You Have $1 Billion. How Do You Change the World?

Cushy prisons for the immoral, a new meritocracy, soil husbandry, and 15 more ideas from readers

black-and-white photo of a globe surrounded by the outline of a black rectangle
Richard Drury / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Soon after, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, if given $1 billion to improve the world however you see fit, how would you spend it? And while some of you complained that $1 billion wasn’t nearly enough (as if I’m made of imaginary money to dole out), many of you nevertheless dreamed big.

Jackson went so far as to propose a new nation!

If America/California is no longer willing or able to be the world's “land of opportunity,” we need to build a new one. If I had a billion dollars, I would negotiate with some government to purchase and acquire sovereignty over an uninhabited or sparsely populated island or peninsula large enough to support a city, then build a small settlement governed by a constitution that guarantees to all people a right to immigrate there and quickly acquire equal citizenship provided only they be willing to work to build their city.

Once a viable settlement was established, the government would sponsor and organize transportation to the city for any refugees that wish to come from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, demand for a haven and a land of opportunity will likely always be high. Refugees and would-be migrants need somewhere to go, but currently, no existing democracy automatically accepts immigrants, and those that do accept large numbers of immigrants often treat them badly. The island would serve much the same role that America once served for Europeans when we were open to mass immigration, except the island would not discriminate against anyone and mass settlement on the island would not come at the expense of a large indigenous population.

The island’s constitution would guarantee individual liberties, free labor, free markets (with regulated externalities), democracy, and the rule of law. But it would also facilitate political experimentation and the maintenance of diaspora communities by creating many small districts given local control of nearly all cultural institutions such as, for example, schooling, architectural style, and the language of street signs. The political experimentation in its many districts would allow the city to learn from itself, and to provide models for other governments. If it worked, the city would be like another Singapore, except free, pluralist, democratic, and still open to mass immigration. Further, a Georgist land system, whereby the state alone reaps economic rents from land, would allow newcomers to quickly become economic equals supported by well-funded public services, rather than tenants on land long ago monopolized by the first comers.

Someone give this man an island! And an introduction to Bekke, who could handle its water supply:

I’d build as many desalination plants as I could, especially in the Western states, because without water there is no life. With global warming/climate change, when the world is getting hotter and we’re facing more intense storms along with prolonged drought, we need to have a supply of water to drink, bathe, cook, grow crops, etc. to enable our society to continue to exist.

Matthew would focus on water, too:

A billion dollars sounds like an immense amount of money, until you realize that if you wanted to “give money to the poor” you would provide just a single day’s income to the global population of people living in the World Bank’s definition of poverty. That kind of minimal change is meaningless long term, so we need to figure out how to make large scale, affordable change. I’m going with water filtration plants. In India, a large filtration plant can be built for under a million dollars. In Nigeria a pure water plant can be built for under $5K. Providing clean drinking water seems like the first and best way to improve the world.

Mahan observes that, “nowadays, outlooks are desperate and people are bored of living life on this lovely planet.” He says he’d direct his money to countries where people aren’t feeling ennui.

Whereas Brad’s spending would all take place in Canada:

1 billion for world wide help isn’t a lot but I would give every penny to help children in Canada. To see a smile on a sick or underprivileged child would make me smile. Sorry I just say Canada, but that is my country and 1 billion wouldn’t be enough to help everyone.

Jennifer disagrees and aims to help everyone by buying “as much South American rainforest as possible,” because she believes that “preservation of ‘the world’s lungs,’ as the rainforest is known, would improve the life of every living being by helping to control the climate change crisis.”

Samuel would spend half on the education of women in poorer countries, “because this would create the greatest impact toward liberalization (objective: creating liberal democracies).” The rest would go to “business startups of solo and small firm companies all over the world, fostering middle incomes and supporting civil society. I think both expenditures assist in this development.”

Hans would enlist experts in money-giving in order to give away his billion:

I would donate the 1 billion dollars to the top charities that GiveWell recommends.

These are the most effective charities in the world—in the sense that they reduce human suffering (or promote human wellbeing) most per dollar spent. Any other charity is likely to be worse—and I don’t have the hubris to believe that I understand the effect of donations better than experts (from, e.g., GiveWell) who study this matter full time.

Bob would attempt a new approach to schooling:

I would set up a private educational system from K to graduate school that would focus on the development of the skills and attitudes necessary for successful and rewarding life in the 21st century economy. It would be an American system for Americans but would actively encourage academically qualified immigrants to become legal American citizens. It would be a 100% meritocratic system. Race, gender and other group identities would not be considered (There would be testing, lots of it!). It would range from producing PhD level individuals in the sciences to 2 year programs in the trades. The sole purpose of this system would be to train people to be economically self-sufficient in the global economy and to once again establish American education as the best in the world.

Fred would try to fix meritocracy, too:

Too often education is used not as a tool to enable people, but to act as a barrier against advancement of and the contribution to the larger society by those who do not have wealth and opportunity. Instead of a meritocracy we get a faux meritocracy where family connections and wealth enable legacy students and the marginal children of wealth to gain prestigious educational credentials and take the most important jobs in society, creating structural discrimination based on wealth and power. This hobbles our society and the world.

I would spend the billion to identify and enable global individuals––irrespective of education, opportunity and privilege––who are the most logical, rational and intelligent people. This would be accomplished by a system that gives credits based on passing exams or certification, free to any and all who believe they have what it takes, the right stuff to demonstrate their qualifications. Those who demonstrate the skills needed through rigorous examination would receive the equivalent of a Bachelor’s, Masters and or Ph.D. in a variety of subjects, starting with areas most needed and in shortest supply.

In addition to creating an even playing field, it could eliminate the time and money wasted on years spent in colleges and universities for the purpose of giving people not the skills needed to do the jobs they want, but the connections and paper qualifications. The current reliance on college degrees is a form of structural discrimination.

Says freedom-loving Diane, “I would spend the money to send needed weapons to Ukraine, all of it!”

Whereas Grace would build a prison to lock up people she deems immoral:

First, determine how many men and women are in power in whatever areas of politics, industry, etcetera that have been shown by the masses/science (psychology)/historical performance to be more malevolent (aww heck, let’s just say for safety’s sake showing *any* hint of malevolency) than benevolent. Then, based on the number, stake out a beautiful area that a … retreat center of sorts can be built on (with one way locking doors and the highest security imaginable) where all these people can be placed to live out the rest of their lives, stripped of their ability to make any further decisions regarding humanity or the earth, but still be cared for, while the rest of the sane/compassionate individuals can then get to the work of cleaning up the mess all the wackos made.

If I were to point out that I sense a hint of malevolence in that proposal, would she still want to fund it?

Jim would change the way we grow food:

It’s easy for me. I’d spend it on sustainable soil husbandry to support sustainable agriculture, which means I’d encourage small-scale systems that focus on microbiological processes. Did you know that cover crops with at least 8 species from four families produce more above and below ground biomass without any added fertilizer than a less diverse cover crop with any amount of manufactured fertilizer you'd like to add?

Did you know that the rhizosheaths that form around plant roots in a healthy soil can buffer 2 points of pH in that sheath, or that the low oxygen environment there fosters nitrogen-fixing bacteria, even for non-legumes? Or that plant sugars can be raised organically so that the microbiology raises plants' resiliency against pests, disease, drought, and flood?

I’m not a soil expert, Jim, I just give imaginary wealth to soil experts.

Jason would try to demonstrate what he believes to be possible but that others doubt:

I would spend it to improve the living conditions of very low-income people in the downtown area of just one major city in the United States. The reason we still have poverty has nothing to do with the character or intelligence of these people.  The reason we still have poverty is because there are so many obscenely rich people with zero imagination or empathy. Improving the conditions of low income people in a permanent, noticeable way would demonstrate how this could be replicated in every city. Permanent housing and food, medical assistance, job assistance, property repair, you name it.

George would start by investing the money, which seems a bit like wishing for more wishes, but I’ll allow it:

For ongoing impact, the best thing would be not to spend the entire amount all at once, but to invest the billion, and harvest the income that it produces, while reserving enough to keep the principal growing at a slow rate. That income might be $100 million a year if you choose good investment managers. Then target your gifts at subjects that will themselves provide leverage. For $100 million a year, you can sponsor free broadband Starlink satellite internet for about 50,000 households. That's almost exactly the number of households in the Navajo Nation counted by the 2010 census. With an unemployment rate approaching 50% and a population that mostly resides in a desert landscape far from urbanized areas, often without electricity or running water, internet access will create a launchpad to education and job opportunities that are inaccessible today.

Tina would improve mental-health services throughout the world:

Raise awareness; train social workers, counselors, and therapists; aim to break the stigma barrier; increase access to support; provide grants to local organizations and build their capacity to provide these services; strengthen messaging, legislation, and public policy that mental health and physical health are equally important and the same thing.

I wonder if she would want to partner with Susi:

I would develop an “Institute Of Human Welfare” program for implementation as mandatory, standard high school education around the world, like “The Three Rs”.

It is imperative to learn how to raise a healthy, happy, cared for human being.  We need to put much more emphasis on human understanding and care. When a human being is cared for, then taught to care, then it can care for the world. The ripple effects in all aspects would be far reaching. A healthy world is vital to our survival in our only habitat. Currently, we are having parasitic effects on our host, Earth. Imagine the euphoria of a cared for world. Teaching our population how to nurture humans would perpetuate nurture for our world. Improving humans through education would improve the world!

And Nick would use the money to lobby for a new law that would criminalize profiting off of untrue speech:

It is very clear that we are having a profit-driven epistemological crisis in the Western world. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was a related crisis. NOBODY could believe what was advertised for sale. Nobody could believe what was purported to be contained in a product. Nobody could be assured that anything they purchased was fit for use.

Fraud laws fixed most of that. It became illegal to make claims about products that could not be verified by disinterested third parties. It became illegal to adulter products or falsely claim what products contained. It became a crime to use non-truth to receive money in exchange for a product that the buyer could not value from. Our present crisis is driven by the fact that there are big profits to be made by propagating non-truth (many things that are not lies, or statements known to be false by the speaker and intended to deceive the listener, are also not truths). Fox News et al are driven by advertising revenue served up to a willing audience who continually consume non-truth. Facebook, Google and Twitter are little better. This has to stop.

I'd spend the $1 billion on an effective lobbying and advertising campaign that would seek to update fraud statutes for the 21st century. ANYONE who generates revenue by propagating information purported to be truthful, or opinion purported to be underpinned by logical consequence of ascertainable facts or sources, is guilty of fraud when the information is not truthful, or the opinion is not undergirded by facts or sources.

Spout about ANYTHING you please. Propagate your views in any way you want. Your First Amendment rights remain intact. But, try to make bank like the snake-oil salesmen and there is an orange jumpsuit awaiting you.Try to make bank by piggy-backing on such efforts gets you an orange jumpsuit. Otherwise, we are in for continued problems.

I thank you for the email, Nick, but I’m going to make sure several free speech organizations get their billion after reading it. Thanks to everyone else who wrote in too. See you on Wednesday.