The dividend of progress

In the lead up to the last US Presidential election (2012) I wrote a post entitled If the government were run like a business… in which I asked (and somewhat answered with more questions):

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model? … It seems reasonable to say that citizens are the shareholders, but what is their investment? How do you measure return on that investment? Are all citizens/shareholders equal, or do some hold more “shares” than others?

With the presumptive Republican nominee being who he is, the question of government as a business has been on my mind again, although this time around I’ve got a bit more reading and thinking on the subject under my belt. I still don’t have any answers, but I’ve got some more ideas I want to explore.

The title of this post was prompted by something that author Rutger Bregman said during an interview on the radio program To The Best of Our Knowledge – which, as I mentioned yesterday, includes several great stories about the future of work in the context of economics – specifically (and this is a paraphrase):

The universal basic income (UBI) is the dividend of progress

This frames the citizen (we’ll keep it at that for now) as a shareholder in the country. The citizen’s investment is whatever they contribute to the progress of the country; be that in a regular job, as an investor, or maybe as a volunteer. The return  on that investment – to the country – is the progress that results from their investment; in some cases this will be the creation of a product, an increase in treasure, or a service that improves infrastructure. (These are, obviously, very basic and simplistic examples.)

utopiaRealistsWhich, in the end, means that every shareholder – every citizen – receives a dividend, in this case as a Universal Basic Income. Yes, everyone. Including the wealthy. Of course, their contribution of treasure will increase as well, which will allow those contributing in non-financial ways (yes, those are valid, too!) to continue to make their own contributions to the success and progress of the country.

But but but…. That’s <gasp> re dist ri bu tion of wealth. Isn’t it? It all depends on how you define wealth, I guess, and at what level you consider the distribution and redistribution. (fwiw, I am likely making a complete mess of Bregman’s arguments and points, since I haven’t yet read the book on which this interview was based, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek; it’s on my Kindle waiting to be read.)

As it turns out I had been reading some stories and interviews about Automattic, the company behind, this past weekend as I attended WordCamp STL 2016 and came across this quote from WordPress creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg

We just look at the company as a whole. Maybe there’s a team of 4 people that throws off like $10 or $15 million in revenue. Or maybe there’s a team of 40 people that barely makes any money, or loses $10 or $15 million. Things basically balance out between them.

— An extended interview with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg

So maybe it’s not a perfect analogy / comparison, but I can’t help thinking that Matt – and Rutger and many many others – just may be onto something here.

The Cynefin framework and the global economic crisis

With all the talk about the ongoing global economic crisis and the desire to find out what caused it and how to “fix” it, I found myself wondering if this is something that we actually can figure out, especially while we are still in the middle of the situation.   I turned to the Cynefin framework to help me try to make sense of what kind of problem this is that we are facing.

Graphical depiction of the Cynefin framework

This is most definitely not a simple problem, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious.

I also don’t believe this is a complicated problem, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis and/or the application of expert knowledge and the approach to solve it is characterized as Sense-Analyze-Respond.  I do, however, think the decision makers early on in this situation treated this as a complicated problem.    The sensing part came from the realization that their was a problem, an analysis (quickly and crudely conducted) showed that the problem was liquidity (they thought), and the response was to funnel nearly a trillion dollars to various people in the hope that this would improve said liquidity (they hoped).

Over the past couple of weeks, the decision makers seem to have gone into a chaotic state, grasping at straws because there is no apparrent  relationship between cause and effect at the “system” level of the economy.  They seem to be using the Act-Sense-Respond approach to trying to solve the problems; they try something to see if it works and then respond with another action so they can see if that works.  Of course, you could just as easily say that they have been acting in a state of disorder, with no clue of what type of causality exists and simply making decisions based on what has always worked for them.

Which leaves complex, where I think this problem actually belongs.  In a complex system, the cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, which is why I wonder if we will be able to figure out the cause while we are still enmeshed in the problem.  However, just because we can’t yet determine how we got to this point doesn’t mean that we can’t find our way out of it.  Using the approach of Probe-Sense-Respond, those making the decisions can get an idea of what’s going on and what effect possible actions would have before taking action to understand the emergent practice(s) that can help us get to the point we need to be.

One of the reasons I think it is taking a while – and will take a bit longer – for people to accept this as a complex problem is that, from a political perspective, it does not present a quick fix.  It doesn’t even present the illusion of a quick fix.  Even worse, those in a position to fix this have to admit (gasp!) that they don’t know how we got to this point.