Every now and then, since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules by walking, reading, writing, thinking, maybe meeting new folks or visiting with old friends and maybe not seeing anyone, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with a friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. I always set my expectations way too high for what I’ll get done, but I’ve never been disappointed.
This past week I’ve been in Tieton, Washington, home of Mighty Tieton, in the highlands west of Yakima.
Here’s where I’ve been working.
Facing the other direction, in the evening I see a wonderful large wood screen…
and in the morning, I throw the doors open to the street, and the light pours in.
I’ve chosen to do this. I want to be here, writing/thinking/planning, but the work is difficult and slow, no one’s paying me to do it, and I have no guarantee the result will be any good. But I claim it as real work, work all mixed up with play but work nonetheless. I wish everyone’s work felt like this. Following Jonas Mekas‘s advice in my own way, it keeps me dancing and singing and doing what needs to be done.
The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
– Martin Luther King, 1967 3
What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or their financial status? Would it be a good idea? If so, how could it become policy? How would it be funded?
About 20 people discussed this in small groups around cafe tables at Town Hall in December last year. Most, but not all, of us felt it is a good idea, though with much elaboration and many caveats and questions. Three tables of participants simultaneously discussed the ramifications of the idea based on questions posed in advance:4
Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income a good idea? Would people use their time well? Would it lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good? Or would it increase laziness and freeloading?
If it is a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place? How would we build “a countervailing power,” “unrig the system,” and make rules that allow this to happen?
If it’s a good idea and the rules are changed, how would it be funded? A citizen’s bequest, a return on the use of personal data, eliminating the current welfare system, some other mechanism?
“A basic income would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it.”
The first group spent their time in a spirited discussion of the many reasons a basic income is a good idea: The policy could decrease income inequality, reduce racism, reduce stress, and improve health. A basic income would give everyone the opportunities that having more time offers, time to spend with and care for their families, to build relationships among neighbors and strengthen the social side of our lives. It would also “liberate people to discover their true professions,” would make room for creativity and provide the freedom to be authentic. It would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it. They didn’t address the practical side of putting such a policy in place or funding it, but they did raise few questions: Would things cost more? Would inequality just emerge in other ways? Could climate change be the catalyst to work together toward solutions like this? Who is against this and why?
Two views: “Without competition there is no freedom.” “Could we rely on cooperation instead?”
Right at the start, people at the second table discovered they were not in agreement about the value of a basic income. Beginning with the assumption that, as the first table also assumed, a basic income would reduce competition, the first speaker at this table said, “People need competition. Without competition there is no freedom. My job gives me money which gives me freedom.” Another believes that a basic income would take away an essential structure: “If I misbehave at work, they don’t pay me. That gives me structure.” Others in this conversation were supportive of the basic income idea. “What about a structure based on cooperation instead of competition? We’re so used to a competitive market it’s hard to see any other options, and other models are available.”
This beginning took the discussion in many directions, quite beyond its initial focus on a basic income to such topics as: alternate economic systems, the need to consider the common good, the availability of the commons as an alternative to marketplace commerce, Adam Smith’s belief that competition and “following your bliss” would have socially desirable results, Gates Foundation philanthropy, the government’s role, and the possibility of requiring work in exchange for basic income.
“A new type of education might be needed to help people find their true calling.”
The third table managed to cover all three questions. They reported being pretty laid back and comfortable with collective organizing and with the idea that a minimum basic income could increase people’s ability to pursue their passions and their creativity. They also thought that a basic income would make volunteer time more highly valued, reduce the status attached to wealth, and perhaps require a new type of education, one that would help people find their true calling. They wondered whether the policy would lead to inflation and how diversity would be expressed. And, quite beyond that, they wondered whether a plan like this that serves the common good could actually be put in place. The challenges include the current state of capitalism, our individualistic culture, and the fact that economic power rests with the ultra rich, lobbyists, and corporations. This economic power, they thought, might be countered by the political power of a much larger and broader base.
Where would the money come from?
One person, critical of the basic income concept, was nonetheless eager to offer an idea that could support it: establish a government-run life insurance program where, at death, the proceeds are returned to everyone. The folks at table three came up with quite a long list of possible funding strategies: take from the war defense budget, maybe 5%; create a new national model for income taxation; close tax breaks and loopholes; institute 401Ks or socially responsible investments; tax places that aren’t taxed now, like churches and charities; eliminate the welfare system; address food security through gardens on roofs; save money by recentralizing municipalities and establishing new practices such as water systems that use gray water. They’d really like to see examples of functional economies that could support a system like this. And when each of the three groups came together toward the end, another idea was proposed: “How about a 100% estate tax for everybody?”
Clashes and new questions when we came together
Strong but differing opinions on the effect of competition on freedom kicked off the exchange when we reconvened as a single group. For a few, freedom requires individualism and competition, which would be undermined by a basic income; and for many others, a basic income would make freedom possible – it would mean reduced competition and compulsory overwork, less stress and inequality, and time for relationships, volunteer work, and creative interests.
A few questions came up as we closed: Does anyone feel uncomfortable with the idea of people getting money without working for it? If education is available more broadly and more people choose it, the economy will grow – should it? And finally, a question about whether there is social and intellectual value to work drew a quick reply: “Yes, when the job is freely chosen.”
1 Penny U is a conversation series on the nature of work, how it’s changing, and what it might look like in the future. Learn more here.
2 In Switzerland in fall 2013, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen, in support of a referendum that would institute a universal basic income.
3 Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967.
4 More detail on the questions posed can be found in the introduction to the Penny U session here.
As part of the second Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency, artist, arts planner, and organizer Glenn Weiss is organizing a competition of ideas for maintaining human life on the islands and deltas doomed by the minimum predicted sea level rise of one meter in the 21st century. As a participant in the first Confab, I’m including here excerpts from competition materials. More information, inspiration, and details for submitting can be found on the competition website, here. *
The great warrior king of 17th century India, Shivaji Maharaj, established the Maratha Empire against the dominant Mughals and held off the territorial ambitions of the Europeans. Part of his legacy is a group of island forts in the Arabian Sea with stonewalls ringing the edges against the sea and the Europeans. The Shivaji island forts are the starting metaphor and reality for the competition.
The competition asks artists, architects, designers, animators, planners, scientists and playwrights to propose the practical and the impossible to maintain the continued human habitation of these islands throughout the 21st century.
Each entry is to be submitted online as an animated GIF demonstrating a proposal for when the sea rises at least one meter. “Humor, drama, paradox, and factual reality in photographs, anime, renderings, and all other visual formats are acceptable. Clarity of idea and message is very important.” One of the finalists will be selected to attend the Rising Waters Confab II in its last week between May 19 – 26, 2016.
Submissions are due March 10, 2016.
The website provides lots of examples from around the world, including this one:
“You work too hard. You should take time to have fun, to relax and enjoy life!”
This advice from caring friends has been a kind of refrain through much of my life. Especially after turning 70 and venturing into my “eighth layer,” I find that the culture we live in assumes we will, even urges us to, slow down, stop working, or at least stop working so hard. There are many good reasons to do all these things, by choice or necessity and at various times in our lives. And I do slow down … sometimes. While over time my pace actually has changed from time to time, I can assure you that I do have fun and enjoy life. It just might not always look like it.
Over breakfast one morning I was reinforced in my apparently aberrant ways by a New York Times article I’d set aside to read weeks before.1 “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” it declared. The piece by John Leland is part of a series that looks at the lives of six New Yorkers over age 85 and how they “navigate their life at the upper end of old age in this city.”
I’d known of Mekas since the late 60s, early 70s. From afar, I learned of his life as a filmmaker, poet, organizer of avant garde film showings, and a founder of Film Anthology Archives. His life seemed tantalizing, exciting. Stories from his world fueled my own late-60s interest in the Northwest Filmmakers Co-op, the Seattle chapter of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), and exhibitions of art using new technologies at the Henry Art Gallery.
“Mekas Refuses to Fade” showed that, even now at age 93, Mekas is still going strong. Check out his website, especially his Diary with his short video “Welcome!” at the top.2 In the New York Times article, author Leland writes:
This year  alone, besides the Biennale installation, he is completing work on two books, sorting through several unfinished films, compiling his materials on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground for an exhibition in Paris, continuing to post video diaries on his website, and trying to raise $6 million to build a cafe and library at Anthology Film Archives, the financially struggling nonprofit institution he helped start in 1970. In between, there have been readings to give, openings and screenings to attend, new friends to meet, old ones to revisit, preferably over wine.
What motivates him to keep moving and working like this? Where does his energy come from? Leland quotes Mekas:
Something is in you that propels you. It’s part of your very essence, what you are. Like, go back to Greeks and muses. How they explained that, the muse enters you at birth or later, and you have no choice. It becomes part of you. You just have to do it.
And a little later:
I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s fun. I’m just doing what has to be done.
So is there any science that might explain why Mekas is more engaged and seems more resilient than we might expect of people at the “upper end of old age”?
Leland wanted to know. So he spoke with Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Like others in her field had, she and her research team “observed that people who felt their life had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with age.” Doyle wanted to know why.
Their long-term study of 1,400 people, started in 1997, was designed to quantify the actual neurobiological conditions in the brain that link a sense of purpose with a lower risk of cognitive impairment like memory loss.3 They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study. The results surprised them.
Two of the most important markers of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue are an accumulation of plaque and what neurologists call “tangles” in the pathways of the brain. The researchers didn’t find any difference in the level of plaque or tangles in the brains of people who had a strong sense of purpose and those who did not. As Lane Wallace in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, put it, “A strong sense of purpose does not, in other words, prevent the accumulation of potentially harmful material in the brain.”4
What the results of the researchers at Rush indicate, Wallace writes, is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain the harmful damage of plaque and tangles, and to continue functioning at a much higher level. I like to think of this as our brains’ ability to develop work-arounds; the researchers call it, “neural reserve.” As we learn more and more about our brains, my sense of their amazingness just continues to grow.
Wallace’s piece for The Atlantic opens with a prayer from The Egyptian Book of the Dead: “May I be given a god’s duty: a burden that matters.” Toward the end of her article, she refers to other research (specifically, work by Dr. Carol Ryff, published in the Institute of Aging):
The kind of protective effect that purposeful living offers does not accrue from mere happiness, or what researchers call “hedonistic well-being.” It would appear that humans are hard-wired a bit like working dogs – we may dream about a life of ease aboard luxury yachts, but we are at our best when we are gainfully engaged in meaningful work.
Jonas Mekas told John Leland:
My time is limited, I choose art and beauty, vague as those terms are, against ugliness and horrors in which we live today. I feel my duty not to betray those poets, scientists, saints, singers, troubadours of the past centuries who did everything so humanity would become more beautiful. I have to continue their work in my own small way.
A few more prayers from the same passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, are apt:
May I create words of beauty, houses of wonder. May I dance in the gyre and draw down heaven’s blessing. May I be given a god’s duty, a burden that matters. May I make of my days a thing wholly.5
And as a mission statement that Mekas wrote for a friend and that hangs on a wall in his loft says:
Keep dancing. Keep singing. Have a good drink and do not get too serious.
4. “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease and Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age,” Patricia A. Boyle, Aron S. Buchman, Robert S. Wilson, Lei Yu, Julie A. Schneider, David A. Bennett, Archives of General Psychiatry, May 2012.