031 – Who wants to be a trillionaire?

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
031 – Who wants to be a trillionaire?


WARNING: This episode was recorded outside on a mobile phone, and the audio quality reflects this. If that kind of thing bothers you, you may want to skip this one!

Reports based on current trends predict that the world could have its first trillionaire within the next few years. What does this say about our global society? What could, or should, a trillionaire do with that kind of money? In this speculative episode, recorded whilst traveling, Lucie and David consider the thought experiment of implementing a global Universal Basic Income.

[00:00:00] Lucie: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. My name is Lucie Hazelgrove Planel. I’m a social impact scientist and I’m here today with David Stern, co founding director of IDEMS. Hi David.

[00:00:19] David: Hi Lucie. It’s sunny here today, we’re in Burkina, we’re on our way to Niger.

[00:00:27] Lucie: We’re at Burkina airport, to be more precise, so you may hear planes behind us. But there’s not too many forecast.

[00:00:32] David: There’s not too many in general, so we’re not expecting too much disruption.

[00:00:36] Lucie: It’s been an interesting week and it’s brought up several topics of conversation.

[00:00:40] David: Absolutely.

[00:00:41] Lucie: One of which I think you’re very eager to discuss today.

[00:00:44] David: Absolutely. I think the title of this podcast’s going to be Who wants to be a trillionaire? This relates to, in the news of course, relatively recently, people have been talking about the fact that the wealthiest people in the world have been accumulating wealth very fast. And within the next, however many years, there is the expectation that we will have our first trillionaire, an individual worth more than one trillion US dollars.

[00:01:13] Lucie: Before we sort of go into that, as a start, is there a reason why you were thinking of that while we’re here in Ouagadougou?

[00:01:20] David: Absolutely, well the big question is, you know, I wouldn’t want to be a trillionaire, would you?

[00:01:26] Lucie: No, no, it sounds like a lot of responsibility, ethical or some social responsibility.

[00:01:31] David: That’s the thing, I mean being somewhere like Burkina we’re going to Niger, I’m really conscious of the need of others around me, and the fact that I’m in my privilege, I am able to contribute a bit.

If I was a trillionaire, I could potentially solve the world’s problems. Because that might be all it takes. I don’t know. That level of responsibility, I would feel it so much more acutely. At the moment I know that even with the little resources I have, I can make a difference for individuals, but I can’t change the systems. I can’t do things at a scale where you’re really changing everything for everyone.

[00:02:14] Lucie: Yeah. And here you’re talking about globally, not even in just one country.

[00:02:17] David: Absolutely. And this is where, to me, the key thing is that when I hear people talking about the changes they want to see in the world, and even in places like Kenya where I’ve spent a long time, I’m always conscious that, yeah, OK, that could work here, but could it work in Niger? Could it work in Burkina? Could it work in Mali? Three countries we work in quite closely.

[00:02:40] Lucie: Yeah. Can you say why you always have that? Why are you interested always?

[00:02:44] David: Other than the fact I grew up in Niger.

[00:02:46] Lucie: Exactly.

[00:02:46] David: Well, these countries are always very close to the bottom of the Human Development Indices. And yet, they’re countries which, because I’ve been privileged to spend so much time in them, I know have an incredible wealth of people, you know, the cultural wealth, the wealth they have, the human wealth they have, it’s amazing.

[00:03:10] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:03:11] David: But the challenges they face, all of them are landlocked countries, they’re pretty big.

[00:03:16] Lucie: Mali and Niger especially.

[00:03:18] David: Especially, exactly. And they do have some natural resources, Niger is sort of known for its uranium because that’s highly political. But they don’t have huge amounts going for them in other ways. Actually, how, how do you solve problems in these contexts? It’s almost always much harder than elsewhere. I spent a long time in Kenya, and everything’s so much easier there. I was one of the few people, of course, most people who come from Europe to Kenya think, oh, how difficult it is here, whereas I went from Europe to Western Kenya and I couldn’t stop thinking, ah, these guys have it good compared to…

[00:04:06] Lucie: So here do you mean only in terms of the fertility of the soil or do you mean also in terms of how it’s easier perhaps to make things happen within institutions or between people?

[00:04:15] David: Well, it’s so many different things. We started with the soil. The soil actually in Western Kenya has all sorts of problems, and so it’s got soil acidity, there’s areas where there’s aluminium toxicity, which is really bad, there’s all sorts of other things. But, it’s got rainfall.

[00:04:33] Lucie: Which helps.

[00:04:34] David: Which helps. It has potential, and it’s not just that it has potential, it’s that it has trading opportunities, which are there, local trade, in different ways. It’s very dynamic in a number of different ways. So there’s a sense of opportunity, which I always found there. And there’s a sense also of, if you are in those environments, life can be really tough, don’t get me wrong, life in Kenya can be very tough. But, as a society, actually, if they were able to solve some of the issues, you could easily see how this could be a really highly functioning society, you know, the basic infrastructure, road infrastructure around there, yes, it could be improved.

But things are accessible, it’s quite densely populated, there’s manpower to really do things and build things. And it feels vibrant in a way where there’s opportunity. In West Africa, it feels vibrant. But when I put myself in other people’s shoes here, I can’t think how I can It could be that vibrant because things are so much tougher. The soil fertility as you say is really…

[00:05:50] Lucie: I mean it’s like dust or sand…

[00:05:53] David: Yes, so it’s amazing, nutrients don’t tend to survive the dry season, and so you can’t build up your soil over time which you can of course in Western Kenya, where there’s less extreme…

[00:06:07] Lucie: Well there’s more constant rainfall and then we can keep growing…

[00:06:10] David: Or just a longer rainy season. If you go down into Southern Africa, Tanzania, Malawi and places, you know, Malawi is worse off than maybe Kenya in terms of the weather pattern.

[00:06:20] Lucie: Okay.

[00:06:20] David: But it’s not like this part of the world. And I’m not trying to belittle the problems of those countries. They’re huge. I’ve been working on them for a long time. I would love to be able to see progress happening at a faster rate that it’s happening. But what I am saying is that when I look at those areas and those, those issues, I can see a lot more being solved locally.

[00:06:47] Lucie: That’s really interesting.

[00:06:48] David: When I was living in Kenya as a local lecturer, I was very rarely looking outside for solutions. Because I thought pretty much everything could be solved locally. What’s really interesting, of course, is West Africa, you know, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, have to solve things locally, because nobody else comes to visit.

[00:07:07] Lucie: Yeah, and we’re seeing that with the researchers we’ve been communicating with. Not only do people don’t dare come here, but also it’s very difficult for them to go out and make use of opportunities that even if they’re invited or have funding, and we met someone who it’s too difficult to get a visa.

[00:07:22] David: Yes, exactly, they got the visa a week after the event last time, and so they’d wasted that time and so on. But I think the point which I think is so important as to why I was thinking about this with my, who wants to be a trillionaire, is that, well, what would I do if I was a trillionaire?

Now, probably like some of the other world’s richest people I might decide that actually giving away most of my wealth in my lifetime would be a desirable trait. There’s a whole set of people who have decided they want to try and give away 99 percent of their worth within their lifetime.

[00:07:59] Lucie: Okay, a giveaway not just to a foundation?

[00:08:02] David: No, they’re thinking mostly to the foundations they’re setting up and so on. But they’re wanting their worth to be put to another purpose within their lifetime, which I think is probably the sort of direction I would go.

[00:08:13] Lucie: Commendable.

[00:08:14] David: It is commendable, and that is something where I can’t see why I would want to have that sort of wealth for myself, and so that is the direction that I’d be interested in. If I was wanting to do that, then I was trying to think, well, what could you do if you wanted to change the world, and you had a foundation that had maybe almost a trillion dollars?

And, of course, that’s where my mind comes back. If you want to do something universal, you want to actually help the world, you need to think about what would actually make a difference in places like this. And that’s where these two things link together. And of course my mind on that goes to the idea which I’ve heard a lot of people talk about. Universal basic income.

[00:09:01] Lucie: Universal basic income, okay. At the country level, or?

[00:09:04] David: Well that’s how most people I know discuss this and think of this. And that to me is an interesting idea. And at a country level that would be interesting. But if I was giving away a trillion dollars, I could get more ambitious maybe. What about a universal basic income?

[00:09:24] Lucie: So that’s like a global one?

[00:09:26] David: Yeah, there’s I don’t know, around eight billion people on the planet? Give or take? Give or take a billion?

[00:09:33] Lucie: Yeah. I was thinking already, that went quickly.

[00:09:37] David: Yeah, exactly, it was seven. It’s eight, give or take a billion.

[00:09:42] Lucie: This is what happens when you’re a trillionaire, you sort of, lose count to billions.

[00:09:46] David: Yeah, exactly! What’s a billion between friends? So, 8 billion people. And then you sort of think, OK, 8 billion people on the planet. Well, universal basic income might be something which was feasible if you had a trillion dollars.

[00:10:06] Lucie: I don’t know if it’s a crazy idea or a brilliant one.

[00:10:08] David: Well, of course, the point is, if you have a trillion dollars, it’s a rather large amount of money, certainly by my perspectives, and you have eight billion people on the planet, and you want to have universal basic income. What should that universal basic income be?

[00:10:22] Lucie: Well, at the sort of level of what a standard income, I don’t know what a standard income even is in Burkina Faso. What counts as standard?

[00:10:29] David: Well, you couldn’t do that, that would be too high. So what could your universal basic income be?

[00:10:35] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:10:35] David: Well, I would argue that a universal basic income of a dollar a day might eradicate extreme poverty because extreme poverty is characterized as people living on less than two dollars a day.

[00:10:48] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:10:49] David: So, that’s not a silly place to start. You’d hope that it would be at least a dollar a day. If we could have a universal basic income everywhere in the world of a dollar a day, that would be already an incredible starting point.

[00:11:02] Lucie: What are you thinking people would do with that money?

[00:11:04] David: Just think about that for a second.

[00:11:07] Lucie: Okay.

[00:11:07] David: Eight billion people.

[00:11:08] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:11:08] David: A dollar a day.

[00:11:09] Lucie: So, this wouldn’t affect at all , it wouldn’t help, perhaps, people in the US or in the UK.

[00:11:14] David: Or in the UK. Alright, that’s a good observation. We’ll get to that in a minute. Yes, for people who are in wealthy environments, a dollar a day just doesn’t help you. If you’re homeless on the streets in the UK, yeah, then a dollar a day doesn’t help you. So, yes, this is a problem, but it’s not a problem with the actual concepts. I’ll come to that in a minute.

Actually, that’s part of what makes the concept potentially work. Because the point is, if you want this idea of a universal basic income, then, the fact that for probably at least a billion people, this could be life changing.

[00:11:54] Lucie: And that’s affecting quite a few people.

[00:11:56] David: That’s quite a few people. You know, that’s an eighth of our population, because I’ve rounded up to make nice numbers. And the point is, that actually if you think about it like that, well, you’re 8 billion people having a dollar a day. My trillion dollars doesn’t last a year.

[00:12:16] Lucie: No.

[00:12:17] David: And of course, that’s not taking on implementation costs. I don’t know how do you actually get the dollar a day to people? Now, of course, there’s mobile money transfers in many low resource environments. There’s bank accounts in many higher resource environments. So, if there was a way to do a registration process where universal registration, and you might actually be able to do that if people could do this into a system.

What would be, of course, very interesting is this aspect that, let’s say for a second, there was a way `to sign up to this universal basic income. It would only really work to really eradicate poverty if it was given on a daily basis, rather than, let’s say, the equivalent of 365 or 66 dollars a year.

[00:13:08] Lucie: Yeah?

[00:13:10] David: That wouldn’t help people who were the poorest, who needed it the most.

[00:13:13] Lucie: Exactly, well they wouldn’t know what to do with the money and they wouldn’t be aware that actually it’s not that much and it goes.

[00:13:18] David: It might help some, but for others it wouldn’t actually be as useful as literally a dollar a day.

[00:13:26] Lucie: Yep.

[00:13:26] David: There isn’t the infrastructure at the moment to actually do this. This is why it’s totally just a thought exercise. And it’s not even clear that you’d want the infrastructure if it could exist. So that’s a whole separate different problem.

[00:13:38] Lucie: Yeah, I’m afraid I was thinking about would people actually want to register?

[00:13:41] David: All sorts of different issues. And so, you know, those who need it the most would be the hardest to register. And how much would it cost to register a really remote person? So now most of your budget’s gone on just the registration process. But anyway. The interesting thing is, let’s say, just as a thought experiment, that you could do it. That it succeeded. You registered everyone. And you’re able to have that.

And when everyone was registered, you then gave them the option. Do you want your dollar a day? Do you not need it? Or, do you want to contribute a dollar a day to help support this effort to eradicate poverty?

[00:14:24] Lucie: Ah, I see, I was still on the people who need it the most. But here you’re thinking of sort of a next level up who don’t necessarily need it.

[00:14:31] David: In Burkina, everybody we work with wouldn’t want a dollar a day, it would seem so… They would probably choose the second option of saying, I don’t need it. And some of them might choose the third option of actually, no, I can contribute something. And now you make those micro contributions towards this. And now, me, who was a trillionaire, and now I’ve spent all my money in less than a year trying to get the universal basic income.

This is what I mean, but this is the orders of magnitude. But it might be sustainable, because actually, your top billion, at the very least, they might be able to contribute. Your middle chunk, which is the majority of the world, they might be contributing, they might not be needing it, and they might be taking it.

The bottom billion would probably all take the dollar a day. And it might be that that whole equation just equals out.

[00:15:31] Lucie: That’s very trusting.

[00:15:32] David: Well, it might not. If it didn’t equal out, then maybe you have to go down and actually make it to 50 cents a day. If, on the contrary, it more than equalled out, and actually more people were contributing than were taking, and you were building up reserves into the programme, well then maybe you could actually go to 2 dollars a day eventually.

[00:15:55] Lucie: I see, I see.

[00:15:56] David: And this is the thing, whether it goes up or down, could then depend in the long run on how many people contribute versus how many people don’t.

[00:16:04] Lucie: Yes, now that’s interesting because then it brings in much more immediate effect of your own personal actions.

[00:16:10] David: Exactly. And this is sort of all dependent in interesting ways, that the whole thing is set up to try and sort of be a sustainable system.

[00:16:17] Lucie: And making people responsible for others.

[00:16:19] David: For the world, not just for others. This is the thing, you know, you couldn’t conceive to do something like this with less than about a trillion dollars. And that’s what’s so interesting.

[00:16:31] Lucie: Okay, I want to put a spanner in the works.

[00:16:33] David: Yep.

[00:16:33] Lucie: People don’t actually get on very well between countries quite often.

[00:16:36] David: Yeah?

[00:16:37] Lucie: So I wonder if that many generous people would be generous thinking, you know, this money might be helping one of my enemies. One of my sort of country enemies, that sort of scale.

[00:16:48] David: Well, I mean that’s possible that that would stop people, but the point is it’s neutral. Everything at the moment is more like that. Everything is done country by country or from someone representing one country to another in different ways. Whereas such a system would be genuinely neutral. Now, I have no expectations that such a system will ever exist.

[00:17:11] Lucie: No.

[00:17:11] David: But, when I was here thinking, my vision of a world in the future that I want to head towards, if it doesn’t include development of countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, you know, it’s not a vision I’m interested in. That makes my life harder, but it also, I think, means that you have to be thinking about everyone. And the whole point is, that’s always too big. So I’m always sort of frozen a bit on that, because it’s too big. And what surprised me is, being here, reflecting on the sort of fact that there could be trillionaires out there.

If only instead of them wanting to try and go to Mars and colonize Mars.

[00:17:59] Lucie: I don’t know who you’re thinking of there!

[00:18:00] David: I have no idea. But if only instead they wanted to actually solve one of the hardest problems on this planet of eradicating extreme poverty, actually, as a trillionaire they might do it. They could possibly do it. And they could possibly do it in such a way where it’s not politicised. This is something where the basic idea of universal basic income, if you think of this from where everybody talks about it, they take it from a very, sorry to say this, Westernised viewpoint.

And they’re trying to think of it in very privileged world context. If you think of Universal Basic Income, actually looking at the world, it’s achievable, within the grasps of the wealthiest in our society, to potentially, actually fund such a system. An individual creating that solution.

[00:18:59] Lucie: And that would be a nice legacy to leave behind as a trillionaire.

[00:19:02] David: Well, so, this is the key point. Who wants to be a trillionaire? I wouldn’t want to be a trillionaire, but I wish the people who wanted to be the trillionaire were thinking about what they could actually do with that level of wealth. Because that’s something which is rather different. It’s still a nice thought experiment to do.

[00:19:26] Lucie: It is, it’s very interesting to think about.

[00:19:33] David: There is some evidence behind this.

[00:19:34] Lucie: Okay.

[00:19:34] David: So, there was a study done in Malawi many years ago, which I was privileged to hear a bit about.

[00:19:39] Lucie: I was just reading about some of the methods behind it.

[00:19:42] David: Yes. The key thing of that study…

[00:19:44] Lucie: And this was giving seeds out to people, I think.

[00:19:46] David: That’s a slightly different study.

[00:19:48] Lucie: Okay.

[00:19:48] David: What they actually did is gave cash payments to the poorest in society. This wasn’t universal basic income, but this was sort of a basic income for the poorest in that society. It tended to be, there was a middle generation that was lost to AIDS, so it was grandparents looking after young children, where nobody in the household could possibly really work.

[00:20:11] Lucie: Right, I see.

[00:20:12] David: And they gave very small payments to them, regularly.

[00:20:17] Lucie: To the government.

[00:20:18] David: No, it was a project. And the project gave these very small payments to them and found incredible results where that money was being spent locally. And it was then helping the local businesses, the whole communities were thriving because that injection of money was actually an injection into the society in a way which actually helped everyone. That money was injected into the society. You know, if you give money to people who have a bit more, they tend to spend it on things which come from outside.

[00:20:44] Lucie: Exactly, yeah supermarkets or something which are owned by a…

[00:20:47] David: Well, I was thinking of televisions and phones and technology. That money then leaves the community. If you give that very small amount of money to these local communities, then it tends to stay in the community. And there’s a lot of discussions about, actually, how long money circulates within the community and that sort of thing. It’s all very interesting.

But, of course, what they found was to scale that up to the country was too expensive.

[00:21:12] Lucie: Yeah. Not just the poorest.

[00:21:13] David: Yes, exactly, so, to the level of the country, it wasn’t going to be feasible. And so the whole thing was eventually shut down.

[00:21:19] Lucie: Oh, sorry. Not just in a small area of the country.

[00:21:20] David: Yes.

[00:21:21] Lucie: Okay.

[00:21:22] David: And the point is that, actually, what that shows to me is a very small amount of money given to lots of people, it will probably be better spent than giving more money to people maybe who need it most. Because then you’ve got to determine who needs it most and someone’s making a choice. And so, actually, if you could set up this sort of system, this is why I like this system, where you could accept it, you could do this on a daily basis, you could accept, you could just reject, or you could contribute.

[00:22:02] Lucie: And would that be one way of scaling it up, starting in a small community then and then?

[00:22:07] David: I don’t know. I’ve not thought of it as an actual project, of how you would do that, it’s just been a thought experiment. I don’t know that you could start this in any shape or form, or hope for it to work, you know, at scale. But I think the thing about it which is so powerful is that I wouldn’t want to start it as a small community, because the whole point is it’s the universality of it, which makes it different and apolitical, and all of that.

Now of course the problem is, actually, the registration process and the fact you register, that is a political act in itself. I’m not putting this forward as something that I feel that I would have any idea towards actually being able to implement, but I do like it as a thought experiment, because it does show a very different vision for how our wealthiest people could be deciding to use that wealth.

[00:23:07] Lucie: And this comes back to what you’ve talked before about collaborative societies, thinking together in order to improve possibilities for everybody.

[00:23:18] David: And it’s something where, you know, the extreme inequality, which is growing in our societies…

[00:23:24] Lucie: It’s shocking to see how extreme the differences in Niger, well, Niamey to be more specific, especially, the huge hotels and things, and then some people who live off nothing.

[00:23:35] David: The point which I think is interesting here is that Gates was, I think, one of the first, you know, wealthiest men in the world who decided to try and give away almost all of his wealth. And when he did so he wouldn’t have had enough to consider something like this.

[00:23:50] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:23:51] David: So, actually, what he’s done, what he’s given has been sometimes incredibly positive, sometimes it hasn’t worked as well. The Gates Foundation has had mixed sort of success, but the intention behind it, you can’t fault. And what I think is so interesting is that I didn’t understand until I actually sort of crunched the numbers on this…

[00:24:15] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:24:16] David: …that there’s a difference between if someone were to do that when they’re at the trillionaire state level, compared to doing it as billionaires. That scale of growth in individual wealth is so rapid. The growth of the world’s population is rapid, but nowhere near to the extent, this is these extreme inequalities coming to bear. And so, actually, solving a global problem like that, maybe we need to wait for the trillionaires to actually give away their wealth, to actually get some of these really interesting imaginative… I’ll just give you one. I’m sure there are other ways where you could think about how a trillion dollars divides between 8 billion people, or maybe 10 billion people by then.

[00:25:01] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:25:03] David: And actually get to sort of something very exciting. It’s very interesting that people see and I see this growth in the extreme wealthy as being a negative reflection on our global society.

[00:25:18] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:25:18] David: That the way that the wealth is not just growing for them, but it’s accumulating with them. If their wealth was growing less than the wealth of the bottom 50 percent of the world…

[00:25:30] Lucie: Yes, that would be fine.

[00:25:31] David: It would be different. But the bottom 50%, their wealth is not growing. At all.

[00:25:36] Lucie: Perhaps even getting less.

[00:25:38] David: Exactly. That’s the latest data. So the fact that that increase in extreme inequality is happening so rapidly right now, generally I see this as such a negative aspect of our society. But it’s very interesting as a mathematician, there is just a numbers game, where maybe the inequalities may be getting large enough that they could actually do something for the world.

[00:26:04] Lucie: I shouldn’t be surprised if you’re putting a positive spin on this. On the first trillionaire…

[00:26:14] David: But, anyway, thank you.

[00:26:17] Lucie: Well, thank you for your ideas, David. It’s always a pleasure.