Cats Don't Care About Universal Basic Income
By Curtis C. Chen
I am a cat. I don’t care about most human issues. My primary concerns are eating and sleeping. And anything that disrupts either of those crucial activities is a problem.
My human’s name is Alivia. Not “Olivia.” Alivia, with an “A.” It sounds pretty much the same when you say it, but she seems to delight in making a big deal out of anyone mishearing or misspelling it.
Humans are weird.
Our latest problems started after Alivia’s most recent birthday. She turned twenty-five, which I guess is some kind of important thing for humans, though she didn’t have nearly as big a party as she did when she turned thirteen. I didn’t get to attend, of course, but she did come home smelling of an amazing myriad of other humans, cooked foods, and manufactured substances. Hey, I like sampling new odors, I’m not ashamed of it. It’s not a problem. I can stop anytime I want. Leave me alone.
Anyway. It was the Sunday after her birthday, which had fallen on a Friday, and she had spent all weekend carousing and celebrating with her friends and classmates. Some of them even came over and played with me. That was cool.
What was not cool was her bestie, Hannah, banging on the door at nine in the morning. Alivia had taken the day off from work, and I was barely three hours into my morning nap at that point. I put forth a strong argument for Alivia staying in bed by not moving from my resting place on the pillow next to her head, but for some reason she felt compelled to roll over the other way and get out of bed to answer the door.
“Minbin Monday tomorrow!” Hannah shouted as the door swung open.
“Too loud,” Alivia grumbled, turning away and shuffling into the kitchen.
Hannah stepped inside and closed the door behind her. I had grudgingly followed Alivia into the living room, just to make sure this was a welcome visitor, and to be ready to eat if that was on offer. Or to remind the humans that eating is a thing. Sometimes they forget.
While Alivia fiddled with the coffee robot on the counter, Hannah dug her clam computer out from under a pile of papers and books. She brought it over to the kitchen counter, opened it, and placed it with the glowy screen and bumpy panel facing Alivia. It would take a few minutes for the panel to be warm enough to warrant sitting on, so I curled up on the couch.
“You’re all set up, right?” Hannah searched through the open and crumpled snack bags on the counter for some unbroken chips. She had a thing for only eating whole chips. And people say I’m picky. “You submitted the forms and connected all your bank stuff?”
“Yes, mother.” Alivia cradled her steaming mug of coffee with both hands.
“I’m serious, Livs.” Hannah found something round and pink and crunched on it. “If that first direct deposit doesn’t go through and they can’t verify that you’re receiving the minbin payments, it’s like months of paperwork and red tape to sort out. You know Darcy from stats class? She submitted the wrong forms—”
“Omigodstop.” Alivia put down her mug and waved her hands. “It’s all good. My actual mom is an actual tax attorney, remember? She puppet-mastered me through the whole thing. Barely let me touch the keyboard.”
“Hey, at least she’s around.”
“Nah, it’s cool.” Hannah pointed at the laptop. “Come on, check your account. I want to know how much they allocated you.”
“This is weird, Han.” I recognized that whine—that was the sound Alivia made when she didn’t want to do something and had run out of polite ways to say no. It hadn’t changed since she was twelve, when I first decided she was going to be my human and I had to be responsible for her. I stood up on the couch and prepared to distract the intruder.
“It’s just money.” Hannah waved another salvaged chip.
“Yeah, but we don’t talk about money. It’s just—really personal.”
“More personal than rescuing you from a frat house at two in the morning? More personal than driving you to that clinic in Hayward—”
“Okay, stop! You don’t need to do the whole recap of our most intimate moments.”
“It’s just money, Livs. Look if you don’t want to share, fine. But this will be a black mark on your permanent record of friendship.”
Alivia blew out a breath, flapping her lips, and I relaxed. That meant she wasn’t actually too upset about anything. But now I was really getting hungry, so I walked into the kitchen, stared at my empty food bowl, and explained the situation.
“Just a sec, Bailey.” Alivia used her fingers to tap and swipe at the laptop until the screen showed a bunch of numbers. She turned the computer around so Hannah could see. “There. Happy?”
Hannah’s eyes grew wide. “Whoa. You should be happy. That’s way more than ‘minimum’!” She moved her own fingers around the screen. “And you’re going to get this every week, which means per month...”
“Let me guess. I’m buying drinks for the foreseeable future.”
“And chips.” Hannah rattled a mostly-empty bag. “I expect your pantry to be well-stocked when I return.”
Alivia is still an immature human. She would not be living alone, in her own apartment, if it were not for her unfortunate family situation.
Her mother does make occasional visits, but since the divorce, Alivia’s biological relatives have been less inclined to keep in touch. Her biological father is in prison right now, so he’s completely out of the picture.
I can relate. I’m a cat. Pretty much all cat dads are deadbeat dads.
Anyway, I don’t really care how Alivia pays her bills, as long as she continues to feed me and providing a place to live with a window to the outside. I’m strictly an indoor cat, but I like to see what’s happening outdoors every now and then. Humans have “slow TV,” I have windows.
The thing I do care about is who Alivia associates with, because after many years of cohabitation, I know that she is easily influenced by the opinions of other humans. It’s fine when she’s swayed to try some new cosmetics because of an advertisement she saw somewhere, because that doesn’t affect me, but when she gets persuaded to change something that threatens our household equilibrium, I am forced to get involved.
I don’t like doing it, but somebody has to. And I’m the only one around.
On Tuesday, Alivia’s ex-boyfriend came calling. On the bright side, at least it wasn’t a booty call. But he did want something from her.
“What the—what is this?” Alivia said after he handed her a piece of paper. I looked at it over her shoulder. They had already exchanged the usual human pleasantries and were now sitting on the couch with beverages. Printed on the paper was a grid of numbers.
“It’s just your trips in the car,” said the ex-boyfriend. I couldn’t remember his name. I didn’t care that much. “The ones when you weren’t with me.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Alivia glared at him. I felt the tension in her shoulders and started trying to massage it out. She shrugged me off and onto the floor. I complained.
“I’m being fair,” the ex-boyfriend said. “That’s the actual power consumption for each trip, as recorded by the computer, multiplied by the current utility rate for electricity on each day. I used the exact guidelines recommended by the IRS.”
“Those guidelines are for business tax purposes,” Alivia said, her tone icy. “We weren’t a business. We were dating.”
“Like I said, I didn’t include any trips when we were both in the car,” the ex-boyfriend said. “But it was my car. Do you think it’s fair to make me pay for all your road trips to visit your dad in jail?”
Alivia stood up. “You should leave now.”
The ex-boyfriend stood, but didn’t move toward the door. “Alivia, I’m just—”
“Take your fucking vinyl bullshit and get out of here.” Alivia pointed to a cardboard box by the door. “You’ll get your stupid money, and I don’t ever want to see your face again. Got it?”
“Fine, fine.” The ex-boyfriend picked up the box of plastic disks in cardboard sleeves. “I’m at the same email for pay—”
“Get out!” Alivia said.
I yowled at the ex-boyfriend as he exited. Then I jumped onto Alivia’s lap and did my best to comfort her while she cried. I’ve noticed that my purring often helps stabilize her moods. And it’s good for both of us, because she can’t feed me until she stops crying.
Later that night, Hannah came over again, this time at Alivia’s request. The two friends sat at the kitchen table and talked while sharing a bottle of wine. Alivia told Hannah what had happened earlier, with the ex-boyfriend.
“You’re actually going to pay him?” Hannah was incredulous. “Jesus, I would have ripped his face off.”
“I just don’t want to deal with it anymore,” Alivia said. “That’s what money’s good for, right? Making stupid problems like this go away? If that’s all he wants—”
“If you give a mouse a cookie,” Hannah said.
“He’s not going to come back,” Alivia said. “Our hatred is mutual. I’m guessing he saw something I posted online and figured he could shake me down one last time.”
“He’s a fucking troll.” Hannah raised her glass of wine. “A toast. To never seeing his dumb face again.”
Alivia clinked her glass against Hannah’s. “Never again.”
“So what about the rest of the money?” Hannah asked after sipping her wine. “You made plans for celebrating yet? Maybe take a little vacay? Play the ponies in sin city? Splurge on some Fluevogs?”
Alivia scoffed. “It’s not that much money, Han.”
“Come on, you’d celebrate if you got a new job, right? Same thing!”
“It’s not the same. I didn’t do anything to get this money.” Alivia stared down into her wine glass. “I don’t even know if I deserve it.”
“Aw, fuck that noise,” Hannah said, smacking a palm against the tabletop. “You pay taxes, don’t you? This is the deal the government makes with everyone. You’re in the system, you carry the responsibility, you get the benefits.”
“But it’s so—unrelated,” Alivia said. “Like, I’m getting this money just because I exist and I’m old enough? Shouldn’t I have to do something for it?”
“You did do something. You filled out a ton of paperwork. Not everyone takes the time to jump through all those hoops.”
“I’ve just been thinking about how someone else might need it more,” Alivia said. “Like, it’s nice that I don’t have to worry about making ends meet now, but what about people who are worse off than I am?”
“If it’s bothering you that much, you can donate to charity,” Hannah said.
“But which one? How do I choose who needs it the most?”
Hannah threw up her arms. “Jesus, Livs. You can either want the burden of choice, or you can not want it, but you gotta be consistent!”
“How am I not consistent?”
“Minbin is a universal minimum basic income,” Hannah said. “Unconditional distribution to all citizens. You could have skipped the paperwork, left the money on the table. And if you feel guilty about taking it, shit, it’s easy to get rid of. Just walk down the street and toss a coin to some of the unhoused out there.”
“So you’re saying I’m a selfish hypocrite.”
“No, of course I’m not saying that!” Hannah sighed. “I get it, okay? This is like Kübler-Ross, the five stages of grief. Everyone goes through this weird adjustment period when they first get the minbin. We’ve been raised to think that we only ‘deserve’ money for doing something. But you want to know a secret?” Hannah leaned forward. “Money. Isn’t. Real.”
Alivia frowned back at her. “What?”
“Money isn’t real,” Hannah repeated. She pointed at me. “Look at Bailey. You think he cares about money? No. He doesn’t.”
She was right. Cats don’t care about money.
“He’s a cat,” Alivia said. I’m not sure exactly what her argument there was.
“Right. So what does he care about? Food, shelter, comfort. The bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy.”
“Okay, we get it, you went to community college.”
“Shut up and let me explain. Bailey’s a cat. He has no capacity for abstract reasoning.”
I disagreed audibly. It’s not my fault humans can’t understand my sophisticated weather prediction model. It has so far proven to be one hundred percent accurate.
“I think he disagrees with you,” Alivia said.
“Whatever.” Hannah waved one hand. “My point is, Bailey only cares about real things. Things that affect his body directly. Whether he’s hungry or thirsty, whether he’s in pain, whether he needs to poop.”
“So your argument is… that poop is more real than money?”
“I’m not talking about currency,” Hannah said. “Those are just tokens. I’m talking about the concept of fungible assets. Money only exists to make trade easier. But money is not a thing in itself. It’s only a thing because we made it a thing.”
“I’m either too drunk or not drunk enough for this conversation. Also, ‘fungible’?”
“Look it up. My point is, money is only important for how we can use it to make real things happen. Like buying food. Or shoes. Or persuading someone to never show his dumb face around here again. It’s merely a medium of exchange for the goods and services we actually care about.”
“But having money is important,” Alivia said. “Like, super important. People care about it a lot.”
“Because we’ve been taught to! And because this entire economic model has been built up over centuries. Over millennia, even. We can’t get away from it, but hopefully now that more countries are instituting some kind of minbin program, we’ll start changing people’s attitudes about who deserves to have money. About who deserves to be able to make choices about how they live their life.”
“I feel personally attacked.” Alivia drained her glass. “More wine?”
The next Saturday, Alivia’s biological father called. That in itself was unusual, because he usually just sends emails from prison. It’s apparently a big deal for him to set up a real-time conversation with anyone on the outside.
“Hey there,” he said through the clam computer. “How’s my baby girl doing?”
“Not yours, not a baby, and not a girl anymore,” Alivia said. Good for her. “But you know all that, and I’m guessing that’s why you’re calling.”
He made a face. “Don’t be like that, Alivia. I’m still your father.”
“No,” Alivia said. “You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of my life you want to be involved in. That’s not what a father does. What do you want, Roy?”
His face got even frownier. “I just need a little help, Alivia. I’ve got this big appeal coming up, and these lawyers aren’t cheap. Besides, I think we can both agree that you owe me something.”
Alivia wrung her hands under the table, where he couldn’t see. I rubbed my face on the side of the clam computer, doing my best to remind her that she didn’t need to do this. She didn’t owe this person anything.
“We’re not doing this, Roy,” Alivia said. “I just paid off one deadbeat last week, and I’m really not inclined to do it again.”
“What? Who was it? Was it that hipster kid with all the records?” Roy huffed. “He gets some of your money just because he got to you first?”
“We’re not doing this,” Alivia repeated. “If there’s anything else you want to talk about, go ahead, otherwise this conversation is over.”
Roy glared at her. “How’s your mother?”
“She’s fine. You can call her if you want the details.”
“You know she won’t take my calls.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to think that’s a good policy to adopt. Anything else?”
Roy shook his head. “I guess not. I’ll just go back to rotting in my cell.”
Alivia closed her clam computer and buried her face in her hands. I walked back and forth on the table, purring and rubbing my head against hers. She eventually got the idea and picked me up for a brief cuddle. Then she called her mother.
“Roy says he’s got an appeal coming up,” Alivia said after they exchanged greetings. She was standing by the kitchen counter, with the call on speakerphone.
“Oh, no,” her mother said. “Did he call you? That stupid so-and-so.”
Alivia smiled. She always smiled a lot when she talked to her mother. “Do you know anything about this?”
“I try not to care about that man anymore. But I’ll pick it up and find out what’s what. You put it out of your head, you hear? It’s not your problem.”
“I’m just afraid he’s going to keep calling and asking for money. He knows he can’t get anything out of you—”
“Alivia,” her mother said, “if he tries to call you again, you report it to the prison. Okay? I’ll send you the procedure. They can restrict inmate access to outgoing communications.” She sighed. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I had to do the same thing, he was pestering me so much when the case first went to trial.”
“I just—” Alivia sniffled. Not crying yet, but close. “I feel like I have an obligation, you know? Because he’s still my father.”
“Oh, honey,” her mother said. “That man may have provided the biological material necessary for your conception, but he has never attempted to be an actual parent. Don’t let him live inside your head. You’ve got more important things to worry about. Like, have you thought any more about going back to school?”
“Mom,” Alivia said. At least she was smiling again. “I just got my first minbin. I’ve barely had time to figure anything out.”
“Well, when you’re ready, you know how to get in touch with me. And there are some very good universities here in Ottawa, by the way.”
“I love you!”
Alivia hung up the phone and looked over at me. I was sunning myself on the windowsill by the dining table.
“You’re lucky, Bailey,” she said. “You don’t have to deal with any of this family crap.”
I told her that wasn’t true, since she’s my family and I have deal with her all the time. But of course she didn’t understand, and thought I was asking for food. Oh well. Food’s good too.
A few days later, Alivia came home from work with a strange man. I made my displeasure unknown immediately.
“Whoa, I think your cat hates me,” the man said as I stared him down.
“He just takes a while to warm up to new people,” Alivia said. “Bailey! Chill.”
When I didn’t calm down, she put me in her bedroom and closed the door. She was wrong, by the way. I only have a problem with new people when they smell funny. This guy was giving off some heavy-duty thirst signal, and I know Alivia’s not ready for a new relationship yet.
Fortunately, my eavesdropping revealed that they were just collaborating on something from work, and had decided to do a working dinner somewhere other than their office. They ate, they laughed, and I ran out when Alivia opened the bedroom door to retrieve her phone charger. The dining table was covered with takeout boxes and their clam computers. I decided to allow this to continue, but I kept an eye on new guy from the couch. He still seemed shifty.
“You sure I can’t pay you back for dinner?” the man asked later, while packing up his things.
“No, it’s fine. I’m keeping the leftovers anyway,” Alivia said.
“Making it rain with that new minbin, huh?”
“I…” Alivia folded her arms uncomfortably.
“Sorry,” the man said, taking a step backward. Good sign, recognizing when someone else needs their space. That’s very important for cats. I revised my opinion of this guy to mildly positive. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I know a lot of people don’t like talking about it.”
“No, it’s okay,” Alivia said, shrugging. Still uncomfortable, but trying to work out of it. I was rooting for her, and reminded her of that audibly. “Thanks, Bailey. I just need to get used to it. Fact of life now, right?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the man said. “You know, I joined this online group when I started getting my minbin. It’s called the Transparent Hand, which I know sounds creepy, but it’s a play on words.”
“Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of economics?” Alivia asked.
“Hey, yeah!” The man grinned. “You have been learning something at work.”
Alivia returned a weak smile. “Mandatory training for new associates.”
“Anyway, the idea is that the more people share information about their economic circumstances, the better we can all work together to improve the minbin system. It’s not perfect, obviously, but it’s helped a lot of people so far. And that’s the point of government, right? To help its citizens.”
“I mean, it sounds like a good idea,” Alivia said. “But I imagine a lot of people are like me. Reluctant to be that open about money.”
“It’s totally voluntary. And everything’s anonymized,” the man said. “You put in your data for aggregation, but it doesn’t link anything to your specific profile. Some people out themselves in the discussion forums, but there’s absolutely no pressure to do that.” He shrugged. “Just reading some of the threads really helped me get over my own insecurities.”
“So it’s like a lobbying group?”
“Not directly. There’s a separate PAC for people who want to be activists. This is more like a labor union, sort of? Not exactly, because there’s no collective bargaining as such. But there are tools to compare your minbin against other people in your area, and to check that against the federal scale. And if anything’s off, it’s easy to report a discrepancy.”
“But only if your payments are too low, right?”
“You’d be surprised. Lots of people report when they’re getting higher payouts than the current rules say they should be. Turns out people actually do care about fairness. Especially when other people know about it.”
“Huh.” Alivia dropped her arms as I jumped onto the chair she was standing next to, so she could pet me. “That’s interesting.”
“I’ll send you the link. But no worries if it’s not your thing.”
“See you in the morning.” The man picked up his bag. “Go team!”
They said their good-byes, and Alivia locked the door behind him. Then, at last, she settled into the couch and made a lap for me to curl up in.
She started talking to me after she finished her glass of wine and put away her phone. “What do you think, Bailey? Should I check out that weird glass hand cult?”
I corrected her immediately. It’s the transparent hand. I try not to be a nitpicker, but it does irk me when humans seem determined to get things wrong on purpose.
“Good point,” Alivia said, rubbing my face with the back of her hand. “It is more time that I wouldn’t be able to spend hanging out with you like this.”
It’s always good to remind her of that. Because it’s like that Thoreau line that people often misquote, but they get the essence of his thought: The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
I don’t care about money, because I’m a cat. But I do care about what my human spends her time doing, because she’ll never get that time back once it’s spent. She can always go get more money, because it’s all make-believe. You convince someone that they should give you money, for whatever reason, and presto, you have more money. It’s pretty silly, if you ask me.
Cats only care about the most important things. Good food, good sleep, and good fun. What else is there to life, in the end? If you can’t enjoy those things, what’s the point? And why should you bother to deny anyone else their own enjoyment?
If only humans would listen to cats more often, the world might be a better place.
Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2020.