Gentrification Dynamics

Summary

Gentrification is an engine for super-wealthy investors to extract income from the higher tiers of the professional upper middle class by displacing and exploiting the poor and working class. I conduct a thought experiment on the broad decisions faced by a business owner that finds herself in a suddenly more prosperous neighborhood and reflect on how these decisions, under certain assumptions in each scenario, impact workers and the neighborhood. Remember, this is a thought experiment—I’m not at all sure that I’m right, or that I’m not missing something huge.

Intro

To start, assume we have a locally owned service sector business (restaurant, barbershop, retailer, etc.) that exists in a particular urban neighborhood. Its sale prices are set at roughly what the neighborhood can afford. Some other line of work in the city takes off—something like the tech boom happens and suddenly many (but by no means all) people in the neighborhood have more money.

What happens to the business, its employees, and the neighborhood?

Scenario 1

Assume the owners pays wages that are reasonable enough for her employees to live in the neighborhood. As the incomes in the area increase, property values increase relatively little, with no speculative bubbles permitted to grow due to regulation or other institutional arrangements—perhaps huge piles of wealth are not permitted much liquidity but are instead restrained in some way. Income increases don’t go to property values (other than general home improvements), and there is only a small inflow of new, higher income residents. Prosperity is not tied heavily to land/housing value increases.

If the business owner maintains original prices, she may face some hardship due to slight increases in rent and taxes. If she raises prices she may alleviate this minor hardship. Since her customers are generally wealthier, she likely has some latitude to do so—but note that she is not compelled to do this here. However, if other businesses raise their prices as well, she is wise to follow the general trend to increase her profits, especially in anticipation of what comes next.

If she wishes to retain her local employees, she may choose to raise wages so they can afford to keep patronizing her business and other similar establishments. The local businesses that raise wages will be more likely to attract new and better employees, so her particular business has an incentive to do so. If she does not, the employees may go elsewhere for work, though again note that they still have a good chance of finding this new work in the neighborhood since other businesses are following this model. If there is not a terribly depressed neighborhood nearby, employees have leverage now to demand pay increases. If there is, owners may hire from the depressed area. Assume for now that there is NOT a depressed area to hire from.

To bring in additional income, the business may experiment and start offering modified or new services that are related to its old services. To keep costs down, it may also try changing its suppliers. If either of these strategies works then the business increases its capacity to raise employee wages, thus increasing its competitiveness on that front.

In this scenario, modest increases in income from an outside growth industry are translated first into higher prices (since that is what the traffic will bear) and then into higher wages (since it is to the advantage of each business to remain competitive and attract new talent, plus have their employees remain customers). Overall income has increased, as have costs, while services and neighborhood residents remain roughly the same—possibly with some expanded opportunities for new work or entirely new businesses, since people can afford to pay more overall, and possibly with some shuffling of suppliers to increase efficiency.

This is wage push inflation, where a wage increase in one sector leads to higher prices, which leads to more wage increases—sometimes in the sector that hosted the original increase (in which case it is directly iterative), other times in horizontally connected sectors. In the case of well structured and competitive markets, wage increases can happen relatively naturally through the incentives of business owners alone. When markets are not competitive, unions and other such organizations seem to be necessary to enforce the wage increase part of the cycle. When the labor market is slack (i.e. businesses don’t compete as much in it), wage increases are less likely to occur and this mechanism is more likely to break down.

If this mechanism works, the neighborhood is mostly preserved but undergoes some measured and stable evolution. There are increases in income, wages, and the diversity of economic activity, and there may be some decreases in non-labor business costs. Some new residents enter, some old residents leave, but the flow is manageable. Living, healthy cities contain many neighborhoods that repeatedly undergo this process and which keep the labor market from getting slack. If only one neighborhood did this in an otherwise depressed city, the slack labor market would very likely eliminate wage increases and you’re more likely to have a result like that of Scenario 2.

Scenario 2

Wages start out reasonable enough, but as incomes increase, property values enter a speculative bubble. People not in the golden industry are priced out of homes and rental units, or see that they have a lot to gain by selling and moving elsewhere. Lots of new people move into the neighborhood, lots of established resident leave.

If our business owner maintains original prices, the increased rent and taxes will probably drive her out. If she raises prices, she will be more likely to pay the rent but is now contributing to pricing others out of the neighborhood. Her own employees can no longer afford to patronize her business, and her customer base is narrower, though more affluent. Assuming there is some competition, she has an incentive to raise prices as little as possible to survive, but because she must make rent in a speculative market, she must strongly maximize the difference between income and costs. This is accomplished by not raising the wages of her employees, thus minimizing total price increases (which keeps the customer base wider and keeps the business competitive) and keeping costs down.

As in Scenario 1, there may be some possibility of changing suppliers to keep costs down. It also seems that there would be more risk and therefore less incentive to experiment with new services, and that the risk increases (and experimentation decreases) as the rental bubble’s growth rate increases.

Wages are now too low for employees to live in the neighborhood and must come from elsewhere in the city (somewhere more depressed), supplemented by the teenage children of the now-wealthier residents who will work part time for minimum wage and no benefits. If her business survives, it now caters to people who didn’t live in the neighborhood before the affluence hit and employs people who can’t afford to live in the neighborhood now—the introduction of bubble rent pushes this arrangement, makes it the most viable option. The bubble rent is an expanding cost that must be paid, stretching her business model to its limit.

I would guess that cities that host slack labor markets are more likely to fall into this trap, since the lower wage level surrounding the affluent neighborhood provides an extra shot in the arm for the investors/extractors. If the business doesn’t do this, it will perish. Its last-ditch option is to move to a more depressed part of the city where it can still operate. Its place will likely be taken by either a boutique that caters to the professional upper middle class and lower level wealthy or by some other business with low fixed costs and a greater ability to keep wages depressed—a franchise.

This is gentrification, and this is what we have come to believe development must be like. But it is a failure mode of development that ransacks neighborhoods by buying land cheap, inflating value, extracting as much of that inflated value as possible, and then moving on to the next juicy target. The neighborhood is left to fend for itself without the money that propped it up to such glorious heights.

It works especially well in already stagnant areas, since it rides off an income gradient—high prices in the target area, cheap labor within commute distance. I suspect you can even remove the original income increase and just advertise a certain neighborhood as trendy in order to attract existing wealth. Get the professional classes to move their wealth into a new fashionable spot for extraction rather than create genuinely new income streams. Keep the wealth moving, like a financial heat engine that extracts money instead of doing useful work.

Note especially that when compared to Scenario 1, the stagnation in wages in Scenario 2 is effectively theft from the worker’s wages to pay the landlords. The more benevolent the business owner, the more likely that she’ll try to raise workers wages, which means that she must raise prices higher or cut costs elsewhere (quality), which means she is more likely to go out of business. Massive rent increases further sharpen the divisions between business owners and workers.

Scenario 3

The business in Scenario 2, which includes a bubble, is now taken to be a franchise that may determine the wages it pays but which has additional fixed costs and is contractually obligated to use franchise suppliers. The only major change here is that the franchise model locks in supplier and certain administrative costs, while prohibiting most experimentation. The only two “outs” afforded in Scenario 2 are eliminated, which leaves wage stagnation and price increases as the only levers to maintain profitability. Franchises are an example of increased efficiency at the cost of lower flexibility. They can do quite well in gentrified areas, but only because they keep wages down and use their national brand names to charge higher prices. (In depressed areas, they likely do the former while not pushing the latter as much).

Closing Thoughts

Scenario 1 seems more likely when the distribution of wealth around a city or region is more equal and there are multiple loci of growth. There are more investment opportunities proportionate to the amount of wealth that investors have, and huge piles of hot money are not allowed to be used as weapons of extraction. There isn’t a strong preference to latch onto or create a very small number of “good” neighborhoods and ruin them.

Scenario 2 seems more likely when the distribution of wealth is very uneven and there are no regulatory mechanisms that prevent speculation. There are fewer investors and fewer investment opportunities, and those that do exist tend to attract tons of hot money and inevitably lead to speculation. This drives people out of their homes and drives out local businesses. By trying (and being allowed) to dump tons of money into a sure thing, that thing is destroyed and remade into something else—an engine of profit extraction that will only last as long as the investors decide to make it last, until there is another even better opportunity elsewhere. And then the money will leave, and the neighborhood will collapse. The people who once made it function are no longer there, the businesses that operated without all that speculative investment are gone. The props are removed and the neighborhood comes crashing down.

Scenario 3 is the same as 2, but explores the more restricted solution space of franchises. They are often more efficient than traditional businesses, which enables them to get a foothold in most places. But their lack of flexibility requires them to raise prices and depress wages in order to survive changes, further contributing to gentrification. They are also stagnant when it comes to generating new types of work. If I’m right about this, how much do franchises contribute to the collapse of gentrifying areas? If only so much price/wage disparity can be tolerated in a given area, franchises (especially upscale ones) may drive the area to this limit faster. Speculators would encourage this in order to increase their gains, then pull out even sooner. In this sense, the franchise owners are participating in the same behavior as the real estate speculators.

If I’m not too far off in my thinking above, many of today’s gentrified areas are likely to collapse into misery and stagnation in the future. We must develop tools to handle their inevitable breakdown and set them back on the path of slower, measured growth and vibrancy. We must halt the gentrification engine. I suspect that its only one symptom of what Stirling Newberry calls “The Red Queen’s Race,” so a solution to gentrification will likely be a sub-component of a much larger plan. I also very, very strongly recommend that you go and read that link several times until you absorb it all.

Replacing Email

Email sucks and should be replaced with a combined task queue and instant messaging system.  But these systems also lend themselves to management predation by encouraging more metrics and more tracking.  Whatever replaces email must solve its usability problem while protecting workers from tracking.  What follows are some thoughts on how a task queuing system could work, plus a few ideas for where the system needs work to protect workers.

Users may compose and send task requests.  Each request consists of:

  • Type.  Read, edit, research, calculate, etc.  Precise types of tasks can be specified by an organization.
  • Content.  The task being requested, written in plain text by the sender.  The possibility to auto-generate routine content for repeated tasks should be available.  May want to see about including some form of hyperlinks/tags to common documents, projects, etc–maintain a dictionary of common references used within the organization that can be auto-detected and tagged in the content boxes.
  • Deadline.  Date and time by which the task should be complete.
  • Priority.  An urgency level set by the sender.
  • Project.  A project this request is associated with, if any.
  • Time estimate.  Amount of time likely needed to complete the task.  This is open to abuse, as it removes quite a bit of worker agency and is susceptible to management gaming through reducing time estimates to get employees fired for performance issues.

Priority may be:

  • Hierarchical.  The more levels above a given worker the sender is, the higher the priority the sender may attach to the request.  Request priority from subordinates may be altered by their bosses.
  • Egalitarian.  Everyone has the same priority options available to them, and everyone is allocated a certain number of priority modifications per unit of time.
  • Deadline-based, possibly combined with the optional time estimate information.

Note that the above priority discussion could be extended into other aspects of the system, such as who gets to accept/decline task requests.  Hierarchical is most open to abuse, and deadline-based may be as well if management is willing to cook the numbers.

When a task is sent, it goes into the queue of the acceptor(s).  The acceptor(s) may choose to take on the task, may request a modification, or may reject it–all based on the rules established within the organization.  Once a task is accepted, it is added to the task hierarchy of the given project, with the acceptor listed as the responsible party.  An organization may choose to keep a complete history of all tasks associated with a given project, or they may disappear into the ether after completion.  Possibly both, depending on the nature of the tasks/project.

Some tasks are purely self-completed, with the task owner checking them off as complete.  Others may require management check-off.  Status of tasks include “awaiting acceptance,” “accepted,” “amendment proposed,” “delegated,” “rejected,” and “enqueued.”

Tasks may be delegated, either intact or broken into pieces.  If broken into pieces, the onus is on the delegator to break the original task up into appropriate pieces and assign them to others correctly.  Some interpretation may be necessary in the case of broader directives from upper management.  When a “parent” task is broken, the “child” tasks that it is translated into have links back to the parent, establishing a clear tree of accountability and interpretation.

One can imagine a whole project descending from a single task at the top, with various branches and twigs of sub-components trailing off.

For such a system to succeed, it needs to provide an interface with common email systems.  Exactly how to translate external emails into tasks in this system without enormous amounts of labor is an unsolved problem.

This system must also include an instant messaging system, since more detailed discussions obviously must take place in the course of completing tasks.  The instant messaging software should not provide information on worker idle time, etc.  Video chat and in person meetings would also be necessary, but do not have to form a part of this particular system–there are other options out there.

The option for detailed time monitoring of task completion should be made available to teams that desire it.  Note that I said “teams,” not organizations or managers.  Every single instance of the application will have the ability to turn on/off time tracking as a user-only (non-admin) privilege.  This does not get around the threat to fire an employee for turning off her tracking, though perhaps a single installation could spoof the time reporting by averaging that of other employees on similar/identical tasks and submitting that.

In-built worker protection from management predation and metrics obsession is another unsolved problem.

Maintaining the Institutional Status Quo

AKA, strategies used to continue our stagnation.

Pretend that you are an influential and wealthy person. You have a significant amount of money and connections, perhaps you hold public office or are a CEO. Now, pretend that you have an idea about how to organize a portion of society differently—not a wholesale cultural revolution, but something ranging from a tweak to the tax code to a new schooling system or an amendment to the US Constitution. How do you do it?

Create New Institutions, Subvert Existing Ones

Institutions are reified ideas, platforms that establish rituals to cement social relations among individuals, then use those relations to carry out activities to further institutional goals defined by an often unstated ideology.

Creating a new institution requires action and advocacy. In the absence of a large and supportive existing institutional ecosystem, direct and often violent action is taken. This is how much of the industrial revolution was implemented in European societies that, at the time, conceived of themselves in ways very different from today—largely agricultural and not involved in state-supported markets for labor, education, and manufactured goods. The change involved massive suffering and bloodshed for generations, including wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. It destroyed much of the old order and grafted on a new, alien one with new institutions. However, this is akin to a cultural revolution and is not the focus here.

If a friendly institutional milieu exists, as in the present day, avoid the above consequences through indirection. Create an intellectual groundswell. If you can swing it, add a populist component as well and get popular organizations going—or at least conduct very careful astroturfing to give the appearance of such.

Use money and influence to fund and create true believers. Get them to do the necessary work, all at arm’s length. Perform ideological laundering, taking obviously self-interested money with an agenda, washing it through special institutions, and creating end products in the form of position papers, blog posts, news editorials, academic papers, and true believers. Some people will catch on and expose the operation, but most of the time the connections will not be traced, and most investigative articles will be quickly forgotten as the press continues to churn through the news cycle. Remember, most news today is either from the government or from corporate PR, and most journalists are captured by class envy. This is great protection.

If you want to get nasty, fund groups that are opposed to your ideology, but use your funding to subvert people from the inside and to pick people you know are friendly to your interests or who will be less strident in their opposition. Get your opponents to publish your own ideas. Collaborate with your opponents, put them in your debt with your money and actions. Use funding to delegitimize the opposition. Also fund opposition that isn’t really opposition, but gives the appearance of being such. Fund “middle way” movements that talk about being reasonable and realistic, and which make others appear too extreme to be taken seriously.

Assume that you got your way and the reforms you were looking for are in place. How do you now defend your position?

Passive Rejection and Filters

Never underestimate the power to simply say “no” and reject alternatives in favor of the status quo. If you are in a position of power, doing so is lazy, easy, and often effective. Remove alternatives from consideration, whittle down the range of solutions to just one or two, and then have media “experts” evaluate and choose for the public. Fight and delay competing ideologies. Raise concerns with their political viability, claim they are not realistic, that they will have unintended consequences that will make things worse. Reject alternatives as unworkable or harmful. Keep people from understanding that alternatives may have been successful elsewhere. Bias the playing field without having to step forward and actively defend the status quo.

Don’t say no directly, as that is too active. Restrict funding for sources of opposition through legal and legislative maneuver. Increase funding for allies through same, creating a lopsided spending structure. Buy up opposition talent with better pay and benefits—if they’re rational, they’ll sell out to you. Pick off promising young minds by recruiting them to your ideas in school. Fund a program, construct a building, create a scholarship, get interns, give away or subsidize school books with your ideas, have your people teach a class. Have an institutional network ready to hire them upon graduation. Drain opposition personnel and monetary resources by coming at opponents from the side or behind, never stand up and fight directly.

Use passive filtering and professional/managerial (PM) culture to hire or sponsor people who will say no for you. Staff your organizations with people who will identify with its goals, who will toe the ideological line, and who will do necessary political detail work without explicit guidance. This requires people who are heavily educated but with only slightly above average intelligence. People who are well trained but incurious.

Hiring doesn’t have to be explicitly ideological, and rarely is. Most organizations know how to hire people who will “fit” with their culture. This hiring filter for PM workers comes after a host of other filters have already been applied, especially through primary and secondary education. If someone doesn’t fit in, they can be fired for trumped up reasons. Most PM workers don’t have unions and federal protections can often be circumvented by finding an unrelated cause. Office electronics are recording devices owned by the organization and workers have no right to privacy on them, but people will still talk and write incriminating things on them. People also make mistakes, and tolerating small or modest mistakes is a good way to accumulate a list of reasons to fire people when politically convenient.

The authoritarian workplace is a key component to maintaining the status quo.

The Long Run

Active and passive implementation work together on long timescales. Active agitation and pushing is necessary early on, to muscle in and get your way and create a new institutional ecosystem. Once you get your preferred options accepted as status quo, then mostly revert to passive work. Talk about the current institutions as the natural way things should be, and denigrate alternatives. Make others look like meddlers and activists. Talk about being apolitical. It is never a good time to bring up the subject of reform, and those who do are politicizing it. Others who propose concrete alternatives become vulnerable—attack them, but offer nothing new. This is status quo politics.

Most of all, don’t talk about the existing institutional structure as anything other than natural. And mostly don’t talk about it at all.

Expand this thinking across centuries. This is not conspiracy, it’s the intersection of individual human psychology, group dynamics, and institutional dynamics. The accumulation of the self-interest and altruism of individuals and groups, and its summation into something larger and often different than intended. The accretion of practice and ideology over time, with periodic sloughing away of dead matter in favor of a new direction.

For example, capitalist institutions through the early 20th century in the West were active and forceful within the West itself. Laborers were killed for revolting, riots and massacres were surprisingly common compared to the current era. Institutions favorable to owners of capital were repeatedly thrust onto the general population by the elite, provoking counteractions. Now that these institutions are in place, though modified by the counteracting forces, we suddenly find ourselves in an era in which “there is no alternative,” where passive filtering and acceptance dominate, and the tearing down of new ideas is now the bulk of the work of the PM class. There is still a great deal of activity necessary to maintain the current institutional edifice, but the massacres and riots are now largely exported to peripheral areas, minimizing the risk for elites at home.

The passive defense of the status quo is the current goal of the ruling class. It then becomes the work of the PM class, and leads to their ideological bankruptcy, rational “selling out” of interests, and lack of novelty and big ideas. Everyone at this level becomes a shill for conserving the power base from which their income streams flow. We end up with a society dominated by people with voids in their heads, either paid not to think or paid to destroy others. This is not a singular arrangement unique to the current era—it has happened before, but the extent of its spread and the risk to civilization have never been greater.

Any plan to break the status quo and leave the current era must deal with the above.

References:

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds

Various writings of Ian Welsh and Stirling Newberry

Institutional Changes for a Universal Income

Summary

Once established, a universal income must be maintained over time or else vested private interests will try to take it–possibly aided by some parts of government as well.  It’s universal nature provides an enormous political constituency and will likely be its best protection, but there’s a good argument for breaking the price setting power of many major private interests.

Intro

This is a rough draft, with many incomplete ideas.  The point is to identify approaches to preserving the value of a universal income over the long term.  There are two main approaches which I’ve dubbed Light and Heavy.

A universal income (UI) would be a monthly or annual cash deposit for every working age adult.  Child benefits go to parents.  National pension goes to retired seniors.  Scale according to geographical cost of living estimates.  Include modifiers for those with special needs.  Payments are otherwise unconditional, not tied to job seeking status or wealth/income level.

I assume that the government would provide the UI, likely distributed at the federal level.

Start modest.  A few thousand dollars per year per person would be good.  Slowly increase the amount over the course of a decade or two, eventually getting to subsistence level, hopefully beyond.  As the UI increases, start setting lower and lower caps for maximum annual compensation.  Ideally, the ratio of highest to lowest total income should be about 10:1—the richest person makes only about 10x the poorest, or 10x the universal income level.  This is roughly in line with many other developed nations.

Light

Under this scenario, the universal income is given an aggressive cost of living adjustment (COLA) by the administering program.  This raises the UI level according to the increase in the costs of goods and services that most people purchase, and also taking account of taxes.

I call this the light scenario because it only requires two pieces to function and a third piece for maintenance.  To function, there must be an institution that distributes the UI and one (or perhaps the same) institution that calculates COLA increases every year.  To maintain the accuracy of COLA increases and keep the UI, this system requires active public pressure on the government.  Since the UI’s constituency is everyone, this seems like a plausibly successful arrangement–the upper middle class and the wealthy may not be too vocal, but the remaining 80% of the population would be.

Heavy

The Heavy scenario is motivated out of a concern that the Light scenario could run into too much inflation, or that the COLA increases could be gamed over the long term by established interests.  As such, the Heavy scenario requires that the UI goes in tandem with economic restructuring and institutional changes.

Under the current economic structure, an annual cash infusion will lead to price increases.  Not due to scarcity of supply (though I do worry about oil and energy costs), but mostly because US citizens do not have pricing power—they are price takers.  The price makers are vested interests that have the political and economic power to suck up much of the UI increase over time.  They must be broken and regulated.  A widely adopted UI must come with institutional price controls or else its gains will evaporate.

The following sectors must be controlled, either through direct nationalization or some form of public regulation.  Maybe even price controls.  They represent the most basic services that people rely on, services which are virtually impossible to do without in modern life.  Otherwise they will extract the money given to the people.  I suspect price controls will only work well on basic material inputs, though I’m pretty ignorant on the specifics and history of how they can work.  Most solutions below tend to be “nationalize it!” but the real takeaway is that these particular sectors must be controlled and regulated in some manner so as to prevent a universal income from becoming a rentier/oligarchy subsidy and to keep costs reasonable and stable.

First, stores.  Stores are just ways to sell things—usually that someone else made—at a markup for the convenience of having everything under one roof.  Establish a system for the distribution of necessary goods by nationalizing Walmart, Target, and Amazon.  Expand beyond their current locations and warehouses as needed.  This enables the government to negotiate supplier prices, much as Walmart currently does.  An effective form of price controls for consumer goods without actually mandating specific prices via bureaucracy.  Convert to non-profit status, only making enough money to pay employees and invest in necessary maintenance and expansion.  Don’t sell all goods here—just basics.  Allow other, private stores to compete for more specialized or higher quality brands.  Don’t lock in national suppliers, transporters, etc.  Any private sector companies that wish to supply these government stores must exist in a competitive market.  This is imperative for bulk consumer goods.  Provide basic services such as post office and banking here.  Allow the workers to form unions.  Require that workers for private sector suppliers be unionized.

Telecom, internet, phones.  Nationalize the lines, then allow content providers to pay to get on them.  Again, the government can negotiate with private sector companies in a competitive market, while keeping a lid on prices.  The government can also fund fiber expansion through the last mile, or whatever infrastructure improvements are needed for the future.  Enforce strict net neutrality.  Easier to do if the government owns the lines.  There is likely a need to nationalize information retrieval services such as Google, since they can virtually monopolize online ad revenue and hold markets hostage.

Health insurance.  Same deal.  Universal single payer health insurance, government negotiates with private providers.  May even want to open some government hospitals as competition to speed things along.  Will likely require restructuring of medical school costs, doctor salaries, etc.  Must consider retaining specialists along with general practitioners—altered salary levels may change the distribution, but focus should be on quality, quantity, and continued innovation in practices and treatments.  Private companies may offer additional benefits on top of the universal ones.

Other Insurance.  The basic concept behind all insurance is to pool money across a population to hedge against the costs of some uncommon or rare event affecting a portion of said population.  Those affected receive a payout to help them cope.  Everyone pays into the system, ideally all at the same rate but sometimes based on ability to pay and their individual risk profile.  The bigger the pool the better.  Private insurance plans are often complex, opaque, and exist in a restricted market.  Competition for basic insurance is wasteful—advertising, jockeying for position, etc. all waste resources.  Eliminate the waste, eliminate the gouging.  Create national pools for auto, home, etc. insurance.  Allow private companies to offer additional benefits or protections that only the wealthy or highly selective populations would want.

College tuition.  Adopt systems similar to those found in many European countries.  Tuition is either free or very low cost.  Open additional colleges and universities—eliminate pure diploma mills, regulate the for-profit colleges (University of Phoenix, I’m looking at you).  Maybe just require all colleges to be non-profit.  Offer an actual education to all, not just pure credentialism.  Open up a comprehensive system of trade schools.  Would also finally give jobs to many despairing PhDs.  (via Matt Bruenig) Fund the system by placing a special tax on college graduates that is proportionate to their incomes.  The more you benefit from the system of higher education, the more you should pay back into it to keep it running.

K-12 education.  Eliminate private schools and any pay-to-play aspects of public school activities.  Eliminate much of the poor school, rich school divide by allocating funds to public schools on a per-pupil basis, not based on local tax returns.  Open to other suggestions, just noting that I see K-12 as being another possible avenue for cost inflation and gaining unfair advantages via wealth.

Transportation.  Comprehensive public transit project for the 21st century.  Increase bus services.  Reintroduce trolleys and streetcars in many major urban areas and many “inner suburb” areas.  Tax internal combustion engine (ICE) cars in inner cities, then switch to prohibition of ICE in city cores and then expand this out over time.  Expand and improve light rail and subway systems throughout major urban/suburban locations.  Develop high speed rail links between major cities on the coasts and interior.  Federal government ownership and control of interstate rail system, state and city control of other networks, with federal subsidies and oversight as needed.  Keep transit costs down/reasonable.  Viable competition with private air carriers, cars.  May be advisable to start a price-controlled government owned airline too.

Housing values, rent.  Reintroduce rent controls on a much larger scale.  Sprinkle rent controlled apartments in among every community and don’t stigmatize them by grouping them all together, highlighting who is in them, etc.  Heavily re-regulated the home lending industry and banks.  I’m open to other suggestions here.  Possibly zoning changes to increase density, allow for small businesses to operate out of suburban homes, encourage densification around new satellite city cores, lower barriers to starting small businesses.  Densification would work well with the new transit infrastructure above.

Banking.  Provide basic services at government run banks, also located in post offices and in national distribution stores.  Savings accounts, loans, etc. at reasonable rates.  Allow private sector competition for other services.  I want to work state owned banks in here somewhere, but I’m not clear that they’re needed for a UI (though they are a good idea anyway).

Legal services.  Not sure how to approach this one, but high cost legal services are a net drag on society and often a weapon of the wealthy against the rest.  Matt Bruenig’s idea of flooding the market with JDs might work—dilute the legal profession’s gatekeeping/extraction power significantly.  Open to suggestions.

IP and patents.  Potential exists for IP, copyright, etc. to balloon into the next big way to extract money from people.  You don’t own a copy of software, you rent access to it.  You don’t own a copy of that music, you rent it.  Stop paying and you lose access.  Etc.  Complex issue, so I’m barely scraping the surface here, but basically reduce all patents to something like 5 – 10 years maximum.  Major push to bring lots of knowledge into the public domain, eliminate patents on algorithms, genes, and so on.  Similar push on copyright.

Child care.  With a universal income, parents would likely have more time to spend with their children, and the drop in demand for child care services should decrease costs overall.  However, if this doesn’t happen or the drop isn’t large enough, government run child care programs should be established.  I would strongly favor a subsidiarity approach, where the establishment and running of such centers was managed by communities with heavy parental involvement, yet regulated by higher level (federal?) government.  Provide federal funds for centers in need.  Etc.  This will again keep a lid on costs.

Taxation.  All other items listed above assume that government is stepping in to stop extortion and gatekeeping extraction, but now we must consider what to do when governments (or sectors of governments) do the same.  Especially increases in regressive taxes, such as the sales tax.  These could be manipulated by local, city, county, state, or even federal government to grab up as much of the UI as possible, either for budgetary or ideological reasons.  This won’t be a problem for the wealthy but is definitely an issue for the poor, who are the major beneficiaries of the UI.  There would be some natural incentive to not tax away the UI due to the increase in demand from putting more cash in people’s hands—tax receipts would naturally go up due to the economic boost.  But it seems inevitable that some group will gain power at some level of government and either get greedy or have an ideological desire to tax away the UI, likely in a subtle manner over a lengthy period of time.  Similar to cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age or using chained CPI.  It’s also possible that taxes confiscating much of the UI will be raised/instituted as temporary measures but eventually become routine—institutional drift.  I have three ideas to protect against this:  Make our politics truly democratic and accountable to the people, greatly increase the power of labor unions or UI advocacy groups, and/or create a dedicated UI watchdog that tracks the purchasing power of UI recipients and the impacts of prices, taxation, etc.  The first is utopian and vague, but is an ideal long term goal.  The second is realistic, probably effective, and could be pushed via the nationalizations above plus some changes to US law.  The third is easy, but would probably have little protective power over the long term unless it is rolled into a COLA setting institution.  Options 2 and 3 seem to be the most viable, concrete ideas.

Finally, the issue of free time.  Most people want to do something with their time.  Increasing automation plus the consolidation involved in the nationalizations above will put a lot of people out of work.  The universal income and other safety nets will be there to catch them, and I believe that many of them will find something to do with their time.  But there will be some individuals who see these developments in a negative light, who will have difficulty finding ways to occupy their time.  Neighborhood hobby and recreation centers should be supported for these people and for the general populace.  Not just for playing cards or sports, but also for education and building things.  Center them around community colleges.  Make them centers for public/community owned capital—have space for people to tinker with electronics/robotics, learn how to make clothing, learn how to grow food, build microprocessors, fly kites, paint, etc.  Obviously there won’t be space for all this at all sites, but some kind of distribution of activities should be attempted.  Locals could vote for which activities to support, with denser urban areas likely getting more capital intensive facilities/tools.  Open smaller satellite campuses with more specialized activities for those who want them.  Allow for gradual capital accumulation in these satellites, letting people take any inventions, services, etc. into private companies, or at least some form of organization that can grow and spread the benefits around.

(Edited on 7/12/14 to add in COLA thoughts, slightly restructure the post)

Implications Of Immortality

Statics

  1. Physical preservation and integrity: Describes how much your immortal physical form will resemble your native biological form. It may be possible to reverse aging and give everyone the physique of a Greek god/goddess. Or we may become brains in jars. Immortality may be preservation, or it may require further evolution/change.
  2. Mental state preservation: Describes how much of your sense of self and mental dynamics are preserved. For example, all the information in your mind may be preserved, but is it accessible in a format that actually “thinks” dynamically, or is it simply subject to reading by computer without thinking? There must exist some range of possibilities. On one end your data is arranged and run in such a way that it mimics your mental processes, on the other end, it is arranged simply for information retrieval and is not setup for conscious recall or what we consider to be thinking. It may be possible for the latter to be reformatted and run for “awareness.”  A separate but related concern: Can the human mind in its current form actually handle immortality? Our long term memories are terrible, and we get bored or stuck in routine relatively easily. Could ennui become the major risk factor for the continuation of our species, absent some way to modify our minds?
  1. Informational preservation: Describes how much of the information in your mind and body is preserved. Is the immortal you a direct copy or continuation of every connection and chemical in your original brain? Is it an “expert system” that mimics you to 99.99% accuracy? Are blanks and lost information filled in with algorithms that determine what most likely happened and which piece together your experiences accordingly? How much information is lost in the transition, how many transitions will there be?
  2. Continuity of experience: Describes whether the mortal “you” is the one that becomes immortal, or whether a copy is the immortal one—and the mortal “you” dies while the copy lives. Consider two scenarios: In the first, immortality tech consists of a destructive mind scan that kills your brain but reads all the relevant connections, chemistry, etc. necessary to create a computer emulation of your mind. Here, you will die but a copy of you will live on. In the second scenario, your brain is transformed neuron by neuron over the course of a year, replacing your organic brain with one made of silicon/ceramic/etc. During that year, the artificial parts of the brain continue to function precisely as the organic parts and interface with adjacent organic parts. This scenario appears to allow for total continuity of experience—the mortal “you” is transformed into the immortal you.
  3. Redundancies and backups: How many backups/instances are made of you, and how many of them are running/awake at the same time? Possibilities range from: (a) Singular individuality, where you are the only and unique copy, (b) serial cloning, where multiple clones of yourself live one at a time with frequent memory backups and with the next clone taking over when the current one dies, to (c) parallel cloning, where multiple versions of yourself are alive and aware at the same time. Option (c) eventually converges to (a), absent some kind of collective mind-sharing technology.

Dynamics

Technologies for immortality could be flawed, or particular strategies may only be viable for a limited period of time. There could be inherent deficiencies in an old method which must be overcome by a new one. Certain methods of preservation could be more prone to accidents and irreplaceable loss of information. Immortality may require a constant, shifting change and adaptation to new physical forms, new situations, etc. Evolution of the mind/body on the individual scale, facilitated by technology. The individual as his/her/its own species, eventually.

Mental state would probably have to vary. Expansion of capabilities over time. If the mind is preserved in a mutable form, can it be expanded and intelligence/capacities enhanced? Will sentience and sense of self be maintained, or could higher intelligence become unrecognizable to us? If not expanded or altered, how can a human maintain that they are the same person over the course of millennia? Can immortals remain sane given a human mind? How would one person handle 10,000 years of experience without either being bored with everything or completely forgetful of all but the last few hundred years? If the latter, is that person really the same individual that they were 5,000 years ago? Does it matter?

The societal implications of immortality are huge. If immortality is possible and it can be achieved while retaining power and influence in mortal affairs, then the rich and powerful will be the first to get it—and they will do their damnedest to make sure they’re the only ones who get it. Call them the First Wave. If they succeed, then we will be living under the thumb of a group of immortal, fabulously wealthy and powerful intelligent beings—effectively sentient corporations, or something close to that. Depending on how much they can insulate themselves from the results of their actions, the mortal population will experience one of two possible effects: (1) If the First Wave are vulnerable to violence or coercion, they will be forced to take the long view and be reasonably generous to mortals. Realize that they have all the time to the heat death of the universe to lose, while mortals have maybe 100 years. Under this scenario, it may be possible to extend immortality to the rest of the population if the rich/powerful immortals can be… persuaded. (2) If they are not vulnerable to attack, then it becomes very likely that the First Wave will come to see themselves as something akin to gods. Most people, given supreme power over others, are abusive when it is in their interest. Couple this tendency with a view that normal humans are like mayflies and you will have a future that makes Orwell’s 1984 actually look good. Under this scenario, the best hope is that the First Wave comes to benignly neglect humanity while going about their own affairs. Note as well that if the First Wave is not vulnerable to attack, it is in their interest to prevent any changes that may make them vulnerable to attack. Stasis is their preferred outcome.

This discussion does not include intra-elite conflicts within the First Wave. I suspect that there would be very strong taboos against killing others in the First Wave, since the downside of dying is so great. However, this leaves the door wide open to Cold War-style proxy wars that don’t directly touch the seats of power.

Assuming that immortality becomes available to everyone, what then happens to social progress? Imagine if a large chunk of modern day society consisted of individuals born in the 1300s. Does boredom eventually lead to experimentation, or to stagnation? What institutions are necessary to keep things running and moving? I would suggest that immortality requires that humans spread out quite a bit, to provide room for people to either experiment or grow bored as they see fit, without dragging everyone else along for the ride.

FirstPost

I will occasionally post my ideas here.  I make no claims to being an expert on anything, just an interested amateur.  Most content will deal with political economy, sociology, technology, and “big picture” civilization level issues.