Tuesday 7 April 2015

Basic Income

A friend asked about basic income on Facebook, so here is my attempt to unpack and explain what it is and why I think it's a good idea.


There are various arguments against Basic Income that inevitably come up on the basis that suddenly giving everyone vast amounts of money would trigger runaway inflation, or cause everyone to instantly quit their job or whatever. Any responsible implementation of BI would be done over the course of several years - perhaps a decade! - in order to gradually introduce it.


A basic income (or universal income) is a small sum paid to every citizen of a nation, regardless of means, in order to guarantee their survival. Some people peg its level as a "living wage" but personally I opt for the lower "survival income" -- for me, a basic income is very literally the basic amount of money needed to survive in society. At the moment in the UK, this would be around £6k/year for 18-55 year olds (you might justify a higher rate for the elderly since they do on average need more money on basics like heating and mobility).

Crucially, a BI would replace almost all in-work and out-of-work benefits paid by the state. In the UK, that would be: council tax benefit, housing benefit, jobseeker's allowance, child benefit, state pension. It would not replace things like Disability Living Allowance, which is a survival income top-up for those whose life costs more to maintain even at a survival level.

Finally, the BI I envisage would be accompanied by a lowering in the minimum wage such that a full-time minimum wage job would earn the same before and after the change - about £4/hour. Also the personal allowance of ~£10k would be abolished, so that taxation would start from the first pound earned.


One of the common reasons proposed for BI, which I believe in, but not as fervently as others, is that pragmatically, there are more people who want to work but can't afford to (because their benefits would be withdrawn) than there are people working on marginal incomes who would stop working to purely live off their BI.

Furthermore, since we currently force benefits claimants to jump through so many administrative hoops, switching to a BI would save money on bureaucracy.

You can look at BI as a small technocratic shift in the way we distribute money to the poor -- right now we use means-testing to ensure that only the needy get the money, but this leads to high "withdrawal rates" of benefits, meaning that there are those caught in a "benefits trap" who want to work but literally can't afford to do so: a combination of childcare costs, travel costs and withdrawal of benefits for taking the job make the job either worth a trivial amount per week or possibly even worth less than the benefits being paid.

You can look at this and say that perhaps our out-of-work benefits are too high, but it's also the transactional costs that are problematic: if you start any job your benefits are immediately stopped and can take 6 weeks to come back of you lose that job. That makes any short-term labour implausible.

A BI ensures that however much a person works, there is always some incentive.


People -- usually right-wing people -- talk about "rights and responsibilities", usually in terms of forcing people to work for their benefits.

Most people would agree that everyone ought to have the right to Maslow's basic needs: food, warmth, shelter, clothing (and wifi?), but many insist that access to those basic rights comes with a responsibility to find work.

I would say that the responsibility at that level is to obey the state's laws -- principally in this case to not take what they need from their environment; at least in theory, a citizen might be able to live off the land, had not the state enclosed and sold it all. In trade, the state owes its citizens at the least access to those basic resources.


Automation is not only improving productivity, it's putting low-skilled people out of jobs. This trend is surely only going to continue as cars and trucks become driverless and more and more of the agriculture and logistics train is automated. Eventually there will be no jobs for idiots to do at all.

This is radically undermining the right-wing notion that everyone ought to seek work, because eventually, there will be no jobs at all. In such an idyllic paradise, the idea that people have some sort of moral responsibility to work will become nonsense.

On that basis, a BI can be seen not as an alternative to work, but a dividend paid to citizens by the process of automation; by denying people cash-paying work, employers have a responsibility to pay a fraction of the proceeds gained by automation back to the communities they have removed the possibility of work from.


Most minimum wage jobs are awful, and the people who would be depending on a minimum wage are those most likely to be affected by a BI scheme.

A BI radically changes the power relationship between minimum wage employees and employers, because employees suddenly have much less of a fear of quitting, if they know that they can leave and still support themselves for a little while while seeking alternative employment.

BI would not necessarily drive incomes up in minimum wage jobs, but what it would do, I think, is deflate thousands of petty tyrants who reward those who suck up to them with extra shifts, and punish those who disobey with less work or less pleasant work, or good old-fashioned physical or verbal abuse, safe in the knowledge that their victims cannot afford to escape.


The most common argument against a BI is that the lazy will simply stop working and live off their "unearned" income, and that this is worse than the current situation where far more people want to do some work but can't afford to.

To that I basically say "humbug" -- a BI system would incentivize work for those on low incomes by ensuring that by not means-testing benefits, work would always pay. Furthermore, the survival income that I propose is pegged to such a low level that life lived on it would by pretty desperately uncomfortable for most. The advantageous properties of a BI is not that it's a lot of money, but that it is a reliable small amount of money.


It's also often said that a BI is a nice idea, but would cost too much. Various organizations have taken steps to cost out a BI. From what I've seen, the rule of thumb is that the BI would cost about twice as much as the benefits it is replacing, but if the tax system is altered to wholly recoup the BI of those earning more than the mean income, then that recoups half the total cost, leaving the BI as a fiscally neutral change.


Should a BI be paid to children? If not, you need child benefit, if so, they're being given a heap of money.

The solution here is to pay a fraction of the BI to the parents and stash the rest in a savings account that would give all adults as they reach their majority a so-called Stakeholder Grant, which should be approximately the cost of a university education, allowing children as they become adults to choose whether to spend that SG on higher education, or on starting their own business, or the down-payment on a house.

This also allows you to disincentivize large families by paying gradually less to the parents for each successive child, stashing the rest in the child's account. (I don't particularly believe that people with large families do it for the benefits, but even if they did, here's the answer)


A BI fulfils a citizen's right to survive through an unconditional, low-valued monthly grant, instead of the various means-tested benefits currently in use. Those out of work can find work knowing that that work will definitely bring in a positive income, and the state saves money by cutting admin costs. Children automatically save for a university degree. What's not to like?

Monday 11 November 2013

The BBC are reporting, in the way that they do, a report in the Telegraph of a speech by John Major:
In a speech to Tory activists reported in the Daily Telegraph he blamed "the collapse in social mobility" on the failures of the last Labour government.
More than half the current cabinet were educated at private schools.
I bet the BBC writer had fun juxtaposing those two sentences. But let's just think about this a tiny bit harder: Cameron was born in 1966, Osborne in 1971 and Clegg 1967. They would have all been in secondary education, then, from about 1979 - 1989. A prime time for John Major to have influenced social mobility, one might have thought!

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Iain Duncan Smith unironically evil

Via Mark Easton at the BBC:

Mr Duncan Smith says he is proud of the fact that his government agreed that Job Centre staff could refer people to food banks.
"What would you prefer? Under the last government, Job Centre staff were not allowed to talk about it. My concern is that the individual who is in front of Job Centre staff can get access to everything they need to."

Does anyone not see what the obvious error here is? For Christ's sake; the idea of a social safety net is that it provides enough to survive on. If welfare recipients (recipients! Not even people not receiving benefits!) aren't getting enough to even buy food then we've slid further under Tory rule than I thought.

Friday 9 March 2012

Ewoks vs Na'vi: planning and leadership is important.

Another in my series of "you can make any points about management you like with pretty much any moview you like". Spoilers for both RoTJ and Avatar follow...

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Galactic management #2: Ewok edition

Second in an occasional series. Part 1 is here.


1. Be prepared. The Ewoks, being tiny stone-age teddy bears, were able to defeat an entire legion of Imperial troops partly through a cunning collection of traps, which considering their scale and complexity, must have already been in place prior to the rebel landing party (perhaps the Ewoks were already considering a strike against the Empire). Without the giant tree trunks to crush the Empire's AT-ST walkers, the Ewoks would have been significantly disadvantaged.

2. In fluid and poorly-understood situations, it pays to diversify. The Ewoks, who still called blasters "lightning sticks" (if I remember the cartoon series correctly), could not possibly have comprehended which of their weapons would make an impact on the Imperial troops. We see them deploy a great many different tools with varying degrees of success -- the suspended logs and the rolling bed of logs worked well against the AT-STs, and one might have predicted such. But the catapults and the rocks-dropped-from-parawings were pretty useless. Similarly, against the ground troops the legion of archers proved pretty hopeless but simply throwing rocks from a high vantage point and the bolasses worked well. If the Ewoks had concentrated all of their resources in one basket, they may well have picked an ineffective tactic. Archers and catapults on the face of it may have seemed like a sensible strategy but overcommitting to them would have been fatal.

3. Big gambles sometimes pay off -- but sometimes they don't. So have a contingency plan! The Ewoks joined forces with a tiny band of rebels to fight an evil Empire that had so far done little to alter their way of life, to secure their freedom. For them, it worked. The Emperor built a massive space station to lure the rebels out and destroy them once and for all, and he failed. Both groups, though, appeared not to have any sort of backup plan -- the Emperor was caught short when the rebels finally did nail the shield generator, and the Ewoks would surely have been mercilessly wiped out by the Empire had they failed. We should have seen the Ewoks evacuating children and elderly to a more secure location, and the Emperor should have had a private shuttle -- or even a private Star Destroyer, considering the scale of DS2! -- waiting for him.

4. Relationships matter. If the Empire had landed and greeted the Ewoks with gifts and knowledge instead of speeder bikes and stormtroopers, the rebels would not have found such a fertile hotbed of dissent right in the middle of a vital piece of Empire territory. Similarly, we see both C-3PO and Leia form relationships with the Ewoks, one through an intellectual and emotional appeal through storytelling to the horrors of Empire and the latter an individual bond formed through joint peril and success. So consider the relationships you have as a manager, and as a client, and as a supplier, and make sure that those relationships are productive and pleasing both ways. "Developing rapport" isn't sufficient -- you need to build a shared structure built on delivery and success that both parties are committed to. Amazon and Fog Creek know this, with their strong focus on consumer satisfaction. So does Toyota, with its lean production techniques that rely on good-quality supplier relationships.

5. Er, I'm starting to struggle here. Don't expend disproportionate resources on diversions? We see one Ewok steal a speeder bike, and the result is that the entire squad of speeder troops chases him, leaving the bunker almost entirely undefended. Similarly, I've seen companies spend extraordinary amounts of effort chasing contracts or features that simply won't deliver value equal to the effort put in.

6. Okay, here's a bonus one. If you have extra-thick blast doors and there's a rebel fleet in space, and potentially some insurgents on the ground, don't leave your doors so unlocked a single bowcaster shot can blast them open. Otherwise someone might fill your office/server/event with explosives and blow it to pieces. So attention to detail and adherence to well-defined procedures matters if you don't want to be caught off-guard by something really stupid and easily preventable.

(Part 1 - Palpatine on management)

Galactic management #1

So, in a shocking revelation, a Forbes staff-writer knows less about Star Wars than I do (nb. this is not necessarily a point in my favour!).

Here's my riposte to that article, from a google plus conversation -- with footnotes now hyperlinked...

The Emperor was entirely selfish -- he didn't care if the Empire continued after his death (although presumably he wasn't planning on dying!) and from his perspective there was simply no need to consider a power structure to follow him. In fact, as Tim Zahn makes clear in the wonderful Thrawn series of books, the Empire is still going 5 years after the Emperor's death, albeit in a more fractured and limited form. Other EU books show that there are still scattered warlords derived from the old Empire even 10 years after the fall. By putting power in the hands of regional governors instead of a central bureaucracy, the Empire in fact appears to have been far more resilient to conquest than the Old Republic, which appears to have been turned from the inside into an Empire by a single ambitious prick in only a few years.

Not in the films, but Zahn makes a terrifying case in Heir to the Empire that in fact, the Emperor used the Force to low-level mind-meld all of his subjects into a sort of super-hive-mind bent to his will. What is more of a stake than being directly controlled by the leader himself, eh?

Of course, Vader was different. Petty and vindictive. No wonder the Emperor was tiring of his lieutenant and looking for some fresh blood. And, having wiped out all of the Jedi [fn1] he had few options for a replacement. Now that definitely was a mistake and a lesson for us all: monopolies are bad for everyone.

The second death star, as the author completely fails to note, was built -- not even completed -- as a trap to lure out the Rebel Alliance, who would no doubt be convinced that this second giant space station who terrorize the galaxy. In fact, since DS2 was supposed to be five times as large as DS1, and was nearly completed in the three years between ANH and ROTJ, the Emperor clearly could have completed a second smaller Death Star and chose not to. He also cleverly lured the rebels' Bothan spies into believing the DS2 was not yet functional and that a strike was likely to be successful. DS2 even had a force field capable of deflecting the snub-fighters that destroyed DS1!

The Emperor's real failure was not building DS2, but in a failure of empathy. A failure to believe that Vader could hold any residual feelings for his son. The cruelty of torturing a father's child right in front of him, presumably in an attempt to cement his mastery over Vader. The Emperor clearly had Vader on too long a leash -- perhaps, now more machine than man, using the force brainwashing would have simply destroyed Anakin's frail form. Perhaps the Emperor was simply gleefully overconfident, he certainly appeared that way.

The Empire's final failure, of course, was the underestimation of the Ewoks on Endor. "An entire legion" of the Empire's finest were bested by a small army of teddy bears. Perhaps both Anakin and Sidious failed to learn properly from Yoda, who declared "size matters not". Certainly the Ewoks were far better prepared, and operating in friendly territory already laced with guerilla warfare traps, but were still only stone-age natives. Perhaps the Emperor simply wasn't able to Force-direct such a large battle both in space and on the surface while simultaneously attempting to turn Skywalker on the DS2. Perhaps that was Luke's cunning plan all along, to stretch the Emperor's mind control powers so far that something had to give.

1: all, that is, apart from about a billion force-sensitive people who escaped the purges in various ways or were born after them: Kyle Katarn, Mara Jade, Corran Horn, and of course Luke and Leia.

(Part 2 - Galactic Management: Ewok Edition)

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Schooling #1

/me blows the dust off this blog

BLEG: any interesting links you have to share on education theory?

Prompted in part by a talk at Cambridge Geek Night #13 about the poor quality of ICT in schools, I am mentally exploring the possibilities of unschooling and am interested in what's already been attempted in this area.

Essentially, school to me seems like an only moderately successful way to keep kids quiet during the day so that adults can work, and I strongly suspect that the current system does very little for those who aren't so smart or who have crap parents and so on.

So I'm questioning everything. Some initial thoughts:
- most teachers are not amazing. But there are some really amazing ones out there. Can we leverage the amazing ones better to eg. deliver video tutorials or course materials on a massive scale?
- are "teachers" even the best people to enforce classroom discipline?
- is the notion of "classrooms" and "classes" even that helpful? 45-60min lessons seem mostly a way for schools to box up packages of information in a way that's easy for them while not necessarily being that great for kids.
- what's with homework? Almost no adults do homework related to their jobs.

I suppose I idyllically dream of an education utopia in which kids are excited to be at school and get taught important things that help shape their articulations. I don't know about you but my <18 education covered none of the following:
- critical thinking (don't believe what you read in the papers)
- logic
- personal finance
- how to learn more effectively
- the sociology and psychology of bullying, and of the school experience in general
- any sort of encouragement to introspection

These things are not "history", "science" or "English" but they all seem to me to be vital pieces of what we expect adults to be, and yet we seem to largely require children to work these things out for themselves.