A Place in the Group: What Dogs have taught me about Basic Income

Many of our lives are inextricably entwined with canines, and so when writing about Basic Income, I decided to just bring dogs into the discussion. Why not? I am a dog person and I am a Basic Income advocate.

I have cared for dogs all my life, but only recently have I explored the cause of Basic Income. As soon as I heard about the concept, it seemed like more than just a panacea for the downtrodden. The idea of having unconditional funds deposited into your bank account every month seemed like a miracle. Money you didn’t have to work for? Woo Hoo!

All of you successful, hardworking folks might feel threatened and give the idea the stink eye. Money has to come from somewhere, they might be thinking. Nobody is going to take my hard-earned money away and give it to someone who just wants to sit on the couch all day and twiddle their twaddle.

Ok. Stop right there. This is where things get interesting. You might think of Basic Income as a cure for what ails society. I certainly do. But would it buy happiness? For some, yes. For others, maybe not. It is not an absolute certainty in any scenario.

This is where dogs come in. For dogs that are lucky enough to have a nice “owner”, they have the equivalent of a Basic Income: humans that take care of their basic needs. That is, after all, what Basic Income offers—a way for a person’s basic needs to be met so they don’t have to steal from others to put food on the table, so they don’t have to sleep on the sidewalk in front of where we want to pass by.

For any of you who are reading this and aren’t familiar with the concept of Basic Income, it is a movement that seeks to provide everyone with an income equivalent to approximately $1,000 per month, no strings attached. Much has been written already about how to fund this, which I will not get into here.

Let’s get back to dogs, the ones whose needs are met by their kind owners. So you would think this would be enough. But it’s not what makes them happy, is it? So what makes them happy? Walks? Bones? Getting Petted?

Yes, but more broadly, what makes them happy is being a member of a pack, or group. Having a place in the group is the key concept here. Anyone who has watched Animal Planet knows that many animal (and insect) societies form groups, and to be part of the group, you need to have a role.

In human society, “role” could roughly translate to “occupation” or “vocation”, if you like. In all levels of society, from the leisure classes to the slums, people find ways to be useful. Even in the upper echelons where people have enough money to spend their lives having fun (with no need to work), eventually these happy-go-lucky socialites realize that their peers will not respect them if they do not make some kind of contribution to the society.

Not having respect from your peers is an uncomfortable feeling that eventually leads to people seeking out avocations, or hobbies they enjoy, which can then lead to more skilled vocations or occupations. And, to state the obvious, for those that do not need the funds, this typically leads to charity work, and for those who need the money, a job.

On the lower rungs of society, getting down to the “untouchable” class in India, many may beg on the streets (those too old or disabled to work), but oftentimes they hold down the types of jobs that those in higher castes find distasteful.

I explain this not to suggest the reader is ignorant of these concepts, but to clarify my thoughts to make a larger point: that the innate desire to have the respect of your peers drives the behavior of all of us.

The worried brow of the successful entrepreneur who fears losing part of his income to a ne’er do well, might just relax a bit here. Yes, while Basic Income can offer security and a way to become a more productive member of society, the deeper fundamental convincing argument is that we all have a strong intrinsic need to be a respected member of the group, just like our dogs do.

This is what makes us happy. It is what makes our best canine friends content as well. We see their value, and have trained them for centuries to be valuable to us. Some breeds guard us, some breeds herd our sheep, and others provide comfort. Whatever the breed, they are adept at bringing us joy and companionship.

In the face of impending mass automation of jobs, many have asked what our purpose will be, and envision desperate, unhappy hordes heading for the nearest cliff, ready to hurl themselves off it as a result.

I do not feel this will be the case. I do believe that the huge momentum the cause of Basic Income has been fueled by fears of automation. I’m not sure what form Basic Income will eventually take, but as long as a human can pick up a stick, and carve it into a figurine, throw it to a dog, or lash it to another stick and make a basket out of it, there will be things to do.

People will continue to want to be useful to other people. That is a fundamental need that will not change overnight. If this need ever went away, we would be a world of selfish loners, and what’s the fun in that? No one would come to your aid in a snowstorm. Inclement weather guarantees that we are better off cooperating with each other.

Basic Income studies have shown that most people want to be productive in exchange for being given money unconditionally. It’s because they want to be productive, period. Having a little money that you can always count on makes difficult lives more bearable. Over time, with regular financial support, the recipient learns how to make his or her life a little bit better, and more productive.

Bear with me while I delve into the plant kingdom for additional insights. I will reflect on one particular tree that I had purchased but no longer needed. I didn’t want to toss it out, and so I kept it, reluctantly, but didn’t give it the regular care I would have given to a plant I really wanted. As a result of not having regular water, it stopped growing. How could it allocate proper resources to it’s growth if there was no regular way to get resources, in this case, water?

Even when my guilt took over and I started to water it more, the plant responded only minimally, as if it didn’t trust the scenario, and was holding back, just in case. Ok so I am reading a lot into it, but the logic could be applied to a human. It’s called “learned helplessness”.

Many studies have been done on this topic, easily found with a Google search, so I will forge ahead. This tree never prospered, after that, no matter how much I babied it. I planted it in the ground, fertilized it, watered it regularly, but it never flourished. I finally gave up on it and took it out.

Some humans have hit so many roadblocks in society that they stop trying. Discouragement from lack of success creates situations where turning to drugs, gambling, crime or suicide seem like better alternatives. Ok, so let’s look at this for a second.

What if Little Johnny loved to carve bears out of wood, but nobody wanted to buy his wooden bears? Would he eventually stop making them, or keep going? That would depend upon Johnny’s constitution, how much free time he had, and how much self-esteem he had managed to accumulate.

Ok, let’s swing back around to the topic at hand: Basic Income. What if everyone had a Basic Income as payment for whatever their favorite occupation was, no matter how popular their product or service was? So when Johnny made wooden bears, he would get paid from the collective fund, let’s call it. Johnny gets paid $1,000 per month to make his wooden bears.

Ok so now, what if we took money out of the equation altogether?

What if Johnny made wooden bears, delivered groceries to his neighbors, and coached soccer on the side. He decided his own schedule, and had the respect of his peers for his contributions. Everyone else did what they enjoyed and were good at. Everyone was productive, and money was no object because nothing in the store would cost money. No money would exchange hands, ever.

Ok so you are asking, who would wash the toilets?

This question is still quite valid. Soon, however, the jobs nobody wants will eventually become automated. Nobody will have to clean the toilets. Robots will clean the toilets.

What is to stop people collectively becoming morose and suicidal when all jobs are automated ? Huh? Who thought that sounded like a good idea? Creativity and scientific exploration will become fantastic journeys of discovery just waiting for us to take them on. We will be freed up to explore lives and concepts and occupations previously unheard of, and have the resources and data to discover the unknowable like never before.

Millions of lifeforms on the planet rely on forms of communication that are alien to us: scent-marking, sonar, vibrations, and more. Automation isn’t going to figure that out all on its own without us to dream up the next directive. That is just one aspect of the richness of life that has yet to be explored. The possibilities are staggering.

One day I want to be able to talk to my dog, but not by talking. Actually, he can already understand me by sniffing my breath. That tells him much of what is going on.

Even better, I want to be able to understand him, what he is saying to me. Maybe someday the equivalent of my smartphone will translate for me. It’s just as well that my nose can’t let me know what he is saying, because I’d rather not have to bend down and do the sniffing. Some things are best left to the dogs. ;)

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