Universal Basic Income, Part 2 of 3

Photo credit: Generation Grundeinkommen,  some rights reserved

Photo credit: Generation Grundeinkommen, some rights reserved

This is part 2 of a series about Universal Basic Income. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read part 1 about the history of UBI. With that background in mind, we set forth into the arguments for and against a basic income. This is the case for.

I’m going to lay my cards out on the table: I like UBI. If you’re looking for unbiased, fact-based arguments for and against UBI, unfortunately there just aren’t any to find. The fact is, in the case of UBI, facts are hard to come by. As detailed in part 1 of this series, there have been a few experiments, but the results have been inconclusive, disputed, or methodologically deficient.

As GiveDirectly notes, “a number of studies provide hints about how a basic income might work, but they either were not universal, did not test payments big enough to cover basic needs, were too short term, or weren’t evaluated with a randomized control trial.”

Source: GiveDirectly, see their  literature review notes  for more info

Source: GiveDirectly, see their literature review notes for more info

GiveDirectly and other upcoming UBI studies are promising, and may provide more reliable empirical evidence. And really, who can argue against experimentation? Here’s a new idea, compelling in many ways, and all we want is to see how this works. Done right, what’s the worst that can happen? Especially in the GiveDirectly case, worst-case scenario is you give some extremely poor people some extra spending money, although maybe the local economy doesn’t improve in the ways we might hope. Considering the average GiveDirectly recipient lives off 65 cents per day, you have to pull some pretty impressive justification gymnastics to oppose this experiment and still think of yourself as a decent human being.

No matter what, I think the findings of these studies will be pretty damn interesting. Maybe people will blow all their money on booze and cigarettes (although there’s evidence people don’t do this), or stop working altogether (nor do they do this). I think it’s easier to imagine that we’d see substantive social benefits, giving further credence to the findings of the MINCOME experiment. Whatever it may be, it seems undeniable that it is worth exploring. We need not be locked into our current economic system just because it’s the status quo. An alternative economic model will have different social impacts; all I’m saying is that we should investigate what those are, and then evaluate and weigh them against our current system.

A Rotten Core

So far, I think I’ve been playing it pretty safe. I assume most of you are still with me. Now I’m going to take this one step further. Because when you start to peel back the arguments made by UBI critics, you often uncover a rotten core.

Last year, The Economist published an article arguing against UBI, in which the author wrote:

“A universal basic income would also destroy the conditionality on which modern welfare states are built,“During an experiment with a basic-income-like programme in Manitoba, Canada, most people continued to work. But over time, the stigma against leaving the workforce would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into an alienated idleness.”

In many ways, this quote pretty much peels the layers back for us. Yes, we live in society built on conditionality, namely that your right to food, shelter, and a decent life is conditioned on your ability to get a job. I’m not equivocating — that’s literally what the author means.


But we can’t be so quick to sanctimoniously condemn this point. Historically, what the author says is absolutely true. Society was conditioned upon each individual contributing to the whole; without that, the group would not be able to survive. It was certainly not the case that large numbers of people could afford not to work, and that everyone would be able to survive, much less live comfortably.

It’s not that this never made sense, but that it no longer applies to our society. We maintain a false narrative that everyone needs to be working at max productivity in order for us to survive, which is obviously absurd. Right now, only a small fraction of society work in jobs that are necessary for our survival. A large number of people contribute to our consumer market, which may provide us with material rewards, but are undeniably so far away from life-sustaining that their products probably more accurately described as of a qualitatively different kind. They are conveniences, contrivances, novelties. While I don’t deny that they make life more interesting, I don’t think you can argue that they are essential for our survival.

The problem with the “conditionality” argument is that it presumes people are able to always secure a job that delivers on that promise. It ignores the fact that some people are unable to find work, that others have to face leaving their kids home alone in order to get enough money to feed them, or that entire communities’ livelihoods can rise and fall with the opening and closing of factories. We conditionally base human dignity on individual productivity, and abandon those who, try as they might, cannot find ways to be productive in the ways society demands.

If we found that UBI led to massive social stagnation, a widespread dawdling idleness, we would be right to denounce it. We do need people to keep working. I am just skeptical that people will stop working altogether. While people may do less of the traditional work as defined by a job, I think people will dedicate their time to other worthwhile endeavors.

The author’s stance on this is made obvious in the second claim (most people continued to work in this Canadian experiment, but over time “surely” people would stop), which goes completely unsubstantiated and even flies directly in the face of the evidence that is cited. Not only is that just complete conjecture, it also is unable to stand up to any empirical observation. Let’s take the case of a UBI of $10,000 a year. The idea that people would stop working with that income suggests that, even without that UBI, many people would choose to do as much as they need to make $10,000, and work no more beyond that. But do we see that anywhere in society? There are people who make life choices to forfeit additional income for more personal time, but by and large most people strive to increase their salary. People generally desire more than their basic needs for survival, and are willing to work hard to earn more. Some may choose to spend more time with their family, or invest more in their hobbies. We should not recoil in terror at this prospect, but celebrate that we have achieved a society that does not need to force people to work as much as possible in order to survive, one that gives its members freedom to dedicate their time to the things they care about.

The core of this stance is finally revealed in the last point the author makes. The author seems to suggest that work is so undesirable that people will prefer “alienated idleness” as soon as the “stigma” of not working goes away, and that we need to make sure people don’t have the option of escaping the work they so loathe. This is at once an incrimination of the current economic system, one that traps people into doing work they hate, and of our current arrangement of work itself, which makes work out to be so unbearable.

Although it is not made explicit, the quote also exemplifies a particular attitude to the unemployed and those on welfare. This coded language is sometimes more front-and-center when people raise concerns about how UBI “rewards laziness”. Since Reagan, public opinion of welfare has changed dramatically, with terms like “welfare queen” entering the popular lexicon. As it has been well-documented, this led to a sharp rise in negative views of welfare, with 64 percent of Americans agreeing that “welfare benefits make poor people dependent and encourage them to stay poor”. In 2003, that was up to 71 percent. It would take a whole separate piece to go into exactly how fucked up this is (and has already been done), but suffice it to say that some cacophonous bells should be going off when you encounter this line of reasoning. At the very least, it reveals a hypocritical feeling of scandal that the working poor should deserve some relief from toil. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once stated, “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”

No Work, No Means, No Meaning

There is a more nuanced, related point that is often highlighted by technologists worried about job automation. In part 1, I mentioned a quote from Elon Musk at the recent World Government Summit. After noting his prediction that a UBI will be necessary, he goes on to say that “the much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning? A lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. So if there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”

Working hard.jpeg

He’s right about that, and it reveals another feature of our current economic system. Jobs have a kind of “omni-value”: they are the source that satisfies all our needs — not just income, but also social standing, human connection, and personal fulfillment. Another way to put this is well stated in an article in The Atlantic about “A World Without Work”. The author writes “work has been conflated to involve three things… the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives.” Pull out one of those pillars and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. So, the argument goes, if people no longer need to earn their income through work, the economy will no longer produce goods, and people will lose all purpose in their lives.

Musk thinks that the production problem will be solved through technology (after all, that’s why people won’t be working anymore: robots are doing the work for us), but the problem of meaning will persist. As I have previously written, there is another perspective we can take with regards to work. This is actually the key to grasping the most expansive social vision of what UBI has to offer. Understanding this can provide a sudden clarity, a streak of light through a fog, that shakes you back to life. It asks you to begin from a different starting place altogether, and is maybe best posed as two simple questions: 1) what do you really want to do with your life? and 2) are you doing what you really want to do?

If you are lucky enough to know the answer to the first question and say yes to the second, then, as they say, you are lucky enough. The truth is that most people would have no idea how to answer the first question, but would know for a fact that the answer to the second is a resounding no. Our culture is not set up to empower people to adequately respond to these. But after any serious meditation, it should be obvious that most people do not just want to laze about their entire lives, and if they do, it is only because they have been beaten into submission by a culture that tells them they have nothing to contribute. Anything claiming people will prefer idleness reveals a pitifully shallow notion of the potential of work in people’s lives. Just as Musk says, work is how people find purpose and meaning. One of the most transformative promises of UBI is that it allows individuals some freedom to pursue meaningful work while not being forced to spend all their time working a job they despise. Make no mistake — UBI alone is not enough to achieve meaningful work, but it could be a step in the direction of progress.

A Game For Tinkerers

As a rejoinder to the concern motivated by job automation, many UBI critics will argue that we should not radically alter our system out of fear for of a technological revolution that hasn’t happened yet, and we should instead focus our efforts on improving the current social welfare state (The Economistarticle says exactly that). But the point is not that we should be immediately implementing a UBI system that we barely understand. Only the most radical proponents would ask for that, and even they would probably want to see more evidence about the best way to put it into action. We just want to experiment. And let me be clear, this is not experiment for experiment’s sake; I am not merely making the flaccid point that we should be tinkering with any and all reasonably coherent ideas. The power behind UBI lies exactly in the transformative vision it has for a better society, and that is why we should pursue it.

And please, please do not come at me with logistical skepticism. That kind of smirking cynicism is toxic on democracy and anything worth fighting for. Not only does a concern about giving some money to the rich (“universal??”) completely misunderstand any viable funding structure, or that the cost may require us to raise taxes to the level of Germany’s (“Germany!!”), these responses are profoundly shallow. If this is where you are at after reading this far, you have in every respect missed the points I have been trying to make.

Any pragmatic supporter will agree that we need to know more about UBI’s effect on society, and reserve judgment on how (or if) to implement it until we get a better grasp on its impact. This is not a call for a planned economy that we can set up and assume will run like clockwork. Societies are complex and their policies must come organically, based on evidence but driven by values. As the Basic Income Earth Network so eloquently states, “Like the fight for universal suffrage, the fight for basic income is not an all-or-nothing affair. This is no game for purists and fetishists, but for tinkerers and opportunists.”

Have we said all there is to say on the matter? Certainly not. This was meant to provide signposts that point to areas of more depth, topics that need to be unpacked, and issues that need to be questioned. But the case has been made.

Far from letting the case rest, I think it’s time to reanimate it and then pound it to pieces. That’s right: the defense has spoken, and now it’s prosecuting time, baby.

Stay tuned for part 3 of the Universal Basic Income series, “The Case Against”