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Time Ownership // Hoodwinking Hunter-Gatherers
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, and the bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans.
Not much to report before spelunking into the good stuff. I’m starting to post Musing Mind Podcast episodes on Youtube. If that’s your thing, you can find the channel here.
If you enjoyed last newsletter’s exploration of the ‘decline of leisure’, I’ll be speaking with Benjamin Hunnicutt, author of the book that inspired it, for the podcast next week. Shoot any lingering questions my way.
Ok, in we go
As I work my way through some anthropology books (In particular, Against the Grain, by James Scott), I’ve come upon something astounding.
Our ancestors were duped, tricked, and hoodwinked into transitioning from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agricultural ones. There was no evolutionary moment when nomadic tribes realized agriculture was a ‘better deal’. Mostly, it wasn’t.
And in fact, there’s abundant evidence that many nomadic groups actively fought against being absorbed into agricultural settlements. There is a roughly 4,000 year gap between the first evidence of crop domestication and the emergence of Scott’s perennial adversary: tax-collecting, agriculturally-based, centralized states.
The early days of farming were, in almost every conceivable way, less pleasant than hunting and gathering. There was more drudgery. There was disease. There was only one type of agriculture that nomads might be willing to give up their mobile lives for: flood recession agriculture.
In areas of high flooding, like ancient Mesopotamia, rising waters would flood the soil with nutrients, doing much of the manual labor farming required. The result: settlers could reap the benefits of agriculture without doing much of the onerous work. We thus see some of the first evidence for settled societies in this area.
Settled populations grew as food stores expanded. A scattering of unrelated settlements littered the area, each taking advantage of the resource-rich environments.
But then, the flooding stopped. Settlers now had to do far more work to gather the same crop yields. This pushed them to expand their farms and work longer hours. But since every settlement was forced to expand to feed hungry and inflated populations, they eventually ran out of room. They skirmished with one another. Fought over resources (starting to sound familiar).
By this point, it was too late. People couldn’t revert to nomadic lifestyles. Their tribes were too large, their population too dependent. And there wasn’t enough available land, since it was all occupied but similarly struggling, and therefore hostile, settlements.
So this was the trick. Homo sapiens were duped by seasonal floods into thinking agricultural life was a good deal. By the time we learned better, it was too late. The seeds were planted. States began forming around grain-dependent settlements (because it’s easier to tax grains than other foods that are harder to apportion. It’s “legible” to central power in Scott’s language), private property became a thing, and we wound up with iPhones.
Time Inequality -> Time Ownership
I’m at work on another long-form essay, this time about the crisis of ‘time inequality’, and the remedy of ‘time ownership’. Obviously, a bulk of the essay is about clarifying what these actually mean.
Put crudely, time inequality is an inequality of opportunity. Imagine you own an investment portfolio that pays out over $75k/year in dividends, meaning you get $75k per year without having to exchange any time in return. How would this affect what you are free to do with your life?
Conversely, imagine you have $40k in student debt, no family wealth, and a low-paying job. You are only free to do that which earns enough to pay your bills. Most Americans, on the crap-end of time inequality because wealth-less, wind up selling their time to employers.
The more time ownership you have, the more expansive decision making power you wield over your own life. Time inequality is a close reflection of wealth inequality. Since the 1980’s the situation has grown dire:
The more egalitarian the wealth distribution grows, the more egalitarian time ownership becomes. The essay proposes a full economic framework to evolve the wealth distribution from above, to below:
The point is to elevate every American citizen from the psychologically corrosive, politically bankrupt unfreedom of mortgaged out, extrinsically dominated lives. I think “time ownership” can serve as a sociopolitical ideal around which a set of economic policies can gather, fostering a new economic paradigm that increasingly grants every citizen more power to choose what they do with their time.
I’m far enough in the drafting process where I’m looking for feedback. If you’re interested in reading the essay (7,500 words) & offering feedback, let me know!
Marshall McLuhan, Erich Fromm, & Co. on Guaranteed Income
The economist & futurist (shouldn’t all economists be futurists?) Robert Theobald put together an anthology of essays on basic income in 1966, Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution?
It’s like $60 on Amazon so I haven’t purchased a copy, but I managed to find two PDF scans of the essays I was most interested in anyway: Marshall McLuhan’s - Guaranteed Income in the Electric Age - and the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s - The Psychological Aspects of the Guaranteed Income (email me or respond to the newsletter if you want a PDF copy of McLuhan’s essay, I couldn’t find a link online but I have the file & am happy to share).
The way Theobald spoke about guaranteed income in the 60’s resonates with some of the frontiers of its advocacy today.
He emphasizes 3 virtues of basic income:
Enables people to ‘break out of the consumption race’, if they so desire.
Liberates people to follow their intrinsic motivation and reduces the risk of entrepreneurship, which would greatly spark innovation.
Guaranteed income would have a “major decentralizing effect on society”.
Of course, Theobald’s confidence in basic income assumes we’re able to afford a sufficiently high level of basic income. An extra $400/month wouldn’t have these effects, while $1,200 has a better shot.
Here’s Theobald in action:
From UB(Income) to UB(Dividends)
In Theobald’s time, wealth was hardly the economic talking point it is today. Wealth inequality didn’t begin exploding until the 1980’s, and wasn’t even a talking point in (U.S.) mainstream economic discourse until Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book, Capital in the 21st Century.
But the flipside of wealth inequality is wealth accumulation. The fact that the economy, or specifically compound interest, is generating so much wealth can be jiu-jitsu’ed, with a few design interventions, into a collective benefit, rather than an engine of inequality.
Two newsletters ago I outlined Nils Gilman & Yakov Feygin’s proposal for The Mutualist Economy: A New Deal for Ownership. One element of that proposal was a social wealth fund: a big, publicly managed investment portfolio that every citizen owns an equal share in, and so receives an equal dividend payment - UB(Dividend).
They’ve since released a new proposal written explicitly about how to build a ‘National Endowment’ for the US.
It’s unlikely, at least in the short term, that any social wealth fund will be large enough so that it’s UB(Dividend) matches the proposed levels of payout for UBI. But these new strategies, largely inconceivable in the mid-20th century, are really widening the debate on how best to democratize progress.
Question, Comments, Community
Last newsletter, I posed a question and invited anyone to reply by using Substack’s comment feature. I receive a number of really thoughtful responses to the newsletter, so my thinking was to create a public forum where we can have a collaborative conversation.
Turns out, there’s an extra step to commenting. You have to view the newsletter on Substack. If you’re just reading inside your email, there won’t be a comment button. You can get there by clicking the header of this email (the logo, or the title), or clicking here.
You’re free to comment on whatever you like, but I’ll offer a few prompts:
1) How would you define “time inequality”?
2) What economic policies should be part of the conversation to build ‘time ownership’?
3) What broader cultural institutions do we need to support people, should they hypothetically find themselves with their basic needs met and a bunch of free time?
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts or suggestions. Or reach out on Twitter. I’m here for conversation & community.
If you have a friend who might dig this newsletter, consider sharing it. The more people on this network, the more possibilities we can cook up, and the more time I can devote to these projects.
Until next time,