How about a Genius Basic Income?
A proposal to free our best minds from the tedium of daily life.
Written by Matthew Archer.
There are some individuals who are venerated by their contemporaries, but whose greatness rests on qualities and achievements that are quite foreign to the aims and ideals of the many.
–– Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930)
Professor Martin Hairer is one of the world’s most gifted mathematicians. An Austrian-Brit at Imperial College London, he researches stochastic partial differential equations and holds two of maths’ most coveted prizes. In 2014, he became only the second person with a physics PhD to win a Fields Medal, an award granted every four years to mathematicians under 40 and considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Hairer also won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, which comes with a $3 million cheque. When the Guardian covered Hairer’s win, they noted: ‘[his] major work, a 180-page treatise that introduced the world to “reguarity structures”, so stunned his colleagues that one suggested it must have been transmitted to Hairer by a more intelligent alien civilisation.’ The journalist asked Hairer how he’d spend the prize money. His response: “We moved to London somewhat recently, three years ago, and we are still renting. So it might be time to buy a place to live.”
Most readers of the Guardian that day no doubt understood the absurdity of London house prices. Morning coffee in hand, many will have tut-tutted in dismay at Hairer’s comical remark and mentally filed it under somebody really ought to fix this housing crisis. But how many stopped to consider the greater absurdity? After all, here was a man who, not that long ago, would’ve had a team around him devoted to deflecting such petty problems, to getting others out of his way and allowing him to focus on the thing that only he and a handful of people could understand, let alone do. But the real story wasn’t that a maths genius in modern Britain couldn’t afford a comfortable home close to work. The real story was that it passed without comment.
Brains like Hairers used to have patrons. That patron would have recognised the absurdity of a once-in-a-generation mind having to compute demeaning mortgage rates instead of the secrets of the universe. Secrets that, when unraveled, would likely benefit us all. Of course, it’s not just mortgage rates the modern genius often has to concern themselves with. Without a patron or the refuge of a university that doesn’t haven’t a marketing department, geniuses like Hairer are forced to endure the corporate universities of the 21st century. As Edward Dutton and Bruce Charlton write in their book The Genius Famine:
Indeed, if the genius can become an academic he is confronted with further problems. Once upon a time, he could do occasional teaching and then devote himself to his research, publishing if he discovered anything. Now, there is constant pressure to publish, publish in certain journals, attend conferences (hellish social events for geniuses), and obtain research grants.
To read of such difficult, annoying, disruptive geniuses as mathematical physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984; who almost never spoke) or the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951; who refused to socialise or even eat with colleagues, or do administration; and taught only the people he wanted to teach and in exactly the way he wanted to teach them), and then to realise that these were Professors at the world-leading University of Cambridge – is to recognise that such characters would nowadays get nowhere near a Cambridge chair or any other chair (not least because actual ability to perform at a really high level in one’s subject or function, is no longer regarded as of primary importance in modern British universities, or indeed anywhere else in Britain).
Like not being able to afford a house until you win a $3 million maths prize, this may seem like a relatively minor quibble to those of us who winced in school as the calculus chapter drew ever closer. So let’s put it another way: either brilliant people focus entirely (or however much they desire) on abstruse problems, the resolution of which often trickles down in the form of material and spiritual improvements to human civilisation, or they do not. How much do we want the Professor Hairers of the world to worry about getting on the housing ladder, to be dealing with university politics, or filling out forms? If the choice is between this and any additional hours spent on problems only they can solve, zero seems to be the appropriate answer.
To raise this point risks a tsunami of “whataboutery”—what about the average person who can’t afford a home? What about the homeless?! The same people tend to suggest that a highly paid academic doing a job he loves and living in one of the world’s best cities is enough of a reward. In itself this is a sign of a remarkable shift in values. It is also the inheritance of an older belief system, Puritanism, where, in the words of the late anthropologist David Graeber, ‘one is not paid money to do things, however useful or important, that one actually enjoys.’
In a sane world, Hairer would long ago have been given a healthy grant or a generous basic income, as well as a majestic set of lodgings wherever he so desired. Perhaps he would’ve become the Queen’s Royal Mathematician and lead a school of elite young students who would apply from all over the world for a chance to spend a few hours breathing the same air as the alien-brained professor. I’m sure if Professor Hairer were ever to read this, his cheeks would turn a shade crimson, he would protest against such showiness, and declare he’s not interested, thank you very much. And we would do well to ignore him. For symbolism is important, role models are important. Whilst it’s trite, it’s a point that bears repeating: the West could always do with more Hairers in the spotlight and fewer Kardashians. So as long as the spotlight was accompanied by a raft of other policy initiatives.
Here, however, is the rub, because the interests of the gifted are routinely swept aside in western societies. This is most clearly visible when we look at the treatment of gifted children. We see gifted adults—like Hairer—who often make it through in spite of our education systems, rather than because of them, and this contributes to a folk sociological belief that most children with his potential surely fulfil it. That they will be okay no matter what. Whilst discussing an early draft of this article with a friend, I received the same question: but don’t most super high IQ kids end up doing something like Elon Musk? In short, no. Worryingly, gifted scholars have long written about an ‘epidemic’ of gifted underachievement:
This disturbing claim is supported by evidence which indicates that up to, or even greater than, half the population of gifted students exhibit significant academic underachievement (although the most commonly reported prevalence rates are between 10% and 20%).
Of course, most of us never hear about the substantial number of gifted children who not only do not become Fields Medal winners, but suffer immensely in antiquated school systems. In 2004, two former software engineers, Jan and Bob Davidson, wrote about their experience supporting profoundly gifted children through their non-profit organization, the Davidson Institute. In a country like America, 0.13% of the population will be profoundly gifted (or 13 out of 10,000 individuals). Barbara Clark, a Professor Emeritus of California State University, describes these children thusly:
Studies of the profoundly gifted learners suggest that they differ significantly from highly gifted students as a result of differently wired neurons that allow more complex and efficient neural highways for transmitting information. They seem to have different value structures, which usually allow them to cope with the dissonance they find between their perception of life and that of the average person.
In their book Genius Denied: How to stop wasting our brightest young minds, the Davidsons repeatedly reel off the horrific stories of discrimination faced by profoundly gifted youngsters and their parents:
Every day we hear tales of their troubles. One teenage girl tells of being mocked as a “rocket scientist” by a teacher trying to gain rapport with a class. A mother is told to put her child on Ritalin to drug the boredom away. An eager, extroverted six-year-old girl has to be dragged to school because she dreads the dull hours so much. A seventh grade boy learns algebra over the summer, but has to repeat the class in eighth grade because his school can’t be bothered with accommodating his new knowledge. Schools label some gifted children as dull troublemakers because they refuse to do meaningless work. Others simply endure social isolation for speaking differently and caring about things different from other children their age.
Is it any wonder gifted underachievement is rampant? These complaints are a large part of the reason why I left mainstream teaching myself and probably why half of the students the Davidsons work with are homeschooled. Referencing Richard Hofstadter’s famous book, the Davidsons suggest their stories epitomise anti-intellectualism in American life. After spending the best part of a year reading the literature on giftedness, it’s hard not to see their point.
Perhaps Dr James Gallagher—a scientific authority and activist for disabled and gifted children— put it best in his 1976 book, Teaching the Gifted Child. There he told the story of an American elementary school principal who once made a feather-rustling proposal. Mr Palcuzzi wanted the school to develop a programme for gifted and talented students. There would be ability grouping, acceleration for the most able, and inter-school competitions. The Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) protested. However, Palcuzzi didn’t retreat, in fact he upped the request. He wanted to fund purpose-built equipment, extra transportation, and even a special teacher by placing a fee on the entire parent body. Now outraged, the PTA declared Palcuzzi’s proposal elitist, divisive, and anti-democratic. Palcuzzi then delicately explained that the programme was not a new one, but had in fact existed since the school’s inception and was enthusiastically supported by all: he was referring to the varsity football team.
Gallagher’s story highlights the difficulties anybody genuinely wishing to help the gifted faces. One could perhaps imagine a young “ideas politician” navigating the thorny issue of elitism by supporting a state-funded Genius Basic Income for adults. But when it comes to gifted children, a culture war minefield of preconceptions and hostility awaits any brave soul who entertains the possibility that gifted discrimination is no different from any other prejudice and that the gifted need just as much help as those with learning disabilities. On the latter point, it’s long been the case that state spending for those with learning disabilities is an order of magnitude larger than the funding available for the gifted. And regarding the culture war minefield: those who wish to scrap the gifted programs that do exist often use the cover of anti-racism. It was only in October last year that the then Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, announced the city’s gifted programme would be replaced because non-white students were underrepresented. Yet as Professor Ellen Winner noted in her 1996 book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, scrapping gifted programmes in the name of diversity, equality, and inclusion, has rather ironic effects. Namely, gifted children embedded within a culture, which might not value high achievement (my own for instance: British white working-class boys), have no other children ‘with whom to identify, and they may not feel encouraged to develop their skills.’ The activists, then, practice discrimination in the name of non-discrimination.
Where support for the gifted does exist, it is limited, expensive, and therefore hard to access for low-income families. Today, philanthropy is the residue of patronage. The world of private grants is a good example. Perhaps the most famous example is the MacArthur Fellows Program. The Wiki describes the grant as:
a prize awarded annually […] typically to 20 and 30 individuals, working in any field, who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction" and are citizens or residents of the United States.
[…] According to the foundation's website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential," but it also says such potential is "based on a track record of significant accomplishments." The current prize is $625,000 paid over five years in quarterly instalments.
[…] The award has been called "one of the most significant awards that is truly ‘no strings attached’.
No strings attached it may be, but as the trope about Harvard goes: the hardest part is getting in. Indeed, when it comes to becoming a MacArthur Genius, right-wing commentators have accused the Foundation of genuflecting to political correctness. For these critics, Ibram X. Kendi (one of the more controversial recent appointments) is clearly not the most deserving candidate, let alone a genius. But whether the Foundation has become a shining example of Conquest’s third law of politics (any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing) or not, there’s a broader lesson to learn from the criticism: relying on private foundations to take care of the gifted always risks sub-optimal selection policies.
Others, like the libertarian-conservative billionaire Peter Thiel, don’t shy away from their views. Thiel has a more singular mission: to fund exceptional young minds. The Thiel Fellowship:
[…] is intended for students aged 22 or younger and offers them a total of $100,000 over two years, as well as guidance and other resources, to drop out of school and pursue other work, which could involve scientific research, creating a startup, or working on a social movement. Selection for the fellowship is through a competitive annual process, with about 20–25 fellows selected annually.
The first Thiel Fellows were only announced in 2011, but the list of alumni is already impressive. To name but a few: Taylor Wilson, the second youngest person to produce nuclear fusion, Austin Russell, a specialist in machine perception technologies and the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, Vitalik Buterin, one of the co-founders of Ethereum, and Laura Deming, a venture capitalist and biologist working on life extension. The combined market cap of the Thiel Fellows’ companies is already an astonishing $45 billion.
Finding such people, especially if they come from working class homes and haven’t yet done much of note, is not always easy. In the US, several leading universities have conducted talent searches for decades in the hope of smoking out low SES talent. The most well known are Duke, Northwestern, and John Hopkins. The alumni list of the John Hopkins’ program alone makes for interesting reading. Their Center for Talented Youth (a summer and online program) has been attended by the likes of the maths wizard Terence Tao, the neo-monarchist philosopher and blogger Curtis Yarvin, Andrew Yang, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Lady Gaga. But—wonderful as they are—these grants and programs are mere drops in the ocean when it comes to equipping the gifted with the resources they need to reach their potential. Nationwide testing helps, but it’s only one part of a holistic process that should involve parent and teacher recommendations, as well as opportunities for children to demonstrate outstanding achievement in addition to the potential measured by IQ.
In America, there are 50 million school children. An IQ of 140 is a conservative cut-off for the type of intellectual ability that regularly produces outstanding contributions. That score places you in the top 0.4%, equating to approximately 200,000 students. We could easily play around with the numbers, too: one in ten have an IQ of 120 or more. A significant proportion of those people can produce incredible work, such that it would be a disaster to miss out on their talent by casting our net too narrowly with IQ scores. Indeed, Richard Feynman used to joke about only scoring a 124 on a test. Whether that’s accurate or not, there certainly are outliers who don’t test well, perhaps because they didn’t eat breakfast, have to share a room with two younger siblings, or because their mother is a heroin addict. Sometimes all of the above. Establishing more rigorous scouting programs could stop some of those children slipping through the net. It would also partially insulate any politicians from the inevitable cries of elitism were they brave enough to raise the possibility of something like a state-funded genius income, grant, or series of gifted schools.
To help people who already have a winning lottery ticket might seem odd at first, even offensive to some. It’s obviously true that someone like Professor Hairer is exceedingly lucky to have been born with a brain built for advanced mathematics, to parents who nourished it, and in a country that offered opportunities for its potential to be fulfilled. It’s also obviously true that most of us cannot be paid to think, write, or paint for a living. This isn’t because a capitalist economy is configured in a certain way. It’s because nobody will ever want to look at my awful drawings, let alone buy or display them (my mother’s fridge notwithstanding). There are no known childhood interventions that could have made it otherwise. Art was as absent from my potential pathways as neurosurgery. My chances and choices, like yours, were circumscribed by a gene-environment interaction over which I had no control.
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s precisely where it should stay. Recognising the limits of the hand we are dealt is one of life’s toughest lessons, but only if it comes too late—which is always will if the society is structured to prevent or delay the adult milestones that were once taken for granted, like being able to afford a home and raise a family on one salary. We must cast off the naive view of the malleability of man as epitomised by the American Dream—the one George Carlin quipped that you have to be asleep to believe in. As mythology, perhaps it was once fit for purpose, a propellant for innovation and hard work for those stepping off the boat at Ellis Island. But in a highly advanced technological society where cognitive meritocracy dominates, these once fertile waters now do more harm than good. Telling children they can be anything they want, whether architect, fighter pilot, or video game developer, is setting the overwhelming majority up for a fall.
A world in which the profoundly gifted are supported might be a world in which the American Dream has to die, replaced instead with a reverence for the value that gifted people bring. The German psychologist Heiner Rindermann has shown that a country’s prosperity depends on the proportion of its population above a particular IQ threshold. Rindermann and his British colleague James Thompson used data from over ninety countries to show that the top 5% have the largest impact on national wealth. Emil Kirkegaard has also done work showing that the top 5% are between 30% and 40% as important as the mean citizen when it comes to national well-being (defined as average health, educational level, creative achievements, scientific output, and so on).
Of course, nobody needs statistics to recognise the type of talent someone like Martin Hairer possesses, even if his greatness, to quote Freud, ‘rests on qualities and achievements that are quite foreign to the aims and ideals of the many.’ It takes a thick cloud of collective amnesia to make us forget why such people were once identified and freed from many of the quotidian constraints that plague mere mortals. One need only consult the Wikipedia page for “List of Catholic clergy scientists” to see the number of outstanding minds offered sinecures or given lodgings, sometimes in return for a modest theological commitment, sometimes because they were simply that brilliant. Yes, the church was the only real game in town and so it would be intellectually lazy to praise Christianity for creating and cultivating genius. But it would be equally lazy to suggest that such arrangements weren’t, in some ways, better.
In 1471, the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic Lorenzo de' Medici calculated how much his family had spent on patronage and taxes over forty years: approximately $500 million by today’s standards. This one family may have ushered in the Renaissance. Lorenzo’s own court was full of today’s household names. He was patron to da Vinci and also invited a 15-year-old sculptor to live in the family palace as a son. That sculptor went by the name of Michelangelo. Lorenzo’s father Cosimo had founded Florence’s first public library and in doing so contributed immensely to the humanist movement. Without disregarding the political power games that were part and parcel of such arrangements (as astutely captured by Machiavelli), it’s interesting to consider whether the profoundly gifted children the Davidsons aim to help would have been better off in Medici Florence than a modern American classroom in which they surreptitiously read Plato under the desk whilst waiting for the rest of the class to finish circling adjectives.
Had such a child been given the privilege of wandering around Cosimo’s great library, he might have stumbled upon the first ever completed Latin translation of Plato’s works. Perhaps he would open up the Republic and read: ‘What is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.’ The West clearly still honours and cultivates talent, for minds like Martin Hairer’s are built and choose to remain here. Yet we would do well to remember that most currents pull one away from the shore gradually. A lack of attention and everything eventually looks like a dot.