Good Guy in Davos? Not So Fast

Videos of the historian calling out the billionaires in Davos have been circulating online a lot over the past few days.

Kind of makes you wonder how he got in the room in the first place, doesn’t it?

Well, my colleague from Save Maine Schools pointed out today that Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, is a Universal Basic Income pitchman. Rather, he’s promoting a variation on UBI call the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). Bregman wrote a piece for the World Economic Forum last spring in which he proposed financing BIG via a negative income tax structure. For those who don’t know, Milton Friedman, University of Chicago Economist and father of neoliberalism, came up with that idea in the 1960s. See William F. Buckley’s interview with him below. If you need a refresher on Friedman and neoliberalism, this is a great overview by Tim Scott, “From the Neoliberal Revolution to the Supremacy of Financialized Austerity: A Brief History.”

From Bregman’s WEF piece:

“Instead of a universal basic income, we could have a basic income guarantee. Or, as economists prefer to call it, a negative income tax.”

“This is an idea that could rally voters across the board, with something to please both the left and the right:

For the left, a world without poverty.

For the right, no more nanny state.

For the left, livelihood security for all.

For the right, an economy that always rewards hard graft.”

This, of course, aligns well with recent bi-partisan support for privatizing the commons, as long as outsourced public services demonstrate “evidence” of “efficacy.”

Bregman is from the Netherlands where they’re piloting blockchain identity systems. My instincts say he was tapped to play the “good cop” in this performance. When the fin-tech oligarchs get around to pitching UBI or BIG in a year or two, folks will be conditioned to think “Hey, isn’t that the guy I saw on social media blasting the billionaires at Davos? Surely this must be a great thing; where do I sign up?”

It should also be noted that Time Magazine’s logo was prominently displayed behind the panelists, which caused me to wonder who owns the publication? As it turns out Marc Benioff of Salesforce bought Time last fall. His company maintains lucrative contracts with US Customs and Border Patrol and invested last year in SocialSuite, a platform designed to measure impact in social services. Salesforce is working with the IXO Foundation on social impact investment digital identity systems. IXO Foundation partnered with Innovative Edge to prototype Amply, a digital identity pre-k, impact-tracking app that is being deployed in Cape Town, South Africa. Benioff also happens to be close friends with the new Governor of California, Gavin Newsom. Newsom is recommending sizable investments in pre-k as part of his state budget.

This panel and the viral video clips flying around the internet are a brand-building exercise for Bergman’s neoliberal snake oil. If UBI is implemented in the current climate of austerity, economic precarity, and social entrepreneurship, you can be sure payments will be linked to digital identity to track “impact.” That $1,000 a month distribution will be just enough to scrape by. But hey, you’ll be able to sell personal data if you want more than gruel for dinner. Check out the Netherlands’ foray into personal data curation via the DecodeProject.eu here. It’s being run in partnership with NESTA, the global impact innovation unit out of the UK.

If it seems too good to be true…

If they are telling you exactly what you want to hear…

Stop for a minute and think about why that is.

There’s a reason.

And if you still don’t quite get why UBI could be a problem, below are excerpts from my seven-part story Building Sanctuary. Citi Badges and Global Coin are the stand ins for digital identity and UBI.

You can read the whole thing here.

“Those in the know who shifted their investments made a handsome profit, but many more who did not change course lost it all. As poverty decimated the middle class, authorities rolled out a basic income program in digital currency called Global Coin. Everyone’s Global Coin account was linked to a unique digital identity through a system known as Citi Badge. The Citi Badge system relies on biometric information to confirm validity of payments and other transactions associated with a particular citizen.” Part One

“A few times a week students unplugged and participated in a community-based learning program related to their career pathway, but RFID chips associated with their Citi Badges ensured they remained visible to the system. Any organization accepting even a micropayment from Global Coin vouchers like maker spaces, art studios, community theater, and apprenticeship programs had to comply with set standards and participate in evidence-based, outcomes-driven programs that fed children’s data back into government systems. Student data was used to assess a program’s “success” and determine payments to the service provider and those who had invested in it.

When the Solutionists rolled out learning ecosystems, they also made skill dashboards public. Skills dashboards are dynamic visualizations of each person’s academic, behavioral, and job training data. The dashboards, tied to Citi Badges, foster a culture of fierce competition among citizens since choice opportunities are limited, of course, to top performers. As long as most people remain strivers and focus on competing against one another to get to the top, organized resistance remains unlikely.”  Part Two

“In the post-labor era, people have become more valuable for the data they produce than for their capacity to do physical work. Thus all but the off-liners have been integrated into the global corporate value chain as commodities. With biometrically-enabled Citi Badges, Cam and Li are not unlike tagged calves or farmed salmon, managed and processed without agency or recourse; lives controlled for the profit of others. The bio capitalist economic model values them only to the extent that they contribute their digital labor to the Solutionists’ data-driven system of outcomes-based results.

Algorithms hold tremendous power over Cam and Li. Using data generated through the Internet of Things, Oracle can make predictions about the type of adults the children are likely to become. What their cost to society will be. What they might contribute as human capital. Should their family should fall into poverty, Oracle can evaluate how much profit there could be made providing services to “impact” their situation through Pay for Success contracts. Would the predicted rate of return on their lives justify expending the Global Coin required? The Solutionists say, “Just run the data; the data will tell us.”

Talia tries to shelter the family from the data stream as much as possible, but that is has proven difficult. Accessing any public services demands data. Walking outside means you are under surveillance. Even at home devices keep tabs. Data has also become a currency people use to supplement their insufficient Global Coin stipends. The pretense that a person “owns” their own data and can monetize it is supposed to make them feel better about their situation. It doesn’t. Each data transaction puts another piece of one’s soul on the auction block, scrutinized by a predatory system that thrives on want and suffering. And it’s always a buyer’s market. No person in need is going to get ahead selling bits of data. These transactions are just stopgaps until the next Citi Badge stipend hits, a release valve that has thus far kept rebellion at bay.

At first the sensors seemed innocuous, uploading information about when a trashcan was full or telling people where parking spots were available. There were sensors that monitored air quality and ones that made sure streetlights were efficiently managed. People were enthusiastic. But then came the noise sniffers, and the motion sensors, and the drones. Parks and recreation officials were brought on board and encouraged to incorporate cyborg roses into public landscape projects. When first introduced, people were astonished at Eleni Stavrinidou’s work transforming plants into transistors, and now there were rumors of computational forests being grown in remote outposts. Once plants had sensors, people started to get really worried.

Teachers never imagined how sensors would alter classrooms and eventually eliminate them altogether. Adoption of 1:1 devices eroded teacher autonomy until students were spending most of their day with volunteer aides, eyes glued to screens. The teachers that remained were left evaluating student data. In classes where teachers were still allowed to lecture, movement, vibrations and sounds were monitored through sensors embedded in seats. The aim? Supposedly to provide continual feedback regarding student engagement and quality of instruction, but everyone knew it was really to keep track of the content delivered and how students responded. It was chilling.” Part Three

“In addition to facilitating and recording transactions, the ledger also calculates citizen scores, something no one with a Citi Badge can escape. These scores rise and fall based the data each person generates within the Solutionists’ “smart systems.” People are constantly evaluated against the norms set by the authorities. If your behavior, or that of your family or even friends or acquaintances, deviates from these standards, your score drops.

People who question the system have low scores. People with extensive social networks have low scores. People who travel widely have low scores. People who access “the wrong” online materials have low scores. People who are financially unstable have low scores. Your score can be lowered for being too educated or not educated enough. People who use public services have low scores. If you have a low score, you become a target of social impact interventions, programs underwritten by private investors designed to bring your score up and reorient you to the values Solutionist society demands.

Citizen scores determine access to jobs, housing, leisure opportunities, and social relationships. They affect the prices people pay for goods and services and even the type of education and medical treatment they get. At birth Cam and Li, like everyone born outside a sanctuary zone, were assigned unique identity numbers linked to retinal scans and were each issued a Citi Badge. Their Citi Badges are connected to the ledger and hold funds from their Global Coin government stipend, student vouchers, and data currency transactions.

Both badges are tied to Talia’s, so the family’s citizen scores rise and fall together. When Talia or the girls make purchases in the real world or in a virtual world the cost is directly debited from their Global Coin balance after biometric authentication. This can be accomplished via facial recognition, retinal scan, thumbprint or heartbeat/ECG signature. Prices and fees paid are dynamic and influenced by their scores. Low score? You can expect to pay more for food, rent, and medical care. High score? You get across the board discounts and special perks like invitations to official receptions and preferential treatment when filing government paperwork….

In short order, bio-capitalist data-mining operations became nearly as profitable for investors as the extractive industries they had replaced. The automation of huge swaths of labor markets initially posed a serious problem for global capitalists. With a majority of people now jobless, what good were they to the economic system? Sure, they could still consume some products since Citi Badge provided a basic income, but how else could value be extracted? Consumption on a basic income would have to go down.

Alphadata, the world’s most powerful cloud-based computing company, had anticipated the answer. The company deftly maneuvered to a spot at the top of the extraction pyramid by providing “free” online services: communications, software, and data storage. Data would be the new oil, and the convenience the company prudently offered the world built a level of corporate wealth in data that was unsurpassed.

The complete privatization of public sector services combined with outcomes-based government contracting created a windfall for the data-mining industry. To expand these programs, success would have to conform to specific metrics that could only be cheaply aggregated via digital platforms. As global poverty rose, prospects for the data-mining sector seemed rosy indeed. Looking back, people realized how false the narrative of “free” services had been. They had given away their most valuable assets, their identity, without blinking an eye. Their online lives, their digital shadows, were now contained within the Alphadata cloud. It was a parallel universe of millions of digital lives pooled to fuel machine learning. It was these storehouses of data that powered the company’s research in artificial intelligence and led to innovations that put so many out of work.

People had been handing off their data to more companies than Alphadata, of course. All the social media platforms and e-commerce sites mined data, too. More and more people clamored for data control and ownership, which was eventually granted through digital sovereign identities stored in the ledger. Essentially, Citi Badges now serve this function. The datasets they hold are private, but people have the option of making them available for a price.

Progressive interests pitched digital identities as a way for people to monetize their data, perhaps enhance their meager Global Coin stipends. In the Global North, digital sovereign identity was ushered in through adoption of municipal identification programs associated with Smart City improvements, the precursor to Citi Badge. The technology had been beta-tested on the Global South and refugee populations years prior. Perpetual war and displacement created an ideal laboratory in which to refine these new technologies.” Part Four

Internet of Things technology, combined with Citi Badges, allows the ledger to control Cam and Li’s access to online education resources. Besides the ability to edit or veto the content of the online modules, education administrators have the ability to adjust algorithms to steer students towards certain pathways, into VR warehouses, or in extreme cases offline entirely….

If an investor’s online systems can attain “evidence-based” status, it is given a preferred ranking in the Citi Badge platform, which means significant profits. It’s every programmer’s dream to create the next Skyward Skills, the global ed-tech giant that has dominated the market since it had been introduced into regular schools twenty years ago as a blended learning program….

For years activists had petitioned the government to implement weighted student funding: this meant allocating more money to students living in poverty as well as to students whose first language was not English and students with special needs. No one realized then that education funds would wind up in Citi Badges rather than school budgets; that weighted funding would make vulnerable children targets of predatory education schemes; and that in short order school buildings would disappear entirely. No one expected Artificial Intelligence philanthropy would replace public funding for education, either.

As austerity ate away at funding for education, foundations, benefit corporations, and impact investors used outcomes-based smart contracts to direct private dollars into communities using the ledger. Dwindling public funds opened the doors to this private investment, but a condition of that investment was that it had to yield measurable results. Education administrators in the various sectors now redistribute private education investments into students’ digital wallets according to weighted formulas.

At first the program was well received. Once Pay for Success rate cards were approved by municipal procurement, and learning management systems were selected, the process of securing online learning services became fully automated. Now it is the ultimate free market with deliverables in student data driving access to and pricing of various platforms. Payments are contingent on student performance. If an educational app is not meeting required growth targets among users it can be put on probationary status and may ultimately become ineligible for Citi Badge compensation. The most popular apps tend to be the least expensive, but for strivers who have money to supplement their account, specialized instruction is available at higher price points.

The structure of the payment system means most instruction now takes place online, though with Tin Can API, even non-digital activities can be captured and uploaded for evaluation. Every time Cam or Li finishes an e-book, watches a video, or participates in an activity, documentation of the standards that have been met is uploaded via Citi Badge to their e-portfolio. That way Oracle can keep track of what everyone knows and what information they are accessing at all times.

No one particularly likes relying on private investors to fund public education, but the Solutionists claim it is efficient, transparent, and keeps everyone accountable. The ledger, remember, is all about trust. People’s feelings changed dramatically, however, after DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) took over. DAOs run smart contracts automatically, without any human control. Once put into place and activated, they draw on vast pools of capital from a growing network of benefit corporations and can run indefinitely. The system, designed to generate “impacts” upon which venture capital profits are built, completely disregards human life. When problems arise, as they inevitably do because glitches and hacks are intrinsic to the system, no humans are there to address it.” Part Five

“Even though Mak owns the building, the community directs how it is used and gives the space its vitality. Most people come from the cemetery encampments at Maple Hill and Cypress Grove, settlements created shortly after the work camps closed. Targeted by the authorities, people of color, immigrants, the homeless, and veterans comprised the first wave of forced labor. Disenfranchised, lacking papers, or with mental health diagnosis, they found it impossible to acquire Citi Badges.

They were the original off-liners, people who never had to unplug, because they’d been written out of Solutionist society from the outset. They gathered together among the gravestones under the shelter of venerable trees to build their own community. With no stake in the old system, the cemetery contingent became the core of resistance in the borough.” Part Six

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