[ExI] retrainability of plebeians

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Tue Apr 21 02:22:13 UTC 2009

2009/4/21 Damien Broderick <thespike at satx.rr.com>:
> Dagon raises many important questions. My own answers (to the extent that
> they are answers and not wistful dreams or shocking errors) are given in THE
> SPIKE. In case anyone here hasn't read that pre-Kurzweil book--first edition
> 1997--here's a segment:
[snip excellent presentation of the argument for universal income]

Thanks for that, it's an excellent discussion. You've just expanded my
reading list though, dammit.

Here's something I wrote elsewhere replying to James Hughes talking
about universal income:

The basic income guarantee worries me, because it's based on money.
The market folks will complain "how do you set the level", and I can't
help but agree with that. Money's a relative thing. How do you ensure
that this income floor can achieve what you want it to achieve? There
is a risk that the market will adjust to absorb that absolute floor
and render it worthless.

I assume here that what you want to achieve is that a person can live
a dignified life without requiring financial input from elsewhere, eg:
paid labour. Is that right?

I think that if the current economic crisis has taught us anything, it
is that money-centric view of the world is dangerous. It's got this
relativist assumption at its heart, that there is no intrinsic value,
only relative (culturally and socially defined) value. That core idea,
run to its extreme, led us to a world where the western economies
moved out of doing anything useful and into pure consumer consumption
and a swollen parasitic financial class. Where smart people do banking
instead of science. And it kind of has to. I like to compare how it
views and rewards, for example, closed vs open software development.
Closed development confers perceived relative advantage to a few (even
if absolute value decreases), and so is highly rewarded, even when
that value doesn't pan out. Open development increases absolute value
for all, but struggles to provide relative difference, so is very
poorly rewarded in comparison.

But there is something absolute out there. That's what the instinct of
a basic level of income comes from; that there is some level of
absolute input each of us needs to live.

I think what I'd prefer to see happen is that we look at what the
basic needs of human life are, and try to provide them directly. Think
food&water, power, clothing, housing (anything else?). I think in most
of the wealthy countries (the obvious exception notwithstanding), a
basic level of heathcare is free, and a basic level of education is
free, and there's welfare if you can't work (well, if you can qualify
and navigate the byzantine bureacracy). We could push further and make
the basics of life free (food, water, power, etc).

This idea has obvious problems, I'll admit. The most apparent is, who
decides what these basics are, and what the levels are? I think that's
hard in the short term, easy in the long term. In the short term we'd
have to make a lot of arbitrary choices (eg: the foods provided might
be heavily limited in amount and type, based mostly on bang for the
buck), and those choices would be wrong for many people (we are really
all quite different). In the long term, however, the goal would be to
expand the diversity available and the amount available to each person
as far as possible. So things would improve. In turn, there'd be
incentive to do things more cheaply, to automate more, to be more
clever, and an absolute benefit to that (contrasting with the current
situation where automation in production just leads to job loss and

Once you get this approach bootstrapped, it can form a virtuous cycle.
You're freeing people from paid labour, and mostly people need to do
things to find meaning. See eg:

>From Ranks of Jobless, a Flood of Volunteers

So, what you potentially have is a lot of volunteers, who are going to
quickly understand the value of this project to themselves and to
humanity generally. Skilled volunteers means cheaper production.
Cheaper production means more for more people. Which means less need
for cash, and yet more volunteers, lather rinse repeat.

I think we see everything through the lens of scarcity right now, and
have lost sight that there are other ways to live. Lawrence Lessig
talks about a Sharing Economy as well as the scarcity economy, and I
think we can bring that out of the information world and into the rest
of our lives, through a combination of subsidy, technology, and
volunteerism (as we already do in such areas as healthcare and
education). If we work on growing the sharing economy, and shrinking
the scarcity part, technology like AGI and nanotech will stop looking
like an economic threat and start looking like the incredible boon to
mankind that it so clearly should be.

Since I wrote that, I feel more convinced that universal income
doesn't quite solve the problem that it wants to solve. In particular,
people get into debt, so easily! A lot of people with newfound
universal income will immediately swap it, as balancing debt, in
perpetuity, for some frivolous short term gain (extra cash, a holiday,
a big car?). Of course individual choice is good, but you know this is
going to happen en-masse almost immediately, and then the enterprise
has failed before it has begun.

I think what you really want to achieve is that people can live a
dignified basic life pretty much regardless of other choices. That's
what I think providing the basics of life for free would accomplish,
and that would be something you couldn't trade away (or at least it
should be difficult and inconvenient to do so, ideally uneconomical to
do so).


http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - ranting
http://emlynoregan.com - main site

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