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Step 40: Utopia for Realists (pt1)

Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists, maps out how Universal Basic Income was nearly real in the 70’s. The policy would attempt to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and minimize the bureaucratic oversight (and the problems that entails). And the cost? It may just save us money.

Providing proof for that disarms our culturally conditioned biases, the text allows us to dream about ways to reverse the increasing inequality, and reminds us that not only is a utopic dream worth pursuing, but it might be the only way to save ourselves from the systemic psychopathologies of capitalisms.

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Rutger Bregman,
Utopia for Realists

Bregman argues for UBI, a 15 hr work week, and open borders.
UBI, or Universal Basic Income, is growing in popularity. It is a bill where each citizen receives a monthly stipend. Instead of the classic welfare systems with their bureaucracy and bloat, we just give people money and they can do what they want with it. And this would be for all people, so no resentment needed.

Is it possible: yes
Is it economically responsible: oddly, yes.
Is it morally virtuous to give a man a fish instead of teach them to fish? This is more like giving them options to buy a fishing rod or buy a skillet to start a business: it is neither teaching (counseling) nor handing them food (food stamps).


“Poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash.”

Rutger Bregman

What is Cockaigne? It is a fabled land of plenty, like the Big Rock Candy Mountain. 

It is the Utopia where food is plentiful, cheese rains from the sky, everyone sleeps with everyone else, the streets were paved with pastries, and on and on… mostly it is abundant food and sex, no work, no authority.

We might have arrived in some ways: Food is plentiful and relatively cheap, climate control protects us from the elements (and insects), clothes and shoes are ridiculously cheap (we build whole rooms to store them in), plastic surgery is a thing, and we even have day-time television about the drama of plastic surgery, and we carry computers in our pockets that we mostly use to share gifs. 

And yet, something is missing here… Oh, right, we are still working 50 hour weeks, commuting, and anesthetizing – not for social enjoyment, but just to make it to the next day. But, let’s not be ungrateful. Let’s look at this historically:

in the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99 percent of the world’s history, 99 percent of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly.

Rutger Bregman

This is very much like Hobbes saying life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” but have we actually just made it “nasty, brutish, and long”? 

Medicine and technology allow for longer lives, but for what if we don’t have leisure or stability from which to enjoy it? And how about your job, the one where you move around digital currency or generate content no one reads… Is that a proper use of a human life?

We are not saying you shouldn’t work, but it should be meaningful or enjoyable. The rest can be automated. Studies show people actually want to work, and identify themselves through work. But is this idea too big? Can we even conceive of not working?

Democracy was once a ridiculous dream that could never work. Slavery was just a fact of life. And women… well, you could fill libraries with all the misconceptions men have about women.

Last episode, I mentioned that we had the chaos and tragedy in America, yet no real political change came about… or, not the one we wanted…  as Bregman says, yes, we do want to make america great again, like in the 50’s and 60’s. That was the time period where wealth taxes were the highest. It was also a time of the highest economic equality, and now we look back nostalgically because we are in a period of the highest economic inequality.


In 1968, Nixon, of all people, had a bill for Universal Basic Income he was pushing and over 80% of Amricans wanted it: because we did the tests for Minicome, or minimum income, and figured out it had nothing but benefits for the entire community. Give people money with no strings and communities have more overall wealth, more education, less hospital visits, and the people were happier and more productive.

Too good to be true? No, but yes.
The pilot projects were canceled and the bill didn’t pass because some conservative said it caused higher divorce rates, but they later figured out that was an error, but the damage was done and Nixon reversed on it.

We have the proof that it works: give people money and poverty disappears, communities flourish. yet, we have to overcome the false assumptions and “common sense” that insists this won’t work.

On the most pragmatic level, it is more cost effective to just give people money than fund all the programs surrounding it. Yet, many people say taking care of the poor should not be a state problem, but for social altruists, like Christians. Others say, let rich philanthropists handle it.

But there are problems with this, a moral and practical problem: “we know best, here is the solution that alleviates our guilt and makes us look good. Also, follow our rules or get no aid.” 

Bregman shows examples of foundations who decided to create these water wells for third-world countries, like Mozambique, that are shaped like a merry-go round called the Play Pump. It was a spectacular failure that we should learn from: after dumping tons of money and PR into it, it didn’t work.

You know what actually solves poverty? Money solves poverty. Not a foundation, not a cool water pump, but actual money in the hands of the poor: then they are no longer poor. It is possibly too easy, and we can’t help but complicate it.

“The big reason poor people is poor is because they don’t have money.”

Charles Kinney

There are organizations that understand poor people can make their own best decisions, like GiveDirectly. Examples are someone getting $500, buying a used motorcycle, and running errands… he tripled his annual income. And GiveDirectly has tons of examples of people investing in their education and businesses, with their income going up 50% and the odds of getting hired going up 60%. 

The problem we run into here is those with money think those without money either have a character deficit that lead them to be poor, or they don’t understand how money works. 

There is a real problem here called “scarcity based decision making,” which is a phenomenon in which poor people make immediate decisions poorly because they cannot plan for the future. Yet, the solution is more simple than we think, not counseling, but cash: In studies, Bregman cites giving $200 per month to the shiftiest of the poor proves that, instead of doing drugs, they spend the money on clothes, food, medicine, and their own businesses.

“When the poor receive no strings cash they actually tend to work harder.”

Lancet medical journal


From Keynes to Maynard many economists championed the utopic future of wealth and leisure, and guys like Bertrand Russell were huge proponents. Because honestly, what’s the point of growing and creating capital wealth if it does not benefit the citizenry?

Every 1% I know has given me the same argument: “Well, I know for a fact when I make more money I spend more money, so I help the economy more when I make more.” 

Skipping the fallacies at play, the underlying premise of this argument should be true for everybody: handing people money = people spending money. Poor people spend money immediately though, not hoarding it like a 1%er, so it spurs actual economic growth. Yet, there is a perception of scarcity, as if we have forgotten that we created the Economy as an idea, and that we actually Generate Wealth: Wealth creation is limitless. There is no fixed pie in which we have to fight for slices, that is the illusion of scarcity, the perception of precarity that ensures our serfdom.

Yet, the notion that we can give people money, has firm detractors that want proof it is not just sympathetic, but practical.

Proof :

The obvious cases:13 Vagrants in london in 2009 were racking up $500,000 lbs in costs to the community and medical facilities. The answer, give them 3,000lbs, the overall program cost $50,000 lbs per year, but it saved 90% of just leaving them on the street.

For minicome, or minimum income program, in 1974 the town of Dauphin everyone got a basic income that kept them above $19,000 per year. 

  • Did people work less? “I bet they became lazy.” Not really, and when they did work less it was dropping a second job to go back to school. 
  • Did they just start popping out kids? “I know I would.” No, they actually delayed getting married. 
  • Also, medical bills fell 8.5%, which is huge. 
  • High School graduation went up 30%. 

The Cherokee nation projects: they found that eradicating poverty decreases costs overall for the community through a decrease in crime and hospitalization.

In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, from 2006-14, for $217 Million they offered free housing and counseling, reducing vagrancy 65%, bringing 6,500 people off the streets in the first 2 years, with drug consumption being cut in half. And… the financial returns for society DOUBLED the original investment. 

We have been combatting the symptoms, prescribing expensive treatments, when the cure is to just get people out of poverty. And the cheapest, easiest, best way to do it is to give them money and a place to live.

So how much would it cost in America?

It would currently cost $175 Billion to eradicate poverty in the US. That is less than 1% GDP, and about ¼ of the Military spending. Compared to the $6 Trillion on the Iraq/Afghanistan war, we could have won this war on poverty 34 times over… and we had the means to do it years ago. 

To finance it we could get rid of a few tax loopholes, or not tolerate tax havens… If Apple was forced to pay American taxes, instead of dodging them through their tax haven in Ireland… they would owe $26 billion from last year. That’s a nice start.


Progress is the realization of utopias.

Oscar Wilde

So, Bregman says Utopias are attacked on 3 levels, futility, danger and perversity. It can’t be done, It is too risky, or it would degenerate the social order to such an extent that we would resort to some sort of barbarism. 

Are you worried about Perversity? Is forcing obeisance in the form of a ritual of pleading repeatedly for money and denigrating yourself to the welfare state perverse?

What is a true Utopia? 

What a true Utopian wants isn’t more just more jobs… or less immigrants to compete with… these are just short term simplistic fixes: Are you fighting for a job that will just replace you with automation in a few years?

“You have to dream a little bigger, darling.”


Let’s envision where we want to be: what will it take to create our paradise?

Can we even imagine a place where “ownership” and “property” have no meaning? Where we are safe, secure, content, part of a caring and diverse community? Perhaps you still want to work, but let’s make it a 15 hour work week, because that is about all we do anyway. Perhaps you want to travel, so lets just get rid of borders… and since there is no property, you can go to that beach, and no one can clear-cut that forest. We will find other ways to shelter that do not destroy ecosystems.

Maybe we haven’t figured out the details, but dammit let’s dream big, and work backwards… with all your needs met, food and roof and some play money, you just do you, all day, every day, becoming your best self surrounded by the solidarity of community.


So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

Buckminster Fuller

And, I have mostly talked about eradicating the worst cases, and poverty, not necessarily what it means for absolutely everyone, but the biggest issue we face is closing the inequality gap before our social ills worsen to such an extent that we have much, much bigger problems. Our current system doesn’t seem to be able to address poverty, crime, and education in a way that aligns with other developed countries. Taxing the rich and closing tax loops and penalizing tax havens targets the top, and UBI targets the bottom. In a nice symmetry, enacting one finances the other, leaving us back to the middle. 

So, one more stat: in America and Norway, we are at the TOP of the Per Capita income… our citizens make more $ per person than any other country… yet if you look at an index of Social Problems, The US and Portugal are at the top while Norway and Japan are at the bottom.… 

So, American’s avg $38,000/year, but our social problems are on par with a country that makes about $18,000/year. Meanwhile, Norway makes as much per capita, but without the social problems. Why? It is about RELATIVE Wealth, which means the most inequality in income correlates to the most social problems. 

In the developed world, economic wealth, beyond a certain point, no longer contributes to your well-being. One more thing doesn’t make you that much happier. Even the rich suffer from unhappiness, depression, suspicion, and paranoia.

international monetary fund

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Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

Cockaigne wiki

Rutger Bregman, VOX, Policy and Politics

Stanford.edu, What we know about UBI (pdf)

Rutger Bregman, The correspondent, Has the time finally come for universal basic income?

Americans for Tax Fairness, Highlights of Apple’s Tax Dodging

Apple, Ireland, $15 Billion Dodge

Public Toilet problems

Play Pump Failure


Effective Altruism

Prior episodes referenced:

Baudrillard, Simulation & Simulacra

Baudrillard, After the Orgy


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