The Story Behind the Paper

2 09 2019

As with most journal articles there is a story behind the work, but these are rarely told. In this post, I thought I’d share why we wrote our paper entitled Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability.

Over the past two decades, I have worked closely with Prof. Nicholas Ashford, Prof. Robert Ashford, and Charles Caldart to identify strategies that could transform the industrial state towards sustainability. This research has resulted in two editions of our textbook entitled Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development. While the scope of this work is vast, at its core is how regulation/policy, innovation, and new economics can be leveraged to create an environment for disruptive change towards sustainability.

When we started this collaboration, the trends in income inequality were clear, but the national/international conversation related to using some form of universal basic income to address inequality was limited. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, this situation started to change, as did the conversation about the role of automation/AI in displacing well-paid employment opportunities.

We have long argued for the need to consider “employment” as a fundamental, but frequently overlooked, aspect of sustainability, which is why we put the words Environment, Economy, and Employment on the front cover of the textbook. What many people may not realize (without a careful read of the textbook) is that we view employment from two perspectives – (1) traditional employment that provides people with an income from their labor and (2) employment of the capital they may own that also provides an income.

Given our focus on employment, we have been tracking how technology (think automation, digital technology, software, AI, robotics, etc.) has been reshaping work and what this means for the idea of full-time, well-paid work. The first section of the new paper presents some of these trends, especially related to the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and many OECD nations.

The second section of the paper looks at the macro environmental challenges we face and raises a critical question. If we advance a scientifically-optimistic “efficiency” agenda (i.e., do much more with much less) to address environmental problems, is this approach likely to result in less well-paid jobs? We believe this could be the case. As knowledge/skills are continually embodied into more advanced forms of capital (technology, AI, etc.), the ability of labor to claim its share of the work being done (what we call productiveness; which is not the same as labor productivity) declines. It is also important to add that while the total number of jobs may actually remain the same or increase, what we are focusing on is what is doing the work and what this means for income (i.e., income from labor and from technology/real capital ownership).

The implications from this understanding of the economy point to some challenging questions. For example, if human knowledge and skills (especially, routine manual and cognitive tasks) are being embodied in technology/real capital, the question of who or what is really doing the value-added work becomes important. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the ability of workers to claim a greater share of the wealth being created, if the majority of the work being done (value being added) comes from the technology/real capital side of the equation.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to explain what is a set of complex and interconnected ideas, but during a conversation I had with our new Dean in 2017, I found a “two ice hockey stick” analogy to be useful. Put simply, both hockey sticks represent curves of the two most pressing issues of our time, increasing inequality and increasing environmental problems. As mentioned above, the typical set of solutions to environmental problems is to essentially do more with less through efficiency/advanced technology (the scientifically optimistic solution to unsustainability). The problem is that as the capability of technology grows, its ability to capture value-added aspects of work also grows. Thus, the environmental solutions adopted may worsen inequality as the number of well-paid jobs declines.

A different problem is revealed if we only consider the inequality ice hockey stick (the inequality challenge) and its potential solutions. For example, if the solution to inequality is to provide everyone with some form of basic or guaranteed income, this raises an important question about what this surge in effective demand (i.e., consumption) would mean for the environment. Hence, both ice hockey stick curves need to be addressed at the same time, in a holistic and integrated way.

During my conversation with Dean Richard Blythe, I used the two ice hockey stick analogy to explain my current research agenda, which led to an invitation to join the Dean, Enric Ruiz-Geli, and Marcelo Stamm for the first Dean’s Discussion focused on Innovation Ecologies. My main remarks in the video of this conversation (below) run from minutes 7-14. Interestingly, the Dean’s Discussion and engagement with Enric and Marcelo helped expand my thinking to include the importance of architecture, but not in the traditional sense related to the artistic design, engineering, and construction of buildings. Rather, in relation to the ‘financial’ architecture behind the construction and ownership of buildings/infrastructure, and what this means for inequality and the ability of community members to participate and engage in the use of newly developed facilities/space. More on this below.

Around the same time as the Dean’s Discussion, I read Andrew Yang’s new book – The War on Normal People – which provides a data-rich description of how technology/AI is displacing jobs in America. Yang’s solution to this problem is to provide every citizen over the age of 18 with $1,000 a month, which is now commonly known as the Freedom Dividend. As my Tweet to Yang below highlights, while our understanding of the inequality challenge is the same, Yang’s book did not mention the environmental problems that may accompany a surge in effective/aggregate demand. Hence, the idea for a paper was born that connects the inequality and environmental challenges (the two ice hockey sticks) with an economic theory that understands the ability of capital to do work (like labor) and addresses inequality through its broad ownership.

For those outside of academia, one of the best ways to advance an idea is to share, discuss, and debate it at academic conferences. Fortunately, two opportunities arose. The first was a conference at Oxford University on Endogenous Growth, Participatory Economics, and Inclusive Capitalism, and the second was the 12th Biannual Conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economists (CANSEE) in Waterloo. Both of these conferences helped define the boundaries of the paper and allowed me to experiment with different ways of communicating key ideas such as the two ice hockey sticks. My CANSEE conference presentation is provided below.

 

A video of my CANSEE presentation can be accessed by clicking on the image below. [Note: select the fifth video from the top of the list on the right of the screen, which has a graph behind the play icon.] My presentation starts at minute 29; however, I recommend first listening to Prof. Jennifer Clapp’s presentation on “Financialization and its Sociological Effects.” Her research reveals the rapid growth of financialization and its implications for the social and biophysical world. I would argue it also makes a powerful case for rethinking how we consider the architecture of financial investments/arrangements and what this means for ‘real’ capital ownership, inequality, and environmental sustainability.

The several month timeframe of the conferences provided a window to search for UBI proposals to incorporate into the paper. A keen eye will spot eight UBI proposals in the CANSEE presentation, but our final paper included 14 UBI proposals alongside a proposal for a federal work program. When reviewing each of these proposals, our attention focused on the rationale behind the programs, how they would be financed, who would be illegible for funds (e.g., was there a work or age requirement), how much people might receive, and whether the programs had any connection to the environment. What was illuminating was the sheer diversity of ideas and how the ideological framing of the inequality problem tended to dictate the solution. For example, those who view work as essential for individual/social well-being tended to advance a conditional UBI (i.e., the basic income is received if the recipient is working). In contrast, those who view inequality as a product of the current economic system tended to advance an unconditional UBI (i.e., the income is received regardless of the recipient’s employment status).

What the writing of this paper revealed is the need for additional articles that describe how the Binary Trust would function, what a government-backed inherently sustainable corporate investment certification system might look like, and what needs to change for sustainability investments to look promising from a return on investment perspective. From an advancement of knowledge perspective, I’m looking to collaborate with colleagues in architecture/engineering who are interested in exploring how the financial architecture behind their developments could transform the use of their architectural/engineering designs. The basic idea is to integrate the visible (physical) and invisible (financial) components of architecture in ways that enrich society and the biophysical world.

Given Yang’s connection to the genesis of this paper, it seemed fitting to show how a binary economics approach to inclusive capitalism could be implemented alongside his UBI proposal. Another important argument of the paper is how this system needs to be focused on inherently sustainable investments. Put simply, the paper advocates an approach to addressing both ice hockey sticks at the same time and in an integrated, holistic way.

A week before the final article was published, Elon Musk endorsed Andrew Yang as his pick for the next U.S. President. Thus, I decided to launch the release of the paper with the following tweet.





The Future of Work and Income

17 03 2017

On March 24-25, the School of Public and International Affairs will be holding its Ridenour Faculty Fellowship Conference & High Table Celebration, at the Virginia Tech Inn. The title of the conference is Faith in the System: Rebuilding Trust in Government in a Time a Complex Governing Challenges.

During the conference, I will moderate a panel discussion (at 2:45pm on Friday, March 24) on The Future of Work and Income in an Era of Economic Inequality.

The panelists include Dr. Virgil A. Wood (Pastor Emeritus, Pond Street Baptist Church; Former Dean, Northeastern University; Former ten-year working associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Dr. Joyce Rothschild (Professor, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech), and Dr. Christian Matheis (Visiting Assistant Professor, Government and International Affairs, Virginia Tech).

Dr. Virgil Wood beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Source: Getty Images)

During the panel discussion we will explore how the forces of globalization and rapid technological change, along with an overall decline in pay and wages, have resulted in the perception of a stagnant post-recession economic recovery. Emphasis on economic inequality was persistent in the 2016 presidential election along with promises to bring back jobs and industries that once supported the American Dream. The panel members will examine these major socio-economic and political shifts, and discuss what could be done to reduce economic inequality and reestablish trust in government.

The conference sessions are free, but participants are asked to register.





100andChange Moonshot

3 10 2016

Our proposal for the MacArthur 100&Change ($100 million) grant was submitted this morning. Using the language of Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries initiative, this is our ‘moonshot’ idea. If implemented it could fundamentally retool the global economy to provide everyone with a capital ownership stake in an inherently sustainable economy. Here is the executive summary of our proposal:

Boldly conquering global poverty will require an innovative economic paradigm that provides everyone on this planet with a personal ownership stake in the future. This project aims to transform our economic systems and promote sustainable enterprises by leveraging creativity and innovation. Our forward-looking mechanisms will enable all people to obtain a capital-based income that will supplement their labor income. Using the principles of binary economics, people will acquire capital with credit repayable with pre-tax future earnings of capital (future savings). The approach does not require coercive actions of government or a redistribution of existing wealth. As capital ownership becomes more broadly distributed, the economy will grow as people spend their newly acquired income on inherently sustainable goods and services. Our team’s alliance of academics and expanded-ownership pioneers will demonstrate how universalizing access to capital ownership can reduce inequality and advance sustainable development to create inclusive and sustainable prosperity for all.

In this post, I wanted to reflect a little on how we made it to this point.

My decision to advance a proposal came after listening to Regina Dugan speak at Virginia Tech in August. During her talk, Dugan commented that organizations are often limited not by what they can do, but by what they “believe” they can do. Having initially decided not to develop a 100&Change proposal due to the sheer scale of the grant and significant global competition, her comments and the Beyond Boundaries initiative made me rethink this decision.

I would put my ideas for how to spend this scale of funding into two categories. The first contains those ideas that could lead to siginfnicant progress, but largely within the existing development paradigm. One example would be the creation of an accessible and open data-rich sustainable water decision-support platform that could be expanded to include other sectors of the economy such as energy and agriculture. The second category contains those ideas that are potentially transformative in a macro sense, but are also currently on the fringe of mainstream thinking. One example, and the anchor of our 100&Change proposal, is the theory of binary economics that has been developed for over fifty years, but has yet to receive significant attention.

During her talk at Virginia Tech, Dugan commented that real innovations tend to occur when you feel uncomfortable about what you are doing – uncomfortable in the sense that there is no known pathway to success and there is a high potential of failure. While binary economics inspired the creation of employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), its economic principles have yet to be fully implemented in a way that increasingly broadens capital ownership and creates a sustainable economy. Thus, some could argue that it is an unproven idea. Flying at Mac 20 was also an unproven idea until it was not. With regards to the high potential of failure, I view this in the context of a highly competitive grant competition, rather than failing in terms of the approach. Having spent many years exploring the approach with Prof. Robert Ashford, I feel confident it has the potential to reduce inequality and stimulate significant economic growth. The basic idea is that if everyone received an additional and growing income from capital ownership, they would spend this money on goods and services, stimulating further growth (‘binary growth’). Given the potential negative environmental impacts of this growth, our proposal developed an innovate way to finance the growth of inherently sustainable goods and services. The problem statement from our proposal clearly explains the combination of these two ideas.

Few people today produce enough to take care of themselves or their families. Labor, the main source of economic productiveness prior to the industrial revolution, has declined in relative productiveness as labor-displacing technology advances and becomes hyper-productive in comparison to labor [see the Second Machine Age]. These trends are driving the growth in inequality and the erosion in labor earning capacity, with the ownership of productive wealth being highly concentrated, and with most people owning little or nothing. Attempts to generate equitable growth via government stimulus or austerity programs have failed.

A second critical and related problem is the negative environmental impacts that accompany technology-fueled growth. The Rio+20 promise of a Green Economy has yet to truly materialize, but simply going green is not enough. A new, inherently sustainable industrial revolution is needed, where products and services are produced, used, and disposed of in closed-loop, hyper-efficient systems. A major challenge, however, is the creation of markets for these next-generation products and services. These markets need to provide all people with an equal opportunity to earn incomes from their labor and from a capital ownership stake in the inherently sustainable products and services they benefit from.

When put together, these two macro problems – i.e., inadequate income and the negative environmental impacts of growth – underlie most of the major challenges facing humankind. The fundamental problem addressed by this proposal is how to create Inclusive and Sustainable Prosperity for All.

Since we decided to advance a 100&Change proposal in the first week of September (four weeks ago!), I needed to recruit help to make this proposal happen. I decided to focus my sustainability seminar on the topic of binary economics and asked my graduate students to help structure the content of the 100&Change ‘pitch’ video. They willingly agreed to help and spent several weeks reading, learning, and struggling with the ideas before developing what I considered to be a firm understanding of binary economic principles. The pictures below capture some of the ideas we discussed during this learning process. We also developed a number of concept videos that can be viewed here and here.

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While my students helped develop the video (with technical support from TLOS), I was fortunate to have colleagues in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), the Office of International, Research, Education, and Development (OIRED), and the Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) who both understood the approach and worked hard to help craft a viable project (described below).

This project will make the ownership of capital – a critical and growing form of income – more inclusive by using future capital earnings (future savings) to finance broadening capital acquisition to provide growing numbers of people with capital income. The new capital income will target inherently sustainable goods and services, stimulating innovation and supporting long-term sustainability. As production becomes ever more capital intensive, providing everyone with an ownership stake in capital will be critical to broadly increasing purchasing power, reducing inequality, and fostering sustainable communities.

Because most people lack the capacity to generate past savings, there must be a shift to using future savings to finance new capital. Presently, almost all capital acquired by corporations is acquired with the earnings of capital, and much of it is acquired with borrowed money. The new mechanisms developed by the project team will open to all people the techniques of corporate finance that will broaden capital ownership and provide beneficiaries with a growing capital income. Because present demand for the employment of capital and labor is dependent on expected demand for goods or services in a future period, a voluntary pattern of steadily broadening capital acquisition promises more production-based consumer demand in future years and therefore more demand for a fuller employment of labor and capital in earlier years. Further, the targeted use of newly acquired capital income to purchase inherently sustainable goods and services will significantly expand the market for these goods and services, creating powerful incentives for innovation.

What is perhaps most interesting about this experience is that while I initially viewed the challenge of creating a 100&Change proposal as a moonshot, the more we worked on the idea and began to form the team, the more it became a realistic possibility. My graduate students proved to be the best critics of the ideas we were exploring and played an important role in framing the approach to the project. In many ways, as the proposal evolved, so too did the team’s confidence in what we could accomplished with binary economics. Our final 90-second video (below) is ‘one small step’ towards a broader understanding of the approach.

After completing our proposal, I started watching the other 100&Change videos on YouTube and realized that our approach could finance those ideas focused on the creation of inherently sustainable goods and services. Thus, if you find yourself wondering what inherently sustainable means, take a look at the available videos and get inspired.