You will note, based on my writings, that I am not a huge fan of The State. To clarify, I was a fan of the 90s sketch comedy show, but I am not a fan of the lumbering octopus with ten thousand mouths on every rabid/blind tentacle converting everything they touch into fuel for its machinations, batting most of us around like a kitten playing with a dead sparrow. Therefore it pains me a little to admit this, but I have to keep expressing gratitude so here we go:
I have benefited from "welfare" programs. When I was working my old job, my hours were always shaved just under the line where I'd qualify for benefits, so I took a second job. I gave myself a double hernia lifting audio equipment racks that should have had wheels. This was stupid, as toil for its own sake always is. I was trying too hard to appease a control freak with 6 personalities at a job that was never going to be worth the wage anyway, telling myself it was The Right Thing To Do (TM).
We do what we think we need to do. "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is the slogan of our species.
In any case, I had no insurance and had two new holes in my abs with gut sliding in and out at random, accompanied by deep discomfort and occasional stabbing pain. Not a party I'd invite anyone to. I will spare you the roller coaster process of getting state health insurance, which I had begun months prior. Through some fluke, I got approved right before the accident. I saw a surgeon who did a double take because hernias aren't supposed to come in stereo.
The good doctor set me up with a quick repair, and after a recuperative period, I was myself again. I've been under the knife more times than most, and I can say with confidence that this experience was the most painless, in every sense.
Not too much later, my company got outbid, and I got laid off. I was lucky. I got a settlement that came out to a magic number, which was amusing and satisfying. They didn't fight unemployment either, so I pulled that for a while, looking for work, being a home Dad, and writing most of my book while my wife graciously bore the burden by slogging away though extra hours trying to do good in a bad place. I marinated in stress, and was at times downright awful to live with. It was the fire under my ass that needed to happen to begin the alchemical process, but it was hard on all of us.
I am grateful daily that I had the chance to have what was, in the grand scheme, a pretty easy time compared to most. You and I won't hear the stories of the people who never made it out of the pit, or most of the stories of people who have. What we hear about are those who hijack the system, because that's better for ratings. Bogeymen always sell. Corporate media must always satisfy the will of its sponsors to exist, and at this moment, its main sponsors do quite well by screwing people over and shifting the blame onto others, who may or may not exist. Good luck pitching a story on how things get and stay this way to begin with. If you want that story, you'll have to dig it up yourself.
I had a tough time, a dark night of the soul among many, but that's the game of life, and I was greeted with sufficient mercy to make it much easier than it could have been. The State is myopic and often backward, but there are good folks (well underpaid themselves) but trying to throw ropes into the quicksand, bless 'em. Yet I wonder, is there a better way?
To get on the list for a little help when you need it, you wade through automatic phone trees, try to catch the letters in the mail and respond before they cancel your request, and take numbers in crowded rooms, hoping today's the day. Think of an Emergency Department waiting room, but on a vast scale. If and when you get a real live human being, it's a crap shoot. Some of these people seem so willing to help but are so often bound up in regulations and quotas. Some of them seem mechanical and completely detached, hollowed out by protocol and acting against the will of their hearts. Some of them seem so burnt out on people at large that they have become sadists, downright overjoyed to stamp your application "DENIED." I was able to float because I had a good support network. What of all the people with nothing but themselves to lean on?
After listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, I am inclined to consider one possible answer: Universal Basic Income. I can hear the gnashing of teeth across America. There's deep conditioning at work turning this idea into knee-jerk reactions, because at the surface the idea can sound a like an expansion of already broken welfare programs. At this moment we can't do that much worse by doing what's expected, so as the late Saint Prince suggests, let's go crazy. Let's get nuts. Let's actually look at how this idea could manifest in reality beyond daydreams of freedom from within the artificial cage of the All-American Verbal Hologram.
Scott Santens, who moderates the Basic Income community on reddit, sums up the idea thus: "Welfare is paying people to do nothing, while basic income is paying people to do anything."
In the current system we supply bailouts for people who lost their jobs or can't work, but it creates a vicious circle. The longer you're on welfare, the harder it is to get a job. The social stigma of being out of work makes it awkward when you're filling out applications. The jobs you're likely to get with a history of welfare might not pay much more than the welfare did. It's quite similar to the predicament of a felon returning from prison. It's no wonder that some people hustle the system and turn to crime to grease the wheels. It doesn't make it better, but you can understand. Whether you're on welfare or trying to make it on what's left of Social Security, if you depend on a tiny fixed income, you'll live a tiny fixed life. By contrast, in a system of basic income people suddenly ticking all the boxes of their basic needs would be far more free to do whatever work they wanted to achieve their wants, creating income through service and moving towardthriving rather than surviving.
This idea seems too utopian or hard to pay for because we're all so used to and invested in struggle. It seems complicated because to make it happen a lot of details will have to be addressed, but like a lot of paradigm shifts, at its heart it is a simple idea: Find the the poverty level, and make sure no one is below it. Suggest this, and people will say there's no money for it. What they mean is they're afraid their taxes will go up to pay for it. To this I say, the majority of your taxes are already going to things you'd prefer not to support, and that's true regardless of your politics. The money is always there for people who know how to put it where they want it to be.
Things could be very different. No one would have to claw for tiny raises and less managers would screw over their teams for bonuses. No one would have to work unpaid overtime. No one would have to destroy their bodies in endless toil for less money than it takes to pay the bills. No one would have to beg on the street. Crime would begin to fade almost immediately. Most people would rely less on intoxicants. People struggling economically in the midst of abusive relationships could finally leave their tormentors, no longer having to rely on them to survive. Families bearing the brunt of hardship in more graceful ways would finally get the relief necessary to allow them to pursue more meaningful work and a life of less stress and greater security. Parents who'd rather raise their kids than work could be where they want to be instead of having to trust strangers who charge them extortion-level prices for daycare. The frustrations built in to the way we do things now would stop turning people into demons. In short, a whole lot of bullshit could just go away, at last. We could breathe again.
Children could grow up in happier homes. Rather than spending their formative years learning coping mechanisms to survive, they could soak up the foundation of security and presence that would allow them to truly learn, love, and live. A generation or two of that is exactly what we need to get off the Death Grid, and it's quite possible that nothing short of that will do the trick. For those already grown, the physical and mental healthcare crisis would begin to ease itself because that background survival stress permeating everything would recede and allow minds and bodies to function outside of the fight-or-flight cage so many of us are spending our whole lives in. With a basic income, perhaps less young people would feel they had no choice but military service to pay for school or support their families, and those who did choose to serve would have a way to live in better conditions when they got back. With time to become informed, there would be less support for war at all, and in time, resistance to many other forms of corruption and hustle. There are so many more of us being governed than doing the governing. If we began to get the joke, we'd have the last laugh.
We might see, at last, the return of the engaged citizenry, active in making their local and state governments behave rather than taking out their rage on the candidates that bob and weave for the TV cameras. Better yet, we might cut loose the parts of government we didn't need anymore. People would have the time to volunteer their time to help others and everyone would be lifted up a bit at a time. People would have the chance to pursue their dreams, not in that Hallmark card way but in full. Everyone would have at least the option to become the person they were meant to be, and every community would be richer for it. Some people would still do nothing, but that's already happening. Some people would find ways to hustle, but those people don't know any other way to live. They might come around, in good time. We lose nothing but waste if we try a different approach.
These are but musings of the moment. You can consider this one of many thought experiments on this blog. I believe this will happen eventually with or without our support and have many positive and negative social effects we cannot yet predict. In this it joins other currents of the future: automation of labor (which may force a basic income anyway), the second coming of virtual reality as augmented reality, the eventual ubiquity of personal 3-D printing, the eventual end of vulture capitalism.