×

Money on her mind: UMass financial analyst Sandra Haynes wins fiction prize

  • Sandra Haynes, a financial/systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won first place in the Economic Security Project’s national story competition, “Into the Black,” for her work of fiction, “Rounding Corrections.” Here she is shown in downtown Amherst on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • You can read the short story “Rounding Corrections,” Sandra Haynes’ vision for universal basic income, online at io9.gizmodo.com. “I’m not sure it’s the right solution,” Haynes said, “but I think it might be better than what we have.” GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING PHOTOS

  • Sandra Haynes, a financial/systems analyst at the University of Massachu-setts Amherst, has won first place in the Economic Security Project’s national story competition, “Into the Black,” for her work of fiction, “Rounding Corrections.” Here she is shown in downtown Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/ KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sandra Haynes, a financial/systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won first place in the Economic Security Project’s national story competition, “Into the Black,” for her work of fiction, “Rounding Corrections.” Here she is shown in downtown Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sandra Haynes, a financial/systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won first place in the Economic Security Project's national story competition, “Into the Black,” for her work of fiction, “Rounding Corrections.” Here she is shown in downtown Amherst on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



For the Gazette
Thursday, February 08, 2018

The instructions were simple: Imagine a world in which all people receive an income to cover their basic needs. “I saw the competition and knew it was a story I wanted to write,” said Sandra Haynes, a financial/systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Haynes, who jokes that she’s “a glorified accountant,” is passionate about economic justice and equity. “If I could write a story that identified a first possible step, than someone else in policy or politics may have a road map,” Haynes said.

Last month, Haynes won first place for the national story competition “Into the Black,” co-hosted by io9, a science-fiction and fantasy blog, and the Economic Security Project, a national organization that researches and campaigns for access to universal basic income.

Haynes’ story, titled “Rounding Corrections,” was one of 650 submissions, and her prize endowed her with a basic income of her own — $12,000 to be handed out in monthly increments. “There was a  lot of jumping up and down and going ‘yes!’ ” Haynes recently recalled and laughed.

Universal basic income is a cash payment delivered periodically (say, once a month) to all citizens, regardless of their income or employment status. The concept has been tested in different parts of the world, from Finland to rural Kenya to Oakland, California, as a way of ensuring that all people have access to food, shelter and other basic necessities. 

Haynes cites the invaluable service of stay-at-home moms and dads as an example of people who receive no reimbursement or income for their work — but who contribute greatly to society simply by parenting. “We never see those costs in any accounting, but that’s a very valuable service; it’s a flaw in the plans,” Haynes said.  

When asked about the recent stock market plunge, she had this to say in favor of universal basic income: “It would reduce the volatility and the panic for people when the stock market fluctuates.”

“Rounding Corrections” is told through the perspective of a fictional AI — short for artificial intelligence —  programmed into ATMs throughout the country. You might know Siri and Alexa — Haynes introduces readers to “George,” an AI with a conscience who names herself after the programmer who created her, George Bailey.

George differs from other AI systems because she learns to mirror human empathy. She creates “Weeperfiles” to record the many instances people cry from the stress of looking at their bank account information on her ATM screen. 

George becomes more compassionate as she is exposed to the strife of the so-called Weepers. The Weepers’ banking files show that they are everyday people — waitresses, widowers, parents — who are unable to rebound from their low funds and bad luck.

This disturbs George, who sees the contrast between the Weepers and “the rule makers and breakers in power,” Haynes writes. “Enough is never enough for them. Too much wasn’t even enough.” 

George creates a trust fund, GBMB — which stands for George Bailey Memorial Building —  funneling in money by rounding down on investments that she processes by minuscule amounts. “For every transaction that’s made, a little piece goes into the trust,” Haynes explained. With all those little pieces, she then begins to generate a basic income to assist the Weepers.  

The trust changes their lives: One Weeper uses the money to take classes at a community college while another uses it to pay for wedding expenses. In the story, “I wanted to use current dates to show that this is now,” Haynes said. The idea of a basic income might sound futuristic, she added, “but it’s not far in the future at all.”

By the time the government discovers what George has done, the money has been invested into the global market, making it impossible to withdraw.

‘We should all be Georges’

Haynes came up with the story’s title from the accounting term “rounding errors,” when, for example, overall expenses are a few dollars short of their estimated total. The few dollars don’t have a major impact, so they are ignored and become rounding errors. “Rounding Corrections” emerged from the idea that “all of the small things, all of what some would call ‘the little people,’ are now getting the corrections they deserve.”

“Rounding Corrections” also offers a fresh perspective on AI technology. “There is this impending fear that everyone has of AI,” said Haynes. Critics point out that AI not only creates human dependency on technology but also threatens to eliminate the need for human work in many industries. The British newspaper The Guardian estimates that, by 2021, 6% of American jobs will be replaced by robotic technology. “Some people’s success are other people’s failures,” said Haynes. “It’s the capitalism win/lose symptom.” Haynes herself lost her job at a textile company in North Carolina when textile industries left for countries with cheaper labor.

Instead of feeding into fears about AI, Haynes focused on the benefits of higher technology. “I wanted to see what would happen if AI went into a different direction where no one would have predicted, when she develops compassion,” she said. Haynes, an advocate for AI, sees how it would revolutionize her life. Her father, who is legally blind, was at a loss when his wife was transported to the hospital; because he cannot drive, he was unable to follow her. The development of self-driving cars would benefit him. “I can see how AI could help my dad in a clear way,” said Haynes.

“Rounding Corrections” intrigued Cara Rose DeFabio, Special Initiatives Director at the Economic Security Project, because of its originality. “[Haynes] was able to touch on both the severe economic disparity that currently exists in this country and look towards automation with a hopefulness that was unexpected and delightful,” she wrote in an email.

Haynes, who started writing fiction at age 16, once kept her stories hidden in her diary; writing was merely a hobby. This is where “Rounding Corrections” originated — in the pages of her diary. She then painstakingly typed the story onto her iPhone’s cracked screen and submitted it to the competition.

Haynes first became interested in finance while selling her handmade jewelry at local craft fairs. “All of these talented people — and very few of us were making money,” she recalled. She felt compelled to help struggling artists, so she decided to pursue a degree in accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2006.

Haynes’ quest for humane accounting was informed by innovative financial alternatives, including basic income and the Alaskan Permanent Fund, which gives all Alaskan residents a dividend from the income of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Such policies “make sure that everyone gets a portion of the profits that come from the commons,” she explained.

Haynes is encouraged by the carbon tax bill currently in the Massachusetts State House that proposes a fee on carbon pollution in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The collected money would be given to Massachusetts citizens.

You can read Haynes’ vision for universal basic income online at io9.gizmodo.com. “I’m not sure it’s the right solution,” Haynes said, “but I think it might be better than what we have.”

As for what Haynes plans to do with her award money, she has a few ideas about how to spend it. The winnings will help pay for college for her son, a junior in high school, and she is considering buying a weaving loom — Haynes is a master weaver — and taking a class on bookmaking. She also plans to cover a bill for a friend going through tough times financially, “paying it forward,” she said. 

“I am totally a George,” Haynes said. “We should all be Georges — we should all have that type of compassion.”