There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — True or False?

free lunch - mIlton friedman

free lunch - steven hawking

We can assume that the pros and cons of a universal basic income (UBI) have been thoroughly researched and reasonably analyzed, and that each side holds its position with utmost conviction.

We can also assume that none of that reasonableness and conviction will convert anyone from one side to the other, or win over the uncommitted. Reason doesn’t move us:  we use it to justify what we already decided, based on what we believe. SeeWhy Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker (February 2017) and “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017).

History doesn’t guide us either — see Why We Refuse to Learn From History, from Big Think and Why Don’t We Learn From History, from military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart. The latter is full of conventional wisdom:

“The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.

“History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.

“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Good advice maybe, but we’ve heard it before and besides, most of us would rather make our own mistakes.

If reasoned analysis and historical perspective don’t inform our responses to radically new ideas like UBI, then what does? Many things, but cultural belief is high on the list. Policy is rooted in culture, culture is rooted in shared beliefs, and beliefs are rooted in history. Cultural beliefs shape individual bias, and the whole belief system becomes sacred in the culture’s mythology. Try to subvert cultural beliefs, and the response is outrage and entrenchment.

All of which means that each of us probably had a quick true or false answer to the question in this week’s blog post title, and were ready to defend it with something that sounded reasonable. Our answer likely signals our knee jerk response to the idea of UBI. The “free lunch”– or, more accurately, “free money” — issue appears to be the UBI Great Divide:  get to that point, and you’re either pro or con, and there’s no neutral option. (See this for more about where the “no free lunch” phrase came from.[1])

The Great Divide is what tanked President Nixon’s UBI legislation. The plan, which would have paid a family of four $1,600/year (equivalent to $10,428 today) was set to launch in the midst of an outpouring of political self-congratulation and media endorsement, only to be scuttled by a memo from a White House staffer that described the failure of a British UBI experiment 150 years earlier. UBI apparently was in fact a free lunch, with no redeeming social purpose; thus its fate was sealed.

As it turns out, whether the experiment  failed or not was lost in a 19th Century fog of cultural belief which enabled opponents of the experiment to pounce on a bogus report about its impact to justify passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 — which is what they wanted to do anyway. The new Poor Law was that era’s version of workfare, and was generated by the worst kind of scarcity mentality applied to the worst kind of scarcity. Besides creating the backdrop to Charles Dickens’ writing, the new Poor Law’s philosophical roots still support today’s welfare system:

“The new Poor Law introduced perhaps the most heinous form of ‘public assistance’ that the world has ever witnessed. Believing the workhouses to be the only effective remedy against sloth and depravity, the Royal Commission forced the poor into senseless slave labor, from breaking stones to walking on treadmills….”

From “The Bizarre Tale Of President Nixon’s Basic Income Plan.”

If UBI is a free lunch, then it’s an affront to a culture that values self-sufficiency. If it isn’t, then it requires a vastly different cultural value system to support it. The former believes that doing something — “making a living” at a job — is how you earn your daily bread. The latter believes you’re entitled do sustenance if you are something:  i.e., a citizen or member of the nation, state, city, or other institution or community providing the UBI. The former is about activity, the latter is about identity. This Wired article captures the distinction:

“The idea [of UBI] is not exactly new—Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income back in 1797—but in this country, aside from Social Security and Medicare, most government payouts are based on individual need rather than simply citizenship.”

UBI is about “simply citizenship.” It requires a cultural belief that everybody in the group shares its prosperity.  Cultural identity alone ensures basic sustenance — it’s a right, and that right makes Poor Laws and workfare obsolete.

The notion of cultural identity invites comparison between UBI and the “casino money” some Native American tribes pay their members. How’s that working? We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Yes, Milton Friedman did in fact say it, although he wasn’t the only one. And in a surprising twist, he has been criticized for advocating his own version of UBI.

The Culture of Law (17):  Culture and Meaning

Iain McGilchrist has guided our consideration of brain-based culture. Let’s hear from him one last time:

“Despite the brittle optimism constantly proclaimed by advertising, and not infrequently by government spokesmen, the defining mood of the modern era is one of disappointment. That is not just my opinion; it’s as near a fact as such things can be. People are measurably less happy today than they were fifty years ago, when we first started measuring, despite staggering improvements in material well-being. There is much to feel proud of, of course, advances in conquering disease being just one example, and we live longer — but prompting the question, for what?” From The Divided Brain And The Search For Meaning

“For what?” is a question about meaning. According to McGilchrist, how we answer depends which side of the brain prevails. If the left side, we will focus on being reasonable and rational, on working out utilitarian solutions. If the right, we’ll broaden the discussion to the pursuit of meaning, which has much to do with our own happiness.

Of course, we could avoid the cultural debate altogether, and let cultural evolution take care of it, meanwhile continuing to embrace without examination the cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members” — including behaviors they label alternately as “admirable” and “distasteful.

We could be sedated into thoughtlessness and soullessness by the “staggering improvements in material well-being” our professional offers us in our show me the money moments. Or we could take a contrarian monetary outlook, and embrace the don’t show me the money alternative.

We could argue and debate, and feel righteous about the positions we take, even though what we’re actually doing is defending our neuro-cultural status quo for the sake of our own neurological peace of mind.  Or we could argue “on the other hand” and advocate hacking (in either its outlaw or gentrified character) the law into something more suited to our preferred cultural imperative.

In other words, we could act like lawyers, working one side of the table, then the other. Nothing wrong with lawyers acting like lawyers, especially in matters of the law. But on the topic of law culture, we might want to broaden our inquiry, and entertain the “for what?” question from the fullness of what it means for us to be human, lawyers or not. To make that choice is to end detachment and instead engage ourselves with the meta-issues of our profession. As McGilchrist declares in his wrap up:

“Meaning emerges from engagement with the world
not from abstract contemplation of it.”

The stakes of engagement are higher, and the effort required of us more demanding, than the stakes and effort of detachment. Ultimately what’s at issue is not merely the future context in which law will be practiced by those in the profession — including the entrepreneurial newcomers — or how the profession will be regarded by the public it serves, but the happiness of us all.

We will find meaning in the law for ourselves by creating it through the neuro-cultural collective agreements we wish the other members of the culture to reciprocate. And once those agreements have found their places in our neural pathways, they will go on shaping our culture and us with it, creating meaning in our lives which we will demonstrate through our behavior as lawyers until we become “recognizable  as such to both members and non-members” in our newly re-created profession.

Cultural evolution can’t and won’t give us our future of choice. We can only give that to ourselves by deliberate, focused action which may at times clash with the traditions of our cultural genetic coding.

Engaging with shaping the culture of law will lead us into the search for meaning… if we dare.

Those who dare will make brave choices and commitments, and they and those closest to them will invariably suffer as we and our law culture are neurologically re-shaped. All the while, we will continue to  try cases, negotiate and close transactions, and do all the other things our profession requires all day (and all night) long, but ultimately, we won’t do better for ourselves or others than to create meaning in our law culture, beginning with the meaning we create inside our own skins and skulls.

Those who dare will shape law culture for themselves, their colleagues, and ultimately the world that needs the law to be a living, dynamic, in-spirited agency of human happiness.

Not a bad notion to keep in mind as the holidays are upon us.

The Culture of Law (15):  An Antidote for a Left-Brain Dominated World

The last of Iain McGilchrist’s predictions:

“We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe and wonder.

“It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of novelty and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.

“There would be a … downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness, backed up by ever increasing legislation.…

“Visual art would lack a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives would become the norm.

“Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm.

“Technical language, or the language of bureaucratic systems, devoid of any richness of meaning, and suggesting a mechanistic world, would increasingly be applied across the board, and might even seem unremarkable when applied to descriptions of the human world, and human beings, even the human mind itself.”

And then, after all this, McGilchrist makes one last, entirely understated observation:

“This is what the world would look like [under left-brained dominance]. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that [this outcome] is within sight.”

Lawyer brains are trained to argue both sides of an issue, and to be dispassionate about it. We can regard McGilchrist’s analysis and predictions that way, but I have to say that, now that I know about brain-based culture as I’ve been describing it in this Culture of Law series, I personally find them chilling — mostly because I wrote a whole blog series on the Future of Law earlier this year which revealed them already playing out at a runaway pace.

McGilchrist published his predictions eight years ago, but spent twenty years researching them before he did so. I hadn’t read them before I wrote the Future of Law series. Now that I have, I see them reflected over and over in that series, in concepts such as the commoditization of the law, the new legal experts, law by algorithm, the focus on task- and systems-oriented expertise. the unmanageable (except by technology) proliferation of law “data,” the predominance of technology as a change agent, the acceptance of technical language as normative, the proliferation of bureaucracy and its endless rules and regulations… and so on and so on.

It seems lawyers, the legal profession, and most importantly the law itself stand to lose a significant “richness of meaning” if these trends are not accompanied with thoughtful reflection on what professionalism means in today’s New Economy. (I wanted to include a link to that term here, but I Googled “new economy” and ended up frozen by the extent of the results;  none rose above the others as fully representative. I therefore invite you to make your own search.)

The future is not a given. The best way to predict the future is still to create it. And the best way to create it is to deliberately, consciously create a newly responsive and sustainable law culture based on thoughtful, whole-brained, human guidance.

Creating the future of law by recreating its culture will require a daring new kind of leadership that will appear at first to be subversive in nature. It has to be that way, because in the absence of subversion, the brain (where culture originates) simply will not depart from its default evolutionary path or risk undermining the cultural vision it already holds as status quo.

We’ll look more at subversive change next time.

The Culture of Law (12): To Epiphany or Not to Epiphany

That is the question, and not easy to answer.

A couple installments back, we looked at lawyers whose personal epiphanies led them to break from the profession’s “show me the money” culture .

Epiphanies find us in our ruts, grab us under the armpits, and yank us out. The view from up top is exhilarating at first, but epiphanies fade quickly without new thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to sustain them. To get all that, we need new brain wiring, which doesn’t come easily. Plus, once we’re out of our professional rut, we’re out of our other ruts, too, which means that our need for new neurons and neural pathways spills over to our relationships with family, friends, employees, co-workers… all the people most invested in the cultural status quo we intend to change.

In her book Stitches:  A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, Anne Lamott writes in her funny-but-so-honest-it-hurts style about the effect our epiphanies have on those close to us, especially when we come from a high achievement family culture.

“The grown-ups we trusted did not share the news that life was going to include deep isolation, or that the culture’s fixation on achievement would be spiritually crippling to those of more gentle character. No one mentioned the peace that was possible in surrender to a power greater than oneself, unless it was to an older sibling, when resistance was futile anyway. Teachers forgot to mention that we could be filled only by the truth that suffuses our heart, presence, humanity. So a lot of us raced around the rat exercise wheel, to get good grades and positions, to get into the best colleges and companies, and to keep our weight down.

“Most of us have done fairly well in our live. We learned how to run on that one wheel, but now we want a refund.

“Most people in most families aren’t going to feel, “Oh, great, Jack has embarked on a search for meaning. And he’s writing a family memoir! How great.” To the world, Jack has figured out the correct meaning. He’s got a mate, a house, a job, children. He’s got real stuff that he should fully attend to. At best, his seeking his own truth is very nice, but it’s beside the point. At worst, one would worry that he was beginning to resemble a native Californian.

“It is not now and never was in anybody’s best interest for you to be a seeker. It’s actually in everybody’s worst interest. It’s not convenient for the family. It may make them feel superficial and expendable. You may end up looking nutty and unfocused, which does not reflect well on them. And you may also reveal awkward family secrets, like that your parents were insane, or that they probably should have raised Yorkies instead of human children. Your little search for meaning may keep you from going as far at your school or your company as you might otherwise have gone, if you had had a single-minded devotion to getting ahead. Success shows the world what you’re made of, and that your parents were right to all but destroy you to foster this excellence.

“So you — I — stuck to the family plan for a long time, because your success made everyone else so happy, even if you made  yourself frantic and half dead trying to achieve it. You couldn’t win at this game, and you couldn’t stop trying. At least it was a home to return to, no matter how erratic, which is better than no home.”

Are epiphanies worth the trouble they bring to our close relationships? Enjoy the humor, take the dose of honesty, breathe deeply, and then… you decide.

Next time:  some scary cultural stuff — too late for Halloween, but worth a look.