GiveDirectly wants to show the world that a basic income is a cheap, scalable way to aid the poorest people on the planet. “We have the resources to eliminate extreme poverty this year,” Michael Faye, a founder of GiveDirectly, told me. But these resources are often misallocated or wasted. His nonprofit wants to upend incumbent charities, offering major donors a platform to push money to the world’s neediest immediately and practically without cost.
What happens in this village has the potential to transform foreign-aid institutions, but its effects might also be felt closer to home. A growing crowd, including many of GiveDirectly’s backers in Silicon Valley, are looking at this pilot project not just as a means of charity but also as the groundwork for an argument that a universal basic income might be right for you, me and everyone else around the world too.
Think of food companies’ plight this way: The finest scientists in industry have spent decades trying to find or invent a no-calorie sweetener that tastes and feels as good as the stuff extracted from pure cane. And now, after they largely failed to master that complex, arduous task, the level of difficulty is being raised even higher: This improbable concoction cannot appear to have been engineered by scientists.
“When I’m on the forum,” Ebert said about his early days on CompuServe, to an interviewer from Wired, “I get instant chat messages that say, ‘Is this really Roger Ebert?’ If I answer ‘Yes,’ they write back, ‘No, it’s not.’ If I answer ‘No,’ they write back, ‘Yes, it is.’ If I write, ‘The answer to that question cannot logically be settled via computer,’ they write back, ‘Gee, I was just trying to be friendly.’”
Almost all of the filmmakers and critics I asked about Roger Ebert mentioned his early curiosity about technology, his openness to ways of transmitting a love of the movies. A few suggested that the anonymity Wikipedia offered may have been attractive to him later in his career. Ebert “didn’t only write to be visible and influential. He wrote because he enjoyed it and because it made him less lonely,” A.O. Scott told me. “And Wikipedia, I’m guessing, offered a chance to write about whatever he felt like. No one could say, ‘Who cares what Roger Ebert thinks about that?’”
“What came first,” in the immortal words of Nick Hornby, “the music or the misery?” During one of the most highly anticipated panels at the biggest academic conference of the year in my field, I’m sitting on the floor with a bunch of other eager dopes who didn’t show up in time to snag a seat. Everyone’s still in high spirits, though. One of the hottest names in “theory” today is running the panel and all the papers sound fascinating, in an obsessive hobbyist sort of way—it all promises to be a thunderous nerdgasm.
Then, halfway through the panel, it hits me: this is awful. The redeeming insights are just so few and far between, stranded between deserts of lame, forced conference humor and straightforward, even banal points dressed up in comically unnecessary jargon. And everyone in the audience keeps nodding. I’m annoyed first, then just overwhelmingly sad. Being overwhelmingly sad is, to be fair, a regular part of being an academic, and oftentimes it can feel like there’s just something about the profession that attracts overwhelmingly sad people. But, for the first time, I start to wonder if it’s not just me. In my head, all I can hear is Hornby by way of John Cusack . . . Did I join academia because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I joined academia?
How I loved the train uptown. My feeling as the 6 pulled into the station was like that of the toddler who spots an ice-cream truck rounding the corner, only my treat of choice was sleep. To school I took the express, for time was of the essence, but from school I took the local, for time no longer mattered, and I wanted merely to sit and doze. My naps were efficient, a city dweller’s naps; they unfurled with near-mechanical precision. As the train left each station, I slipped out of consciousness. As it slowed upon arrival at the next, I re-entered the waking world. Among the shoppers who boarded at Canal, the students at Hunter, the doctors at Lenox Hill, I slept. Each time I woke, I became half-aware of the industry of the world — and then I slept again.
Subway slumber was one of my few acts of rebellion in those days. I was a sweet kid, with a ready smile, a ravenous appetite for good grades and an oddly long to-do list. I had fun only on the rare occasions when my homework happened to be fun. But flying beneath the city streets, jostled by the Discman-toting masses, I retreated into myself and refused to do anything at all.