The Case for Hierarchy
a better way to organize our government and society
The one-minute version
Ok, this is a long read (consider yourself warned), but there is a good reason for it. I’m going to make an argument for an entirely new and much more sustainable way to look at the role of government in America, and then I’ll lay out the policies (most of which you’ll likely recognize) that I believe we should prioritize to uphold this vision. If you trust me and don’t have the time to read this, and you’re just looking for the best ideas out there to blindly throw your full and unapologetic energy behind today, then here they are:
(or, depending on when you read this, equivalent/upgraded proposals thereof)
I believe that these should comprise everyone’s litmus test, regardless of party affiliation. Most of you have probably heard a lot more about #2 and #3 than #1 at the time I’m writing this, but I insist that all three are vitally important and urgent, and that we should be fighting for all three simultaneously. I have them listed here in my deemed order of importance, but that order is somewhat semantic. None of them should be triaged until some later, more opportune date. In this piece, I will also promote many other important policies as well, but these three must be the backbone of it all — of a new way to structure our government and society moving into the uncertain future we face. We should put them front and center on all of today’s political platforms, arguing not about whether to implement them, but rather working out how best to do so. Now I’ll explain why.
What follows is essentially my “if I were running for office” platform, or a wish list that I would like to see on the platforms of those who do. Although a few of the ensuing policies and proposals may be fairly novel and even controversial to many at first glance, none of them are totally new ideas. However, I’ve never before seen them organized and fundamentally united in the way that I will propose. It seems obvious to me now that we should all be thinking along human lines rather than along our fluid party lines. Who can even keep track of what “liberalism” and “conservatism” even stand for these days, anyway? What I will lay out is a cohesive view of the role of government and how to achieve it that I think everyone should be able to get behind. I’m putting it all down here in the hopes that people will agree and we can start to reframe the foundation of our politics moving forward. This isn’t left or right politics I’m about to throw at you. It’s human-rights-centered and forward-thinking. It’s rooted in the empowerment of every citizen to reach their higher potentials and every community to be strengthened from within.
Who or what is king, and where do we stand?
Human society has always been one of hierarchies, from caste systems to feudalism to royalty to the corporate workplace. Here are the first two entries in the definition of the word “hierarchy” that I found upon googling.
1) a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. (Synonyms: pecking order, order, ranking, chain of command, grading, gradation, ladder, scale, range)
“in the corporate hierarchy, Curt is about six levels below the CEO”
2) the upper echelons of a hierarchical system; those in authority.
noun: the hierarchy
“the magazine was read quite widely even by some of the hierarchy”
Many will make the case that hierarchies represent an inherent injustice, a moral blemish on the face of human history. In the modern era, this idea of hierarchies is more and more recognized as something to be gotten rid of. As an American, I am constantly reminded that our nation’s founding documents and its very ethos are based in the American Dream that absolutely anyone has the ability to land themselves anywhere on the social ladder if they have the brains, talent, and gumption to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and climb. It must be true if we all are created equal, as we’re so fond of proclaiming. Those who are awake, however, are painfully aware that this Dream has always largely been a delusion, and the long odds of achieving social elevation are lengthening every day for most of the public. This problem is compounded by the very hierarchical form of capitalism we have so long worshipped.
The American founding documents hold paramount the individual rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but we do not legislate as if we truly believe in them. Life requires food, shelter, air, and water, and so if we are to guarantee the former, we must guarantee access to all of the latter. In reality, some in this country are forced to go without such basics, and most of those who do enjoy them first had to sell their labor in order to “earn” them. But how does one “earn” a right? We don’t reserve the rights of free speech and bearing arms for only those with employment, because we recognize that that’s not how rights work. They are simply for everyone. Basic necessities of survival should be treated the same.
Furthermore, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness require the ability and agency to choose one’s path, to say “no” or “yes” to an unfavorable or favorable option, respectively. That is not possible for those who must perform for the labor market in order to ensure even their basest survival. Those of us limping paycheck to paycheck, tied to dead end jobs because of the need for the accompanying healthcare or the fear of extreme poverty, are not truly free. Our freedom is conditional.
In American capitalism’s current incarnation, the dollar is at the nexus of all power, and so those with more dollars have more leverage to the extent that those with little to no dollars to their name have little to no power, even over their own lives. This disparity in leverage compounds itself, since dollars beget dollars through unearned interest and capital gains, and this leads to the widening chasm of inequality that we know today. Further exacerbating these effects is the fact that money isn’t really money — in the classic sense that one can use it freely — until it is disposable income. While basic essential needs are not met, any money earned is simply a means of forestalling catastrophe. That money is claimed from the start. A large percentage of the population earns well below the basic costs of living in America, and so they do not truly have access to express their free will and ambition, because all of their effort must be aimed at surviving. The risk of extreme poverty is too dire and too imminent to delude ourselves that we all have a real shot at pulling up those old bootstraps. Even those with a decent income today must worry about the sudden loss of a job, a medical emergency, or just living 20 years longer than expected and running out of retirement savings.
And so, on the individual level, we are forced to scrape and claw to extract every dollar we can from the economy in order to survive today and secure our safer tomorrows. This forces us to be a society of takers, competing with one another for this supposedly scarce resource of dollars. The truth in the numbers, however, is that if you look at the total income and assets of Americans as a whole, you will find that there are enough dollars in our society that the theoretical “average” family of four, holding all people as equal, has over $1.2 million in the bank (divide total US household assets by the total population to get $309,000+ per person) and over $200,000 in yearly income (divide total US personal income by the total population to get $50,400+ per person).
Just sit with those numbers for a bit. They sound comically high, right? How many families do you know who fit that description? Inequality has become so obscene that it’s tempting to dismiss outrageous numbers like these as lies, miscalculations, or lunacy, but it’s important to understand and remain laser-focused on this truth. The wealthiest few percents of Americans have become so very very very rich that we can simultaneously be an absolutely wealthy nation on average and yet over 60% of Americans can’t cover a $1,000 emergency without taking on debt.
We have the cash and the resources for abundance. Homelessness and abject poverty could easily be a thing of the past, without anybody wealthy even noticing a difference in their lifestyles. The American Dream could be realized. The scarcity that most of us face is manufactured, like a poorly-conceived version of Monopoly in which most of us get no starting money and nothing for passing Go and all of the properties are already owned when we get on the board. We’re handed a pair of dice and the lie that we can still win, and we end up fighting amongst the others who share our situation and selling ourselves to the dominant players just to stay in the game. Are we really to believe that immigrants are the problem here? Immigrants are not the problem. This issue is how we’ve designed the game. It’s systemic.
When all value is measured in dollar bills, we lose our humanity. We become cornered animals in our behaviors and strategies. We become statistics in the eyes of our fellow citizens, as do they in ours. We could be so much more if we’d only recognize what is truly our most valuable resource. It isn’t dollars, oil, or land. It’s people. It’s humankind.
If we appropriately valued all of our people and behaved as if we were on the same team rather than opponents, we would be such a kickass species. Human beings are relatively weak as individuals, but humankind has the potential to be superhuman. No politician or great movement-maker ever did anything alone. All of our great accomplishments as human beings came about through mobilization of the masses, in one way or another. Often throughout history, we’ve tapped into some of that mass-mobilizing power through the inefficient and cruel means of slavery. There’s another way, though, and we see glimpses of it every now and then in popular humanist movements. There’s the less-trodden path of teamwork and mutual growth. Not only is it infinitely morally superior to ruling through power and human hierarchical organization, but it’s also far more effective and efficient to catalyze progress with joy and inclusion rather than fear and suppression. We’d be so much more prosperous for it, and so much more quickly.
As it is, we’re chaining ourselves down with our worship of the dollar, making slaves of ourselves. Money should be seen as a tool, plain and simple. We are misusing that tool, or perhaps it is misusing us, and the result is the worsening hierarchical American Nightmare in which we find ourselves. Our capitalism should revolve around people, not dollars. Some call that idea Human Capitalism. Essentially, the focus of our economy should be to maximize human welfare, and profits will follow, not the other way around. There can be room in society for the ambitious to be wildly successful at the same time as all are safeguarded from destitution and disenfranchisement, but we’ll have to shift our mindsets and policies from those of scarcity to those of abundance.
A Hierarchy of Abundance
So why does the headline of this piece suggest that I’m about to make the case for a hierarchical society? The answer lies within the third definition of hierarchy:
3) an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness.
A hierarchy doesn’t need to be one of people. It can also be a ranking of things. I will argue now that what we truly need to build a humane and sustainable society is one in which we rank and prioritize basic human needs.
Fortunately, there already exists a handy, well-known, and widely accepted hierarchy for this very purpose. It’s called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it breaks down human needs in terms of imminence and order of operations.
The general premise of of my hierarchical policy worldview is that one cannot truly focus any level of Maslow’s Hierarchy until the lower levels are achieved. You can’t really apply for a job if you don’t have access to a shower and sustenance, and you can’t be bothered to worry about self-actualization if your life is in danger. We’re trying to build a stable place to live here: a house, if you will. And so, first things first, we must construct the foundation and floor. Then and only then is it wise to erect the walls and the roof.
I believe that a well-functioning government, with human capitalism as its central tenet, would do best to serve society with hierarchy of human needs in mind, building up from the bottom. Also, and this is crucial, I believe that those supports must be built into the system so as to be guaranteed to all, regardless of income, status, or background. No individual should be left out from the protections afforded by our government.
The word for this is universality. The most fundamentally important policies in this vein are Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Healthcare (UHC). These are the two pillars of policy upon which our society should be built. They make up the aforementioned foundation and floor of our metaphorical house, and they can allow us to work on the walls and ceilings as one team moving forward and upward together.
For those unfamiliar with UBI and/or UHC, please follow the links provided below for a more in-depth introduction. There is a world of thought out there on these policies, and not enough space to go into it all here. In brief, however:
UBI — Perhaps most easily summed up as a form of capitalism that doesn’t start at zero. Essentially, every citizen would receive an income, no-strings-attached and enough to meet a basic cost of living, from the government on a regular basis and in perpetuity. There should be no work requirement or means testing to receive this income; it would be a fundamental right to all citizens, essentially an equal share in the nation’s prosperity. Politically speaking, we may have to start smaller and build over time to a level that would meet basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, but there are many ways to fund the program and to start creating an income floor for all immediately. UBI would pay a portion of itself back, specifically in the form of higher productivity and economic activity as well as lowered societal costs of poverty. A commonly proposed level for these cash disbursements is $1,000 per month per person, in large part as a symbolic gesture, because that roughly equates to the federally defined poverty line of around $12,000 per year for an individual. The appropriate level of a full UBI is certainly up for debate, and I would argue for a somewhat higher amount in an ideal world, but for our purposes here, let’s use $1,000 per month as my proposed baseline, because I do believe that it’s an amount that would be transformational, and it’s one that we could fairly easily fund.
UHC — Guaranteed health coverage for all citizens. My preference is some sort of single payer or similar model under which the government pays for all costs of standard care through taxes raised. Through efficiencies of scale, pooling of risk that would now include a higher percentage of younger and healthier citizens, and savings arising from more preventative treatment and government bargaining power to keep prices low, we could actually save money while finally covering every single American. It would also remove the onus on businesses (especially small ones) to provide healthcare, and it would free up employees from being tied to an employer for the sake of that healthcare. Medicare for All would accomplish these goals and has real legs right now politically, and so I’ll make it easy and jump on board that plan with my full support.
Once UBI and UHC are in place, the entire bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is guaranteed — and much of the rest is bolstered — in a way no human civilization has ever seen. We will have practically transformed our population into a different species. If every human being can plan their days, weeks, years, and lives knowing that they will never go hungry, homeless, or left without necessary medical treatment, then every human being can turn their focus and energy toward realizing their higher ambitions. Today, only the wealthy have the privilege of being able to take the long view in life. When the weight of so much daily existential fear is lifted from the rest of the public, along with the bureaucratic and time-consuming burdens of our current systems, we will then each be able to think not of what we must take from society in order to ensure our survival, but rather of how we can best make our lives matter and give back to the greater good. We become that team working together toward a shared prosperity rather than an amalgam of competitors and tribes fighting for scraps.
So what do these policies look like in practice? How do they fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy, specifically? And what other policies should be supplemented to further protect and empower our people? I’m glad you asked! Let’s work our way up from the bottom. This is not an exhaustive list of everything that can and should be done, but rather a list of what I consider the most important steps we must take. As we go further down the list (and up the pyramid), priorities become less imminent, and we can work toward these secondary goals more gradually, favoring the two big pillars of UBI and UHC above all.
In my view, the bottom two levels of the hierarchy, Physiological Needs and Safety Needs, are absolutely prerequisite for all other human prosperity, and should not only be supported but rather should be fully guaranteed by our society. You may notice a trend before long, with UBI and/or UHC occupying top spots in guaranteeing every one of these needs.
(Note: I intend this to be a platform that as many people as possible can embrace. It can be ours, not mine. I’ll refrain from getting too into the weeds on specifics, or this already lengthy piece would become a textbook, but the discussion can continue on in detail in the comments, and I will amend as needed to make way for better ideas. Also, I’ll try and link to good content on each idea if I can find it. If you have a relevant link to specifics on any idea, especially if it’s better than whatever link I might have included, please put it in the comments and I’ll add the most helpful ones to the piece. This will be a living, evolving document to the extent people are willing to engage with me in its crafting.)
Level 1 — Physiological Needs
- UBI to make sure everyone can always afford to eat.
- Continued robust health and safety regulations as needed.
- UBI to make sure everyone can afford at least a minimal rent and need never be homeless. (Note also that UBI could reduce population pressures on big cities, since it would represent an influx of capital and opportunity in small towns, and each dollar would go further in smaller towns, thereby attracting more people to stay or move there. This could revitalize middle America in a big way while pulling rents down to a healthier equilibrium in big cities.)
Air, Water, Environment, and Climate
- UBI to support every activist, organizer, and civil servant fighting for these causes. UBI also to give a backup plan to every enforcement officer who would quit or risk termination by refusing to oppress protesters and activists, if only they knew they’d still be able to feed their families.
- A tax/fee on fossil fuel extraction to represent the actual cost it imposes on society and to incentivize a faster move away from fossil fuels. Of prime importance is that the revenue should be directed toward a UBI dividend, and the fee should be raised each year to accelerate the phase-out responsibly. Whatever taxes we levy, the costs will be passed on to the consumer, so if we were to send the funds raised to government coffers, such a carbon tax would effectively be a regressive tax when the prices at the pumps go up, and the poorest in society would be hurt disproportionally. If we instead distribute the revenue to the people, the distributions will overcome the price hikes faced by the poor, increasing their net income while also incentivizing a faster change to renewable energy. Alternatively, perhaps even preferably, this could be approached as a cap on fossil fuel extraction that is lowered every year, so long as the revenue raised is distributed as a UBI dividend. I’d be curious to hear arguments for either approach.
- Ban fracking and all new fossil fuel infrastructure. Commit fully and aggressively to decommissioning current fossil fuel infrastructure along the necessary timelines to mitigate the damages of climate change while investing heavily in green energy technology and infrastructure. The #GreenNewDeal initiative is a very promising start at these types of measures.
- Strengthen regulations on waste dumping and industry pollution practices.
- Bring water infrastructure up to standards in cities. Replace old, toxic pipes.
- Ban or aggressively tax non-recyclable plastics and single-use plastics. Invest revenue into alternative materials, packaging, and recycling tech.
- UBI and UHC, because if you’ve got a home, a bed, your health, and the reduced stress that comes with that kind of security, it’s much easier to get the sleep you need.
- UBI to make sure everyone can afford to put clothes on their backs.
- Uphold Roe vs. Wade to protect a woman’s right to choose, but work hard to reduce abortions through: a) Improved sex education programs, teaching practical knowledge, not preaching abstinence, b) UHC with free, easy-to-access birth control for all.
- UBI to make it possible for people to devote as much time as is needed for their children and their individual needs, rather than being forced to choose between survival and good parenting.
- Legislate maternity and paternity leave up to the standards of the rest of the developed world.
Level 2 — Safety Needs
- UBI to give people the power to leave an abusive relationship and know that they (and their kids) won’t be destitute.
- Common sense gun reform, including buyback incentive programs and smart gun technology among others.
- Law enforcement reform: a) UBI to empower law enforcement officers to decide to stand up against carrying out orders that they believe are immoral. b) UBI to reduce crime and to reduce vice in the first place. c) Mandatory police body cameras. d) Police retraining and community policing.
- Criminal justice reform: a) Abolish for-profit prisons. b) Redirect UBIs of convicted inmates toward funding prison stays. c) Abolish cash bail, and invest in good alternatives with a mind for both public safety and individual rights. [I’m open to suggestions here, but even electronic monitoring seems like an improvement to the system we’ve got in which one’s finances determine whether or not someone sits in jail awaiting trial.] d) Abolish prison slave labor. Institute prison minimum wages that correlate to market rates. This requires updating the 13th amendment, striking that “except as a punishment for crime” bit from our “abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude” clause. e) Refocus more of our energy on rehabilitation over punishment. f) Decriminalize drugs, release nonviolent drug offenders, tax drug commerce, and invest in rehabilitation and community support programs.
- Re-prioritize our defense spending: a) Reduce weapons programs spending to a more rational amount. We don’t need to spend more than the next 7 countries combined. b) Refocus our investment to diplomacy, foreign aid, and international cooperation. c) Pursue global nuclear disarmament and decommissioning, including here in the U.S. d) Recategorize climate change as a top national security threat and invest accordingly. e) Invest more in cyber-security tech to protect individuals (as opposed to just enhancing governmental spying and surveillance capabilities).
- UBI to allow people to say “No” to undesirable employment situations, such as underpayment or abuse. Conversely, UBI to allow people to say “Yes" to good opportunities that may not pay right away (like internships and startups).
- UBI to promote entrepreneurship and personal investment by affording every citizen enough risk tolerance to have a real fair shot at social mobility vis-à-vis The American Dream.
- Jobs programs to provide more options for employment: a) Aim to provide enough jobs to cover all who would desire them and can’t find them in the private market. b) Especially in sectors that provide social good but less financial incentive to private firms, like infrastructure, green energy, and care work. c) Backed by competitive minimum wages and labor standards. d) Essentially similar to a Federal Job Guarantee, except I wouldn’t call it a guarantee, and it would have to have a UBI beneath it to make sure it’s always truly optional.
- UHC to remove the healthcare burden from businesses and detangle employment from benefits.
- Replace perverse welfare programs with UBI, specifically the means-tested and targeted programs that place a ceiling over poverty by disincentivizing work: a) Programs that could be replaced, for example, include: some or all of unemployment benefits, food stamps, TANF, housing vouchers, and EITC. b) Only replace programs when the UBI is large enough to fulfill a “do no harm” minimum under which nobody would be financially worse off in switching from their current welfare to the UBI. c) Do not replace programs that can’t be effectively handled with cash, and do not replace programs that account for conditions above and beyond baseline basic needs. For example, DO NOT replace healthcare or disability with UBI. d) Use the savings from the discontinuation of the replaced programs to help fund the UBI.
- “Ban the box” (discontinue criminal record reporting requirements on job applications).
Resources — Banking:
- Use UBI as a handy excuse to create a federal public bank.
- This public bank would be dedicated solely as a place for citizens to store their cash, and would be disallowed from all speculative investments. It would offer, at minimum, a no minimum balance checking account, free national ATM infrastructure, ability to opt out of overdraft, free transfers to private personal accounts, and no hidden fees, so that every citizen can have a safe and free place to keep their money.
- Enroll every single citizen with an individual bank account tied to them (perhaps through their social security number). Use this account to deliver UBI disbursements by automated direct deposit, preferably on a weekly or more frequent basis. This step of getting everyone banked is the largest chunk of the up-front administrative effort of switching to UBI, and it’s worth doing in and of itself.
Resources — Education:
- UBI to keep more of the best teachers from fleeing to higher-paid and thereby safer work. UBI to give more people the ability to invest in furthering their education or retraining.
- Universal Public Education through college (fully-subsidized community colleges and at least partially-subsidized state schools to bring competitive rates and affordability back into education).
- More funding to low-income schools.
- Re-structure the education system to focus more on critical thinking, soft skills, arts, and self-directed learning (students choosing subjects they want to study and researching it themselves with teacher guidance), along with classic coursework.
- Move away from standardized testing and empower teachers to be more creative in their lesson planning.
Resources — Utilities (buy out and nationalize utilities if needed, subsidize basic needs levels):
- Internet: a) Invest in free public wi-fi, and build out the infrastructure everywhere. b) Subsidize minimum internet in all residences, enough for daily administrative tasks. c) For faster connection speeds and data limits, people can pay something to upgrade.
- Electricity/gas: a) Subsidize a minimum livable amount of electricity for all households based on number of occupants, enough to cover lights, cooking, refrigeration, and heating at a basic level. b) Subsidize renewably-sourced energy and incentivize a move away from gas cooking to all electric as soon as possible.
- Water: Subsidize a minimum livable amount of water for all households based on number of occupants.
Resources — Land:
- Institute a Land Value Tax (LVT) to disincentivize landlords from over-pricing.
- Use LVT revenue, at least in part, to help fund the UBI dividend. This way, we still protect the property rights of landholders and encourage their hard work and investment, but also acknowledge the public’s permission for individuals and entities to hold those property rights by returning some percentage of the unimproved value of the land as rent to the public. If a neighborhood booms and property values go up, individual landholders should share in that windfall that is beyond being just the result of their personal investments in improvements.
Resources — Time:
- UBI to ensure that people are choosing to use their time according to their own ambitions, plans, and desires rather than selling it out of necessity. When people sell their labor in the marketplace, it should be an active decision, not a submission.
- Reduce the length of the workweek. 40 hours is arbitrary and outdated. It’s been stuck there since 1940, and as productivity increased, we’ve invented make-work to fill in the gaps in time and keep ourselves busy. UBI may help this find its own equilibrium over time without additional strong legislative maneuvers, as the trend toward part time and gig work continues and as UBI supports people in pursuing personal business ventures and other means of contribution. However, we should consider legislating this change if it happens too slowly by itself.
Resources — Transportation:
- Subsidize public transportation, either partially or fully. Nobody should have to choose between picking their kids up at school and buying groceries to feed them. People should be able to get where they need to go, period.
- Invest in renewable technology for public transportation.
- Tax private transportation in crowded cities to help fund these initiatives and reduce congestion.
Resources — Nature and public parks:
- Re-establish and enforce state and national park protections. Subsidize admission fees to open up affordable access to all. In multiple use areas, tax those uses that leave the land disturbed in proportion to the disturbance (i.e. hiking is free or nearly free, while anything extractive is heavily taxed).
- If, when, and as private vehicles are increasingly replaced by automated rideshare services in the coming years, rethink parking lanes, lots, and structures for public use. Open up bike lanes and create city parks and community centers in their place.
Resources — Opportunity and empowerment:
- UBI to assure that everybody has some basic buying power and that the markets are truly free and competitive.
- Reduce inequality with wealth tax, increased estate tax, further progressive income taxation on the wealthy, plus scrap the social security cap and cut tax deductions and loopholes for the rich. Use some or all of these revenues in funding the UBI.
- Cap how much more CEOs can make than their employees. Right now it’s climbed back up to well over 300x on average — since the last financial crash knocked it down a peg — with some CEOs “earning” up to almost 3,000x. We should not accept that a CEO deserves to make the annual salary of one of his or her employees in less than a day. If a company is doing well, its employees (contractors included) should be sharing in that success. [I’m open to suggestions and arguments as to an appropriate level, and you can click here to see where other countries currently sit, but I would suggest we start by capping it at 200x (CEO compared to the lowest paid employee or contractor) and reevaluate every few years. Under this schedule, if a company wants to pay its CEO $20M (including compensation in company stock), then it shouldn’t be paying anyone, even the janitor, less than $100K or an equivalent hourly rate.]
- Fund a universal baby bond for all children, essentially a savings account made accessible at 18 or emancipation, so that every citizen can have a nest egg of capital for investment in further education, housing, savings, job selectivity, etc. when they transition into adulthood. [I’m a big fan of this idea in principle, but I haven’t spent much time with the numbers or policy considerations, so I’m open to proposals. The bigger the UBI is, and the more robust universal programs like healthcare and education are, the smaller the baby bond would need to be, it seems to me. Note also that the proposal in the link above, like many other contemporary proposals, specifies a targeted baby bond with a differing value based on family wealth and/or income. Although noble in intentions, I suspect that in the end it would be a waste of time and money to set up the bureaucracy that would be needed to accomplish that approach, and it would foment class divisions. I think the amount should be universal for all kids. As long as it’s funded by taxes on the wealthy, the net effect will be a wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the disadvantaged.]
Resources — Information:
- Create a journalistic accreditation system, akin to scientific peer review, to open up a market niche for ethical and unbiased news, tasked to monitor adherence to classic standards of journalistic ethics. Guarantee untouchable public funding and disallow funding from advertisements or private contributions. Only allow accredited media outlets to brand themselves as “news” or “journalism.” In doing so, relieve journalists who wish to follow such standards from the pressures of competing directly for ratings with sensationalist media.
- Establish a more carefully-considered, accurate, and robust set of measures of national health and well-being. Instead of focusing on measures like GDP, unemployment numbers (as currently defined), and stock market levels, create a scorecard of citizen well-being measurements based around things like labor force participation rate, health outcomes, graduation rates, inequality, number of startup businesses, poverty and crime rates, polarization, enfranchisement, and prison population. This act of measuring societal success as the well-being of its people is the essence of Human Capitalism.
Resources — Democratic representation:
- UBI and UHC to make sure people are secure enough to engage democratically, be it through protests, volunteering for campaigns, running for office, or simply taking the time to get abreast of the issues and vote.
- End felony disenfranchisement. Both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals are citizens and should absolutely be able to vote.
- Automatic voter registration and same day registration.
- Abolish the electoral college. One person one vote.
- Invest in voter enfranchisement (adequate polling places and staff).
- Make Voting Day a national holiday and make it on a weekend.
- Mail-in voting.
- Score voting (AKA range voting). Essentially, this means each voter ranks all of the candidates out of 99 and the winner is the candidate who receives the highest average score. So, for example, if you like Andrew Yang best but you like Bernie and think has a better chance to win, and you absolutely do not want to see Trump reelected, you would maybe score them 99, 85, and 0, and you wouldn’t have to worry about having thrown your vote away. Voting shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing or lesser-of-two-evils approach. Ranked-choice voting is making some headway politically, and I suspect that it would indeed represent a marginal improvement over what we have now, but there are some major flaws with ranked-choice voting that could still lead to spoilers and non-representative outcomes. Range voting would allow everyone to vote directly in line with their ideal values without risking spoiling the election for another acceptable candidate and giving it to the candidate they like least. Let’s get the gaming out of our voting system as much as possible so we can focus on our goals and values.
- Invest in research to make online voting secure as soon as possible. Once we figure out how to bring voting to people’s homes, fast and easy, voter participation will be huge.
- End gerrymandering.
- Overturn Citizen’s United.
- Ban all corporate money and large donations from politics. Fund everything either publicly and/or through small dollar donations.
- Supreme Court term limits to make sure our justice system keeps up with contemporary society’s values responsibly and representatively.
Resources — Citizenship (immigration):
- UBI as an added incentive for immigrants to take the legal path to citizenship, and to combat the disincentives to doing so within our current system.
- Develop a more clear path to citizenship. [This issue is not my forte, so if there are specific and workable proposals in this vein, please let me know so that I can include them.]
- UHC to guarantee essential coverage to all. Include dental, vision, and mental healthcare in this coverage. Allow people to pay extra for premium coverage through private insurance markets if they wish.
- UBI to act as preventative healthcare by allowing people to take better care of themselves to begin with. Even in other UHC nations, many doctors still wish they could just prescribe cash.
- Subsidize healthy diets (e.g. veggies not corn syrup) and/or tax detrimental habits that are proven to lead to societal cost (smoking, alcohol, sugar). Use revenues from the latter to fund the former.
- Maintain IP rights to protect and reward innovators, but reform IP law to bring ideas and goods back to the public sphere faster than we do today and loosen the corporate vice grip on progress and innovation. Do so by starting with low annual fees that increase geometrically. Use these revenues in funding the UBI dividend.
Levels 3 thru 5 — Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization
Oof. That was already a lot to take in, I know, and we’ve only knocked off two levels of the hierarchy. Hey, it’s a big country with a lot of people in it. Society takes some doing. Here’s the good news, though. UBI and UHC do most of the heavy lifting to get us to this point, at the same time as they allowed us to unburden ourselves from some of our worst bureaucratic quagmires, so it’s not as daunting as it may seem.
I won’t kid you, though. The extraction and transition from where we are to what I’m proposing is going to take some effort, because we’ve gotten ourselves into a bind here. But what we’re doing today is much messier than what I’m proposing. We have some serious disentanglement from the webs of money and coercion to do, but most of these changes, once implemented, will represent a reduction of effort on our parts. They will encourage greater social cohesion and mutual prosperity with less bureaucracy on the whole.
There’s some other good news, too. Once we have properly provided for the bottom two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, we’re basically done. People can pretty much take it from there. Sure, we can always look to improve things more if a policy here or there can empower people even further. Maybe we could think about local time banking initiatives, a social credit system (not China-style punitive and surveillance, but positive incentives for good work), etc. For the most part, though, we can rely on good old human ingenuity, ambition, and community to carry the day once we make sure our people all have enough security and investment from society to feel loved, supported, and safe.
The “love and belonging” needs of friendship, intimacy, family, and sense of connection? That’s something every one of us can develop for ourselves, within our now-strengthened communities.
The elements of “esteem” that are respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, and freedom? Yep, covered. You can handle that one, champ. Any freedoms and privileges beyond those afforded by the basic needs guaranteed by UBI and UHC and the human rights policies listed above, we can earn for ourselves with good old-fashioned hard work.
And if you want to self-actualize and achieve your best self, you, like every American, will have a real shot at finding and achieving that inner desire and potential with the protections and tools we will have put in place. If that isn’t the American Dream, then I don’t know what is.
On Human Nature and Making Stuff Free
Are you worried that people unconditionally provided their basic needs will withdraw their contributions and leech off society? Many people experience this concern with a policy like UBI at first blush. It’s a fear that is hardwired into our intuition by the perverted battle for scraps that we’ve created for ourselves. We’ve come to believe that it’s the money, or lack thereof, that drives us. It’s not a well-founded fear, however. For one, it hasn’t happened this way in any study of unconditional cash transfers yet, that I know of. Across a sample size of hundreds of thousands of people, what we’ve found is that people tend to work as much or more than they did before the cash support started coming in. That’s kind of counterintuitive at first, right? Haven’t we all seen, and don’t we all know, apathetic do-nothings in our worlds, the kids who live on video games in their parents basements, the drunks and addicts who intoxicate their lives away, and the simply slothful? What about them?
And what about evil people? Bigots, criminals, frauds, and telemarketers? Violent offenders and liars? Surely we don’t want to support such behaviors? Again, the data from all trials of UBI and similar cash transfers shows clearly that crime and vice decline when we introduce direct and unconditional cash income security into people’s lives. What doesn’t decline is work ethic. Many work harder, and the only demographics that were measured to work appreciably less were new mothers and kids still in school, which are both demographics I hope we can agree we’d be better to encourage to pursue their parenting and studies than survival jobs. Not surprisingly, domestic violence decreased and graduation rates increased in the trials as well.
We’ve “learned” so many things about human nature throughout history, but many of these lessons are largely just the results of the circumstances we’ve created. We’ve built a system that directly brings these ills into being. Poverty begets greed, despair begets vice, frustration begets apathy, stress begets waste and discord, inequality begets social disharmony, and fear simultaneously begets timidity, violence, and hate.
Beneath all of this circumstantial unfortunateness, though, the reality of human nature lives in the idealistic sounding needs at the heights of the pyramid: Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Absolutely everyone seeks these loftier goals. Everyone wants to improve, to matter and to have an impact in the world, until of course those desires are crushed into submission by systemic injustices. Government’s role should be to step in front of these injustices of inequality and misfortune and provide everyone a fair shot at offering the world their best selves.
And for my more skeptical and/or conservative-minded readers, what better way to test, and potentially disprove, this hypothesis that real human nature is to desire to grow and thrive than by removing systemic barriers to that pursuit and watching what happens? We could always switch back to what we’re doing now if it doesn’t work.
What’s more, I generally find that people who fear the laziness and entitlement that they believe such universal programs could foster are also people who profess to holding accountability in the highest regard. So then I ask, what could be more conducive to true accountability than removing everyone’s ability to make excuses? Think about it. If we lived in a system in which there’s a surefire path to accumulating wealth and climbing the ladder — i.e. live cheaply and within the means of one’s UBI, enjoy UHC’s protection from medical disaster, take work through the labor market or through a government jobs program, and save or invest the disposable income — then we really would exist in more of a meritocracy. Some level of inequality would still exist, but nobody would be desperate, and with welfare cliffs and work disincentives removed, more work would equal greater success, period.
The main difference from what we have now is that the bottom rung of this ladder would still be a dignified life. It would be unglamorous, but it wouldn’t be zero. It wouldn’t represent the kind of conditions that force people to compromise their ethics or degrade their self-worth for the sake of survival.
And if you are someone who suspects that some or many of those claiming hardship are just taking the easy way out, perhaps feigning victimhood and gaming the system, I don’t happen to share that assessment on the whole, but that disagreement is irrelevant. Remember that this new system would enhance accountability. In this world of UBI and UHC, it wouldn’t be easy for someone to falsely claim that the system held them down, because everybody would know that they and everyone else has a solid floor to stand on. Nobody could trick the system into giving them extra benefits, because everybody would be getting the same. There’d be nothing to qualify for and nothing to hide or mislead a bureaucrat about, and nothing to gain from pretending to be looking for work. Nobody could really beg for money in the street, either, because everybody would know that they’re getting a check on Wednesday. Nobody could play the victim. Suddenly, offering advice rather than a dollar to someone struggling wouldn’t be so potentially condescending and out of touch as it is today. Maybe we could look each other in the eyes and see each other a little better. There will always be some people who fail under any system, but maybe we could better get extra help to those who still need it once we empower most to help themselves.
But True Universality Means Global Human Rights!
There’s another issue that some of the more left-leaning have taken with this approach. It’s all well and good, they’ll say, but with all this high talk of universalism and the rights that should be afforded to all human beings, why am I only speaking of legislation here in America? Wouldn’t we just be continuing, perhaps even exacerbating, the inequality between people of wealthy nations and those of poorer nations? Shouldn’t we be thinking about policies to help those in less fortunate countries as well? How can we call a UBI truly universal unless it’s going to every living, breathing human being?
It is most certainly the case, in my view, that every person alive should be afforded these same basic rights, regardless of their nation of origin or any other factor. It’s also true, however, that our world is currently one of borders, and that no entity can rightfully enforce its values across those borderlines at this time in history. What we can do is lead the way by example and support a similar transition both financially and with lessons learned. We can provide the proof positive in the human capitalist model, and it can then spread like a benevolent virus to more and more countries and their people.
For nations without sufficient resources to immediately provide a robust form of these protections to their people, even having a smaller version of it in place can help them make a faster transition toward economic prosperity and empowered citizenry while providing them a more effective mechanism for receiving philanthropy and foreign aid to boot. What if Haiti had had a universal income system in place — even a small one that didn’t meet basic needs — when the big earthquake hit in 2010? Americans gave $13 billion to Haiti after the disaster, and most of it was wasted by the organizations entrusted with the money. What if every penny of that money was going directly and immediately into the pockets of the Haitian people with no salaries, kickbacks, business deals, or overwhelmed bureaucrats in the way? How much more would it have helped? And what if on top of that every American also had a UBI and knew they were financially secure? How many more would give, and how much more would they feel safe in donating to help out their fellow human beings in need?
There’s a good reason basic income is at the foundation of all the policy I propose. It is power to the people distilled, and it’s amazing what a population can do when every member is afforded his or her own share of that raw power. It touches and improves upon absolutely everything, because it elevates us as a species from the cornered animal, the racing rat, the chained servant… to the human being, with head up, eyes forward, and firm footing.
Who’s On the Case?
Obviously, we all need to be on the case. Only a grassroots movement of the people will make this happen, but for voting purposes, there are a few politicians today who are doing the best at helping push for this kind of change based on these kinds of values and policy ideals.
So far, it’s Bernie’s clan of progressives leading the way on most of them. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the newly-elected cadre of officials getting behind the Green New Deal are pushing hard in this direction, too. They’re currently, and mistakenly, focusing too much on a Federal Jobs Guarantee and could all stand to be pushed much harder on UBI, but they seem to be coming around. This is my current fight: bringing UBI prominently into the mainstream. It is my sincere hope that UBI will soon be a litmus test issue for most Americans. It’s the most fundamentally transformational policy we could implement, it’s the most urgent, and, mark my words, it will prove in time to have the best ability of any proposal to unite people across party lines. UHC comes in at a close second.
Of all of the 2020 presidential candidates, however, the most fully-formed, human-centered platform at this time belongs to newcomer and dark horse entrepreneur Andrew Yang. I strongly recommend giving him a serious look and not waiting for the mainstream media to tell you it’s ok to do so. He’s basically a Bernie Sanders progressive, except his platform is centered around UBI as well. He’s currently the only progressive candidate who has taken a strong stand on this. His prerequisite campaign book, The War On Normal People, surprised me just how good it is, and his messaging is getting better every day. Yang, like any candidate or elected official, should of course be constantly pushed to upgrade and evolve his policies and make them more robust, but in terms of who would be best for our country at this time, he remains my clear front-runner. I sincerely hope we get to see Andrew up on the debate stage in the primaries. I’m eager to discover who else will catch on before 2020.
As for priorities, once again, if you’re just looking for a few things to throw your full support behind immediately, I’ll make it easy for you:
- Medicare for All
- The Green New Deal
If any politician runs on all three of these, or a version of them that maintains their basic tenets, their universality, and their human rights focus, that politician will have my support. Everything else is second-level, the gravy on top, and someone who supports the big three will have their head and heart in the right place anyway and will also have most of those second-level solutions in mind as well.
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Our Grand Experiment
If you’re interested in helping Deia and me build the grassroots movement for UBI in America with our ambitious socio-economic experiment and documentary film series BOOTSTRAPS, please check out the work that Deia and I are doing, give what you can to the production fund (managed by Kartemquin Films), and invite others to do the same. All contributions are tax deductible.
A few of my favorite UBI articles by others:
On the Basics of Why UBI — Scott Santens
On How to Pay for UBI — Scott Santens
An Invaluable FAQ for All of Your UBI Questions — Scott Santens
On the Rich History of UBI — Karl Widerquist