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The BIG Picture of Money, Economics, and Humanity

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
6 min read
The BIG Picture of Money, Economics, and Humanity
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The following is the speech I gave at the 2022 BIG Conference on the day Roe vs Wade was overturned. If you prefer, you can also listen to the recorded audio.

I apologize in advance for kind of running in the red today. Like in Pulp Fiction, I'm a race car in the red. And I say that as a white dude. I can't even imagine what other people, especially women, are feeling at this moment today. And I also like to preface what I'm about to say with the admission that I am not an economist. I would also like to say that I am not an astrologist. I just haven't studied astrology enough to tell all of you which one of twelve personality types you all are, and exactly what's going to happen to you today based on where the planets and stars were when you were born.

If I have offended some people who believe in astrology out there, I'm sorry, but what you believe in is a pseudoscience that doesn't reflect reality. And if I've offended some economists out there just now by suggesting that economics is like a pseudoscience built on mythologies, then I also apologize to you if I've offended you. Here's something that offends me - building a science on top of myths. Here's a myth that economics is built on top of - the myth that every human is selfish. That is a myth. Humanity is where we are today because we are collaborative species. It's amazing where we are today, because of our inherent social nature, and desire to work together. So to assume that we're all selfish is just bullshit.

Here's another thing - another thing that isn't real. Money isn't real. We invented money as a species, just like we invented inches and points. There is no limit to the amount of money that we have to do stuff with. What matters is human life, human rights, and resources. What matters is what we can do with the resources we have, the technology we have, the knowledge that we've collectively created, to actually utilize resources to the best effect. So that's what I want people to walk away with today, that money just isn't real.

There's a South Park episode that I really love that kind of makes fun of this, that I think reveals a good truth too. It's the Pinewood Derby episode of South Park. For those who are aren't familiar with this episode, an alien is escaping the space cops and lands in South Park. And he's got a bunch of space bucks in his UFO, and the town ends up using the space bucks. It's funny, like Earth basically suddenly gets richer because we've got all these space bucks and the joke is Mexico suddenly feels richer. So they build a bunch of water slide parks and hospitals. They just suddenly created all these things because they got space bucks. And so that's really kind of how I look at the economy, too, in general, at money in general. Whenever someone says something like, “Do we have enough money to pay for basic income? Do we have enough money to end poverty?” That kind of question is really “Do we have enough space bucks?”

Space bucks don't really exist. It's a bad question. The real question is, “Do we have enough resources for everyone to have enough to meet their basic needs?" Do we have enough food? Do we have enough housing? Do we have enough clothing? Enough electricity? These are the kinds of questions that we need to be asking. And of course, the answer is “Yes, of course. Of course we have.” What we don't have enough of is the collective willpower to do it. And so that's what I think of macroeconomics.

I also just kind of want to zoom out - really look at the big picture. I look at it from this perspective of thinking like a martian and how humans are running around deciding that other humans don't deserve enough food. Why? And this belief that you can only earn income if you prove yourself having done enough work to earn what you need to live. It’s funny in a dark and confusing to aliens way. Like, we're the only species on earth that has to pay to live. Why? Because we invented money and decided that only some people deserve money and other people don't. Unless. Unless…I think that unless is a question. We should question that "unless." It's a matter of human rights that people have enough to live, if we're going to lock up all the resources and require keys called money in order to access it all.

With that said, I want to just talk for just a bit about what we just did during the pandemic. It was amazing to watch. Things went south very quickly, and the government, as if by magic, came up with trillions of dollars and just gave it to us. What did we use it for? We used it for our basic needs. We had miles-long lines for food banks and all the grocery stores were full. So we got money to buy stuff from the stores. We got money to actually pay the rent. We got money to be more in control of our own lives. And we didn't tax first, in order to do it. We didn't borrow first to do it. We just did it. It was amazing to watch the stimulus check bills be signed. And we just did it. That's really what we're facing.

Now people will argue, “Oh, it caused so much inflation” like, oh my gosh, we can't do this because inflation. Well first of all, the economists out there are debating how much inflation it was responsible for. But again, I want to focus back on resources. Because that's really what inflation is about. It's about the imbalance between supply and demand, that if supply falls below demand, then you're going to have shortages. Prices are going to rise. That's how the price signaling system works. So then people will argue, “Oh, now people have too much money. We need to figure out a way to reduce the amount of spending people are doing.” The problem? The supposed problem is that people have money to spend. So we need to figure that out. But if you think about it in terms of resources, then it just becomes more clear what the problem is.

We're inside of a pandemic. Over a million Americans are dead. And the live ones who survived are complaining about inflation. Oil prices are way up. Putin invaded Ukraine. And so, of course, an impact of that is the rest of the world reacted to that. We said, “Well Russia, we're not going to buy your oil anymore.” And Ukraine was going to sell oil. They were also making much of the world’s grain. Again, we are a global economy. We're a collaborative global species. There's inflation all over the world because of the impacts of a pandemic and a war (and also the resultant profiteering) on our resource allocation ability to meet demand with supply. So keeping it real as far as what we can actually do, I think it is vitally important in keeping it in terms of money not being real. Of course we can just do money. The question is how do we organize society so that we all have enough food and basic needs met? What about dignity, security, and stability? How do we organize society so that we recognize each other's right to exist? That’s what we should build our economy around.

How crazy is it that we have an economy built on the assumption that unpaid work doesn't count as work? That care labor doesn't count unless two care workers pay each other to watch each other's kids or their family members? Then that counts to the economy? That increases GDP? So of course, we need to recognize unpaid work - all volunteer work. We need to recognize everything that we can accomplish and want to accomplish as work. We need to stop prohibiting people from doing what they want to do. We need to create a system that actually doesn’t involve poverty wages and doesn’t create a situation where people will actually work for pennies because pennies are better than nothing.

So yeah, the big question is, “Do we have the willpower to actually recognize our inherent dignity and rights as members of the same species?” We're all in this together. We have division of labor where everything that we have is created because of each other. And all of it is possible because of all of our ancestors whose shoulders we exist on top of, whose body of knowledge we utilize today. And yeah, where do we go from here? How do we turn things around? I just firmly believe that basic income is just absolutely vital to turning our species around and actually achieving everything that we have the potential to achieve that we are actively preventing ourselves from achieving, so long as we withhold access to basic resources from each other.

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Unconditional basic income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Author of Let There Be Money; Senior Advisor to Humanity Forward; editor; Fund for Humanity board member