China’s “social credit system” planned for 2020 could take effect in bits and pieces in the U.S.

I have to admit subscribing to a belief myself that society (and the world as a whole) will be stable if every individual has “what he (she) deserves”, that is, has undergone “rightsizing” (or maybe “Downsizing” as in the movie).  In 2005, I had even made a controversial post on my legacy site, which may have created a stir where I was substitute-teaching.  And the theme of my 2014 DADT III book weighs heavily on the idea that inequality can lead to instability, because people left out of the system have no real incentive to play by the rules.

We’re all familiar with credit scores (and there is more than one system) regarding financial trustworthiness, but now we see increasing attention to how far China wants to take this idea, with the full implementation of a “social credit system” by 2020.

Dom Galeon and Brad Bergan at Futurism summarize this as bluntly as possible with “China’s ‘social credit system’ will rate how valuable you are as a human”.  Mara Hvistendahl has a long booklet-length article in Wired (Dec. 2017) “Inside China’s vast new experiment in social ranking” with the byline “America invented the three-digit credit score. Now companies in China are taking the idea to the extreme, using big data to track and rank what you do—your purchases, your pastimes, your mistakes”/

The basic and obvious idea is to rate not only whether you pay your bills, but whether you pay your dues.  The idea is to rank the social worthiness of voluntary behaviors.  Buying diapers means you have kids and a family, so presumably that’s good.  Spending a lot on video games is solitary and anti-social and bad – unless you work for a gaming company testing software, which it wouldn’t know.  I guess hacking your own computer to prove that the Intel chip has a flaw is socially bad.  This gets to sound like a war on introverts, who might take advantage of the sacrifices of others whom they then ignore and exclude.

There are other accounts.  “The Conversation” writes “China’s Social Credit System puts its people under pressure to be model citizens”. PRI headlines “What’s your citizen trust score? China moves to rate its 1.3 billion citizens”.

In China the state and private sector (post-Communist) are linked as “statist capitalism” (or as Ted Koppel aired a series “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” way back in the summer of 2008 (before our own financial meltdown)). So it’s hard to say if the government is going to do the snooping and rating, or with the “private sector” do this (like advertisers do on social media in the West).

But it’s pretty easy to imagine how a system like this could assign “life points”. Being married with kids sounds like it would count, although China has to deal with the remnant of its one-child policy. Honoring filial piety (taking care of elders, which is pretty much mandatory in China) now counts.  Volunteering for social service organizations, echo.  Except that someone as to decide with organizations “count”.  Once you have quasi-forced volunteerism, then the social service agencies have some control of citizen’s lives to make sure they are unselfish enough.  Suddenly, I’m reminded of a Cato Institute forum in October 2017 about the communist idea of the “New Man”.  A society of egoless people will never raise living standards.

But the social credit (or aggregate life-points score) is supposed to qualify you for certain kinds of jobs or benefits.  It could even become a requirement, say, to have your own Internet domain.  That is, you get heard only when you put your own skin in the game first.

With all this horror to contemplate, right out of George Orwell, it’s pretty apparent that we have a lot of this in the U.S., but in our case it is fragmentary and episodic. Way back in the 1960s, the male-only military draft was predicate on the (post-fascist) idea that some men are more “valuable” alive than others.  That started with married men or married fathers (under Kennedy) and migrated to student deferments – brains gave you more life points (and deservedness to live) than brawn, all because of Sputnik. This filtered down to “McNamara’s Morons” becoming cannon fodder, as I’ve covered before.

Much more recently, but still more than a decade ago, in 2006, we started talking about “online reputation” as subsumed by search engine results (and some algorithms exploring the deep web), even before Facebook was fully available to the public (then Myspace was all the rage). It isn’t too hard to imagine companies coming up with some sort of “Online Reputation Score” to be amalgamated with your Credit Score.  And recently Facebook has announced measures trying to get users to interact more with content and with each other; it’s unclear where this will really go, but I can’t relish being expected to entertain “gofundme” for 100 “friends” every time someone gets into trouble.

There has been talk of requiring a “community engagement” (volunteerism or low-level employment) from people on welfare, and it would sound plausible that some day this could required to keep getting Social Security benefits as a younger senior if otherwise able-bodied.

There’s something else about fine tuning moral behavior at a personal level.  It won’t always add up. You want men to have families and become responsibly married fathers.  That’s certain in tension with women’s expressional equality, as we have come to view it. Furthermore, that value system tends to encourage men to take advantage of women and “get away with it”, as we have seen from the recently escalating sexual harassment scandals, now involving minors.

Another relevant legacy piece of mine from 2005 on individualism and shared risk.

Will we all be coerced some day to “go get small”?

(Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2018 at 4 PM EST)