Depending whom you ask, our society is either in a time of hardening financial disparity or exciting financial dynamism.
On the dire side: The wealth gap is massive, and has been widening for decades. Household income has been nearly stagnant for 20 years, while billionaires’ holdings have skyrocketed. And the impacts of COVID-19 “ripped open” this trend, according to experts, resulting in the most unequal recession in modern history.
Households that have turned to our government institutions for support haven’t fared much better — the first COVID stimulus rollout was a hopeless mess. Here in Texas, when we faced a winter disaster, mutual aid groups sprang into action to share money and critical information with residents while the state’s political leadership flew to Cancun, or shrugged off responsibility. Increasingly, individuals feel they have no other option for securing basic necessities than to ask their friends — millions of Americans are resorting to GoFundMe campaigns in a bid to cover gaps in healthcare coverage or prohibitively steep medical bills.
On the robust side of things: In January, a Reddit message board called WallStreetBets rocked the investing world when it issued an open call to go in on a series of unprofitable stocks, driving up gains by as much as 1,745%. Their rationale? Wall Street could do it, maybe a community of amateur investors on Reddit could do it, too. Thanks to message boards and social networks, individuals looking to invest can now learn from each other, sharing tips and — as we saw — collectively agreeing to go in on certain stocks to drive their own gains. While the first “GameStop spike” was short lived, it introduced a new power dynamic in financial markets: the institution versus the collective.
Conversations about a universal basic income (UBI) have been around since the 16th century, but in the wake of COVID-19 the idea of a UBI returned with new urgency. As job loss rose and work became impossible for many, the COVID-related stimulus underscored the divergence between labor and income. Today, the idea of a proactive income that reimagines how we secure money, as something not related to work, is supported by a majority of Americans.
And while you could understand Texas residents’ generous donations this winter as a reactive “last resort” in the face of absent civic leadership, you could also see it as the result of a proactive, thoughtful reimagining of collective funding. Groups like Austin Mutual Aid and CrowdSource Rescue in Houston were founded as a form of collaborative philanthropy — people in vulnerable communities or locations both give assistance and receive it. And locally-founded companies from Deep Eddy Vodka and Austin Beerworks to H-E-B and Kendra Scott also demonstrated direct B2C financial support, buying meals at local restaurants to be made freely available to Texans or supporting neighbors with free water (and tacos).
So — are we desperately reacting to a broken system, or thoughtfully, robustly imagining a new one? Both interpretations point us to a similar future: One in which communities — we the people — are redefining collective financial agency.
The following vignettes offer three different glimpses into the emerging power shifts between people, companies, and civic institutions when it comes to money. The question is: Which of these actors will move first?
Good Citizen Score
Could a good citizen be a person who contributes to a city’s functioning and saves the city money? Meet the Good Citizen Score, a measuring instrument that rewards civic investment with economic incentives.
Participating in capitalism earns you money. Why can’t participating in civic life save you money? This government-driven solution will encourage citizens to participate in civic life, culture, maintenance, and administration by offering tax breaks keyed to key volunteer activities.
Did you call 311to report an abandoned vehicle or broken window? Clean up trash by the side of the road? Lead an after-school program? Enter your action and details—time, place, photo of before & after—to the city dashboard. The dashboard will calculate how much money you just saved the city.
Over time, you will accumulate a citizen “score” based on the number, frequency, and value of actions performed. Better yet, your local taxes will be calculated based on this score. The more involved you are, the lower your tax burden will be each year!
Corporate Basic Income
Want universal basic income (UBI)? Why not a corporate basic income? Subscribe to a streaming service for a lifetime baseline income.
Conversations about UBI are remixing our understanding of “money for work.” UBI posits people deserve to be paid based on where they live (i.e., within the US). Could a corporate basic income (CBI) say that people deserve to be paid based on what they buy?
In this scenario, a streaming service invites residents to subscribe. As long as they remain paying subscribers, they will receive a basic income. In exchange, they agree to stream only content on that service, stream a certain number of hours of the service per month, and promote the service to other community members and on their social media.
Like UBI, baseline income is provided for a participating member of a group, but CBI relies on subscriptions & streams rather than geography. Instead of being paid for work, residents are paid for brand loyalty. As residents pledge to subscribe & stream, their cost of living is guaranteed—and the company’s engagement analytics, lifetime loyal subscribers, and civic investment profiles rise.
Peer-to-Digital Neighborhood Investing
What would happen if Reddit message boards—like WallStBets—focused on community engagement? Meet Peer-to-Digital Neighborhood (P2DN) investing, a social service for individuals to directly invest in their neighborhoods.
Our understanding of “neighborhood” is changing, as is where we look to invest. In this people-driven solution, you can form “neighborhoods” online—based on geographic location or composed of a group of friends, like-minded peers, or a global network of people with similar ideals.
Once a “neighborhood” is formed, members must be approved to join and willing to commit a certain percentage of their resources to the neighborhood each year. Members can post ideas for how to use collective resources, specific opportunities they are looking to individually fund, or needs they see. Members are free to allocate their dedicated investment—collectively, or independently—as long as it’s in direct service to the community.
If GoFundMe is for immediate events in an individual’s life, and peer-to-peer loans are for short- to mid-term investments in an individual’s life, P2DN investing is for short- to mid-term investments in a group’s wellbeing. It matches the collective power of digital organizing and social media with the autonomy of private investing.
Depending on the makeup of the neighborhood, investment may flow out into other sectors—civic, financial, cultural—or remain internal to the group.
Our conversations around civic investment, UBI, and crowdfunding are challenging whether economic value can be generated from civic engagement, brand loyalty, and collective funding, not just labor. What will our financial systems look like in 5 years? In 50? Will we have solidified the wealth gap or re-imagined what financial stability can look like for society as a whole? For the individuals, companies, and governments exploring these questions, the door is wide open.
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