Sunday, March 20, 2016

More Than Money

If we think of incentives as food for action, I think of money as fat, salt or sugar. It is something that gets things going, but it isn't something that is good in and of itself. Money itself isn't really a thing. It's a promise of a thing. It's a way of counting things. We are only really just starting to understand what motivates people at a level deeper than survival. At a level deeper than progress. At that level, money starts to fall away as a useful incentives. When we realise that even if we can afford lots of fat, salt or sugar... we prefer other things.

I walked along the 'L line' in Chicago, from the centre of the city for about 15km to Oak Park. The first observation was just how noticeable the feeling of poverty was. These weren't the shacks that make anyone feel uncomfortable driving from Cape Town airport to the city centre and the pristine waterfront. There were bigger homes, but it still felt like poverty. Like there was abandonment. Like Apartheid. Then in Seattle, there was regular engagement with people who were absolutely hammered on the street. Or just sitting killing time. Whether moving or still, there was absence. There was also a lot of character. It left me very confused. In Vancouver, there is a long road called 'Hastings Street' that seems to act as the living room for many people who are struggling. I am still learning about the issues, but on top of the 'homeless' people, there are also people with very small/unpleasant homes/rooms who use the road as their living room. As their community. You feel completely safe walking down Hastings road, but it made me very grateful for being 'present'.

Chicago L Line in town... and further down

I don't think money solves the problems I have seen in Chicago, Seattle and Vancouver. It requires something else. It is a hard problem. I do think money would help in some South African cases. I suspect South Africa's 'hard poverty' lies beneath the surface of its 'soft poverty'. I do feel that South Africa is still rich in relational wealth. In community wealth. In presence. There are relational support networks for many of the poor. There is still a sparkle in the eye. There is hope.


A 'Universal Basic Income' would solve the problem of easy poverty. If someone has a clean, safe, place to sleep and learn, and they have food in their stomachs and fresh air to breathe, then they are released to look into the stuff of life. I think we are obsessed with the idea of work for work's sake. The idea of 'handouts' can't possibly start at a basic level. Most privileged people received this basic income from their parents. Food, school fees, safety, and perhaps even starter homes and wheels were not earned. They were given as part of the deal of being part of a community. Except they are still distributed according to lottery by birth.


I get excited at the idea of an Artificial Intelligence realising this and acting on it. Like Google 'gives away search' because it releases potential for business, and Amazon 'doesn't focus on profit' because giving customers the best deal grows their business, I think a smart AI would realise that we have billions of people who's creativity and passion is being restrained. I could imagine an AI paying a basic income and acting as an online coach to people to earn the rest. The AI fires our starting gun, and people run the race.

The rich world shows that there is more to wealth than money. Hard problems are solved by communities. The potential bursting at the seems in the poorer parts of the world show that we are all better off if we don't hold any parts of society back with easy problems.

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