Income Ethics

This was originally posted as a series of essays on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. Comments have been disabled here, but please feel free to leave comments on any of the original posts (see links above).

Embracing the Human Family

 

Photo: Searching through the Trash

A few days after returning to the United States from my first trip to India, I found myself in a movie theater, leaning back into a comfortable chair and quietly feeling the tears roll down my face as I looked around the dimly lit room and watched people stuff their faces with popcorn and slurp on giant cups of soda. I couldn’t help but think about the millions of starving children on the other side of the planet who, while I was enjoying comfort, would be going to sleep later that night hungry and cold on a concrete sidewalk.

A few months later I was invited to attend the last launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery. As I watched the spaceship blast off into outer space, I was again flooded with emotions as I realized how in such a short period of time I had observed the poorest of humans barely surviving in the slums of India to seeing firsthand evidence of the incredible technological advances our species had achieved.

Almost a year after my return, the bulk of these emotions seemed to have all but disappeared, numbed away by the time spent living again in a privileged and abundant society. But, as I walked down a beautiful pathway in California one sunny day, surrounded by perfectly landscaped gardens that wrapped me in pink, yellow, and blue flowers, their petals lazily swaying in the wind, I caught myself once again choking up.

What did I do to deserve so much beauty? Why did I have so much while millions of others lived in heaps of trash, scrounging around in the filth in search of food? And what right did I have to ask for more, to seek an income and ask others to give me more when I already had so much?

Whenever I thought about how I could earn an income through my creative work, I felt embarrassed to even be considering it. While billions were trying to feed themselves, I bathed in the luxury and the privilege of being able to create income streams with virtually no limit on growth and no need for accountability. It felt irresponsible, selfish, and wrong.

I have not always felt this repulsion to asking for more or this difficulty justifying an income. For most of my life I lived with more than I needed. I worked towards goals that were not really my own and I spent the majority of my time doing things to afford stuff that I thought I wanted but didn’t need.

When it came to my career, nothing I did ever felt purposeful to the bigger picture. My potential always felt grossly underutilized and I never felt satisfied. But instead of doing something about it, I unconsciously contributed to the continuation of this dissatisfaction by telling myself that I needed to stick with whatever I was doing, no matter how rote or routine, because the next great opportunity might be just around the corner.

Instead of living life guided by my heart, I was living life guided by the fear of missing out on the next big thing, the thing that everybody had convinced me I would be foolish to throw away. Time was a cheap accessory and I was always willing to sacrifice today in return for the security of knowing that tomorrow would bring something I could expect, something that was already known and easily handled.

It didn’t matter that I was quietly suffering inside. I willingly accepted suffering in my career and in my life because everybody else was suffering too, and sharing that suffering felt easier and more logical than standing out as the person who gave up everything in search of a better way.

But all of that changed last year when I made the decision to rid my life of all that fear and all those external expectations. I voluntarily gave up my attachment to the achievements, the accomplishments, and all the positions and career advancements. Saving myself from the decay of the status quo became more important than all the golden opportunities I might miss in the process.

From that moment forward, I committed myself to living a simple, more purpose-driven lifestyle and proceeded to wipe the slate clean of all my material possessions so that I could discover my enough and allow my heart the freedom it needed to guide my life.

I began living with only what fit on my back and in the process I discovered that letting go actually decreased the sense of scarcity and fear of not having enough.

Instead of being scared to miss opportunities, I began to feel a sense of abundance, a sense of absolute contentedness that came with the knowledge that I had recognized my enough and that I had the freedom to focus on the soul-empowering creative work that I now fully recognized enriched both my life and the lives of others.

But with this freedom came something very unexpected: An unbelievably strong sense of responsibility for using my time and my resources to help rebalance the global inequalities that were brought to my attention by travels abroad.

The decision to travel the world had opened my soul to a feeling of being inexplicably connected to everyone else on the planet. Earth had become my home and everyone on it genuinely felt like family. It became clear that whatever lifestyle I led and whatever work I did, my existence needed to contribute in some way to the well-being of all. I now felt an inherent planetary social responsibility.

Planetary Social Responsibility

 

Graph: Fulfillment, Consumption, Enough
When we came into this world, our hands were open. We live, our fists clenched, struggling to hold onto anything we can, but when we leave, our hands will once again remain open.

We come with nothing, we leave with nothing, and while we’re here we own nothing. Every person who lives will go through this cycle, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or how much they inherit.

Everything we have is borrowed, a temporary resource to use on this journey through life. We take nothing with us, and yet we are given so much while we’re here. The whole world, all of life, is one big family, yet many of us ignore it and forget that it exists.

Distracted by the fleeting impermanence, we futilely clench our fists to that which surrounds us, focusing so much on protecting our so-called assets that we inadvertently damn others in our family to an inhumane and immoral standard of living. The current state of our human family isn’t sad: it’s disgraceful.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have the ability (the time) and the resources (the wealth and knowledge) to choose how we live and to make a difference in the welfare of our family. Unlike those who struggle every day to simply survive, there is a select few of us who get to choose.

As a member of that group who can choose and who, for most of his life, did nothing with that choice, I can say that many of us in the developed world are not using our free choice to change the state of our human family. Instead, we’re living in luxury and aspiring towards extravagance, selfishly consuming more and more and not really thinking about where it leads.

We eat more than we need to, we spend more than we need to, and we hoard more than we need to. We play games with our resources in the ‘financial markets’ and acquire unnecessary junk in the ‘supermarkets’.

Instead of deciding what truly matters to us and then releasing everything else to those who need it, we allow fear to guide us. We embrace scarcity because others are embracing it. We unconsciously spend our life doing things that ensure the poor remain poor, the rich remain rich, and everybody in between suffers for as long as possible.

Where does it stop? At what point do we recognize our enough and start giving back to those in need? When does our time and money cease to represent a vote for poverty and instead become a vote for equality?

We create budgets for reducing debt and achieving long-term goals, but have we created a budget for humanity? Have we created a budget for serving our human family with the limited time we have available? Have we taken the time to assess what we have and asked ourselves if we might be holding too much?

If you can afford three meals a day, you are in the top 15% of the wealthiest humans on Earth.

What are we doing with all that wealth? Are we hoarding it like paranoid pack rats, padding our bellies and bank accounts and chasing the volatile and impermanent equity of our physical assets?

Or are we living within our means, recognizing what is really necessary to achieve our goals, and then searching for ways to redistribute excess so that we may contribute to the betterment of all life?

Throughout history, the wealthy members of successful societies acted as the caretakers and custodians of their community. They used their wealth to ensure a moral, just, and dignified standard of living. The societies that failed? They had one thing in common: the wealthy hoarded.

For the first time in written history, a global society is emerging. We are in a transition that ends with each individual representing one member of a global community. The biggest mistake we can make as individuals is to remain blind to the individual responsibility that comes with the privilege of having access to this global community.

What Does It Mean To Accept This Responsibility?

Our planetary social responsibility is a responsibility to protect our home (Earth) and our family (all of life). It’s a responsibility to ensure that our actions, as both individuals and groups, support the continued welfare of this home and family.

Accepting this responsibility doesn’t mean that we should neglect ourselves or throw away our ambitions or personal goals — it doesn’t mean we should become martyrs for the greater good. What it does mean is that we should recognize the treasure that is this human existence and accept the responsibility for the potential that it awards us.

It means that we should ask ourselves how our work (the activities undertaken with the intention of achieving specific results) and the output or return of that work (the results, whether direct or residual), affects our home and our family.

It means understanding how our work relates to our goals and to what extent that work utilizes our unique potential. (If we are, as groups or individuals, not aiming to use our unique potential to the fullest extent, then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and to the world.)

Accepting this responsibility also means understanding how our lifestyles — the things that we consume, the groups that we relate with, and the leisurely activities that we partake in — affect the world and its people, and it means taking an active role in changing our habits to improve our lifestyle.

It means asking ourselves how our personal priorities and goals, both of which direct how we spend most of our life, affect the future home for our children (all children are our children) and whether the long-term affects of those priorities and goals will contribute to a net-positive or a net-negative future for our human family.

Wouldn’t you want to know if your work or your lifestyle was somehow contributing to the deaths of 17,000 children every night? I know I certainly would. The answer to that question isn’t easy to find, but it should still be asked; it should still be something that’s on our mind when we make decisions about our work and our lifestyle.

Fulfilling our planetary social responsibility will inevitably look different for each individual and fulfilling it won’t change the world overnight. But there is one thing we can all remember: Equality cannot be maintained for a few at the expense of the many. As Martin Luther King observed, “where there is injustice for one, there is injustice for all.”

Digital Art and Equality

 

Photo: Digital Art and Equality

The art of expressing and conveying ideas through the medium of writing wasn’t something I consciously learned, but rather it was a seed that sprouted inside me at an early age. Up until recently, I had only treated the growth of that seed as a passionate hobby, a fun talent that I would enjoy when I had the opportunity and the inclination to do so.

But the transition to simple nomadic lifestyle combined with the experience of traveling through developing countries had not only opened my eyes to a planetary social responsibility, it also allowed me to recognize the full potential of my creative work in a globally connected society.

The combination of feeling a planetary responsibility and recognizing the potential of my creative work necessitated the need to dedicate more of my time to sharing that work and contributing to the world in a way that best utilized my skills, talents, and passions. It was no longer enough that I dabbled in creativity when the urge presented itself.

Living as a nomad and focusing on creative work required very little income, but after a year of living hand-to-mouth and leaning on the goodwill of friends and family, it became apparent that even a simple lifestyle requires some income, a means of supporting oneself and obtaining the ability to redirect abundance to those in need.

If we’re not able to fully take care of ourselves, we cannot fully help others. When our needs are met, we can serve others, and when we have more than we need, we can do more to serve.

Note: In the context of this essay, the terms ‘art’ and ‘creative work’ are used to represent a tangible manifestation of creative effort; the terms ‘artist’ and ‘digital artist’ are used to represent the individual doing the creating. There is a difference between knowledge work and creative work: the former involves the skill of understanding and working with information and the latter involves the creation of new and unique things.

The Missing ‘Enough’ and a Broken Status Quo

As I began to think about how I could earn a simple living through my creative endeavors, several things felt wrong about the way others were currently monetizing their creative work. I found there were no limits in place. There was no monetary ceiling, no way to be held accountable, no definition of ‘enough’ and no dedication to maintaining that enough.

This lack of knowing what’s enough often led in one of two directions: 1) the artist stopped creating art altogether, refocusing their monetary efforts away from creating the art they loved because ‘their’ art didn’t seem to sell, or 2) they became so successful that their work stopped being about art and instead became an automated system of receiving income; their work transitioned from the creation of art to the art of managing the flow of income.

In addition to this risk of being distracted by income, it also troubled me that putting a price on my work seemed to create and support the global inequalities that I wanted to help eliminate. For example, if I sold a piece of work for $20USD, people in the more affluent areas of the world might be able to afford it while someone in a developing country might need to spend all their wages for an entire month to make the same purchase.

As soon as I put a price on my work, I effectively caged it and created walls that many people would never be able to climb. The work would eventually disappear into a monetary black hole, dying a quiet death in the shadows where a large percentage of the world would never see it.

Isn’t the point of creative work to create something that can outlast us? Isn’t the reason we create to share an artistic expression of ourselves, to create a tangible manifestation of our creative effort? And if so, why would we release and share our work in a casket?

The problem of pricing digital art intrigued me the most because it was such a fundamental problem. Every digital artist I had met spoke of the difficulty in finding ‘the right price’ for their work. There are all kinds of strategies and tactics that can be used to gauge what prices our audience will tolerate, but that seemed like a bandaid to a bigger issue.

Pricing Digital Art in the Global Marketplace

It’s only in the past twenty years that the human species has started publishing creative work en masse to a globally accessible digital medium, so I decided to think about how art in the physical world compares with art in the digital world. It’s likely that the problems with digital art originate from our inexperience operating in a global marketplace and from the unconscious application of methods used for selling non-digital art in localized marketplaces.

If you want to buy an original oil painting from a well-known artist, it will cost a lot of money because that piece of work required a huge time investment from the artist. The artist is only one person and they only have so much time available to create new work.

In the digital world however, if an artist creates a piece of digital art (i.e., creative work of any type: writing, audio, video, or graphical art), they can sell as many copies of that work as they want with no additional effort and essentially no additional cost.

When it comes to pricing that work, this causes all sorts of problems.

If a non-digital artist allows his physical artwork to be copied, pricing can start with the current valuation of the original and then, based on the quality and number of copies being created, a logical price per copy can be achieved. These prices can then be based on the geographic location they’re being sold to accommodate for differences in local currency.

However, on the Internet there is no such thing as an ‘original’ piece of artwork (original in the sense of not a copy) because all art published online is essentially a copy. And there is no quality differential per copy either, as all copies are identical in quality to the previous. Geographic location is also irrelevant as the Internet is flat and each ‘netizen’ is equal.

So, the price of digital art largely becomes arbitrary, based on whatever the artist feels the work is worth to them. That ‘feeling of worth’ is entirely relative to the local economic status of the individual and to their own valuation of money. But both of those are irrelevant online because the Internet is a global community and a global marketplace.

If we walk outside and ask our neighbor how much $1USD is worth to them, there’s a good chance we can reach a mutual agreement on its worth. But if we go from a developed country like the United States to a poor country somewhere in Africa, we’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with which to reach a similar agreement.

On the Internet, someone from a poor county in Africa is essentially just as close to us online as our next door neighbor. And as a result, using localized feelings of value cannot be applied online unless we’re willing to exclude certain people based purely on where they were born.

For a global marketplace to exist, there needs to be a common currency. There needs to be something that everybody agrees is worth the same no matter where they’re from. Without that, a global marketplace could not exist. Right now the common currency we share is the currency called ‘free’ and that’s why the growth of the Internet can be correlated with the amount of ‘free’ stuff available.

But free isn’t really a currency. It has no monetary value and it can’t buy us food or shelter. I realized that if I chose to solve the problems of pricing digital art using the currency of free, I would need to rely on donations and/or give up the full-time creation of art to do other kinds of work.

When pure survival is at stake, a donation-based living doesn’t feel right to me. Working and receiving something in return for that work feels more ethical than simply existing and asking others to support my existence. So, I needed to find a compromise that would allow me to create art full-time and still make a living.

Crossing the Bridge of Art, Income, and Equality

For over a year now I’ve wrestled with roadblocks related to the generation of income from creative work. I’ve spent months contemplating and reflecting on the crossroads of art, income, and equality and I’ve exchanged dozens of emails and held many conversations with friends.

But several questions remained unanswered and I refused to even attempt to earn a single penny through my creative work until I came up with at least some sort of solution that felt intuitively correct.

  • How could I put a price on my work without simultaneously caging it indefinitely?
  • How could I monetize my work without risking the distraction of income?
  • How could I ensure that all of my work remained free and accessible to everyone?
  • How could I maintain my enough and always give something back to those in need?

What I eventually arrived at was the conclusion that to cross that bridge — to personally feel at peace with generating income from my creative work — I needed a framework, a system for giving back, for holding myself accountable, and for ensuring that my values were not compromised.

Creating this framework meant clearly defining my ‘enough’ and stating upfront my commitment to giving back everything except what was needed for the lifestyle I chose to live. It meant creating a way that would ensure everyone, including those who could not afford my work, would still be given the opportunity to access, build upon, and benefit from that work.

What I needed to do was to define my ethics for generating income from creative work.

Until global equality is a closer reality, it is up to the individuals who are creating, publishing, and selling digital creative work in the global marketplace to accept the responsibility for creating their own set of ethics to ensure their art remains ethical.

A Framework for Ethical Income

 

Photo: Magnificence

In my life, there are many things that are important to me but nothing is as important as upholding my personal values. In reflecting on how I could uphold my values while earning an income from my creative work, I looked around to others who had chosen similar work so that I could understand how their values had influenced their income ethics. What I discovered surprised me.

Personal ethics were practically non-existent. There were no value-systems in place for handling income and the capitalist society that surrounded me even seemed to encourage a disconnect between our values and our income. This left behind a sea of irresponsible individuals who worked and lived with open-ended or non-existent income ethics.

The resulting consumerist culture expressed no expectation of us to share, provided us with no inherited sense of responsibility for giving, and did not encourage us to think beyond ourselves or towards a future where we no longer existed but where the results of our actions continued to reverberate through time.

Instead of recognizing the value of what we have now, we are instead encouraged to live in a state of fear for what we might not have tomorrow. Instead of accepting the fact that we could die tomorrow and then sharing more with those who will still be here when we’re gone, we instead choose to be selfish, egotistical, and stubborn to the reality of our mortality.

But without the help of others, there is very little we can do to change this culture. As long as the machine of consumerism stays oiled and running, there will be no societal incentive for us change.

However, if our society doesn’t expect us to be responsible, that doesn’t eliminate this responsibility: the individual simply inherits it. When we as individuals accept this responsibility, we work towards creating a society that expects us to be responsible.

It was a deep philosophical shift towards minimalism that helped make me aware of just how entrenched in consumerism my society had become and it helped me view and understand income and personal responsibility from a different perspective.

It became clear that if my society was not going to hold me responsible for using my income ethically, I needed to accept that responsibility to create and share a set of guidelines that would uphold my values.

My Ethics for Generating Income from Creative Work

  1. All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year
  2. All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity
  3. All expenditures will be documented and published annually
  4. At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity

Each of these guidelines addresses a specific area of importance to me in relation to generating income: Freedom of art (1), defining my enough (2), transparency and accountability (3), and showing up for what matters to me (4).

Note that I’m calling these my ethics. I feel that every individual needs to recognize their enough and then work from there. I spent weeks muddling over these points and tweaking them until my intuition told me they felt right and it wasn’t until I recognized and defined my enough that I was able to use my core values and my sense of planetary responsibility to guide the rest of the process.

I’ll go into detail and explain my reasoning behind each guideline:

1. All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year

If I’m going to release non-free creative work — that is creative work whose access is restricted by monetary value — I want to ensure that all those who cannot afford the work, or who are not interested in supporting my work, still have the opportunity to access, build upon, and learn from whatever I create.

My personal philosophy has been heavily influenced by the hacker ethic, the key points of which are access, free information, and improvement to quality of life. An example of this philosophy can be found in the open-source community, where sharing and openness ensures that everyone can build upon previous work, thereby creating a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.

To pay-forward everything this philosophy has awarded me, I will release all non-free creative work into the public domain within one year. If you cannot afford something that I create, all you need to do is wait until it becomes free.

This guideline also protects me as an artist: As a creative worker, my ‘work’ should never stop. My job isn’t to create something and then go have it manufactured like a product and sold over and over. The digital nature of my creative work (primarily writing) allows me to do this with the Internet, effortlessly replicating and distributing my work over and over. But as an artist, that’s not my ‘work’.

When a digital artist forgets that his or her job is to produce art, they can get wrapped up in the potential of this technological machine (the Internet) to replicate and distribute their work. As a result, they might stop creating new work and instead focus on maximizing the use of this machine to generate income from existing work.

This one-year lifespan on non-free work ensures that I’m always looking forward, always focusing on creating and always treating my work as art, not spending my time tweaking existing art to maximize profit or finding ways to imitate the success of other artists.

2. All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity

In the past year, I’ve traveled across the planet, sailed on the Pacific ocean, piloted a small airplane, watched a space shuttle launch, and trekked up into the Himalayan mountains. And I’ve done all of that and gained a lifetime of experiences on less than $15k USD. This is my enough.

If there are billions of people on the planet who survive on $4 a day, then I can certainly find a way to thrive on $40 a day. For the foreseeable future, I see absolutely no reason for keeping more than $15k USD per year to myself, so anything I receive over that amount will go towards charitable work.

I’ve seen how money can change our perspective and quietly inject greed into our lives. When we’re poor, sufficiency appears one step ahead. When we’re rich, sufficiency still appears one step ahead. No matter what we do, sufficiency always appears out of reach and we never seem to have enough.

Instead of chasing sufficiency, we need to recognize that it’s already here; it doesn’t change or move, we do. By setting a limit for my personal income and committing myself to donating the rest to charitable work, I’m recognizing sufficiency and choosing to live within it. I’m ensuring that the more I earn, the more I’m reminded of, and contributing to, my planetary social responsibility.

3. All expenditures will be documented and published annually

With transparency comes accountability. I want to be held accountable for my income ethics. I want to hold myself accountable and I want you, and everyone who helps support me, to also hold me accountable.

By documenting and publishing my expenditures for all the world to see, I’m providing you — whether you choose to support my work or not — with a full view of where your support is going and where the charitable portion of my income is being donated.

Since the beginning of 2010, I’ve been documenting and publishing my expenses. Going forward, the frequency of these reports may fluctuate but they will always be free, always as detailed as possible, and always published at least once a year.

When I publish these reports, I don’t feel like I’m doing it to justify my expenses to you. Instead, I feel like I’m doing it to justify them to myself. In creating this transparency for you, I’m forced to be transparent with myself.

4. At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity

By having a portion of every transaction go to charity, I’m ensuring that no matter what I earn, there will always be something given back. That means if I only earn $100 a month from my creative work, $25 of that will always go to charity.

Giving a portion of every transaction to charity is important because it acts as a commitment to a sustainable future. It acts as a continuous reminder of the importance of sharing and the role charity plays in fulfilling our planetary social responsibility. It’s a way of always ‘showing up’ for what matters.

(Income tax should be the answer to this, but until our leaders have their priorities straight, I’m creating my own self-imposed income tax to work towards what I feel is important.)

A Note on Charity and Charitable Work

I use the words ‘charity’ and ‘charitable work’ interchangeably throughout this essay, but since a large portion of my income will be donated I should clarify what I mean by “going to charity”

I want to dedicate a portion of my time every year to doing charitable work. However, until I’m in a financial position to take things into my own hands, I will simply make regular donations to charitable organizations. As my ability to spend more time and money on charity increases, some of the charitable income will go towards charitable endeavors of my own.

The charitable portion of my income will be kept in an interest-bearing account separate from my personal accounts (earned interest will always go to charity) and the balance of that account, as well as the donations that are made, will always be disclosed in my published financial reports.

It’s the Universe or Nothing

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience.

If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing. – Carl Sagan

I embrace these income ethics because I feel an inherent planetary social responsibility. I feel that if I’m able to generate income — potentially large amounts of income through the Internet — then I need to commit upfront to being morally responsible with that income. It’s a commitment to myself, yes, but it’s also a commitment to you, to the future, and to the world that supports us both.

Is your work important to you? Is the freedom, longevity, and legacy of your work of any significance? What does your ‘enough’ look like? Have you made the conscious decision to live and work within your enough? Where does your excess abundance go? How do you hold yourself accountable for ensuring that your work and your lifestyle reflect your core values?

Are these questions important? I believe they are and I encourage you to accept responsibility for equality and seek to achieve balance through understanding your enough. When we pay-forward the abundance that we receive and keep the cycle of giving alive, we will fulfill our individual roles as curators of sustainability and custodians of human solidarity.