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Regular listeners of Sam Harris' podcast called Making Sense may have heard his recent episode titled "Inequality and Revolution" with sociologist Jack Goldstone. In the latter part of the episode, Harris and Goldstone discussed some substantive policy measures like Universal Basic Income (UBI) that could be taken to reduce income inequality, specifically in the U.S.. Goldstone's idea was a one time lump sum of something like $50,000 after 1 or 2 years of public service (more on this later).

Andrew Yang's UBI

UBI as a policy was popularized in part by Andrew Yang, a former candidate for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Yang's version of UBI consisted of $1,000 monthly payment, or $12,000 per year, to all US citizens over the age of 18. On a seperate podcast with Sam Harris and Andrew Yang titled "Universal Basic Income," Yang argued that the money would help Americans weather the increasing automation in the age of AI and lead to "healthier people, less stressed out people, better educated people, stronger communities, more volunteerism, [and] more civic participation." He argued that the $12,000 a year wouldn't be enough to replace a job, but would increase financial stability and opportunity especially for low income families. More on his policy and how to pay for it can be found at this Wikipedia article

Goldstone's Basic Income

In the podcast, Goldstone was not in favor of smaller monthly payments, rather a larger, one-time lump sum of money after completing some requirement of public service. He argued that the monthly payments were much easier to squander while a lump sum of something like $50,000 would incentivize people to spend the money smarter. For example, a lump sum could help start a business, buy a home, pay off college loans, etc where $1,000 a month simply doesn't provide enough money in a short enough time. 

The additional benefit of this plan is of course the public service. Public service has a long and pretty successful history in the U.S:

  • In the "New Deal," President Franklin Roosevelt established mass public service programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which provided jobs to three million young men during the Great Depression (More info here).
  • The 1944 G.I. bill helped 2.2 million WWII veterans to attend colleges or universities and an additional 5.6 million veterans for some kind of training program in the 12 years after the bill's passage (More info here).
  • The Peace Corps in a government agency and volunteer program created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Since it began, around 235,000 Americans (most of them college educated) have served in volunteer programs in 141 countries (More info here). Upon completion of the 2-year program, participants receive an unconditional $10,000.

Public service, when directed effectively, seems like a really good thing. The volunteer labor could be applied to domestic infrastructure as in the CCC, volunteering abroad like in the Peace Corps, or a host of other problems. Additionally, when the public service doesn't involve fighting a war, most people speak highly of their experiences and find a shared connection in their work. Goldstone suggested that such a programs might help stem rising polarization and focus the country on our shared ideals. 

Call for feedback

I believe that one of the most significant ways to produce positive outcomes is through smart and effective government policy. Goldstone's proposal seems like it could really re-energize American volunteerism and create good financial opportunities for young people. While it's undoubtedly a big and difficult proposal, it seems feasible given the growing support for UBI during the pandemic and past public service programs. 

If anyone knows more about this proposal (I'm not even sure if it has a name?) or has critiques I would be excited to hear them. 





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The volunteer labor could be applied to domestic infrastructure as in the CCC

Unfortunately the limiting factor on US domestic infrastructure isn't typically labour but regulatory. Major infrastructure projects have to go through literally years of applications and hearings to get planning permission, with expensive concessions required and no guarantee of success. This occurs both for very small projects  - e.g. turning a disused parking lot into a house in the bay area - and large ones - the KeyStone XL pipeline, for example, was originally proposed in 2008... and 12 years later, after exhaustive environmental review, was blocked by the government.

I see this is a very promising initiative. I think the increased fragmentation of our society - stemming in large part from the silo effects of our respective social media timelines and subsequent loss of a shared truth - poses one of the most direct threats in recent history to both American democracy, as well as liberal ideals the world over.

If you believe that liberal democracy is the form of government most conducive to economic growth and the free exchange of ideas (as seems to be the case for many https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/#democracy), then it must follow that unstable democracy  dramatically lowers the threshold for an array of other existential risks to occur. It's hard for me to imagine that threats associated with our handling of Biorisks (see exhibit A), totalitarianism, climate change, or great power war for instance, would not increase in lockstep with the crumbling of democratic institutions and the trust we place in them.

Jack Goldstone's point about a universal income tied to social service struck a cord with me as well - while I see great potential in an initiative such as this one to spur economic growth and innovation, what strikes me as the most promising aspect, is for the two sides to see each other again, and lower the temperature.

In a world of sensationalist headlines and fake news it is far too easy for us to "unfollow", "unlike" or "unfriend" the other side. We cannot hope to reduce the risk to our democratic institutions if we don't create more public forums through which we can exchange ideas and see each other as fellow citizens again.

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