Most governments around the world are spending billions and trillions on Coronavirus Relief packages. Congress just passed a $2.2 trillion package, with more aid likely to come.
People are asking, How do I get my Coronavirus Relief check? How much will COVID-related unemployment be? How do small businesses get loans and tax credits? How are large corporations held accountable? What will be in the Congress's fourth Coronavirus Relief bill?
People are asking the wrong questions. People should be asking whether Coronavirus Relief could lead to a universal basic income (UBI) and the warp-speed arrival of the Star Trek universe.
The Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to reconsider the stories that we tell ourselves, which could then lead to UBI and perhaps a world without money. Social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine gives us both time and a new mindset for reconsidering the stories that structure our lives.
In a 2015, the author of Sapiens, Homo Dues, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century delivered a TED Talk called What Explains the Rise of Humans? that has stuck with me ever since. Yuval Noah Harari argued that humans became Earth's dominant species because of story-telling.
Being a TED Talk, Harari explained an enormous idea: the driving force behind human achievement. How exactly did humans develop from small bands of hunter-gatherers into global colonizers? How did humans out-survive other species with far greater physical gifts?
I mean, our fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, couldn't keep up with a squirrel in the woods, and the strongest body-builder couldn't outfight a gorilla. Why weren't we all eaten at some point?!
Harari points to our ability to cooperate in large numbers and flexibly. Other mammal species like chimpanzees cooperate but only in small numbers. Insect species cooperate in massive numbers but only rigidly. Humans are the only species that cooperates both in mass and flexibly, creatively. Social distancing works only with mass, creative cooperation.
I would have left it at that and felt very proud of myself, but that's why I haven't been asked to give a TED Talk (yet). Harari keeps going:
"How, exactly, do we do it?What enables us alone, of all the animals, to cooperate in such a way? The answer is our imagination. We can cooperate flexibly with countless numbers of strangers, because we alone, of all the animals on the planet, can create and believe fictions, fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules,the same norms, the same values."
Here comes the part that stuck with me. The reason why I don't worry about the national debt. The reason I don't fret about $2.2 trillion Corona Relief packages. The reason I think at least part of the future depicted in Star Trek might come to pass.
What is money? Again, money is not an objective reality; it has no objective value. Take this green piece of paper, the dollar bill. Look at it -- it has no value. You cannot eat it, you cannot drink it, you cannot wear it. But then came along these master storytellers --the big bankers, the finance ministers, the prime ministers -- and they tell us a very convincing story: "Look, you see this green piece of paper? It is actually worth 10 bananas." And if I believe it, and you believe it, and everybody believes it, it actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to the supermarket, give it to a complete stranger whom I've never met before, and get, in exchange, real bananas which I can actually eat. ... Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes.
Until I heard that, I never realized that money has value only because we say it does.
So if humans created the fiction that pieces of stone, metal, paper, or plastic have value, and that value rests on a shared agreement to believe said fiction, then humans can agree on a new fiction.
What if we agreed to admit that money is a story we made up and that we can revise the story? What if we just gave every man, woman, and child on the planet a million bucks and said good-bye to poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare access, lack of educational access, and so much more? Imagine how much less traumatic social distancing would be for our economies, communities, families, and individuals.
Inflation, you say? Inflation occurs when the government prints more money. More money in circulation means that each individual piece of money has less value than it did when less money circulated.
But money is a story we agree upon. We could agree to give every person a million dollars and fix the value of a dollar as well as the current prices of everything. Inflation isn't some physical property of the universe that we didn't create, can't change, and just have to live with. There's no law that says prices must go up.
You can't fix the dollar's value without affecting other currencies, you argue. If the dollar had a fixed value, then other currencies could suffer. The U.S. has been complaining about China's manipulation of its currency for decades because a cheaper yuan helps Chinese exports compete with American exports.
So, fix the value of all the currencies. Are you really worried about those poor currency traders? They'll find something else to trade. Or maybe just don't care about other currencies. It's worked for China.
Freeze prices in time. The world doesn't end because prices stayed the same as the day before. Why not freeze the price of everything so that a million dollars stays a million dollars in value?
People will stop working, you scream. Then why do most lottery winners continue working after they hit the jackpot? Movies, television, and a celebrity-obsessed media have given us the impression that wealth begets a life of leisure. If everyone were wealthy, the logic of Hollywood goes, who would work and produce goods or provide services?
Studies show that incomes above $70,000 per year don't have much impact on a person's overall levels of happiness and satisfaction. Everyone needs enough money to meet basic needs, and everyone wants enough money to achieve some margin and stability in the ability to meet those needs while still buying lattes on the regular. But people work for its own satisfaction, for the dignity of it, and just for something to do.
Besides, I'm proposing only a million bucks. That won't last forever even if we froze inflation and prices. And it doesn't have to be stringless. Just require everyone to keep working their current jobs, or to go to school, or to devote a certain amount of time to community service to receive their payout.
I seriously doubt most people will want to quit their jobs anyway, but I imagine some people will be glad to get out of crappy jobs. They'll go to school, get better jobs, or serve their communities.
Who will do those crappy jobs? Someone's got to (but not me), you say. Artificial intelligence and automation may eliminate those crappy jobs that no one wants to do. Many worry that it will destroy entire career fields and necessitate a universal basic income (UBI). Perhaps it wouldn't be the worst thing to get ahead of a world in which everything from fast-food to accounting can be done by a robot by incentivizing education and community service.
Why not just give everyone ten million dollars, a hundred million, or a billion, you laugh. Because then the multimillionaires and billionaires won't feel special anymore.
I suspect this is the reason why the human race hasn't already revised the story of money. People want to feel superior. They want to outpace the Joneses more than they want to keep up with them. And they want to attribute their superiority to their own talent and hard work.
Even poor people, sometimes especially poor people, want to believe that they'll one day be rich if they just keep working hard enough and maybe also catch the right lucky break. Thus even the people that social welfare programs and a UBI would benefit often oppose those programs.
Talent and hard work are important, to be sure, but Americans focus so much on the narrative of individual success that we ignore the reality of collective support. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and all the other billionaires couldn't exist without the infrastructure, educational system, regulatory system, and tax structure provided by the U.S. government -- of the people, by the people, for the people. Not to mention the employees who do the actual day-to-day work that produces their wealth.
What if our story of money focused more on rewarding collective effort than on enabling societal and class distinctions? We might just build the Starship Enterprise.
In the idealistic Star Trek universe, money is a relic of the past. People work for the fulfillment and satisfaction of doing so, from tending bar (see the Star Trek reboot) to building spaceships. Presumably, the crappy jobs no one wants were automated long ago; that would certainly help my argument. Then again, the guys Mike Rowe hangs around with seem to enjoy their work in part because it's dirty.
Science fiction often previews the future. I'm not sure we'll ever achieve warp speed, but I do think it's possible we may not need money at all if we revise the story of money.
The Coronavirus pandemic may be the jolt we need to realize that we created systems and stories to serve us, not the other way around.
We made our civilization. We can also change it.