The concept of basic income has been gaining momentum recently, in light of the dominating news about robots taking all the jobs. The idea is that everybody gets a set income just for being alive. Sounds too good to be true? Well, that’s what I thought. But Silicon Valley is getting really excited about it, planning trials in undisclosed locations in the USA. Apparently, even some conservatives and libertarians are enthusiastic about the possibilities, which comes as a bit of a surprise to me.
This article has been inspired by a pretty awesome piece from the MIT Technology Review, concerning universal basic income. It definitely piqued my interest this sunny Friday afternoon…
At the heart of the basic income concept is its potential to allow governments to alleviate poverty. But it’s not just that. After all, since when has any government really given that much of a crap about poverty? The fact is that a universal basic income would also benefit those who aren’t exactly poor, but not quite affluent, either.
“If people had that money, they’d be able to choose not to do the most notoriously low-paying jobs,” Natalie Foster, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and New America California, told MIT. “No one would have to be a workaholic only out of fear that they’d have nothing to fall back on if they stopped.”
With that bit of financial ballast, people would have a bit more freedom. Freedom to take higher education courses, to invest in their children’s futures, and, crucially, an escape route from toxic relationships and circumstances.
That final one deserves some highlighting, in my book: single parents unsupported or undersupported by their children’s other parent will not have the rug pulled out from under their feet at every step they make to overcome their circumstances. Children of single parents are, according to statistics, less likely to succeed in their future careers. Universal basic income could break that cycle. People in abusive relationships will have a better hope of leaving. These are both vitally important issues that are completely invisible in our current system.
On a less serious, but still important note, people would be, as Foster said, less bound to their work, allowing them the freedom to pursue creative interests and talents all but quashed in the tide of commodification. We’d get to spend more time with our children, to care for our parents and foster our relationships with our friends, family, and spouse. That is, inarguably, good for society.
Why Do Governments Care?
So those are the benefits on an individual level. But on the face of it, they’re not exactly benefits that most governments give a flying frisbee about. What governments do care about is bureaucratic red tape. Perhaps what has caught attention more than anything, however, is a new study from the Roosevelt Institute that claims universal basic income could add trillions to the US economy.
Using the Levy Institute macroeconometric model, the team at Roosevelt estimated the impact of three versions of UBI assistance program over an eight-year time period. They found that the economy can not only withstand large increases in federal spending, but could also grow thanks to the stimulative effects of cash transfers on the economy.
The study examined three versions of unconditional cash transfers: $1,000 a month to all adults, $500 a month to all adults, and a $250 a month child allowance. For each of the three versions, they modelled the macroeconomic effects of these transfers using two different financing plans – increasing the federal debt, or fully funding the increased spending with increased taxes on households – and compared the effects to the Levy model’s baseline growth rate forecast.
What did they find?
- For all three designs, enacting a UBI and paying for it by increasing the federal debt would grow the economy.
- When paying for the policy by increasing taxes on households, the Levy model forecasts no effect on the economy.
- However, when the model is adapted to include distributional effects, the economy grows, even in the tax-financed scenarios.
Sounds good, right?
But not everyone is convinced.
Despite the potential trillions the Roosevelt Institute study claims will be gained, it’s also estimated that a UBI could add about $2 trillion to the US budget in annual expenses. So, you know, you’ve got to be pretty darn sure it’s going to be profitable if you’re going to risk that amount of wonga.
The other major concern related to Universal Basic Income is that it’ll disincentivise people to work at all. Well, if they’re prepared to scrape by on a sum that’s unlikely to be a living wage, then, yeah. But realistically, a UBI wouldn’t be more than a few thousand dollars/pounds a year – so it’s just a bit of a backup more than a living.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of it driving people away from the lowest paid jobs.
…And Back To Automation
The discussion over Universal Basic Income comes alongside the tide of concern about automation. There’s a rational fear that huge swathes of the job market will be turned upside down as robotics and AI take hold. It’s not unlikely. However, it’s not exactly a problem yet, and it’s not exactly guaranteed either.
Yes, there’s no doubt that certain jobs will become obsolete in the wake of mass automation. The skills that are in demand will change, and some people will be displaced as a result. But will it be such a pandemic that a UBI will be one of the only solutions? That is less certain.
The MIT Technology Review’s stance is that “the massive, automation-fueled job displacement cited as the prime justification for a basic income won’t actually reach us for decades, assuming it does come”. Erik Brynjolfsson, who researches the digital economy at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, estimates that we’ve got between 30 and 50 years to get our shit in order.
The article is also pretty critical about Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for the idea. They reckon that the UBI thing is just a way for those ridiculously wealthy Silicon Valley types to appease those left behind in their wake. In my view, it could be a nice thing for those guys to do at least locally, considering the massive gentrification they’ve caused in the Bay Area and beyond. But on a national or global scale? We’ve probably got some time to wait before we can get the easel out of the garage.
I see it as a great shame that, in an age where global wealth distribution is utterly skewed, we can’t start thinking of redressing the balance, automation or no automation. Roll on the robo-revolution, I say. But what do I know?