Conditional Cash Transfers and Cybernetic Futures
From the wonderful and amazing researcher Alison McDowell
There’s much discussion of central bank digital currency these days, of its future implications and its technological origins. I’ve noticed, however, there are not many examining its roots in social policy. The concept of programmed money didn’t show up center stage in time for the Fourth Industrial Revolution without considerable advance planning. Social scientists and behavioral economists used impoverished communities as testbeds for unscrupulous experimentation in the decades leading up to the crypto-bait and switch. Illustrious academic careers have been built on investigations into evidence-based public assistance “reforms” including Mexico’s Progresa and the World Food Program’s refugee iris-scan payment system.
A slide deck prepared by the World Bank in 2014 promoting conditional cash transfers shows programmed benefits reaching tens of millions of people worldwide. The program in Brazil, Bolsa Familia, started with 3.5 million people in 2003, expanding to 54 million a decade later. In the Philippines a conditional cash pilot serving 6,000 people in 2007 grew to 14 million participants in only seven years. Once hooked into the payment programs, participants are subject to rules of proper behavior imposed by the government including daycare and school attendance, vaccination, workshop participation, and demonstrations of productive labor.
People in crisis have limited recourse. Programmable money is a tool of economic warfare deployed against marginalized women and children who suffer social ills caused by globalization under the boot of debt-finance strong men who profess to want to “help” them out of poverty. While it may ameliorate some of the worst aspects of oppression, poverty alleviation schemes are about establishing new markets in human capital futures. What to do with a global economic model that devastates everything? Find a way to make that devastation profitable, of course. That is what predictive analytics, impact metrics, and data dashboards are for. The conditional cash transfer model set up in the late 1990s has opened the door to app-based financial services that will permit meta-data to be aggregated and made interoperable on blockchain. Finclusion apps mean the digital footprint of the poor will determine their right to participate in economic transactions. Conditional was the key aspect of the concept.
The planned future of “money” for the masses of humanity is tokenized scrip on blockchain doled out for submitting to the rules of the game set the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Behave if you want to be granted “deserving poor” status in the precarious Circular Economy by the crypto overlords. Neo-banking, micro-finance, micro-insurance, and peer-to-peer “lending,” shocking Pavlovian wearables, KYC (Know Your Customer), and real time financial activity monitoring have been set up to channel Environmental-Social-Governance aligned capital flows through the bodies and social relations of the formerly “unbanked.” They are the ones at the center of the social impact finance gold rush. The insistence on transitioning people from informal local economies onto blockchain reached a fever pitch in the lockdown months. It is that manufactured dispossession that was intended to clear the decks of cash and usher in a global control grid.
Things started to ramp up after the 2008 crash with the Rockefeller-backed Global Impact Investment Network laying out the contours of the new game – digital nudges and social prescriptions linked to digital identity. Among the leaders was Ideas42, a Harvard-affiliated think tank with hundreds of advisors working around the world, linking data analytics with social impact investment schemes. Even earlier were individuals like Gary Glickman who started linking smart card payments, social services, and pay for success finance. From 1990 to 2004 Glickman was the president of Maximus, an influential consultancy around electronic benefit transfer technology and delivery of health and human services through public-private partnerships. Midway through Glickman’s tenure at Maximus, Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, putting numerous restrictions on access to public assistance, among them workfare, a concept advanced by Republican Governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson. Such restrictions could be programmed into the electronic benefit transfer systems Glickman worked on. After working for the US Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget to lay the groundwork for pay for success finance and electronic benefit payments, Glickman joined Accenture and became a leading advocate around social impact bonds and pay for procurement.
Better than cash, biometric payment systems built on foundations of blockchain smart contracts have been in the pipeline for years. Papers like the Libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation’s, “Government and Blockchain: Using An Emerging Technology To Reduce Government’s Interference In Your Life,” lay out the intention very clearly.
“Another crucial feature that blockchain technology allows for is the ability to attach smart contracts o the transfer of any currency. For example, a donor could provide $20 to a participant under the condition that he follows a budget for at least one week. When the participant accomplishes this, the smart contract would execute, and he would receive the $20. Donors could choose from a wide array of parameters when setting up smart contracts, which would allow flexibility and help ensure that donors provide recipients the help they need.” Page 13
“Smart contracts could be used to replicate the criteria of WIC, SNAP, or other such programs giving the benefit to participants albeit with a lower overhead and automated eligibility verifications. As private charity would offer the same services through this system, public welfare agencies could be weaned off the tax revenues they currently utilize. A tax credit could be offered to donors to provide an incentive to run the system. Outcomes for participants could also be improved through the use of a match percentage, offering participants the opportunity to invest in themselves and receive a greater benefit amount, and allowing others to invest in specific individuals.” Page 14
“For the final piece of this community care program, identity verification could be required of participants whenever they make a purchase using the funds they have received. If accessing their digital wallet on their cellphone, a participant might have to use facial recognition or a thumbprint in order to access a scannable QR code on their phone.” Page 14
Phil Haunschild, Cato Institute-backed author of the paper, paints a picture of a future where neighbors and churches happily invest in the poor outside the purview of pesky government red tape. We have the Gary Glickmans of the world over at Maximus who oversaw mobilization of government resources, policy infrastructure, and technologies intended to open global markets in behavior management to private investors down the line. Was anyone looking ahead to the day when public assistance uploaded onto smart cards and Obama phones would be swapped for conditional payments made by rich “benefactors” through gamified apps and sim cards? Perhaps the executives at Orbs, a Tel Aviv-based company and collaborator with the World Economic Forum, were in the loop. They’ve been doing a full-court press trying to transition USDA’s SNAP(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to blockchain linked to with digital ID since 2018.
Who will profit from monitored educational and wellness performance? That would be opportunistic social entrepreneurs. The foresight map of Global Education Futures Forum nailed it five years ago when they laid out a future where by 2028 there would be a cohort of Peoplenaires whose portfolios were valued by quality of human capital held. It is conceivable that Peoplenaires won’t even be human. They could be Decentralized Autonomous Organizations set up to automate “charitable investments” based on the UK Charities Aid Foundation’s “Giving Unchained” paper – “Will an internet of things, underpinned by blockchain technology, lead to a world in which smart machines emerge as a new, hyper-rational donor class?” page 1
An article drawn from Haunschild’s whitepaper was published in the National Review in the summer of 2018, “Blockchain Could Upend Welfare Programs.” Phil’s homespun tales of mutual aid were designed to get conservatives to take the poison without thinking too much about the blockchain prison they’re leaving their grandchildren. It’s not Phil’s job to tell you that’s a fiction. Those “investing” in approved behavior will be artificial intelligence trading agents, faceless, inhuman bots, churning numbers to boost portfolio profits for faceless companies. Phil became editor of the Harvard Law Review in the summer of 2021. He previously attained a JD from the Koch-backed George Mason University, Antonin Scalia School of Law.
Mexico was set up as a testbed to pilot turning hungry children into human capital bets in the late 1990s, just as it was set up as a testbed for industrial agriculture, the Green Revolution, in the 1940s. Program people with money. Program people with “food.” Use the Codex Alimentarius to define what food is. Set up global supply chains that disconnect communities from the source of their sustenance. Add bar codes and RFID chips and quantum dots and blockchain to make sure the supply chains are trackable and traceable. They will say it’s for safety, but it’s really about impact.
John Trudell says we must remember who we are as human beings, remember our power. The knowledge of human interconnectedness with the universe has been suppressed since the conquest of the New World. The Maya, people of the corn, belong to the land and it to them. Glorious varieties of zea mays maintained for centuries to sustain the people, not as a commodity crop degraded as biofuel or food additive, but as a sacred ritual of nourishment exchanged between humans and the soil of the Milpas and the gods.
Progresa, a random control trial, launched in 1997 awarding payments to Mexican mothers who demonstrated compliance with government mandates for their children’s education, healthcare, and nutrition supplementation. Twenty-five years later, data sets from this project have been used by economists and social scientists around the world. The conditional payment model has since been expanded to seventy countries and was even trialed by Michael Bloomberg and private investors in New York City from 2007 to 2010, the Family Rewards project.
1994 was a tumultuous year for the Mexican government. That January, provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect triggering a declaration of war by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Though the takeover of government buildings, destruction of land records, and armed engagements in Chiapas lasted only a few weeks, all eyes were on Mexico. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a free-trade neoliberal economist, was president at the beginning of 1994. Through the summer the campaign for his successor unfolded. Shockingly, the man originally tapped by the PRI to fill the slot, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated with a shot to the head at a campaign stop in Tijuana in March. Scrambling with just four months before the election, a new candidate was found. That man was Ernesto Zedillo, a Yale-trained economist who had worked as a deputy director for Mexico’s Central Bank as well as for the Department of Education.
Zedillo took office at the beginning of December. Three weeks later the bottom fell out with the Central Bank devaluing the peso, imploding the Mexican economy and throwing much of Latin America into crisis as well. Banks collapsed, soaring interest rates caused many to lose their homes, and poverty soared to upwards of 37 percent of the population. Bill Clinton orchestrated a $20 billion “bail-out” with the IMF. Mexico was no stranger to the IMF. It had been one of the first targets of structural adjustment starting in the 1980s.
Within the first year of his presidency Zedillo began to make plans for Progresa, an experiment in incentive-based welfare targeting women and children. Because the program was meant to serve as a global case study, however, it took several years to prepare all the details including conducting baseline surveys and to line up international advisors to legitimize the project. The two men who led the initiative were Jose Gomez de Leon, a demographer whom Zedillo had come to know when they were employed by Mexico’s Central Bank, and Santiago Levy Algazi, a PhD economist trained at Boston University. When Levy returned to Mexico after teaching and BU for a decade, he participated in the NAFTA negotiations and joined the Department of Public Finance and Credit.
By 2000, the program was serving almost ten percent of families in Mexico, nearly thirty percent of rural families. In order to continue receiving financial payments, families had to agree to preventative health care, well visits, nutrition supplements, growth monitoring, health and hygiene program participation, and school attendance for children. A central accomplishment was coordination between social welfare, health, and education agencies to ensure program compliance. Every two months families must prove they are fulfilling their co-responsibilities. Documentation is collected through 117,000 schools and 17,000 health centers across the country. Santiago Levy introduced electronic health record use to Mexico. Data for the program was handled through the Institutional Information System for Program Operation, which includes a mobile-based application used to access information about families in the field.
The first evaluation of the program took place in 2001 under the auspices of the International Food Policy Research (IFPR) Institute with findings that the program has resulted in significant behavioral change around child nutrition and education and modest gains in height that were meant to indicate improved prospects for future life earnings – improved human capital. Advisors on the project included Paul Gertler, social impact economist from University of California Berkeley; Jere Behrman, University of Pennsylvania economist; Paul Schultz, Yale economist; and Petra Todd, another University of Pennsylvania economist recommended by James Heckman, of the University of Chicago, who was unable to serve. The findings were sufficient to convince the InterAmerican Development Bank to offer $1 billion in financing to expand the program to include urban families under the presidency of Vicente Fox. At that point the program was renamed Oportunidades.
It is important to know that IFPR, the group doing the evaluation, is a program of CGIAR, Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, itself a Research Center of CIMMYT, The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. CIMMYT had been set up under the auspices of the Mexican Government with Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s to launch R&D around the Green Revolution, industrialization of Mexican agriculture. In 1999, during the first years of Progresa, Zedillo cut the national tortilla subsidy forcing many more people to rely on the conditional cash transfers. For decades the government had used the subsidy to support small-scale corn production while keeping the staple food affordable for those in need.
Starting in the early 1990s, however, the government begin shifting to purchases of harina flour instead of traditional masa due to lobbying efforts by the grain company Gruma Maseca that cornered the market with its industrial corn product. The result was the opening of markets to US corn via Gruma investor Archer Daniels Midland, erosion of traditional foodways, higher costs, and reduced quality of tortillas across Mexico. Today the corn wars continue. Over the summer Mexico announced its opposition to GMO corn and glyphosate, but then backed off saying the government would only continue to prohibit planting of GMO corn in the country. It would not ban imports of US grown corn, of which 90% is GMO, into Mexico for animal feed. Despite a ban on GMO corn in southern Mexico put in place in 1998, transgenic corn was discovered growing in Oaxaca in 2001.
Since a central feature of the conditional cash transfers was tied to child nutrition and stunting within the context of mass impoverishment, particularly of rural families, the story of what has happened to corn in Mexico matters. Mexico is the birthplace of zea mays genetic diversity with 59 native varieties in all sizes, colors, resistance to disease, water requirements suited to the small-scale milpas cultivation strategies in the tropical forests. Cultivation and preparation of these crops was central to the communal relations of the Maya people and the shift that started in the 1950s had everything to do with stripping away those cultural traditions, undermining rights to the land, enforcing debt and integration into global supply chains in the name of progress. The Zapatista demand for autonomous zones in the face of NAFTA’s neoliberal policies is a potent contrast to the behaviorist engineering set up by Zedillo’s social policy administrators.
By 2014 the conditional cash transfer program changed names again, this time to Prospera. Around 2010 the central banking interests pressured Mexico to begin adopting digital payments for government to person expenditures (G2P), namely payments to pensioners and employees. The goal of the Better than Cash Alliance was eventually to make the conditional cash transfer payments digital, too, but the infrastructure is not there yet. Instead, arrangements were been made with Mastercard, Visa, Bansefi, Telecomm, and Diconsa stores to administer biometric-verified smart card work arounds. In 2021 the Central Bank of Mexico (Banxico) launched Cobro Digital (CoDi), a national digital payments platform that uses QR codes and NFC (near field communication) to transact using smart phones via the real time gross settlements payment system (SPEI, akin to wire transfers). Users with savings accounts at participating banks (or neobanks, online only fin-tech apps) can make wire transfers through their phones.
Making mobile phones available to low-income families for “financial inclusion” where traditional banking is not available sounds nice if you don’t consider other planned uses of the devices. Phones are mechanisms for monitoring and digital nudging via push notifications and automated text messages. In 2015/16 UNICEF became involved with Prospera Digital, where notifications were sent to mothers around pre and post-natal care, nutrition, and immunizations. Digital engagement with prescribed content is tracked and incorporated into the family behavior profiles, which could impact a family’s ability to access financial services via the device if they were deemed non-compliant.
In 2006, Santiago Levy in his capacity of Senior Fellow to the Brookings Institute wrote a book on Progresa, “Progress Against Poverty: Sustaining Mexico’s Progresa-Oportunidades Program.” Two years later Levy became vice president of sectors and knowledge at the Interamerican Development Bank where he stayed for a decade. After leaving the presidency, Ernesto Zedillo began working with the United Nations on development finance for the Millennium Goals, restructuring governance policy for the World Bank post 2008 crash, and also became involved in public health and global vaccine policy. In 2009, he was appointed director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. The Yale School of Management, with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, conducted an extensive evaluation of Progresa in between 2016-18 in support of “Evidence In Practice” efforts, which are in alignment with work being done at the Yale Child Study Center, which has been involved in pay for success finance interventions targeting child of mothers in addiction in Connecticut. Zedillo has served on the boards of Citi, Procter and Gamble, and Alcoa.
In October 2019, ReadyNation, the global human capital finance consultancy pushing social impact investments in early childhood and opportunity youth workforce development gathered in Mexico City for a conference, “Empresa Familias Capital Humano: Las Ventajas de Invertir Desde el Comienzo.” The keynote speaker was Jerry Maginnis, former head of KPMG’s office in Philadelphia, and the sponsor of the event was Fundacion FEMSA, the corporate charity of one of Latin America’s largest soft-drink beverage bottling operations and convenience store franchises, an interesting sector to be taking on the issue of child health and wellbeing. Additional supporters of the event included Citibanamex and the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness.
Since March 2020, humanity has been immersed in a pervasive mathematical construct, hovering on the threshold of an age in which artificial intelligence gains control of the planet. Bureaucrats of the biosurveillance state are dragging us, against our will, into an encoded, augmented reality meant to deprive us of our fundamental rights as natural, autonomous beings. Through the imposition of Internet of Bodies tied to programmed “currency” exchanges and real time geo-fencing, bankers and defense technologists intend to shoehorn the complex symphony of life on earth into the confines of cybernetic computation. Such is the future long feared by MIT mathematician Norbert Weiner, who spent his early career in partnership with Mexican cardiologist Arturo Rosenblueth researching electrical circuits and feedback loops and servomechanisms to exert control over living systems as if they were machines.
A servomechanism uses error-correction signals to drive a system towards a pre-determined desirable outcome through automated interventions. I think it’s worth considering that social prescriptions, of the type required to access the Progresa-Oportunidades-Prospera financial payments, and the variations adopted by over 70 countries, amount to running humans through a program, through a script. Limiting access to currency for basic life necessities undermines the agency of families to care for their children in the ways they feel are best. We can anticipate that the financial servomechanism moving forward will be linked to blockchain and artificial intelligence, an inhuman bureaucracy that surely doesn’t care for children. That was made clear to me reading the evaluation of Progresa when they discussed the iron supplements prepared for the children were known to be incorrectly formulated for four years. No one addressed the problem, because it was thought the error wasn’t causing direct harm and the supplements were useful in getting the families to do what the authorities wanted. This was the case pre-smart-contract totalitarianism. It is depressing to consider where things go next. For the system children are merely lumps of human capital to be shaped, graded, sorted, and discarded.
“In contrast the impact evaluation showed that the nutritional supplements had negligible impact on anemia, due to a mistake in the iron formula that caused low absorption…Even though the evaluations detected the problem as early as 2001, the iron formula was not changed until 2005. This was partly because, while the supplements didn’t have a measurable impact, they certainly posed no harm and were popular among beneficiaries, so they helped improve compliance with other program conditions.” Page 12
The history of providing “supplements” to poor communities for “public health” is a sordid one that ranges from giving radioactive oatmeal to boys at a state school for the mentally disabled to Cornelius Rhoads work around “anemia” in Puerto Rico where he admitted to injecting his patients with cancer. Given developments around nano-electronics and nanoparticles including iron oxides, we must be exceedingly cautious about supplementing the diets of poor children. The idea that they would dose Mexico’s children for four years with the incorrect formulation leads to wonder what was really going on. There is a continuum – humans to soft robots. Those running the game right now are working very hard to make humans more like robots and robots like humans. The children are caught in the crosshairs.
Over seventy years ago Norbert Weiner wrote an anguished letter to Walter Reuther, head of the Union of Automobile Workers:
“I have been interested for a long time in the problem of automatic machinery and its social consequences. This situation has been brought to a head by the fact that I have been approached recently by one of the leading industrial corporations with the view to advising them as to whether to go into the problem of making servo-mechanisms, that is artificial control mechanisms, as part of their extended program. In the hands of the present industrial set up, the unemployment of such plants can only be disastrous. What I am proposing is this. First that you show a sufficient interest in the very pressing menace of the large-scale replacement of labor by machine on the level not of energy, but of judgement, to be willing to formulate a policy towards this problem. I do not wish in any way to contribute to selling labor down the river, and I am quite aware that any labor which is in competition with slave labor, whether the slaves are human or mechanical, must accept the conditions of work of slave labor. I have a book “The Human Use of Human Beings” which will be forthcoming with Houghton-Mifflin next spring, which will bring these ideas to a head. I shall be glad to put my ideas both technical and social at your disposal.” Norbert Weiner
Wiener’s colleague Rosenblueth left Mexico to train in neuropsychiatry at the Sorbonne and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study under Walter Cannon at Harvard Medical School. Under Cannon’s tutelage, Rosenblueth investigated homeostasis and the fight or flight impulse and was considered a highly capable researcher. Because he was Jewish, Rosenblueth was unable to secure a permanent academic appointment in the United States and returned to Mexico. In the decades that followed, Rosenblueth’s ties to deep-pocketed philanthropists opened his country up to prying interests. The Rockefeller Foundation funded his collaboration with Wiener on goal-oriented behaviors, which began during the Macy Conferences. The pair wrote the first paper on cybernetics in 1943, “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology.”
Less sophisticated forms of economic domination have been used for centuries to control populations including removal of original peoples from their lands. These included rations and annuities, promised, but often withheld. Take away a population’s ability to feed itself, defend its homelands, break up families, outlaw language and cultural practice – these are systems used to accomplish domination so colonizers can proceed with resource theft and imperial expansion. Barbaric “civilizing” campaigns have expanded beyond the missions, beyond the residential schools, beyond the reservations to encompass the whole world. The next conquest is to erase natural life and replace it with synthetic, engineered substitutions under military control – full spectrum dominance of life on earth.
This post-human future is being advanced, in part, through the field of econometrics. What we are living through is not so much a public health event, as an economic one. Econometrics is the use of statistics to analyze economic relationships. Econometricians use mathematical models to make forecasts about information like labor markets. Such forecasts rely on assessments of human capital to predict how a given person or population fits into economic scenarios. The scenarios unfold beyond the control or influence of regular people. Regular people can’t shape the trajectory of the game; it is their fate to be tallied as value on the central bankers’ ledgers.
For decades behavioral economics has ruled the day. This economic approach understood humans as homo-economicus, economic man. Equations were built on the premise of rational self-interest – selfishness. But the whole field falters once the majority lose their economic agency. Evaluating economic behaviors for the purposes of financial forecasting will be meaningless in an open-air, blockchain spatial-web prison where few have a shred of economic independence. Behavioral economics will, by necessity, shift to a new phase where human capital is valued not by the “productivity” an individual offers a global economy run by robots and artificial intelligence, but rather in the compliance a person demonstrates to the post-human regime and how well one manages “wellness” and “indebtedness.”
Social prescribing protocols will be linked to Universal Basic Income payments and pay for success metrics, which build off the conditional cash transfer model. They aim to replace cash with a digital replica whose use can be conditioned on proper behavior. Such a system will also make social transactions legible for machine learning through Enigma’s The Secret Network. Performance outcomes will be tracked by biometric blockchain ID; digital wallets, the umbilicus that links the real, physical “you” with the twin, Metaverse “you.” I see this as a panopticon of artificial intelligence striving to learn what it means to be alive. It hopes to accomplish this by enacting hundreds of millions of concurrent behavioral experiments in a misguided attempt to, through refined cybernetic feedback loops, quantify consciousness, soul, and spirit.
The focus of the homo-commodicus transition is the children. All one must do is examine the work of James Heckman and the Human Capital Economic Opportunity Group at the University of Chicago, his affiliate Robert Dugger at ReadyNation, and Open Society-backed Institute For New Economic Thinking. Babies will be groomed in-utero onward under the banner of addressing maternal health disparities, but systems of digital control, supremely behaviorist, will undermine the authority of mothers and families in guiding the lives of their children. Social workers, health care providers and teachers will not come right out and say they are grooming children for a post-human world. They may even not fully grasp it themselves, but that is surely what is on the horizon. The very unspeakable nature of it plays to their advantage. It is a reality that remains largely unspoken.
My first encounter with econometrics, though I didn’t understand it as such, was pay-for-performance policies pushed over the past decade as “Value Added Model” or VAM. When we were all so new to the struggle it seemed bizarre that an equation developed by an agricultural statistician, William Sanders, would be used to measure the academic improvement of children by a teacher in a given year. Sanders, who got his start researching herd die-off from nuclear fallout at Oak Ridge Labs, had been tapped by Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander to come up with a method to justify merit pay, a tactic to further privatization of public schools, advance school choice, and prepare the ground for social impact investment markets in educational technologies.
In the world of econometrics, children are widgets upon whom think-tank talking heads and politicians enact a calculated version of their desired reality, one they hope to be able to retain control over. At the time, everyone just brushed off VAM as a dumb idea, but I think it was because they didn’t want parents to dig in and start to grasp the economic imperatives in play. Faux social justice operatives preferred to gloss it over with a shrug rather than encourage us to research Sanders and unpack what it all meant. Of course, we couldn’t have done that without the risk of exposing the bipartisan nature of human finance debt products. The Democrats are key enablers of the agenda, and it was better to keep mum and let folks think Alexander was the lead.
A variation on education pay-for-performance was piloted with private investors by Michael Bloomberg in 2007. The effort was hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Services’ Social Innovation Fund that provided seed money to catalyze pay for success projects. Prominent social impact philanthropies participated in the project including the Annie E. Casey, Robin Hood, Rockefeller, MacArthur and Open Society Foundations as well as the New York Community Trust and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Low-income families in New York City, were given cash transfers for goals met including report card grades, attendance, and test scores. The program expanded to include a second-phase trial in Memphis, TN in 2011.
Such fiscal control systems didn’t come out of nowhere. They emerged from centuries old systems of domination used to manage communities through austerity, scarcity, and rationing. It is in the struggle of the original people of Turtle Island to protect their children, their lands, their culture, and their religion against the “civilizing” influences of global economic force that we should look to out of respect and acknowledgement during these treacherous times. Past histories of colonization and oppression ripple forward, old dynamics remade with infinite new variations.
A recent example was a January 3, 2022, press conference in which former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joined Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to discuss the president’s policies around economic inequality. Corbyn had paid a visit with his third wife Laura Alvarez, a former Mexican banker, to Chiapas a few days prior. He expressed concern for the wellbeing of poor children, their health and education. The Leftists fell all over themselves for the Fabian’s charade. No one is supposed to look too closely lest the curtain on neoliberal social impact investing and human capital finance be pulled back. The Fourth Transformation AMLO has planned for the Yucatan, the Maya Train and international trade zones, has nothing to do with improving living conditions for the autonomous Zapatistas. No, the government’s goal is to suppress them under infrastructure and unwanted economic interventions.
It is true that the precision of financial control has been significantly enhanced by the adoption of smart contracts. Blockchain allows value and access to be programmed in coordination with geo-location data and levels of permissioned (or not) access to smart devices. Nevertheless, control of populations through enforced government dependency has a long and odious history in the United States. Look back to annuity payments established by treaty where tribal families were allocated modest quarterly rations according to household size. The meat, flour, and coffee, however, was an insufficient replacement for families used to supplementing diets by hunting. Tribes were no longer allowed to sell bullets on reservations, which placed families trying to scratch out a living from marginal farming land in a precarious situation, particularly during years of crop failure and when annuities were late arriving. Such was the circumstance that led to the outbreak of the Dakota War of 1862. Among those killed was trader Andrew Myrick, who rather than extending families credit, told them that they could eat grass or their own dung. He was found with a mouth full of grass. Starving people lashed out against settlers who had overtaken their lands leading to the largest mass-hanging in US history, the Makato 38 authorized by Abraham Lincoln.
For six weeks in the summer of 2020, I lived in a tent not far from the Moreau River on Lakota lands in South Dakota. I’d come to help with what ended up being a rather ill-fated attempt to help start a garden plot on the prairie at a time when there were serious concerns around supply chain shutdowns. The previous year I’d read Nick Estes’ book, “Our History Is The Future,” which provided detailed analysis of the use of federal mega-projects to further dispossess the Lakota people of their lands. Estes laid out how the Pick-Sloan dam projects installed between the 1950s and 1960s along the Missouri River, Mnisose, Basin submerged riverbank ecosystems upon which Lakota communities depended. The rich bottom lands provided some of the only arable lands on the reservation. The trees and shrubs offered foraging opportunities and sheltered small game. Once those lands were flooded out, hundreds of thousands of acres were lost and communities ended up being held hostage by the Army Corps of Engineers’ regulation of water levels.
Even though my attempts to create a garden that summer were not successful, the time I spent in communion with the grasses, prickly pear, yarrow and other wildflowers left its mark on my soul. In addition to a stash of dehydrated food, I’d brought a tote of books to read. B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two,” was among them. It was something to sit under a big sky looking over a field and consider the power of behaviorism and operant conditioning and a story of a technological utopia where babies are born to teenage parents who don’t raise them and children are conditioned to not lick lollipops and suppress all emotion and constrain their human faculties such that they learn to love the control system to which they’ve become conditioned. The ideas of people being treated as domesticated pets or livestock is something only the East Coast Ivy League could come up with. Behaviorism and cybernetics, engineering life through feedback loops, felt like such an artificial construct.
I hold the beauty of a cone flower and clouds reflected in a pond with a solstice lightning storm on the horizon in my heart where they will never be part of any equation. That summer taught me about the gift economy, ritual and reciprocity. With that grounding, which were gifts beyond measure, I recognize the world the econometricians want to force upon us, existence dictated by the terms of conditional cash transfers, is not a given. There are places that will exist beyond the reach of their sinister fictions, places that survived the brutality of colonization, places of struggle, dispossession, and trauma. That is where the sacred truth of nature will be upheld against flimsy cybernetic constructs. Unchained places beyond the Metaverse will remain where children chase roosters, dig timpsila, ride in wheelbarrows, and watch grasshoppers. But we cannot take any of this for granted. It is our responsibility to know the history and work towards healing the past harm as we endeavor to shelter as many children from the ledgers as we can.
“There are some human functions for which computers ought not be substituted. It has nothing to do with what computers can or cannot be made to do. Respect, understanding, and love are not technical problems.” Joseph Weizenbaum, “Computer Power and Human Reason”