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Could blockchain make basic universal income a reality?

A recap of a recent D.C. blockchain meetup, where attendees discussed the future of finance.

Sam Carolns-Hayer and Tristan Robert, Anonymous member and universal basic income supporters (Photo by Julia Airey)

Could blockchain hold the promise of a universal basic income?
Those supporting universal basic income argue that giving everyone, say, $1,000 a month is one way to handle a future in which robots have taken over the workforce. Earlier this month, members of #dctech gathered to see if blockchain could provide such an income. (Here’s a primer from Motherboard’s Alyssa Hertig on why cryptocurrencies could be effective in making basic income a reality.)
The discussion was organized by the DC Blockchain Users Group Meetup and was held in a meeting space in The Potter’s House in Adam’s Morgan. Around 20 people sat around in a circle, an eclectic mix of suits and cargo shorts all interested in the future of finance.
The presenter for the evening, Tristan Robert, compared the possibilities of blockchain to the internet in the ’90s. (A comparison we’ve heard from other blockchain enthusiasts before.)
“It’d be hard to explain the internet to everyone then and hard to explain its clear uses,” said Robert. “But now it’s hard to imagine life without it.”
Robert, who is also a local member of the hacker group Anonymous, steered conversations through the technicalities of blockchain, as well as the fundamentals of universal basic income.

‘The disruptors will get disrupted’

A main theme of the evening’s discussions was how this new technology could serve different populations and help stimulate the economy.
Mark Witham, an audience member who runs the social platform Ekath.Social, recalled time he’s spent with people experiencing homelessness.

Discussing at the Potter House

At the blockchain meetup at the Potter House. (Photo by Julia Airey)

“What do you want to do with individuals that don’t want to capitalize off others?” he asked.
For Witham, a universal basic income has the potential to help those who fall through the cracks of the workforce model.
Others audience members saw universal basic income as an extension of, rather than an alternative to, the American political economy.
“I think that universal basic income is not incompatible with the capitalist system,” said Martin Roeck, a student of German and Swiss origin who works in political campaigns. Later he told us “that the U.S. has different ways we could finance the income, such as cutting Social Security.”
The organizer of meetup, Darrell Duane, also hypothesized that the U.S. could soon see more job loss because blockchain eliminates the middle man in transactions. The implication was that a universal basic income could help offset the ensuing poverty.
AirBnb and Uber are the darlings right now of the sharing economy. But the funny thing is that they’ll also be the first to go. There’s no reason to give them 10 percent [commission] anymore,” said Duane. “The disrupters will end up getting disrupted.”

Blockchain isn’t wrinkle-free

But implementing a nationwide scheme of handing out dividends means ironing out quite a few wrinkles.
Duane brought up “the Sybil attack” notion: the government would have to design a way to “prevent people from creating multiple accounts to get more than one dividend.”
The audience solutions ranged from using biometrics or social networks to verify people’s identities to using Ethereum video calls or creating private keys.
We asked what the Federal Reserve or the Internal Revenue Service thought of these plans to use blockchain to dole out universal basic incomes.
“That’s the Fed calling right now,” an audience member joked.
Jokes aside, Robert admitted that blockchain and cryptocurrencies “open up ways for tax evasion or more intelligent ways of redistributing wealth.”

Like Medium and Amazon, but on the blockchain 

There were other, more convoluted ways discussed of how blockchain could be used to provide a universal basic income. Mark Waser, CTO of machine learning and data science app developer D161T4L W15D0M, discussed an ideas-sharing platform called Steem.

Mark Witham and Mark Wasser

Mark Witham and Mark Waser. (Photo by Julia Airey)

Steem allows contributors to post informative essays and earn cryptocurrency depending on how well they are received. (It’s like Medium, but with cryptocurrency.)
Waser argued that “Steem is inherently a universal basic income-supporting scheme,” because each year, the number of currency doubles.
A final way discussed on how to make the blockchain work was a theory known as resilience swarm redistribution. The idea, Robert explained to the event attendees, was that people get to choose how their taxes are allocated and can create communities where those proceeds form a universal basic income.
“With cryptocurrencies,” explained an excited Robert, “this could disrupt the existing tax regime.”
“And this already exists,” added Waser. “When you go on Amazon and you go through an affiliate, you tell Amazon to give a percent of your order to a charity of your choice.”
Despite the many struggles with practical implementation, Robert seemed optimistic. He reminded the audience that when it comes to the potential of the blockchain, nothing is set in stone.
“Blockchain is still at the point where people are figuring out how to use it,” said Robert. “And what they can do with it.”

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