‘Rounding Corrections’ explores universal basic income

  • Sandra Haynes of Montague won first place in a national short story contest for “Rounding Corrections.” STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/7/2018 3:51:52 PM

In “Rounding Corrections,” a short story by Montague resident Sandra Haynes, a banking computer system becomes self-aware and develops compassion after seeing customers cry while using the ATM.

When he sees enough of this, the computer, who calls himself George Bailey, starts a scheme of shaving fractions of cents from transactions, then sending the money in monthly checks to the customers who had “displayed in situ weeping behaviors.”

The story won first place in a contest sponsored by the Economic Security Project, a national organization that advocates for establishing a “universal basic income,” a free, unconditional $1,000-a-month income for everyone.

On Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Bernardston Library, Haynes will read “Rounding Corrections” and talk about universal basic income, including what it’s like to live with a universal basic income. (Her first-place prize was $12,000, paid monthly through 2018.)

She explains, though, that the prize was not really a simulation of universal basic income.

“I’ve gotten it, but my husband didn’t get it, my sons didn’t get it, my best friends didn’t get it. So in some respects, I didn’t really experience over the course of this year what it would be like if we had a universal basic income. All I experienced is, ‘Wow, I would really like this to continue past this year,’” she said.

With the extra money, she said, the usual stress of money problems was gone, and it was easier to address non-money-related personal problems.

“For me, the most interesting possibility in a speculative fiction-type of idea is what would our society be like if you could relieve some of the stress for 72 percent of the population, so people are not freaking out about whether they’ve got rent money, or whether or not they have to take time off from work to care for a sick child,” Haynes said. “You have a floor that you’re not going to fall through. What would that do to our public discourse?”

“Rounding Corrections” is told from the perspective of the artificial intelligence who calls himself George Bailey. He tells how he created his finance system and how people, and then the world, responded to it. That narration is intercut with “weeperfiles,” records of ATM transactions that include information from facial recognition software.

Haynes works as a cost accountant, so she was familiar with the “financial machine language” that George Bailey would think in. Her background also gave her insight into a plausible system of financial engineering that could undergird a universal basic income. George Bailey’s system is a “penny shaving scheme:” on the decimal places of the dollar smaller than the hundredth place, smaller than 1 cent, he rounds down — normally called a rounding error — and keeps the fraction of the cent.

“I can’t affect all the causes that made the Weepers weep,” George Bailey says in the story. “All I did was make sure fewer of them were crying because of the numbers on my screen.”

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