Will we need a universal basic income in the future?

rosie-robotI was drawn into a conversation recently of whether we will need a universal basic income at some time in the not-so-distant future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about perhaps since I graduated from college, and I’m now a few years away from retirement. So it’s something I’ve thought of from time to time, over the years.

I’d like to share with you a couple of TED Talks on the subject that I came upon just within the last week or two. First, one by Martin Ford, called “How we’ll earn money in a future without jobs,” and another, by Rutger Bregman, “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.

There are others as well. But these two I found particularly key; the point drawn out of the first one is that even though this is a familiar tune we’ve heard numerous times before – the robots are going to put us out of work – the technology has shifted, not just in degree, but in kind, in ways that make it perhaps more of a realistic possibility now than at other times in the past. And the second illustrates the difference in peoples’ responses to everyday occurrences, decisions they have to make, life choices, etc., when comparing their financially-secure state with their financially-at-risk state. It makes the case for a guaranteed minimum income for reasons of what I’ll call social pragmatism, where the first one does so for reasons of technological encroachment on human employability.

It seems clear to me that the idea of “running the country like a business,” as some still say they want us to do today, is an idea whose time has simply passed. With more and more business processes being executed by machines, computers, systems, etc., what does running a business have to do with solving human problems?

I think the time has come, rather, to run the country like a junior high school concert band, or soccer team. Here, the coach/conductor is rightly more focused on building character, helping the team members to find their strengths, than on winning competitions. With a sufficient safety net such as our modern society ought to be able to provide, people can be led to find their own truths, their own best skills, and quite probably make the greatest contributions to society at large. In eliminating the survivalist “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of thinking, we can create an entirely different national dialog and identity.

A guaranteed minimum income can provide the means to that end. And it may well have to.


On E. F. Schumacher’s “A Guide for the Perplexed”

I had the opportunity today to introduce to a couple friends of mine – one an episcopal priest and FDNY chaplain, the other a corporate litigation attorney – the book, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” by E. F. Schumacher (not to be confused with the similarly-titled – and not accidentally so! – 12th-century book by Maimonides). He is perhaps more known for his earlier book, “Small is Beautiful,” aptly subtitled, “Economics as if People Mattered.”

Excerpts from the liner notes of the current book:
“what he undertakes is to provide nothing less than a Manual for Survival… ”
“an unapologetic defense of traditional Christian humanism”

For my part, I was hooked at the point where Schumacher picks up the ball with this quote from psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, a man whom he describes as “a psychiatrist of unshakeable sanity,” and runs with it:

He quotes: “The present danger does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist, but rather in his pretence and claim of totality… What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalising.” [British spellings as in the source.]

From there, he goes on to discuss the four “Levels of Being.”

Mineral: m
Plant: m+x
Animal: m+x+y
Man: m+x+y+z

About “x” he writes: “No one has any difficulty recognizing the astonishing and mysterious difference between a living plant and one that has died and has thus fallen to the lowest level of being, inanimate matter. What is this power that has been lost? We call it “life.” Further on: “Even if somebody could provide us with the recipe, a set of instructions, for creating life out of lifeless matter, the mysterious character of x would remain, and we would never cease to marvel that something that could do nothing is now able to extract nourishment from its environment, grow, and reproduce itself, ‘true to form,’ as it were. There is nothing in the laws, concepts, and formulae of physics and chemistry to explain or even to describe such powers.”

He therefore comes to identify x as an ontological discontinuity, the first of the three ontological discontinuities on the road from mineral to man.

To go any further with this “book report” would take me too far away from where I meant to go, which was simply to introduce it with enough of a hook to catch you. Perhaps we’re there by now. 🙂

Read this book. If you have, let’s discuss. For the record, I’m on page 94 (of 140). Don’t give away the ending.

Does creationism have a place in science class?

In Rachel Maddow’s This Week in God for today, she discusses the situation in Ohio in which science teacher John Freshwater was fired from his teaching job for ignoring and defying the school district’s directive to stop teaching any aspect of creationism and using religious items in the classroom. Upon being fired, he sued, and the case, when heard by the Ohio Supreme Court, was found in the school district’s favor, but by a narrow 4-3 margin.


Some are surprised by this. Some might find it telling of a churchy bent on the part of Ohio jurists and (as the judges are elected to this bench) its citizens. But is it? Obviously I’m not in Mr. Freshwater’s class, I don’t know exactly how he was approaching the matter, and I am not defending him specifically. But I would like to discuss the general phobia we seem to have of even exposing kids to religious ideas. I think it’s wrongheaded.

I actually don’t see why a science teacher should not be able to teach something about creationism, in terms of the development of our modern-day scientific beliefs. For two reasons. One, it traces important schools of thought from ancient times to today. Being exposed – in a largely scientific setting – to the “color” surrounding people’s perhaps irrational beliefs in spite of all that science – might just open up the minds of some students who would be hard to reach with “pure” science.

And second, it would begin to highlight some of the unanswered questions of “real” science, like: where did it all begin? The universe; matter; everything. Even the Big Bang theory isn’t able to address the beginning of everything. And even superstring theory doesn’t address love or empathy or dreams.

So, yes, I think a well-rounded student need not be barricaded from knowledge of other systems of understanding, but rather should at least brush up against them. I don’t know that that’s what Mr. Freshwater was doing. For all I know, his approach could have been heavy-handed fire-and-brimstone. Obviously that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a deeper understanding of where our paths of inquiry even derive from, and how other people over time have attempted to understand these same mysteries. This to me is the goal of education. Not to teach facts, but to teach how to inquire, how to learn, how to understand.

Religion (well, that and Shakespeare!) permeates every aspect of adult life, whether we like it or not. There’s hardly a figure of speech in common use, or the story of a person’s name, or how a town or village was founded, or a battle fought, that doesn’t derive part of its origin from a religious source. Do we just ignore that, and pretend we have no idea where “love thy neighbor” or “as ye sow, so shall ye reap” comes from?

I reject the notion that in order to do this, one must isolate students from entire schools of thought that, when used in the right light, could dramatically enhance their understanding of the world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Very Probably Wrong?

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, according to Wikipedia, “an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.”

Mr. Tyson has been a frequent commentator on intelligent design vs evolution, as well as stellar formation, cosmology, galactic astronomy. He has on numerous occasions appeared on BBC News, the Colbert Report, and the Daily Show.

In one of his brief recorded presentations (I’m assuming this is an excerpt from a larger talk), available on YouTube, he speaks on the subject: Intelligent Design is Stupid.

A lot of what he says is amusing and thought-provoking. But it’s not all cogent. Continue reading