TED Conversations

Brett Mangel

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Can a volunteer-based-system ease our governments burden of providing social welfare?

Here's an abridged quote from Robert Kennedy to begin:

"Our gross national product ... counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage... It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets.

"Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials... it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

The goal of an economy is to make sure everyone is productive and receives the goods they need. Suppose the role of money is purely to verify that those we are providing goods for have done their productive duty, proven by the $X they have to spend on your goods. Then why can't we develop an additional system of verifying that someone has been productive in their actions?

By adopting a volunteer based service that delivers basic social goods, can we verify that people are being productive and give them basic services in return? Thus helping eliminate poverty, hunger and homelessness in exchange for volunteering for the social good and easing the stress on our nearly bankrupt governments. By having volunteers run local farmers markets and community feeds, help in hospitals, or mentor children we could do a lot of good.
Our world seems to be shifting towards one of abundance; if we only need 2% of our workers to grow food, we should be able to easily feed us all if we all chip in

As doing good becomes a habit, one expected by all our neighbors, kindness would ideally become a way of life, and our children would grow up this way.

I'll end with another Rob Kennedy quote as it seems fitting:
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this wor

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  • Sep 23 2012: What was it? A week or several days before 9/11 when Donal Rumsfeld told the country the Pentagon couldn't account for, let's see, 2.5 trillion dollars in expenditures?

    I think you are looking in the wrong direction and at the wrong people when you mention welfare and of course untold billions have disappeared in other areas of government over the years.

    Politicians are all very wealthy people and many have gotten it through ill-gain, yet slide by without paying for their dishonest, cheating off the welfare of basic, average Americans.

    As I recall, they are supposed to be doing public service, public duty, and not stealing from the coffers of the labor force, who work anywhere between three and six months to pay their taxes and there is no law allowing for a fraudulent iRs to tax that labor.

    What happens in the end, always? The citizens work together to solve the problems created by politicians and left for us to clean up if we want or need it cleaned up. They volunteer. So, just who isn't needed at all here?

    Can you guess?
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    Sep 22 2012: A society where every citizen is productive is desirable.
    But such a thing would not happen without extreme measures that would erode the values of freedom and human rights.
    Freedom of choice means there are things to choose from; and there may be some of those things that are undesirable, ugly and harmful. One can choose to be lazy, one can choose to be greedy, one can decide to sustain productivity by unethical means, one can decide to be selfish, one can decide to be ruthless in the treatment of workers.

    The free market system has its failings; just like any other system that may seem perfect on paper.
    Volunteers services should be from willing, caring, concerned and sincere individuals. The good news is that some people are already commited to this; and more of it is desirable, and will be appreciated.
    A worker deserves to be paid; and there are roles for volunteers.
    But no human system will end poverty. Like murders, wars, adultery, earthquakes, greed, disease and other numerous evils in the world, poverty can only be reduced, not eliminated.
    • Sep 23 2012: Of course I am not promoting a mandate, I am greatly a fan of choice; and not necessarily every citizen, simply those with an interest in helping others through a small, yet non-trivial benefit that may incentivize one to give time to formally help in their neighborhood. I do not see how helping those who serve others, (perhaps even with something so simple as a military discount to thank those who serve at home) would eliminate freedom of choice. Every good idea can be taken to an extreme too far and without careful concerns the idea could easily go as far an Ayn Rand type of dystopia

      I also don't think I am convinced of your belief that we can never end poverty, although even if that were fact, that doesn't mean more can't be done. We've practically eliminated illiteracy, polio, smallpox, and slavery in recent centuries in the western world.

      Why not democratize food & potable water too?
      Or housing?
      Or education? (which may change drastically in the somewhat near future)

      Poverty is just the status of not having the basic needs required to support oneself, right? But someone in poverty in America is in much better shape than someone in poverty in a third word nation, so the very state of poverty can at least be improved.

      I wonder if our idea of work can change from purely being for wealth accumulation to 90% wealth accumulation/10% good deeds. Shoot make it 5%. Or 1%, even something as small as that on a large scale would get a large amount of good done for our neighborhoods and get people away from their computer and into the community. I think by simply interacting with others with an intention to help would spur more of that as it becomes the general attitude of the community members and spur a genuine desire to care for others.
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    Gail . 50+

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    Sep 22 2012: There are many who are out there sharing their talents. But to require the poor/unemployed to work for benefits will cause the salaried employees to be put out of work in favor of cheaper labor. The problem is $$$ itself, not leeches on society. Our economic system cannot survive without poverty.
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    Sep 22 2012: For some reason volunteers are considered a threat to saleried and contract employees. Especially in schools. It is the old rice bowl thing. Schools have a tier system that seperates the administration, certified staff, maintenance, secreterial, and others (which includes school board and volunteers). Admin and teachers can go to all meetings and get in to all events etc .. free. All others must pay. Free meals and furnished bottled water for admin and teachers while others are not even permitted into the sacred teachers lounge. For ten years I put up with snubs and egos but have decided not to continue. I advised the superintendent that I would not be returning and he ask what I did but not why I would not be continuing. He has been here for two years and did not even know how long I had been at the school. Volunteers are disposable.

    Yes they could, and do, a lot of good. But the attitude of the younger teachers and employees toward the older generation will make most of the volunteers limited assets.

    The unions and "all about me generation" are enemies to the thought that volunteers could be assets.

    Wish it was as easy as you propose. Unfortunately it is not.

    Been there ... done that. Bob.
  • Sep 24 2012: Yes please, I would like to read more on that if you can find it. I just watched Rachel Botsman's new talk on trust being a new form of currency, which does a great job of highlighting the idea that through an reputation managed online, we can encourage beneficial interactions between people.

    I highly recommend it if you're interested in the topic,
    http://www.ted.com/talks/rachel_botsman_the_currency_of_the_new_economy_is_trust.html
    • Sep 24 2012: I think volunteerism to ease the burden of social welfare is the best solution to poverty. However, the level of volunteerism is highly dependent on the hearts of the population. If they are hard hearted and selfish, there will be few volunteers. If they have love and compasson for their fellow man there will be more volunteers.

      A problem with the present system is that a faceless check that shows up in the mail begins to feel like an entitlement. If one saw the face of the giver and saw the sacrifice made by the giver, one would be more likely to want to work their way out of their situation. They may be moved to get themselves into a position to help someone else they way they were helped.

      The first hospitals in the USA were started by unpaid volunteers (nuns) who saw a need and were moved to do something about it.

      If there is no seen need, are we less likely to feel moved? The answser cannot be to remove all government assistance to to let the needs be seen, so that ordinary people will be moved to pick up the slack. But I think that ultimately is the solution, as cruel as that sounds. That solution is never going to happen.

      I think we have more poverty now than before there was social welfare. Before social welfare there were pockets of extreme tragic poverty. But many people pulled themselves out of that. Now it seems we have large swaths of long term multigenerational poverty. Pandora's box has been opened and I don't have any solutions.
  • Sep 23 2012: To start with there are several volunteer systems: Habitat for Humanity, I know that in several states where a diverse agriculture , farmers allow gleaning of the left over crops.... Secondly, before throwing our less fortunate to the wolves, Social services provided by churches and such , have historically come at a high price. Namely the selling of ones true beliefs for food, clothing and shelter.

    The Government would not be so broke if it would stop engaging in A) giving themselves unlimited pay increases and benefits, B) stop engaging in conflicts lobbied for by private interests.

    This does not even begin to address the fact that most people need help because those private interests above , turn around and outsource productive jobs that could be held by those in need .
  • Sep 22 2012: I think it is a thin line between volunteering and slavery. What i wonder about is, why something that seems to be needed by many is not paid, and if, just with like you say "basic goods". Why keep people on the ground? If we (the society) pay billions over billions for private banks, this seems not to be a problem of money.

    I do not think that there is a financial need for volunteering. And, why is there a government needed, if the core of a state is run by volunteers? Things you list is the core element of a states legitimacy, if he can't provide this or does not want to provide this, then why do you pay taxes anymore and follow the governments law?
    • Sep 22 2012: I was thinking volunteers could provide more locally based services, helping ease up on food stamps, welfare, possibly healthcare and community projects as well as prepare for disasters on a local level, hopefully increasing sustainability, while our governments would still be in place to deal with issues of law and order, large scale projects, national defense, foreign policy, and the like.

      I have heard recently about volunteers working to reclaim their cities after it has gone through bankruptcy and services like garbage, road and park maintenance were shut down.

      As for the slavery concern, that is a valid concern I share but would hope to have it be an opt in system where it simply was inconvenient to not be involved, whether through financial incentives or for social reasons. Just as not having a Facebook can be inconvenient when meeting people who assume everyone has one. Thanks for the reply!
      • Sep 23 2012: That still does not address the real problem, which is outsourcing of meaningful employment.
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    Sep 22 2012: There is an elegant system that has been extant for 1000's of years called the free market. It is fantastically successful. For just the purpose you seek without all the BS.
    • Sep 22 2012: You are correct. The free market system has been wildly successful and a more creative force than anything in human history. But it is clearly not perfect and has gotten us into a bit of a hole with its current set up and regulation. If you look at our government the issue of social welfare seems to be a divisive issue. Democrats tend to want more social welfare and republicans want to minimize the role of government regulation.

      The free market works on an incentive based system; be productive, get paid, ideally. But it creates negative externalities and encourages accumulation of wealth over creation through productive efforts. Also its not entirely free (as in laissez fairre), we all pay a portion of our income (a proxy for our productive efforts) in taxes to go towards funding projects for the general goodwill of the community, to solve large scale problems we can't take on individually, like fight our wars, police our streets, monitor our safety, pave our roads, sweep our streets, and build our parks and schools.

      People could simply give some of their productivity to the people through labor as a volunteer, and maybe pay less in the form of tax dollars or shopping costs and as long as it was done through a trustworthy system. It could possibly be more efficient than our government spending and give an opportunity for the unemployed to take part in productive efforts in exchange for basic services rather than relying upon government runs programs. Citizen run programs rather.

      By eliminating or reducing the issue of government handouts from congress's responsibility, funds could be freed up, resources better allocated and perhaps the people would help to solve a lot of our problems in education, healthcare, poverty, etc.,. Possibly, it was a thought I wanted to get discuss, with people who are open to new ways of thinking about a problem.

      There is always room for improvement, and I'm hoping to further explore that with this thread.
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        Sep 22 2012: I would contend that which is not perfect is not the free market. Externailities are covered just fine by extant laws.

        The area that needs improvement is the understanding of what already exists.
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    Sep 22 2012: Volunteerism is indeed a wonderful way of improving the quality of life in cities and towns. Probably every city, including yours, has a website announcing ways people can help in your local area, and places like Volunteer Match and United Way also post opportunities with non-governmental social service organizations.
    At least where I live, and I assume many other places, there are always many members of the community ready to answer the call without any sort of compensation. In fact where I live there are typically many more people willing to volunteer (without compensation) than social services organizations are able to supervise!
    At the level of children, service has become an academic requirement in many if not most high schools and many middle schools, which is another way it has the potential to become part of a way of life.
    So I think the spirit of volunteerism is nicely alive!
    • Sep 22 2012: Thanks for the response, and I understand it's well and alive, but I can't help but feel there can be more done.

      I've heard a lot of discussion of mandatory service in the armed forces, and wonder what would happen there was a required amount of volunteer service at home, on a nationwide scale. My idea is that although there are a lot of people willing to volunteer, those who actually do are still in the minority. With some sort of mandate/tax breaks/private benefit or just a general shift in the attitudes of the people, can we find a way to provide all or most of the social welfare we now rely upon our tax dollars to provide? Our tax dollars are generally spent very inefficiently, by those far away from the problems.

      I guess I'm looking for opposition, or discussion on the different types of platforms that could be used to make such an idea of "all for one" realistic. Kind of the Facebook of volunteering per se, where everyone might be involved
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        Sep 22 2012: Oh, I see. You want a universal compulsory thing, kind of like the draft but for everyone. And I guess you want an infrastructure that indicates needs and who has them? And then some way of matching people up with the tasks for which they have the skills and then distributing whatever is produced to the appropriate locations? And you want some verifiable accounting of hours or days spent to assure compliance.
        Do I get the picture now? Kind of like a planned economy to produce and distribute what is needed without compensation to those doing the work other than receiving what they may need?
        • Sep 22 2012: Yea something along those lines. In the novel/movie Starship Troopers, you need to serve in the army to become a citizen, so you can't vote without it but it's not compulsory service. I'm not suggesting anything that extreme but perhaps even something like a military discount to say thanks to those who serve their neighborhoods in addition to those who serve the armed forces. You mentioned Volunteer Match they seem to have a pretty nice interface set up but something along those lines.
  • Sep 21 2012: Ran out of room and I guess the questions are somewhat scattered above, but essentially, Can we use another system of incentives or mandates to get people helping with those who can't afford basic services?

    America was founded upon the ideal of a nation "By the people, for the people", however our government is "Paid for by the people," not actually by the people.

    By getting people to act in their local communities for the common good, could we make more efficient use of our resources than the government spending of our taxes?

    Either through a government mandate of 2hrs/month or some sort of incentive based system?
    • Sep 23 2012: What you are looking for is tribal psychology , but mandated by the government. You can't mandate social capitalism.
      Social Capitalism does exist where I live. It is something that is taught, not mandated. I am having trouble understanding how Social Capital can co-exist with free-market Capitalism on a large scale ?
      Please explain how they can co-exist together because they are very opposite ideologies, which living in a small town where it is taught works , but large scale ?
      • Sep 23 2012: Yes thats definitely not something I should have written, more like a platform to enable it and encourage a small amount of service with some incentive. I definitely am not a fan of mandates.

        I like what you mention as it being taught, not mandated, and that is what I was envisioning. My idea would be something like corporate philanthropy, just as many places here in America give military discounts. In order to serve in the military they give a certain amount of time towards protecting our nation, if other civilians decided to help serve our neighbors, they could receive similar benefits.

        As it is now, several companies, like Tom's Shoes donation program or any other companies advertising their philanthropic goals, receive a large benefit from concerned citizens. Right now I spend a lot of time going to certain websites (Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Ted, etc.) and each one facilitates a different niche activity. WIth one focused on getting people out and about helping in the community in a wide range of , I expect it would become a daily part of one's life, getting them out in the neighborhood and simply spur good will. Which I've found to be contagious when genuine.

        Large scale would just mean being able to make each person like a contributor to the community, which I would think means keeping it fairly local, while still somewhat connected nationally or internationally.

        My favorite opportunity would be to help us avoid another poorly handled disaster like Hurricane Katrina. If you get people engaged in every city signing up for roles in disaster prep, with specific roles, then people would be much better prepared to help out in the case of an emergency. There would probably be some basic guidelines and roles to fill in each city, but people could also be free to sign up to help at a local food bank or mentor children or be a caregiver for someone with disabilities. It would be voluntary, but with some suggested operations and duties for each region.
        • Sep 24 2012: I am going to save your email because , I was recently reading about a co-op in which credits were given instead of cash. So like a plumber could go and help someone without the cash to pay for it and exchange credits for some food, other services etc..... It is located in more than one city . I can't think of the name of it.
          It is a social capital building ideal . This left the person who was poor or had little skills the ability to also give , by caregiving, babysitting, baking you get my drift. Would you like me to try and figure out where I saw the information ?