Writing from his perch above the Ice Bay of Forochel, Brenton has a proposal for ordinary people to sponsor humanities scholars, with expenditures beginning at zero dollars. As a good blog post should, it provoked a swift series of associations in my mind.

  1. Cool! I can be a Renaissance prince!
  2. No, wait, I would hate that.
  3. This is what Patreon and other crowdfunding sites are for. This is more personal, but the dollar figures will be much smaller.
  4. Thinking back to my days as an impecunious scholar, some of these would embarrass the daylight out of me.
  5. In a modern liberal democracy, we’re supposed to set up public organizations to do the things that used to rely on princely patronage. That solves the stabby/poisonous parts of #2 and replaces the embarrassment in #4 with the tedium of filling out forms. (Much better.)

We’ve built things like the National Endowment for the Humanities here in the U.S. of A., but they’re chronically under-funded.  The checkbook is under the control of people who want the agency to be as small as they can make it.  But that point connected me to something else I think a lot about.

Economic interlude

Depressing though it is these days, I stay abreast of macroeconomics.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, the fundamental problem in the developed world has been that all the rich people want to sit on their money. The economy is sluggish because the demand for money is so high that the demand for everything else is too low, so people don’t have work. The interest rates that would re-launch economic growth (according to most models) are less than zero. But that’s not generally possible, so holding cash is better than investing it.

Now here’s where things get weird: in conditions like this, the way to fix the problem of too much demand for money is to print more money. And then you give it away to people. In some people’s imaginations, you just drop cash out of helicopters, but perhaps we can think of something less contusive. With a lot more money sloshing around the economy, that will generate some inflation, which is exactly what we need. The rich people (which includes sovereign wealth funds from oil-producing countries) will see their bank accounts losing value, so they’ll look for things to spend it on before it diminishes. That will re-launch demand, and put everyone back to work.

We’ve even gotten to the point that the old idea of the Universal Basic Income is coming to life again. It differs from helicopter money only because it’s a fiscal program initiated by the legislature, not a monetary program run from the Central Bank.


What does this have to do with patronage? (Oh yes, patronage. This post was about patronage, wasn’t it?) Universal Basic Income is probably a bridge too far in our current north-atlantic superculture. I’d propose instead a Universal Research Fellowship program. A grant of (I don’t know; I’ll pull a number from Brenton’s post) $25,000 per annum for anyone who wants to conduct research. Recipients would have to submit a prospectus that’s good enough to pass electronic review (which only checks for plagiarism), and produce an annual paper in the public domain.

Benefits: relaunching the economy; removing a bunch of people from jobs they hate; employing rafts of detectives to track the free-for-all in identity fraud; new golden age of the humanities.

Disadvantages: Brenton’s call to action has the advantage that it’s something that an individual can do, so it’ll probably happen much sooner than my idea. But once the robots take all the manufacturing jobs, collective action will be the only solution big enough to match the problem.