The Case for a Universal Basic Income

By now, it is well established that capitalism is fundamentally built upon threats of force. As libertarian philosophers Robert Nozick and Matt Zwolinski have explained, the only way to turn unowned natural resources (such as land, minerals and other goods) into privately owned property is by violently preventing all others from using them. This one-sided exclusion destroys freedom of movement and cuts many people off from the things that they need to survive.

When the physical resources necessary for production are privately held in the hands of very few, as in the United States, the majority of the population is forced to submit itself to well-financed employers in order to live. The precarious position of most workers in this position — desperate for employment but aware that they could lose their jobs at any time — is coercive on its face and susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

Labor protection in the form of safety laws, collective bargaining and prohibitions against harassment and discrimination have helped cut down on many of the worst employer abuses. But no amount of labor regulation can ever undo the fact that workers are confronted daily with the choice between obeying a supervisor or losing all their income. The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that working-age adults, at least, have some way to support themselves whether they work or not….

….True freedom requires freedom from destitution and freedom from the demands of the employer. Capitalism ensures neither, but a universal basic income, if successful, could provide both.

— Matt Bruenig, “Tired of Capitalism? There could be a better way“. The Washington Post.

Lessons from Benjamin Franklin on Business Success

Ultimately, for Benjamin Franklin, the question of how to succeed in business could not be divorced from how to succeed in life and, therefore, the ends to which one should live. To live like a king seemed distinctly un-American. To live for no one else seemed unimaginable. If Americans view things differently today, perhaps that says less about how we succeed in business than what we believe it means to lead a life well lived.

—  John Paul Rollert, “How America Lost Track of Ben Franklin’s Definition of Success”, The Atlantic

The Ice Bucket Challenge Bears Fruit

Amid a fair amount of skepticism and uncertainty — including, to some degree, by yours truly — it appears that the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral some months ago has literally paid off:

According to Vice’s Mike Pearl, the $100 million in funding the challenge generated has led to breakthroughs in our understanding of what causes ALS and how it can be treated. Researchers now report that ALS — a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes the muscles in the body to deteriorate — is caused by a defective protein, and stem cell therapy has shown promising results in lab tests.

Jonathan Ling, medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, stated in a Reddit AMA that funding from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been instrumental in helping scientists break new scientific ground.

“All of your donations have been amazingly helpful and we have been working tirelessly to find a cure,” Ling wrote.

An infographic from The ALS Association, the global leader in ALS research that received the funds, breaks it down thusly. Continue reading

U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

Continue reading

Teaching Philosophy to Children

I have shared arguments for why philosophy should be made a greater part of public life, including primary school curricula. But what would teaching kids philosophy look like? Would it really be feasible for such young and still-developing minds? Freelance filmmaker and philosophy teacher Giacomo Esposito thinks it is both desirable and perfectly manageable to teach philosophy to primary school children.

A member of The Philosophy Foundation, which advocates for and facilitates philosophy courses in school, he makes his case in The Guardian, first by outlining how he goes about it.

…While the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.

The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

And contrary to popular belief, children are far better suited to embracing and understanding philosophy than their ages would suggest. Indeed, the subject is a natural fit. Continue reading

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.

Lab Grown Meat Gets A Lot Cheaper

Given the vast ethical and environmental problems involved in the raising and slaughtering of livestock, alternatives to meat consumption are sorely needed. Since most people still have a hard time getting on board with vegetarianism, much less veganism, alternatives like like lab-grown meat provide an ideal solution: something as close to the real stuff as possible without all the suffering, pollution, and waste required by factory farms (moreover, the amount of water and grain saved would now go to the millions of humans who need it).

Given the considerable amount of technology involved in cultivating flesh from scratch, early versions of artificial meat were prohibitively expensive, as more $250,000 dollars per pound. But a recent report in Popular Mechanics finds that this idea has gone from proof-of-concept to commercial viability:

There are still serious roadblocks that will keep lab-grown meat from coming to supermarkets anytime soon, but according to experts, the cost of producing it is dropping drastically. According to CNET, the not-quite-vegetarian lab-grown hamburger could now be made for about $27 per pound if production were scaled up to the industrial level.

Still, the taste is … not quite there, and the burgers (built by stem cells) are slow to grow without the use of growth hormones. But as the technology improves, the meat will become closer and closer to market-ready. And unlike a veggie burger, it’s real beef. It just happened to be grown in a petri dish instead of a cow.

While nearly $30 a pound is too steep for most of us, it’s not far off from a point at which a lot of people could seriously consider whether they could, or should, buy lab-grown beef for their next BBQ rather than the old-fashioned grown-on-a-cow stuff.

Again, this is hardly a catch-all solution to all the problems associated with meat production, especially as there will always be purists who distrust or reject the very idea of synthetic meat. But given the strain on our resources and environment — which is likely to grow exponentially as more people add meat to their diets — we may not have a choice but to continue building upon this solution.

What are your thoughts?

Innocents Marked For Death

Setting aside the wider debate about the ethics and efficacy of capital punishment, the New York Times editorial board highlights the disturbingly high incidence of innocent people ending up on death row in the U.S. justice system:

[F]ar too often, people end up on death row after being convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit. The lucky ones are exonerated while they are still alive — a macabre club that has grown to include 152 members since 1973.

The rest remain locked up for life in closet-size cells. Some die there of natural causes; in at least two documented cases, inmates who were almost certainly innocent were put to death.

How many more innocent people have met the same fate, or are awaiting it? That may never be known. But over the past 42 years, someone on death row has been exonerated, on average, every three months. According to one study, at least 4 percent of all death-row inmates in the United States have been wrongfully convicted. That is far more than often enough to conclude that the death penalty — besides being cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime — is so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use.

Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress. But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases.

In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.

The all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs has facilitated the executions of people like Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos DeLuna, whose convictions have been convincingly debunked in recent years. And that mind-set led to the wrongful conviction of people like Mr. Hinton, Mr. Ford and Henry Lee McCollum, who was exonerated last year after spending three decades on North Carolina’s death row.

Skyscraper Farms

Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Netherlands manages to have one of the most efficient and productive agricultural sectors, second only to the United States (a far bigger country) in value of exports.

In light of that, perhaps it is fitting that a Dutch company should lead the way in the new concept of “high-rise farming”. As reports:

PlantLab, a Dutch agriculture firm, wants to construct “plant production units,” spaces made for growing plants and vegetables. Each unit is customizable, able to adjust and control anything from to the amount and kind of light received, a major value for photosynthesis, to how large the space needs to be — anything from a garden the size of a microwave to a skyscraper.

By either constructing buildings, or, potentially more sustainably, retrofitting existing, unused buildings, PlantLab believes they can construct spaces where plants will grow faster and more efficiently.

This means the entirety of California’s almond-growing operation could be put into something the size of a Best Western hotel, while also cutting out pesticides, producing three to five times more almonds and using 90% less water thanks to smarter hydration — all without tweaking the almond’s genetics.

Here is a proof of concept of sorts from the company’s official YouTube:

The implications of this idea are vast. Suddenly, regions of the world lacking resources or appropriate climate can grow any number of crops to suit local needs. So much space can be freed, and environments spared, while giving immediate access to food. It is also a great way to make use of otherwise derelict building — imagine how many decaying cities and suburbs could be turned into thriving agricultural centers?

PlantLab claims that with this approach, it will only need space equal to about one third of the U.S. state of Hawaii to feed the world’s population. A part of me is skeptical of this, but with some analysts projecting a global food shortage by 2050, I want to be hopeful.

The company’s TedTalk in Brainport, Netherlands is certainly intriguing.

Granted, the world already produces enough food to feed its inhabitants. Most global hunger is attributed to the inequities and inefficiencies of the global food market, as well as various shortcomings in infrastructure, investment, and transportation. None of this means that we should give up on finding solutions to improve food production; rather it is just one component of a very complicated problem.

Apple Ends (Sort Of) Ends Indentured Servitude — In 2015

It is the 21st century, and the world’s most valuable company has finally ended a practice akin to slavery, up to a point. As the Washington Post reported:

The process works like this: Employment agencies recruit workers. They then charge them placement fees for jobs, often in foreign countries. Those fees end up putting workers in debt to the agency. If that wasn’t bad enough, according to Apple’s own audits, some agencies held the passports of bonded workers in safes until their debts were paid off.

That’s right, no passports. That probably means no form of identification, and it certainly means that they can’t go home.

It’s pretty close to what some might call indentured servitude. And that’s what Apple — the tech company that has taken a lot of heat and also offers the most information about its factory conditions — has only just stopped. (It did previously ban factories from using employment agencies that charged more than a month’s wages in fees.)

This is where we are in 2015.

And before any back-patting commences, it’s worth noting that even this step is just a small one, said Scott Nova of the Economic Policy Institute, who co-authored a paper raising questions about Apple’s auditing process. Nova noted that the policy only applies to those who travel across borders to work at Apple supplier factories —  not to the Chinese workers at Chinese suppliers, many of whom also use recruiting agencies.

As the article notes, Apple is hardly unique in this and other abusive practices, as labor exploitation is pretty much the norm among tech company (and for that matter in just about every industry). Even if this one company policy was fully eradicated, many other problems remain:

While Apple has made inroads in some areas, it actually saw compliance with overtime rules fall from the previous year. Last year, 92 percent of workers of factories that the company audited kept to a 60-hour work week, a decline from 2013 when it was 95 percent. That’s not nearly as bad as levels in 2007, when it was roughly 70 or 80 percent, but it is a dip. Not to mention the 60-hour work week, which many of us would balk at, is also 10 hours more than China’s poorly-enforced law limiting the work week to 50 hours. (Technically, Apples contracts with companies such as Foxconn to manufacture its electronics and does not directly employ those workers).

Recall that most of this data come from self-reporting on Apple’s part: the picture would no doubt be just as grim among every other major manufacturer in the world. When this sort of thing is so normal and acceptable that a minor tweak in policy is considered a new-worthy step, something is certainly amiss. Consider this proposed solution to speeding up reform:

So what could Apple, or any tech company, do to speed things up? Nova suggests a model recently struck with garment workers in Bangladesh, following the horrific factory fires in 2012. In that country, he said, 200 brands and retailers fashioned an agreement with groups that directly represent workers. The deal calls for independent audits of factory conditions and promises by the retailers to put up the money to renovate dangerous facilities.

That will cost money, of course, which would eat into the relatively high profit margins that tech companies — and Apple in particular — enjoy. Improving worker conditions would also likely mean that consumers would have to be okay with slower delivery rates, Nova said. Getting swamped with orders for the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for example, could have been a reason that Apple’s overtime hours went up this past year.

Currently valued at over $700 billion — larger than most countries’ GDP — Apple’s total revenue for 2014 was $182 billion. Taiwan-based supplier Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contractor, ended 2013 with total revenue of $131.8 billion (data for 2014 remain unavailable). I am pretty sure that a mere fraction of either company’s revenue would be enough to give workers descent treatment and pay.

I will never understand how highly profitable companies — whose executives and shareholders enjoy billions in compensation and dividends, respectively — can claim that customers must pay more in exchange for treating workers like human beings. The average corporate investor or upper manager could still remain fabulously wealthy — if heaven forbid slightly less so — while giving consumers and producers alike a better and more ethical deal.

Even if consumers should pay — and lets grant that in some cases — most of the time it will cost no more than a few cents or dollars per item, a literally small price to pay for our fellow humans to live better lives. (This applies as much to major domestic employers like Walmart and McDonalds as it does to manufacturers with global supply chains.)