Most Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals look a bit implausible, because they want to solve poverty overnight, and rely on questionable hopes for how much taxpayers can be persuaded to support.
They also fall short of inspiring my idealistic motives, because they want to solve poverty only within the countries that implement the UBI (i.e. they should be called national basic income proposals). That means even those of us living in relatively successful countries would be gambling on the continued success of the country they happen to live in. I imagine some large upheavals in the next century or so that will create a good deal of uncertainty as to which countries prosper.
Political movements to create national basic income run the risk of being hijacked by political forces that are more short-sighted and less altruistic.
Whereas I’m more interested in preparing for the more distant risks of a large-scale technological unemployment that might accompany a large increase in economic growth.
UBI without taxation?
Manna is a somewhat better attempt. It’s a cryptocurrency with a one account per human rule, and regular distributions of additional (newly created) currency to each account.
It provides incentives to sign up (speaking of which, I get rewards if you sign up via this link). It’s less clear what incentive people have to hold onto their manna.
It’s designed so that, given optimistic assumptions, the price of manna will be stable, or maybe increase somewhat. Note that those optimistic assumptions include a significant amount of altruism on the part of many people.
Cryptocurrencies gained popularity in part because they offered a means of trust that was independent of their creator’s trustworthiness.
Manna doesn’t attempt to fully replicate that feature, because they’re not about to fully automate the one-human-one-account rule. They’ve outsourced a good deal of the verification to cell phone companies, but the system will still be vulnerable to fraud unless a good deal of human labor goes into limiting people to one account each.
The obvious outcome is that people stop buying manna, so it becomes worth too little for people to bother signing up.
I suspect most buying so far has been from people who think any cryptocurrency will go up. That’s typical of a bubble.
That may have helped to jumpstart the system, but I’m concerned that it may distract the founders from looking for a long-term solution.
Why use a cryptocurrency?
Some of what’s happening is that crypto enthusiasts expect crypto to solve all problems, and apply crypto to everything without looking for evidence that crypto is helpful to the problem at hand. The cryptocurrency bubble misled some people into thinking that cryptocurrencies created free lunches (manna comes from heaven, right?), and a UBI is a good use for a free lunch.
I recommend instead that you think of manna as primarily a charity, which happens to get some advantage from using a cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrencies provide fairly cheap ways of transmitting value.
The open source nature of the mechanism makes it relatively easy to verify most aspects of the system.
These may not sound like terribly strong reasons, but it looks to me like much of the difficulty in getting widespread adoption of valuable new charities is that donors won’t devote much effort to evaluating charities. So only the most easily verified charities succeed on their merits, and the rest succeed or fail mainly on their marketing ability.
It seems almost possible that the price of manna could be stable or rise reliably enough to act as a good store of value.
But it won’t happen via the thoughtless greed that drove last year’s cryptocurrency buying frenzy. It requires something along the lines of altruism and/or signaling.
It seems to require the “central bank” to use charitable donations to buy manna when the price of manna declines.
It also requires something unusual about the average person’s attitude toward manna. Would it be enough for people and businesses to accept manna as payment, for reasons that involve status signaling? That doesn’t seem quite enough.
It’s also important to persuade some people to hold the manna for a significant time.
There’s little chance that can be accomplished by making manna look as safe as dollars or yuan. The only possibility that I can imagine working is if holdings of manna provide a good signal of wealth and wealth-related status. Manna seems to be positioned so that it could become a substitute for a fancy car or house as a signal of wealth. With that level of acceptance, it might provide a substitute for bank accounts as a store of value.
Signaling motives might also lead some upper-class people/businesses to use it as medium of exchange.
To work well, manna would probably need to be recognized as a charity, with a reputation that is almost as widely respected as the Red Cross. I.e. it would need to be a fairly standard form of altruism.
The main UBI movement wants to imagine they can solve poverty with one legislative act. Manna uses a more incremental approach, which provides less hope of solving poverty this decade, but maybe a bit more hope of mitigating larger problems from technological unemployment several decades from now.
Manna seems to be run by the first group of people who decided the idea was worth doing. Typically with a new technology, the people who will manage it most responsibly wait a few years before getting involved, so my priors are that I should hesitate before deciding this particular group is good enough.
Manna currently isn’t fair to people who can’t afford a cell phone, but if other aspects of manna succeed, it’s likely that cell phone companies will find a way to get cell phones to essentially everyone, since the manna will pay for the phones. Also, alternatives to cell phones will probably be implemented for manna access.
The high-level rhetoric says any human being is eligible for manna, but a closer look shows that anyone under 18 is treated as only partly qualified – manna accumulates in their name, and they get access to the manna when they come of age. The arbitrariness of this threshold is unsettling. We’ll get situations where people become parents, yet don’t have access to manna. Or maybe that’s not much of a problem because someone else will enable children to borrow, using their manna as collateral?
The problems will become harder if someone needs to figure out what qualifies a human being in an Age of Em, where uploaded minds (human, and maybe bonobo) can be quickly duplicated.
I’m not too clear on how the governing board will be chosen – they say something about voting, which sort of suggests a global democracy. That runs some risk of short-sighted people voting themselves more money now at the cost of a less stable system later. But the alternative governing mechanisms aren’t obviously great either.
I’d have more confidence if manna were focused exclusively on a UBI. But they want to also enable targeted donations, by providing verified age, gender, location, and occupation data, and “verified needy” status indications generated by other charities. Maybe a one or two of those would work out well, but I see some important tension between them and the “NO DISCRIMINATION” slogan on the home page.
The people in charge also want to solve “instability … resulting from too much money being held in too few hands and used for reckless financial speculation” without convincing me they understand what causes instability.
I’d be concerned about macroeconomic risks in the unlikely event that manna’s use became widespread enough that wages were denominated in it. Manna’s creators express Keynesian concerns about aggregate demand, suggesting that the best we could hope for from a manna monetary policy is that it would repeat the Fed’s occasional large mistakes. I’d prefer to aim for something better than that.
Current central banks have enough problems with promoting monetary stability. If they’re replaced by an organization which has a goal that’s more distinct from monetary stability, I expect monetary stability to suffer. I don’t consider it likely that manna will replace existing currencies enough for that to be a big concern, but I find this scenario hard to analyze.
Like most charities, it depends more on support from the wealthy than from the average person. Yet the rhetoric behind Manna seems designed to alienate the wealthy.
Is current People’s Currency Foundation sufficiently trustworthy? Or should someone create a better version?
I don’t know, and I don’t expect to do enough research to figure it out. Maybe OpenPhil can investigate enough?
Is this Effective Altruism?
The near-term benefits of Manna or something similar appear unimpressive compared to GiveDirectly, which targets beneficiaries in a more sophisticated (but less transparent?) way.
But Manna’s simpler criteria make it a bit more scaleable, and make it somewhat easier to gain widespread trust.
The main costs that I foresee involve the attention that is needed to shift people’s from charities such as the Red Cross or their alma mater as the default charity, toward manna. Plus, of course, whatever is lost from the charities who get fewer donations. There’s no shortage of charities that produce less value than a well-run UBI would, but the social pressure that I’m imagining is too blunt an instrument to carefully target the least valuable charities as the things that manna should replace.
I don’t recommend significant purchases of manna or donations to the People’s Currency Foundation now. Current efforts in this area should focus more on evaluating these ideas further, figuring out whether a good enough implementation exists, and if it should be scaled up, then we should focus more on generating widespread agreement that this is a good charity, and not focus much on near-term funding.
I give Manna a 0.5% chance of success, and I see an additional 1% chance that something similar will succeed. By success, I mean reliably providing enough income within 30 years so that at least 10 million of the world’s poorest people can use it to buy 2000 calories per day of food. That probability seems a bit higher than the chance that political action will similarly help the world’s poorest.
 – e.g. pointing to tax rates that were tolerated for a while after a world war, without noticing the hints that war played an important role in getting that toleration, and without noting how tax rates affect tax avoidance. See Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, figures 13.1 and 14.1, for evidence that tax rates which are higher than current rates haven’t generated more revenues.
 – Wikipedia says of the original manna: ‘Stored manna “bred worms and stank”‘.
 – or maybe the best cryptocurrencies do create free lunches, but people see more free lunches than are actually created. The majority of cryptocurrencies have been just transfers of money from suckers to savvy traders.