To Preserve What We Have, What We Have Must Be Enough

What we have is more than our material well-being.

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

I wrote previously in Medium that ‘surplus’ is the “bane of human existence.” It is the case that the desire for surplus — for more than enough — has driven us to the level of material well-being that we in the U.S. (and other so-called ‘first world’ nations) now experience. It has also driven us to the point at which that level of material well-being — and much more — faces real threat.

If we fail to do what needs to be done, after a period of the most horrific times imaginable civilization will probably survive (technically, i.e., people living in what could be called ‘cities’). It will be as scattered city-states, though, at a level of material well-being similar to that of medieval times. Most, if not all, will be ruled by the most ruthless. The areas between those city-states will be lawless lands where no sane person would willingly tread.

So either we can take action to ensure the survival of civilization as we know it or we can allow our desire for more than enough to destroy the very societal construct — civilization as we know it — that allows us to have what we have. Besides material well-being, that would include the liberty we now enjoy within the rule of law and the democratic political process that is necessary to preserve that liberty.

Let us be utterly clear about this: to fail to take action to ensure the survival of civilization as we know it is to ensure that we will lose basically everything. Those who have the most to lose are those who must be willing to forego the most in order to keep from losing the most.

Many people will reject the validity of that projection. So be it. All that is necessary is for all who agree with it to act.

But, act how? Do what?

Presumably, those who agree with that dire projection are already doing what they can on a personal level to help our civilization to survive. On a larger scale of action, it would be possible to work to get laws and regulations passed to achieve survivability.

We no longer have time left for that incremental approach. What remains is to dedicate ourselves to changing the pertinent outcomes for society as a whole from the economy. The economy as a system is where, at the societal level, the issue of survivability resides in a single place. Systemic change is needed.

Convincing any nation to make a such a change to forestall a looming disaster — one that is at this point but a few dark clouds on the horizon — is the tallest of orders. Failure is all but assured. Yet, for those who accept that the alternative is the destruction of civilization as we know it, is there really any choice?

To preserve what we have we must have an economic revolution. The time has come to use the political process in only just ways (i.e., without violence, coercion, or manipulation)[1] to limit consumption to ‘enough’. In a just society with a market-based economy, that means all citizens having access to an income that is enough to meet our material needs (with enough extra for some treats, of course). Due to the damage to the planet that achieving the level of material well-being we privileged people now enjoy, little more than barely enough is all we can afford if we want to keep what we have — which, with this proposal, all people on the planet can (eventually) have.

At least we aren’t talking about replacing the existing economy with some entirely different approach to producing and acquiring goods and services. To preserve what we have it is not necessary to abandon the existing economic system. The existing institutional structure would remain intact. The way the economy functions would remain the same.

Yet, there is one change that we can make to the existing economic system that would change the outcomes it produces for society so profoundly that we can preserve for the present and the future the average level of material well-being that we now enjoy — as well as our liberty and the democratic political process that sustains it — for ourselves and our posterity. At bottom, as a matter of economics, we can accomplish all that by changing one thing: the way the economy is supplied with money (as currency). It would at the same time change the way most people get paid, but how people get paid does not affect how the economy functions. Moreover, that can be accomplished (in any nation) the same way the current method of supplying the economy with currency was achieved (in every nation): with a single legislative Act.

As a citizen of the U.S., I do feel compelled to emphasize that this proposal has absolutely nothing to do with ‘socialism’. It does not require in any way ‘more government’.

Indeed, as will be seen by those who keep reading, while (involuntary) unemployment and poverty would be eliminated, the role of government in society would actually be reduced. Money would by itself accomplish goals for society that government (even working in tandem with the central bank, as ‘co-manager’ of the economy) has been unable to achieve. We could even eliminate all taxes and public debt: all government, from central to local, could be funded (at the current level of spending) without either one. (To be clear, all debts already incurred would be repaid in full).

It must also be stressed that we would not in any way be turning our fate over to the central bank. For one thing, we could implement this proposal without involving it, by creating a new Monetary Agency for these purposes.

More to the point, whichever of those two entities might be the administrator of the money (as currency), the outcomes provided by this monetary paradigm would be ‘automatic’. They would not be the result of any decisions made by any person, committee, or organization, period. Those outcomes would follow from the way money (as currency) would be created, and nothing else.

[I keep writing “money (as currency).” The other form that money takes in the existing economy is money as credit, when banks issue loans. That would not change — and the central bank would in any event still exist to oversee the banking system. Only its roles as co-manager of the economy and ‘lender of last resort’ to the central government would no longer exist.]

I know. I understand. To hear about such a proposal as this from its unrecognized author makes it suspect. I realize that.

That is why acting on behalf of this idea would take the utmost self-confidence and moral courage.

It would also take effort. The proposal I have developed is something that can be fully understood by any person reading this, but it is a really new idea. It is unlike anything, even any other economic proposal that now exists. It has nothing to do with any ideology. It is actually quite astonishing: not least, I am genuinely astonished that I, of all people, came up with it. I am not one of those brilliant people with an exceptionally high IQ— as anyone who knows me will attest. I credit abandoning all ideology when I started thinking about the possibility of some viable alternative. Ideologies limit possibilities.

No matter what, due to its revolutionary nature, understanding this proposal will require serious effort. Thankfully for all concerned, although it is a matter of economics, the proposal does not involve any math. It is concerned only with the institutional structure of the existing economy and its functioning: specifically, the economy’s monetary system.

Again, though, anyone can evaluate for oneself the validity of the proposal. No one has to take my word for anything.

While this proposal would minimize how much would change in the economy, I do understand that there are many people who feel that somebody needs to be punished. I fully agree that the blind lust for wealth and power that has fueled the economy of this nation from its inception is an abomination.

Actually, though, that has been the case in every economy in the history of civilization. (Marxist economics is based on absolute power for the “proletariat” — or its ‘leaders’, anyway.) For that matter, the lust for wealth and power was the impetus for the advent of civilization itself: cities, then city-states (some of which became empires), then nation-states (some of which became empires).

In the end, it is more important to solve problems — especially this problem, which affects all of society, even all of humanity, even the whole world — than it is to punish those who have caused them. Still, for those who do think punishment is necessary, I do reiterate that those who have the most will be those who forego the most in this solution to the problem of survivability at our current average level of material well-being.

Things happen. Societies change. Large-scale changes affect future outcomes for lots of people.

Those changes can be ‘natural’. That happened more than once in the past when even brief changes in the climate (usually drought) that were not the result of ‘human activities’ brought down whole civilizations. Changes can also be the result of human effort, though, as when revolutions — technological as well as political — have happened. In the former cases all suffered loss; in the latter cases there have always been people who gained materially and people who lost.

Such changes are the way of the world. No one can make any legitimate claim to any particular future outcome for oneself. To have one’s projections for one’s future altered is not in itself an injustice unless the changes that precipitated that different outcome were the result of unjust acts. Unfortunately, every revolution in the history of humanity, even every one that furthered in some way the cause of justice, has involved unjust acts.

This can be the first revolution in human history to be effected without any unjust acts. It would change the future for everyone, but it would not of itself take anything from anyone. The point is for every citizen (of, eventually, every nation) to have enough in a stable, just society (i.e., one with the maximum possible liberty within the rule of law and a democratic political process).

What is enough? That is actually easy to answer. We have lots of standards we could use. Technically, the minimum income that is ‘enough’ would be any income that exceeds the ‘poverty line’. Beyond that, we could choose the median personal income, the average personal income, or even the average GDP to determine the sufficient income. I would vote today for setting the standard income between the average and the median personal income in the U.S. for 2020 (respectively, and $62, 518.13 and $43,206.00): say, $52,000/yr.: $1000/wk., $25/hr. for full-time employees.

I think we could all survive with that. Eliminating all taxes would increase the ‘purchasing power’ of that income for individuals to something approaching $1,400/wk., $35/hr.: $72,800/yr. for full-time employees. So that would be roughly equivalent to $145,600/yr. for a couple today. It would be as easy as not to pay one parent — or legal guardian — a standard income to fulfill that role, meaning any two adults living together with at least one dependent child in residence could have that equivalent income with only one of them working outside the home: let the labor-saving technological revolution surge forward! Even better, that level of material well-being could be shared (eventually) by every person on the planet.

Here’s the thing: it really doesn’t matter what income we use. Overall, prices will adjust to any general income level. A higher income would simply mean generally higher prices; a lower income would mean generally lower prices.

What is important for survivability is the amount of stuff that people acquire. Basing the standard income on the current level of income would mean that in general prices would stay very close to what they are, meaning the amount of stuff people could buy in the future would be limited to what that income will purchase today. With consumption governed by population (income being a given), the variables in the equation for survivability are reduced to one.

Importantly, housing would be an exception: its cost would drop significantly, as existing units that people with that income could not afford would revert in price to the new structure of incomes, which would in turn create a downward ‘domino effect’ for the prices of all housing. A range of prices would still exist: some people would want to pay a larger proportion of their income for housing, some people a smaller one. It is worth noting that the same ‘domino effect’ would hold for all manner of luxury goods, which does imply that housing has become a luxury in this nation.

The money for that income — and for funding government[2] — would be created as needed. It would be something like a permanent ‘quantitative easing’, but with built-in protections against inflation (the biggest being returning money to its place of origin by limiting the amount of money that could be hoarded).

That income would only be available to citizens of the nation, but any (adult) citizen could become eligible for it (and, to reiterate, any nation could adopt this proposal). It would be paid to three categories of people: all people of retirement age (whatever that might be), any adults unable to work, and all people employed in any business or government.

The money paid to all of those citizens would come from its point of origin, whether a Monetary Agency or the existing central bank. To be clear, that includes all employees: they would not be paid by their employers, but by the administrator the standard income. (Proprietorships and partnerships are accounted for in the proposal, but the details need not detain us here.)

So everyone employed in any business or government, from even dishwashers and janitors to the executive officers of the biggest corporations and the president of the nation, would be paid the same income. We could still allow, however, for varying — unlimited — benefits accruing to different positions that anyone employed in that position would receive for as long as that person was employed in that position.

Employers would use benefits to compete for employees. The only restriction would be that the benefits would have to be ‘in-kind’, not monetary in form (or in the form of stocks or any other placeholder for cash).

(Involuntary) unemployment would be completely eliminated by having government provide jobs that paid the standard income, but without benefits (which jobs would therefore cost nothing) for people unable to find other work. For all other employees, benefits — the provision of goods and services by employers — would increase the amount of stuff they could purchase with their income.

The same kinds of benefits would be possible for all employees, but at different levels of qualitative scale. For those at or near the top of the heap, the trappings of great wealth would still exist — in housing, transportation, clothing, vacation sites, etc. — but in the form of temporary (for the person receiving them) benefits, not permanent increases in personal wealth[3] (meaning such wealth would not be transferrable, generationally or otherwise).

Finally, it would be necessary for the sake of justice as we understand it in this nation to allow people to make more — or less — than the standard income. We could accomplish that by allowing people who are not employed in any business or government to make whatever money they could make selling whatever (legal) good or service they might be able to provide. (To lessen opportunities for fraud, such sales would be limited to other individuals, not any business or government).

Artists come first to mind, but all people would be free to sell any (legal) thing anyone could sell. That would include people paid royalties for ‘intellectual property’, such as, say, songwriters and inventors (with the latter receiving royalties from businesses — with all such transactions closely scrutinized for fraud). It could also include people in sales paid — only — a commission. It would also include people employed in not-for-profit organizations. [Again, to lessen chances for fraud the money for such organizations, including religious organizations and political parties, would come only from donations from individuals (not businesses, much less government) and, to relieve society from having to determine legitimacy, all people employed in them would be paid out of those donations: any not-for-profit organization that could garner sufficient donations to exist would exist, any that could not would not (keeping in mind that involuntary poverty would no longer exist, greatly lessening the need for such organizations).]

The basic idea in all of that is to create an impermeable barrier between any money received by any corporation or government and the pockets of people — with sales commissions and royalties paid by businesses to legitimate inventors as the only exceptions — but to maximize economic freedom outside that restriction. The number of people who would be making significantly more than the standard income would not be enough to consume enough to threaten survivability — and those would not be the people who have been the source of the problem, anyway (though we have all been — witting or not, willing or not — contributors to it).

So that is the basic idea. This is where it starts to take real effort. The basic solution is amazingly simple, all things considered, but “simple” doesn’t always mean easy.

I have written the details elsewhere in Medium. Links to two essays are given below. The second is a more generalized presentation that comes at the proposal from a perspective that would be more familiar to a person formally educated in the subject of economics. Before anyone might go to either of those essays, however, a few words of explication are necessary.

When I developed this proposal it was in the form presented in the above essay. I later developed an intermediate version, one that would lie between that paradigm and the way things are at present. Instead of every employee of any business or government being paid the standard income (to which I also refer, in different places, as the “allotted” income or a “democratically distributed” income), in that intermediate proposal that income is the minimum income: it is still paid to retirees and adults unable to work, but for employees, it is paid only those employed in minimum-pay positions (as designated by an employer). As such, it is also set at a lower level (based on an older value for the median income in the U.S. and current notions in this nation of what the minimum income should be).

Those are, however, the only differences. Everyone can, I think — hope — gain a sufficient understanding of the proposal presented here by reading either of those other essays and simply keeping those couple of differences in mind. Finally, for anyone with specific questions who is seriously seeking a better understanding of the proposal, I am available to answer them via Responses.

Finally, I freely acknowledge that I am not the smartest person in the world. In my life I have seldom been ‘the smartest person in the room’. (I am not the world’s best writer, either; I despair of my attempts to explain this proposal.)

I am, however, smart enough. I have read and understood economics as a subject of study — including earning an M.A. in it along the way. I know how the existing system works. I know how this proposal would affect that system.

I would hope that it is obvious that I have put years of effort into developing this proposal. It is not something I came up with this morning.

Have I recognized and resolved every single possible issue that could arise? No human being could do that. Only a period of public discussion could accomplish that. Starting such a discussion is my goal in writing my essays.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this proposal provides a viable solution to the problem of preserving the average level of material well-being to which we are accustomed, as well as the liberty within the rule of law and the democratic political process we hold dear in this nation as being necessary for a just society.

______________

[1] That limits our actions to rational persuasion, petitioning the government, running for office, voting, and peaceable assembly (to demonstrate the number of supporters of the proposal). In a just political process those are the legitimate forms of participation in it. A just political process is a democratic political process: each is the predicate of the other. Any outcome of such a process is a just — noncoercive — outcome (as long as the process proceeded without corruption), even if some people don’t like having to abide by it: they had the same chance to effect a different outcome.

[2 (added 3/12/22)] That could be accomplished by setting the amount of money that would be provided for government at the current per capita rate of total government spending (all spending by all government this year divided by the present population). Forever afterward, the amount of money to be provided for all government each year would be determined by today’s per capita rate of total government spending multiplied by the size of the nation’s population that year: as it grew, the amount of money provided for government would grow; in the unlikely event that the size of the population were to fall the amount of money provided for government would decrease.

As I see it, all of that money should be made available initially to the central government. The money not spent there would be apportioned to intermediate levels of government (e.g., in the U.S., the states), based on their populations. (That process would presumably be repeated between intermediate and local governments.) In republican nations, the elected representatives in the central government would realize that the less money they spent there, the more money would be sent back home, to benefit the people who elected them. They would have an incentive to minimize the amount spent by the central government.

Meanwhile, some of the money provided for government would used to pay off the debt that has been accumulated, as it came due. As that mountain of debt (in most nations) was gradually reduced in size more money would become available for other uses.

[3] That also lessens economic exploitation, but to eliminate completely that injustice would require the absence of benefits. In that case, only differences in social status would remain as an incentive for seeking different positions in society (which I personally think would be sufficient). Perhaps one day that could be achieved.

Links:

Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society

Paradigm Shift

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice