But actually, they use work as a way of rewarding them. You know, if you don’t behave yourself, we won’t let you work in the prison laundry. I mean, people want to work. Nobody just wants to sit around, it’s boring.
So the first misconception we have is this idea that people are just lazy, and if they’re given a certain amount of minimal income, they just won’t do anything. Probably there’s a few people like that, but for the vast majority, it will free them to do the kind of work that they think is meaningful. The question is, are most people smart enough to know what they have to contribute to the world? I think most of them are.
What are we missing by not having a basic income? Oh, perhaps just some of the greatest cultural and scientific breakthroughs:
The other point we need to stress is that we can’t tell in advance who really can contribute what. We’re always surprised when we leave people to their own devices. I think one reason why we don’t have any of the major scientific breakthroughs that we used to have for much of the 19th and 20th centuries is because we have this system where everybody has to prove they already know what they’re going to create in this incredibly bureaucratized system. …
So they have to get the grant, and prove that this would lead to this, but in fact, almost all the major breakthroughs are unexpected. It used to be we’d get bright people and just let them do whatever they want, and then suddenly, we’ve got the light bulb. Nowadays we don’t get breakthroughs like that because everybody’s got to spend all their time filling out paperwork. It’s that kind of paperwork that we’d be effectively getting rid of, the equivalent of that.
Another example I always give is the John Lennon argument. Why are there no amazing new bands in England anymore? Ever since the ’60s, it used to be every five, 10 years, we’d see an incredible band. I asked a lot of friends of mine, well, what happened? And they all said, well they got rid of the dole. All those guys were on the dole. Actually in Cockney rhyming slang, the word for dole is rock and roll — as in, “oh yeah, he’s on the rock and roll.” All rock bands started on public relief. If you give money to working class kids, a significant number of them will form bands, and a few of those bands will be amazing, and it will benefit the country a thousand times more than all of those kids would have done had they been lifting boxes or whatever they’re making them do now as welfare conditionality. …
I remember thinking, why is it that Germany in the ’20s, you have Weber, Simmel, all these amazing thinkers? In France, you have this endless outpouring of brilliant people in the ’50s, Sartre… What was it about those societies that they produced so many brilliant thinkers? One person told me, well, there’s a lot of money — they just had these huge block grants given to anybody. And you know, again, 10 out of 11 of them will be people we’ve completely forgotten, but there’s always that one that’s going to turn out to be, you know Jacques Derrida, and the world changes because of some major social thinker who might otherwise have been a postman, or something like that.
Entrepreneurs out there: Are you listening to this? It should at least be food for thought.
I know that there is plenty of criticism of the concept of a guaranteed basic income. Check out some of it here.
But I believe humans are capable of a better economic system that is not only more moral but produces more happiness. We need to keep pointing out the shortcomings of what we have and dreaming of ways to make it better.
Thanks for your patience with me. I don’t give you enough credit.
So now I’ll ask: What do you think?
• Editor’s Note: I do recognize that David Graeber and I have never actually spoken, and he is not actually my friend. After reading about a guaranteed basic income, some may question my grasp of reality and I don’t want to provide them any more fodder for that line of criticism. :) However, I certainly look to Graeber as a wealth of knowledge and insight on matters of economics. Check out “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.”