Star Trek

Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, and man, it made me so excited to see my Facebook page light up with Star Trek love. I don’t know if many people realize this about me, but I am kind of a nerd, and I really always have been. In my school days, I was not really popular, but that was fine. My school didn’t really have “bullies” and the popular kids were actually pretty kind. I wasn’t really friends with them, but there was no animosity between the many social groups. I generally enjoyed learning and wasn’t particularly athletic. I actually really liked playing sports, particularly football, but I wasn’t really that good at it. After one year on JV, I decided to quit football because I felt like kind of a fraud, I wasn’t the type of person that should be on a school sports team so I quit. Looking back, that is a shitty reason and I wish I would have kept playing.

Anyway, Star Trek has a very special place in my heart. I remember gathering around in front of the TV with my siblings and our binder of ST: TNG Customizable Card Game cards to watch The Next Generation whenever it came on. We would identify cards in the show as they happened and feel a sense of pride when we knew some obscure fact about the plot or characters. It was more than just a show to me because it was more than just entertainment. It made me feel like there were like-minded people in the world, people who longed for exploration and adventure. It was also my only real introduction to science outside of the classroom (which was mostly stiff, boring, and textbook based). Star Trek didn’t bore me with periodic tables, it showed me what you can do with science and technology, and the ethical questions that can arise. I grew up in a relatively anti-science environment and Star Trek challenged me and encouraged me to problem solve instead of trusting things based on faith. I distinctly remember when Lt. Barclay began de-evolving because of a virus or something and I had a moment of discomfort because I was raised to believe evolution was a lie spread by Satan. To be honest, I’m not really sure why my parents let me watch it while growing up.

It was also my only real introduction to science outside of the classroom (which was mostly stiff, boring, and textbook based). Star Trek didn’t bore me with periodic tables, it showed me what you can do with science and technology, and the ethical questions that can arise. I grew up in a relatively anti-science environment and Star Trek challenged me and encouraged me to problem solve instead of trusting things based on faith. I distinctly remember when Lt. Barclay began de-evolving because of a virus or something and I had a moment of discomfort because I was raised to believe evolution was a lie spread by Satan. To be honest, I’m not really sure why my parents let me watch it while growing up.

As I work my way through Voyager I find the show still has value, even for someone in their mid-30’s. Like all good science fiction, the issues it raises are often universal and applicable to our current time and place. They are human issues that make our lives complex, challenging, and rich. Sure, the acting and writing can induce some eye rolls, and the special effects are clearly dated, but the real value of Star Trek is the universe it creates and the vision for the future. My own idealism about humanity rests, at least partly, in the potential universe shown in Star Trek. My love of a Basic Income Guarantee and my belief that science and technology can get to the point where we all have our needs and desires met without labor come from Star Trek. The words “Live Long, and Prosper” bring guidance for how to behave, as well as hope for what we can become. Maybe I’ll see the day when 3-D Printers evolve to Replicators and death is finally cured, but even if I don’t I am glad to live in a time and place where I can view human potential through Star Trek.

 

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Let’s Pay to Prevent Crime

This recent Washington Post article about paying criminals really got me thinking. You should read the whole article, but what it is basically reporting is that some cities are considering paying criminals not to commit crime. This might seem counter-intuitive, but from a moral and fiscal point of view it makes sense. Violent crime is incredibly expensive for society to deal with and if we can incentivize people not to commit violent crimes then we would be better off.

So, how could this work and how much money could we save?

That’s a difficult question. Researchers at Iowa State came up with some figures and they say each murder costs society about $17 million. This includes things that are fairly easy to measure like cost of the investigation, trial, and imprisonment but this figure also includes costs that are more difficult to measure like a societies willingness to prevent crime, lost wages and productivity, etc.

Lets say we use a much more conservative estimate for the cost to deal with murder, say $5 million and we decide that paying likely violent criminals $1,000 per month in cash to be peaceful is enough incentive to prevent future violence, and let’s add another $500 per month per individual to invest in job training, mentorships, and other programs to provide stability. The latter is especially important to help prevent recidivism.

With these guesstimate numbers (conservative cost of a murder in society and liberal benefits to likely criminals) it would make financial sense to pay 277 likely criminals if it prevented one murder each year. But, the cost savings would actually be much higher because more common violent crimes (assault, burglary, etc) are not factored into the savings. If we use a more liberal cost of murder ($17 million) and a more conservative total benefits for likely violent criminals ($1,000 total investment)  the number of individuals we can support is around 1,400 to prevent one murder.

I think identifying the best individuals to enter this program is part of the difficulty. Individuals with a history of violence are the prime candidates, so maybe those that have already been convicted of violent crimes. This type of system could work in cooperation with early release programs. This would prevent people from trying to join the program who aren’t really threats  or from becoming violent just to get in the program (it seems unlikely that a person is willing to assault someone and spend a couple of years in jail just because they might get into the program).

The real key is to provide individuals with financial stability and opportunities to better their lives through education, entrepreneurship, and community investment. Dumping individuals back on the streets after they commit a crime and expecting them to just straighten up when they can’t find a job, have no marketable skills, are ineligible to get educational benefits, etc is only going to make things worse.

And maybe, with some success in programs like this, we can use income guarantees to help other people who could save society money if they had a financial foundation. Families who have the resources to further their education, seek preventative care instead of using emergency rooms, and who can invest in bulk purchases of food will save tax-dollars in the long run. Though, funding these programs from the beginning will be difficult. We will likely need to take money away from prisons and law enforcement. Measuring the success is also difficult, it is hard to prove that something prevented a crime specifically or saved a certain amount of money without years of data.

Anyway, I think this program (and most Basic Income Guarantees) would pay for itself mostly from the money we save. Oh, and maybe this will also save someone’s life. If you care about programs that help people instead of just what is the most cost efficient.

Income Guarantee and Tax Incentives

Despite being an anarchist I follow politics relatively closely and I often think about what I would do if I were dictator of the country. One of the things I would put forth is replacing our current welfare system with a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). The BIG is essentially a check that every adult in the country receives regardless of income. It is a social safety net that helps ensure everyone has food, shelter, etc. Basically, it takes care of the lowest rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This would also provide stability for new families raising children, people going back to school to get new skills if their industry collapses (expect to see a lot of this in the near future), women with children could escape abusive relationships, and families would have the ability to move to a place where there is a work instead of being trapped in small towns with no opportunities. Money is a better way to provide support than food stamps.

Now, I realize something like this isn’t a current reality in the US because of politics and social views, but I think it would be a great substitution to our current system. It would eliminate the bureaucratic bloat that comes from needing a massive group of people to determine who gets welfare and in what form because it could be a simple computer program that sends checks or direct deposits money into every bank account.  It would eliminate some of the perverse incentives that keep people on welfare because getting a job would not result in losing benefits.

One of the main complaints about a BIG is that it would cost a lot of money and you would be giving money to people who really don’t need it (the wealthy). I think there is a way around this problem by using some tax incentives. After all, incentives rule the world. Here is a rough way that I think it could work. A quick note, the numbers I’m using are rough and rounded to make the math easy. This is just to make a point, not to present a specific policy prescription… I’ll leave that to the professional economists, I’m just a weird guy in the woods with just enough economics training to be dangerous.

So, some quick numbers…

  • Number of Americans over age 18 or over: $235,000,000 (rounded up from the 2010 Census)
  • Proposed BIG*: $1,000 per month
  • Total Money needed from the program monthly (without tax incentive): $235,000,000,000
  • Total Money needed annually: $2.82 trillion

Where are we going to get that money?

  • First, cutting Medicare and Medicad will save about $750,000,000
  • Social security could take some transitioning out, I wouldn’t want people’s benefits to decrease but the BIG is a much better deal in the long run for everyone. First, it is guaranteed throughout your life so it is a form of social security, second it is funds that you can invest throughout your life to provide an additional retirement account. Anyway, for simplicity sake I say leave social security alone for now.
  • Okay, so that really doesn’t take a big bite out of what we need. We are down to about $2.1 Trillion. So, the tax incentives…

I think what we need is a way to encourage people to not accept the money after a certain income level. Tax incentives seem to be a good way to do that. Every month individuals can decide whether they want to accept the whole BIG, part of the BIG, or no BIG at all (the default position is to accept the whole thing). If they choose not to accept the BIG they receive a 125% tax credit on their tax obligation that year. So, if I am having a productive month and I decide not to accept my $1,000 I will get a tax credit of $1,250 for that year.

How would this look in real life? To take a simple example of a single person household. This is clearly a super simple example and doesn’t take into account the crazy fucked up system we have, but I think it makes the point. As a single person I made $45,000 this year, that means my tax bracket is 25%. So, I owe $11,250. Knowing that my salary each month was going to be about the same I decided to only accept $250 per month of my BIG. The $750 per month that I returned ($9,000) for the year becomes a $11,250 tax credit. It turns out that making over $60,000 per year makes it worth it to just return the money. Also, I think the tax credit should be applicable to any taxes, not just income tax, this will incentivize the wealthy who don’t have a traditional “income” to return the money.

Clearly, the federal government will see some tax income loss by incentivizing this way. But I think that loss will be less than the money saved by eliminating bureaucracy on the federal level, and by eliminating the problems that come from poverty on the local level. This will also incentivize people to work more and train to get skills for higher paying jobs. There are certainly a lot of kinks to work out but I think tax incentive issue could solve some of the problems.

 

 

 

* I recognize that $1,000 isn’t enough to cover some medical conditions or to raise a family alone, but the question is whether this is going to be more of a help than the status quo. Also, because the BIG comes in the form of cash it will be easy for family and friends to provide support for those in need. If I don’t need my BIG (or part of it), I simply give it to my sister who is raising two kids and needs the assistance. Again, these numbers are for making the argument and could be shifted if necessary.