Long Welfare

This article is part of the Futures in Long-termism series. You can read all other related blogs by following the links at the bottom of the page.

Our cognitive capacity can only be stretched so far at any given moment. Today, we are facing a scarcity in housing, a scarcity of jobs, scarcity of time, and a scarcity of money — all of which affect our mental state. As argued by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafi in their book Why Having Too Little Means So Much “scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs — from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor”. If the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills — attention, self-control, and long-term planning — often suffer. Our current condition is creating mindsets incapable of considering the possibilities of the future. Long Welfare investigates the construction of social securities that address the shortages of the present and reinforce citizens’ mental ability to think long-term.

Our scarcity mentality might force us to focus on the immediate lack, but strong social investments can create securities against these scarcities and allow citizens to maintain a healthy mental well-being. The correlation between state provisions and mental health was most recently manifested during the Eurozone crisis, which “caused sharp increases in suicides and deaths especially among those who lost their jobs, houses and economic activities”. Interestingly, countries with low social investments, like Spain, had a positive correlation between unemployment and suicides but in countries with strong social investments, like Sweden, the increase of unemployment resulted in suicide reduction.

Similarly, Portugal — following a series of stringent austerity measures — changed its political and economic strategy at the end of 2015. The country decided to boost demand — amongst other measures, it increased minimum wages, reversed regressive tax increases and reintroduced four cancelled public holidays. The country’s government opted for welfare rather than austerity and by the autumn of 2016, figures showed that the country’s deficit more than halved, and the policies that restituted income to the people, gave individuals more confidence.

Following the above evidence we ask, could social securities that respond to scarcities also enforce our innate ability to imagine the consequences of our actions in deeper time? If we currently experience a lack of time and resources, could a renewed welfare system secure time and resources to unleash our capacity to think long-term? What would such an evolution of the welfare state that focuses on nurturing confidence for long-term mindsets, look like?

One welfare reform that has recently gained popularity, from both left and right political supporters, is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). As argued by many proponents, UBI allows a large portion of the population to transition from poverty, habitual stress, and instability towards financial stability, happiness, and community interdependency, benefitting society as a whole.

UBI experiments have been proliferating. In some pilots, particularly in North America, attention has been given to labour supply issues. Finland is currently running the most extensive and rigorous basic income experiment in decades, mostly concerned with the costs and potential disincentives brought about by the policy. A UBI experiment in Stockton, California is coming to an end, and the first findings are focused on what free money is spent on.

The majority of these trials however frame, conceive and apply UBI as a standalone policy — substituting other existing social programs. As argued by many, it will be impossible to address our many political, social and economic deficiencies with one single instrument. But what if we conceived UBI as one component of a renewed Long Welfare system? How could a basic income work in tandem with a set of additional policies to produce individuals that think and act in the interest of long-term societies?

Experimental Probe: Intersectional UBI

Our current conception of UBI assumes universal homogeneity: everybody everywhere gets the same amount. But, in reality, the value of money differs depending on context and individual circumstances. The general economy, including the cost of basic living expenses, creates differential social and economic conditions for people. How could we then conceive of a UBI that is sensitive to universal heterogeneity? How could we design an Intersectional UBI that is attached to and works with a series of other measures to unlock valuable time and cognitive capacity to foster long-term community ties?

For instance, it is interesting that we usually talk about UBI as a way to help people who would lose their jobs due to automation. But then one of the first major initiatives Italy took as part of a series of measures to soften the economic blow of COVID-19 on households was to suspend all mortgage payments across the country, not give away free money. Similarly, the US suspended interest rates on some student loans. As incomes have stayed the same in many countries for the past decades, while housing costs have sky-rocketed; would an additional 1000$ a month make a difference if the cost of life continues to explode?

In British Columbia young families “are facing growing financial and time pressures”. Generation Squeeze, as it has been named, is increasingly faced with stagnant incomes, difficulties in finding jobs, high costs for products and services such as housing and child care, mounting debts and too little time at home. Similarly price changes in the US between 1997 and 2017 indicate that hospital services, college tuition, childcare and housing have exponentially increased compared to wages. The application of UBI as a standalone policy will unlikely tackle the complexity of these conditions.

Futurist Max Borders offers an alternative UBI, he names Distributed Income Support Cooperates. DISCs avoid the pitfalls of a centralised ubiquitous system, by disassociating themselves from any territorial, legal jurisdiction and by forming associations which can be joined or exited voluntarily. In addition the policy “can include variable income support for variable contribution and cost of living”. But most importantly DISCs emphasise “mutual aid rather than mass dependency and distribution”.

There is already evidence that shows UBI could produce better-incentivised happier citizens and improve levels of trust and empathy in societies. Psychologists for Social Change argue that basic income could increase five important psychological indicators: agency, security, connection, meaning and trust, forming societal and intergenerational cooperation. Another study in the Netherlands asked participants to imagine their future selves living in a world with basic income. Most subjects expressed a desire to engage with “values such as having the freedom to choose (“Self-Direction — Action”), caring for the welfare of others (“Benevolence — Caring”) and preserving nature (“Universalism — Nature”)”.

Our interest lies in this space, where a nuanced UBI policy could establish a system of mutual aid to release the freedom to care about long-term issues, instead of just securing a basic lifestyle. Further we want to examine whether the policy could grant the freedom to engage with some of the other zones of experimentation we have outlined as part of Long-termism (Persistent Selves, Embedded Corporations, Long Democracies). What would a full long-term Intersectional UBI trial look like?

We would like to thank Juon Kim from the Basic Income Youth Network in Korea for sharing resources and research.

These pieces have been co-authored by Chloe Treger, Indy Johar, Jonathan Lapalme and Konstantina Koulouri. The visuals were developed by Juhee Hahm and Hyojeong Lee.

This portfolio of experimental probes is part of broader system of interventions being prototyped by the Long Term Alliance.

The Long Term Alliance is co-founded by EIT Climate-KIC, Dark Matter and a cohort of partners focused on five Areas of Action, which when combined seek to leverage systemic impact — changing behaviour, mindsets and action towards a long-term oriented society.

Our five Areas of Action are: Resetting the Rules of the Game for Regulation and Governance; Rethinking Notions of Value to Reform the Financial System; Empowering Individuals through Information Transparency, Capability Building & Behaviour Change; Enabling Collective Action & Creating New Democratic Spaces to Create the Ground Swell Pressure for Change; and Shifting Culture & Narratives to Promote Long-Term Mindsets.

In parallel and in recognition of the scale of change necessary, EIT Climate-KIC together with Dark Matter and our partners are also experimenting with new instruments, mechanisms and vehicles that can invest over longer time frames, invest in the institutional deep code experimentation necessary, invest vertically in portfolios spanning deep culture change to new institutional infrastructures to accelerate the transition of Europe towards a Long Term society.

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Designing 21st Century Dark Matter for a Decentralised, Distributed & Democratic tomorrow; part of @infostructure00