Universal Basic Income is one of those ideas that really light up the imagination. While UBI as a concept is pretty well-known, it really gained widespread renown when democratic candidate Andrew Yang made it his centerpiece proposal during his 2020 run. Yang’s campaign never gained traction with the American public and largely went down in flames. But I’ve been recently pondering UBI and its implications.
America intrigues me because it’s largely the only remaining country that believes in meritocracy and luck. Nordic countries, and Europe, more generally, have embraced a model of intrinsically valuing human life. But here in America we’ve largely resisted that sentiment. If you look at the way we treat our incarcerated and impoverished (people in the bottom socioeconomic strata), it’s very clear that Americans just don’t care. (If you somehow doubt this, look at America’s response to COVID-19 in 2020 compared to every single other advanced democracy.) The United States is a very individualist society and there’s a general feeling that while there exist some basic social safety nets (like the ADA is a thing; if you’re wheelchair-bound, public universities and most buildings will meet ADA requirements such as wheelchair ramps, braille on signs, etc), aside from the minimal basics, Americans are simply plenty content with just letting other fellow Americans die or starve in the streets if we see them to be “not useful to society.”
I think one way UBI could gain more traction with more Americans is if we framed it more as a Guggenheim grant/MacArthur Fellowship dispensation system. Yang’s mistake was to emphasize the “Universal” part in his appeal. The problem with this is while the bottom half is hugely into it (because they’ll be taking), the upper half is less pleased because they’ll be giving. Appealing to our common humanity is a losing argument (as I think Yang’s failed campaign proves). Instead: Frame it in vocabulary and concepts that most Americans will more readily accept– as a more “elitist/special” dispensation. Everyone (especially Americans! Ha.) like to be told that “they are special.” We can thank a lifetime of Disney and American Exceptionalism for that. Who wouldn’t want to receive a call saying they’re a “MacArthur Genius” or a “Guggenheim Fellow” and are being awarded free money every quarter for the next ten years? Then over time, find a way to expand the recipient pool until it’s increasingly universal.
Yang, man, you’re a smart dude. Trojan horse UBI into the public American consciousness by initially making it non-universal and exclusive. Artificial scarcity! That’ll be how you win American hearts and minds.
GPS, aka The Global Positioning System, is now something we just take for granted. But its history is fascinating and worth 300 words today. First– GPS is owned by the United States government and operated by the US Space Force. Technically, it’s today a network of 33 satellites not in geosynchronous/geostationary orbit. At any given point in time, at least four satellites are visible from anywhere on earth.
Originally, GPS was solely meant to be used only by the US military but President Ronald Reagan authorized its civilian use via executive order sometime in the 1980s. It really only became truly useful to civilians starting on May 3, 2000 though when the US government disabled “Selective Availability” which had hitherto deliberately added errors (up to 100 meters) to GPS precision when civilians used it. Not good for Google Maps navigation, one can imagine.
Finally: It’s worth noting that the US government can selectively deny or degrade access to GPS to selective endpoints at the government’s discretion. For example, Uncle Sam did this in 1999 during the Kargil War to the Indian Army when India and Pakistan were fighting over the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Anyway, America did it first. And also: For anyone who wonders why a fourth of the federal budget goes to defense each year, this is one reason why. So America can be #1 and have nice things. Even if it means our citizens don’t get universal healthcare and the poorest among us are consigned to dying in the streets. At least we gave the world GPS.
I am consistently fascinated by the portrayal of America in foreign mediums. Sometimes, it honestly feels like some foreigners love America more than Americans love America! Obviously, that’s a generalization, but it’s genuinely a feeling I often experience. Here at home, when I used to read the news, I remember often seeing articles about protests or problems or complaints. I rarely read an article extolling the greatness of America. (Though maybe this is a common phenomena in all countries? I’m honestly unsure.)
But when I turn to foreign media, the representations of America are often positive and glowing. (To be fair, under the current administration, our shining star has dimmed considerably. But, believe or not, huge swatches of many countries actually love Trump, especially in Asian countries.)
Take, for instance, the fictional superhero character, All Might, from the anime, My Hero Academia. The above clip won’t make any sense unless you’re already familiar with the show/manga, but the gist is that he –a Japanese person– chose to name all of his attacks after American states (“Go go, Texas Smash!”).
The mythology of America, regardless of whatever realities, continues to perpetuate the world-over. The mystique of a country that is built on meritocracy, where anyone can make it as long as they work hard enough, are smart enough, and have a certain amount of luck, still remains strong. Despite all of America’s problems, I am personally still a big believer in American Exceptionalism. That said, I am also immensely happy that China, a communist state, is quickly coming online as a second superpower on the world stage. Competition makes everyone better and it’s time to share the spotlight. We are so lucky: This next century, we all have first-row seats to see that makes for a “model civilization.” Will western liberalism and democracy (“one person, one vote!”) continue to reign supreme? Or will a new challenger (“no votes for you!”) take the reigns? What a time to be alive!