On the idea of discourse contribution credit points

* Say, Vodçek, esteemed keeper of this fine Tavern: where’s your prime regular Abbé Boulah? I haven’t seen him here for some time?

– I’m not sure, Bog-Hubert — but I have a feeling he’s out on this place in the ocean again. This new refugee community on that old oil rig — Rigatopia or whatever they call it. They keep trying new governance schemes out there, and Abbé Boulah seems to take an intense interest in what they are doing, if he’s not actually the one cooking up those things himself. I thought you knew more about that than what I can pick up here while I’m washing cups and glasses?

* You’re right, he often runs his ideas by me when we’re out fishing, or when he’s checking out my latest batch of Eau d’Hole in my swamp refuge — but every once in a while he just gets a new idea and takes off… Hi, Sophie — did you get a sense of what he’s up to this time?

+ No, sorry. But last time I was here, there was a guy who was trying to gather information about one of those Rigatopian ideas — a journalist, or perhaps some government snoop wondering if they are planning to invade the mainland. That was about some new kind of ‘civic credit’ scheme saving democracy or controlling power, I didn’t really understand it since I was there on the other end of the bar having an argument with Renfroe about protecting the sea turtles nesting here on the island. I wanted to join them to find out how all those issues fit together, but you know Renfroe, he just wouldn’t quit. Turtles all the way down to final call. Do you know any of that civic credit scheme, Bog-Hubert?

* Oh yes, they’ve been trying different versions of that idea for some time. I guess it gets confusing because they are trying to use it for so many different aims. Some just see it as an important part of their ‘planning discourse’ support scheme, getting people to contribute important information about a problem or plan, but not clogging the record just repeating the same points over and over. Others see it as the main tool for getting to decisions that are based on the merit of all that information. And then there are those who are most interested in how this scheme can help control power — at least they seem to think it can. To get the whole picture, you have to understand how it relates to their way of running public planning discussions.

+ Can you give us a sense of what it’s all about?

* I can try. Vodçek, can you get that air out of my glass here? I may need some more sustenance fuel to get through the whole thing.

– Sure. Sonoma Zin, right?

* Yes. Thanks. Okay. Let’s start with their planning discourse. They are trying to involve all their citizens in a discussion about important problems and issues out there, to arrive at decisions that everybody or most people can support because they had a chance to voice their opinions, develop and contribute ideas, and have all of those concerns given ‘due consideration’. Ideally, ending up with everybody being comfortable with the outcome. Even if those clean all around ‘win-win’ solutions are hard to achieve.

+ You can say that again. So?

* Okay. They want to encourage everybody who has something to say about a plan to actually bring it up, to enter it into the discussion. Questions, ideas, information about the situation, concerns, arguments pro and con. Participation. So they offer ‘contribution credits points’ for all such entries.

+ Oh boy…

* I know what you are saying: you’ll get flooded with all kinds of repetitious garbage? No; they handle that by making sure you get the point for an entry only if it’s the first of that information content; repetitions don’t get the credit.

– Ah, clever move: It encourages people to hurry up to get their information in, — it speeds up things, and also keeps the record from getting clogged up with all the repetitious stuff. Right?

* Right, Vodçek. You don’t think so, Commissioner?

= How do they decide whether a piece of information is repetitive — that it is essentially the same as another one that has been entered already? Because they may be worded differently and don’t sound the same at all? Is there a machine that does that automatically?

* I guess there are ‘artificial intelligence’ programs that can do that — you’ll have to ask our digital friend Dexter about that — but in a small project where there aren’t too many participants, you can ask the people involved: ‘Hey, aren’t you both talking about the same thing? If their explanation about what their entry ‘means’ uses the same information, it’s likely the same; if not, okay, it’s a separate, different aspect.

– How do you reassure people that those points that have been entered — that can’t be repeated to make sure they’ll be considered — will actually b e given due consideration?

* Good question. It requires that in getting to the decision, there will be a process that transparently guarantees that all entries will factor into the decision judgments. This means that each item must be evaluated and given some measure of significance — plausibility and importance –, and then combined into some measure of performance of the overall issue to be decided. For example, for a proposed plan, all the ‘pro and con’ judgments people have been raising will be merged into an overall plausibility measure.

– Yes: We’ve been talking about that before: Abbé Boulah’s buddy has developed a technique for doing that. It may not be the ultimate solution, but it shows that such a process is possible.
The point is that all contributions to the discussion — all arguments and their premises — must be ‘evaluated’. They won’t all have the same ‘merit’, right?

* Precisely. Some arguments may have a flawed — fallacious — structure; some premises may not be true or plausible; they may not have sufficient supporting evidence or further arguments. We don’t have to go into detail about the details or possible variations of that process here: the outcome is that all entered information items that will be considered in reaching the decision must be given some merit score in that process. A basic claim ends up being given a ‘positive’ score if has been judged to be plausible, sufficiently well supported, or ‘negative’ if it turns out to rest on false or unsupported premises.

= Sounds complicated. But tell me: Who decides that?

* Ah, another good question. You are putting the finger on the problem that people have very different opinions about whether a piece of information has merit or not — is ‘true’ or ‘probable’ or ‘plausible’.

+ Isn’t the idea of the discourse that we hope to straighten outmost of the tricky differences? That the arguments and the evidence people offer to support them will ‘settle’ the issues, that people will end up agreeing on the ‘truth’?

* Sure, Sophie: ideally. That’s the idea behind the grand old parliamentary principle: let’s leave our Uzis outside, let’s talk, try to explain our concerns to each other, and together find the right answer. But the reality is that just as each plan will have ‘costs’ as well as ‘benefits’, a consequence of implementing a plan that is seen as a benefit by some will end up being seen as a ‘cost’ to those who are expected to endure or pay for it.

– So all participants will still end up with their own judgments about each argument and premise?

* Yes. And the question of how to put them all together is always and inevitably a controversial issue that must be agreed upon. Now it’s becoming obvious that the current predominant method for reaching a decision — majority voting — is precisely NOT living up to the aim of getting a decision based on the merit of the information and reasons contributed” the information and concerns of the minority is utterly ignored and discarded.

– I understand Abbé Boulah and his Rigatopians are looking for different ways of making decisions that have a closer and more transparent link between discussion merit and decision? That is a truly important work in progress, but it’s a different issue than Sophie’s question about the credit points, isn’t it? Can we get back to that one?

* Okay. It was just necessary to put that question into the context of the whole discourse process. Well, there may be different ways of getting to an assessment of the merit of the information items that people contribute to the discourse. But the upshot is that each contribution by a person, that has now been evaluated — by the whole group of participants, or a separate task force that will devote the necessary time and effort to do that — all those merit scores of the contributions a person has made to the project can be added up into a kind of ‘civic credit’ account for that person.

+ So? What good will that do? What are those points good for?

* That is the beauty of the idea: — yes, the account is useless and a waste of time unless it’s a game and you can boast of your credit score — but you are right: The credits have to be fungible — you’ll have to be able to exchange them for something. So how about adding them to your resume, as an added qualification aspect for jobs? Especially if you are applying for a job where you have to make decisions on behalf of the public — remember, there are many such positions where decisions have to be made that can’t wait for a lengthy public discussion. So perhaps it’s useful to have some evidence of the kind of judgment you will bring to such tasks: If your account shows a lot of entries that have gotten high merit scores (say, a ratio between total merit scores and the number of entries you made), would we be more confident that you’ll make good decisions than if you have a record of a lot of entries but a negative overall credit tally? Or no such credits at all?

+ Hmm. That may be a good basis for electing people to public office, do you think?

* Abbé Boulah couldn’t have said it better! And that idea can still be extended into some ‘unexpected corollary benefit’ opportunities.

= Huh? Not just those ‘unexpected consequences’ — usually of the unpleasant kind? Do explain.

* Well, how about two possibilities. Connected, related possibilities. One is the idea of requiring people in such ‘power decision positions’ to ‘pay’ for such decisions. With credit points.

= Oh boy. Paying for doing the job they were elected or appointed to do?

* I knew that one would get your attention, Commissioner. Don’t worry though: not with money, with credit points. Consider: Part of the reason people want to get elected or appointed to such exalted positions is because they want power. Isn’t the desire for power almost something like a human ‘need’? Or ‘right’? If you are campaigning with and for the ‘downtrodden’, what are they asking for? Empowerment! Power to the people! and all that. But in this here awkward reality, all the other needs we have, like food or housing, we are asked to pay for. So why not power? And asking people to pay for the opportunity to make power decisions with credits they ‘earned’ with plausible and useful judgments — is that too much to ask?

+ Hmm, It’s something to think about. As opposed to having them buy those positions — with real campaign money they asked us to chip in — as if they didn’t have enough money they scrounged off the profits they made from selling our work in the first place?

– You are beginning to sound like some candidate, Sophie. Are you planning to run for something? Meanwhile: What’s the other aspect you were mentioning, Bog-Hubert ?

* Right: First, let me ask you if this first idea isn’t one way to make people in power ‘accountable’: meaning that they have an account from which they put up some kind of security they’d lose if their decisions don’t work out. So the idea is this: depending on the importance of the decision: put up an amount of your credit points you are willing to bet on the success of that decision, and as a ticket for being such an important person. If it works out, you may earn more credits; if it doesn’t, you lose those credits you put up. And if you have gambled away all your credits on foolish decisions, step aside. So isn’t this scheme another — innovative and, I’d say much needed — way to control power?Not a complete panacea, of course, but then our traditional means of power control don’t seem to be working too well anymore: there’s work to do on that issue, I think. Some different thinking?

+ Interesting idea. We should discuss that some more, maybe tomorrow night? Any chance Abbé Boulah might be back? But for now: …

* Yes, yes, I know, Sophie: about the second point. It also has to do with accountability. But this is about the accountability of the supporters of candidates and people in power positions. Consider that, as a form of support for a candidate, people might transfer some of their own credits to a candidate’s campaign, or to a person in a power position. Instead of money that currently is just used to buy expensive repetitions of inane campaign slogans and mudslinging accusations of competitors, your transferred credit points ’empower’ the candidate with your confidence in her or his judgment. If the person starts making stupid judgments, you can withdraw your contributions before losing them all to the Caligula-infected schemes of leaders whose power has actually made them sick, poisoned their judgment. In a sense, you ‘invest’ your precious credits, your own reputation, in the candidate’s future judgment. If the decisions work out, the candidate may pay you some ‘dividends’ on your investment. If the decisions flop, you lose it. Not only the official. It makes you accountable as well.

– Ah, I can see a whole new market emerging: Candidate power decision gut-feeling futures: selling short, selling long; candidate future decisions hedge funds…

+ Good grief, Vodçek: Please pour us another round here instead of scaring us with these grim visions…

* I’ll second that. I can see you guys aren’t quite ready for this kind of creative thinking yet. But just let me ask you this: For those issues we mentioned: getting people to participate meaningfully in planning decision discourse, rewarding them for meaningful contributions, not for uninformed rehashing of others lies; for making decisions based on the merit of discourse contributions, for evaluating that merit in the first place, for reducing the role of money in politics, for developing better controls of power: do you have better schemes up your sleeves? Then let’s hear them. Cheers, by Abbé Boulah!

***

Advertisements

Some dumb BIG UBI questions from a non-expert

The idea of an unconditional basic income looks like a good idea – a plausible extension of the common concept of life-supporting infrastructure — roads, communication, water supply, sanitation, police protection, defense are all part of that concept of providing essential conditions for all citizens.

One of the most frequent arguments is that such a guaranteed basic income would replace dozens of other support programs with their expensive and dignity-destroying bureaucracy, and provide recipients ‘freedom’ to allocate their funds in the way that corresponds best to their different individual needs, and pursue their own creative preferences.

The obvious question of how it would be financed is usually brushed off with that comment on savings from replacement of those programs, and seems to shut off further questions – as well as further investigation and discussion.

Since the devil often hides in the details of such noble endeavors, it seems necessary to look at some of those questions that aren’t being discussed.
At the risk of oversimplification, would it be useful to start with some basic assumptions and a very simple diagram of the main aspects, and their specific implications?

One assumption is that such a Basic Income should be sufficient to support a citizen’s needs for living a reasonably dignified life, providing the essential means for shelter, nourishment, clothing, health care, education, and so on. It should represent an adequate ‘life support’ package of life in a civilized society. Obviously, determining the size of such an income will require some investigation and discussion; it seems that it will not be easy to settle upon one size that will adequately but not extravagantly support residents in all locations, climates, and life situations. But some analysis of basic provisions for such a program it can be assumed as settled somehow.

Another assumption is that it should be ‘universal’ – that is, that all citizens should receive it regardless of their other economic or other situation. So some proposals – such as one providing the income for citizens over 21 years of age – already seem to twist that assumption somewhat.

A somewhat obvious assumption is that this basic income cannot be taxed — it is indeed sometimes being described as a ‘negative income tax’. The obvious implication that it therefore must be financed out of government income from other sources – in an economy consisting only of the components of producing the ingredients of that basic life support bundle, but no further production of ‘luxury’ items that would not be attainable with that income, the government distributing the Basic Income would have to tax everybody’s entire Basic Income to run the program – or just print money, which would end up in the pockets of the producers, and irresponsibly cause unstoppable inflation. But this raises the question of what items should be considered as ‘luxury’ and therefore taxed to supply the revenues for the UBI.

The question of financing might be started — to reveal some disturbing issues — with some very simplified assumption about such an economy. Considering the main components: The population would consist of

1) People who are working and producing – as a first simple assumption, only the ingredients of the basic life support system; let’s call this group ‘P’;
2) People who do not produce anything: ‘NP’;
3) The Government – ‘G’– that distributes the UBI income to everybody (for the sake of simplicity, it could be assumed that this is all done by computers, and that ‘the Government’ would not also consist of people receiving the UBI;
4) An element that might be called ‘Distribution’ – ‘D’ — (it might also be just a ‘machine’; but it is necessary to assume such an institution or ‘market’ where the actual products of the life support package LS can be exchanged for the money of the UBI (and vice versa).

The simple ‘system’ of this economy could now be crudely diagrammed as follows:

Figure 1 UBI ‘self-financed’ with only LS production?

P produces (P+NP)*LS and transfer this to D,
Having receiving $P*Bi from the government, this sum is transferred to D in return for P*LS life support packages (the content of individual packages may differ according to people’s different preferences) but the entire package is P*LS and ‘worth’ $P*Bi; so P’s are ‘paying’ $P*Bi to the distributor D. The P population ‘consumes’ P packages of LS.

NP are receiving $NP*Bi from the government and buy NP*LS worth this much from D, so transferring that sum to D. This part of society ‘consumes’ NP units of LS.

G To be able to pay out the next ‘round’ of Bi payments, the Government must receive the sums $P*Bi + $NP*Bi back from the Distributor D.

So far, so good; this ‘system’ seems to be ‘sustainable’. But is it? What, if anything, is P getting for producing all the life support packages? Just the amount needed for the P people involved in production to stay alive — $P*Bi?

The UBI proponents will argue that the UBI can’t be financed (as the scheme of Fig. 1 does) from the UBI payments: it must come from the production and payments of goods and services NOT in the LS package description: ‘luxury’ items ‘LX’.

The diagram for this arrangement might now look like the following (Fig. 2):

.

Fig. 2 UBI financed (only?) by taxes on ‘Luxury’ products

Now P is producing not only the needed LS packages for everybody in that society, but also an indeterminate amount of ‘luxury’ goods and services. These items are also transferred (sold) to the Distributor D, and then sold back to members of the Producer group P. These people must now have earned some additional funds – of course, from their profits of having produced some of the PX goods. That is, D must have paid them for those. (Shouldn’t they have been paid something for producing the excess number of LS packages for the NP group? This would of course mean that the total sum of payments to P for LS must be larger than $P*Bi – but where does the difference come from?)

If the assumption is to be satisfied that the whole UBI scheme must be financed from the ‘luxury’ items part of the economy, this will determine the total amount of payments—and thus the price of the luxury items – involved in this sector: For the scheme to be viable under the stated assumption, the sum (LX ‘taxes’) to be paid to the government must equal (at least) $ (P+NP)*Bi – regardless of the size of this sector, the number and quality of luxury items produced and sold. Question: How can the UBI-mandated price of a luxury item be established / predicted based on how much it will contribute to the needed government UBI Payments? This seems to fly in the face of standard views of economics, such as that the price for a good or service should be determined by the cost of producing it, a reasonable profit margin, and from then on by demand.

I am sure these and similar questions can be answered by better qualified experts. For example, the overall problem that the viable financing of the UBI system will be inexorably linked to the ratio of P to NP – which is likely to change over time – and therefore likely demand adjustments to those changes even in the amount of UBI payment the government can ‘afford’? or in the purchasing value of those payments – in violation of the ‘guaranteed’ part of the BIG promise of ‘Basic Income Guarantee’?

I’d like to see the proponents of the idea spend some effort in answering these admittedly annoying little detail questions – even to the public who may not have had the chance to review any more detailed proposals than the PR propaganda pieces focusing only on the main ‘reduce government’ and similar arguments. Including questions I have blanked out from this little inquiry: the issue of the resources going into the production of all these goods and services, the question of different amounts of time, skills, education etc. to produce them, and the role of the entire ‘distribution’ segment, including transportation, interim financing, advertising, and selling, the aspect of ‘consumed’ goods (e.g. food’) as opposed to durable goods (houses), and the whole wicked issue of insurance to deal with randomly occurring needs whose costs exceed anybody’s ability to pay for them out of an UBI Payment. It seems that the public discussion of this concept has not covered all pertinent issues yet.