The universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. And, slowly but surely, it is converting members of the tech elite.
It’s a radical idea: Everyone should get an unconditional, monthly allowance, whether you’re rich or poor, old or young, overworked or out of work. An allowance that should be enough to live on, and how you spend it, is up to you. The only condition, as such, is that you have a pulse.
The influential startup fund Y Combinator is already rolling out a study on basic income. Netscape founder Marc Andreessen calls it “a very interesting idea.” And Business for Basic Income offers a brand-new web platform where business owners worldwide can express their support for the idea.
So what’s going on? It’s simple, really: The robots are coming, and people in Silicon Valley have realized that it’s only a matter of time before they swallow up most jobs. That it is high time, in other words, to start distributing cash. For free.
As a staunch basic income advocate for several years now, I couldn’t be happier to see that a multitude of millionaires are suddenly rallying around this idea. And yet, I’m also suspicious: Libertarian ultra-capitalists throwing their chips in with Marxist academicians? Sounds fishy.
Basic income: it’s not about robots
For starters, take the financing of basic income. Would Apple and Google finally be willing to cough up their fair share of tax dollars? Don’t bet on it. Hedge fund manager Chris Hawkins proposes we just ditch the old welfare state, Medicare, Medicaid and all. That’s a far cry from the scenario put forward by left-libertarian philosopher Philippe van Parijs, who for three decades now has been arguing for a basic income to supplement social welfare programs.
More to the point, however, is that the “rise of the robots” is actually the worst possible justification for basic income. It’s an argument that hinges on a future which is altogether uncertain. Sure, there are plenty of trend watchers who earn fat paychecks forecasting the imminent demise of 90% of all jobs. But if history has anything to teach us, it’s that trend watchers can’t be trusted.
In the mid-1960s, a Senate committee report stated that by 2000 the workweek would be down to just 14 hours, with at least seven weeks off a year. The RAND Corporation, an influential think tank, foresaw a future in which just 2% of the population would be able to produce everything society needed. Obviously, things turned out differently. We wanted mass unemployment; instead we got extreme inequality. Apparently, there will always be some billionaire who’s unwilling to give up his personal fan-waver.
But there is good news, too. We don’t have to wait around for automated butlers and self-driving trucks. Forget about robots. The reasons why we need basic income are infinitely better.
It’s about freedom and meaning
To begin with, basic income would give us all genuine freedom. Nowadays, numerous people are forced to spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless. Jobs like telemarketer, HR manager, social media strategist, PR advisor, and a whole host of administrative positions at hospitals, universities, and government offices. “Bullshit jobs,” the anthropologist David Graeber calls them. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous.
And we’re not talking about just a handful of people here. In a survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission. Another recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37% think they have a bullshit job.
What is more, the very reason we don’t have personal robo-butlers and flying cars yet may be precisely because we don’t have a basic income. How many brilliant would-be entrepreneurs, inventors, and musicians are at this very moment flipping hamburgers or driving for Uber? And imagine just how much progress we’ve missed out on because thousands of bright minds have frittered away their time dreaming up hypercomplex financial products that are ultimately only destructive.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” mocks Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s resident intellectual. But he doesn’t say why. A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s finest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, 20 years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.
Nowhere are there as many bullshit jobs, however, as in Silicon Valley. A survey of 5,000 software developers and engineers last year found that, in the words of The Economist, “many of them feel alienated, trapped, underappreciated and otherwise discombobulated.” Only 19% of tech employees say they are satisfied with their jobs. A mere 17% feel valued. Or, as a former math whiz working at Facebook lamented a few years ago: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”
The upshot is that we’ve all gotten poorer. Higher taxes for top earners would serve, in Harvard science-speak, “to reallocate talented individuals from professions that cause negative externalities to those that cause positive externalities.” In plain English: Higher taxes would get more people to do work that’s useful. A basic income would give them the real freedom to make something of their lives.
Basic income could help eradicate poverty
The second argument for free cash is that it would wipe out poverty once and for all. As an investment, its potential is nothing short of spectacular. A 2013 study estimated the costs of child poverty in the U.S. at as much as $500 billion a year. Eradicating poverty, by contrast, would cost only $175 billion, according to economist Matt Bruenig’s calculations. That’s roughly a quarter of the U.S. military budget. As a matter of fact, all the world’s developed countries had it within their means to eliminate poverty years ago.
Could basic income kill the welfare state?
The third reason we need a basic income is that it would pull the plug on a welfare system that has devolved into a perverse behemoth of control and humiliation. Officials keep tabs on public assistance recipients via Facebook to check whether they’re spending their money wisely – and woe be to anyone who dares to do unapproved volunteer work. An army of social services workers is needed to guide people through the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures. And then the corps of inspectors has to be mobilized to sift through the paperwork.
The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame. It is a grotesque pact between right and left. “The political right is afraid people will stop working, and the left doesn’t trust them to make their own choices,” says University of Manitoba economist and basic income expert Evelyn Forget. A basic income system (combined with free education and universal healthcare) would be a better compromise. In terms of redistribution, it would meet the left’s demands for fairness; where the regime of interference and humiliation are concerned, it would give the right a more limited government than ever.
Why basic income could work
In the early 1970s, four large basic income experiments were conducted in the U.S. All were an unmitigated success. Participants did not suddenly all sit around twiddling their thumbs – far from it. Free cash brought one bullshit job after another crashing down. As the concluding report of one of the experiments, in Seattle, noted, “[The] declines in hours of paid work were undoubtedly compensated in part by other useful activities, such as search for better jobs or work in the home.” For example, one mother who had dropped out of high school worked less in order to earn a degree in psychology and get a job as a researcher. Another woman took acting classes, and her husband began composing music. “We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,” she told the researchers. Among youth included in the experiment, almost all the hours not spent on paid work went into more education. Such as in New Jersey, where the high school graduation rate rose 30% among study subjects.
But that feels like a long time ago. These days, the idea of a basic income for all Americans is as unthinkable as women’s suffrage and equal rights for racial minorities was in the past. It’s difficult to imagine that we’ll ever be able to shake off the dogma that if you want money, you have to work for it.
And yet, the inability to imagine a world in which things are different is only evidence of a poor imagination, not of the impossibility of change. Basic income remains a tremendous idea. We don’t have to wait for robots or for Silicon Valley. If there’s one economic reform that everyone who has been getting the short end of the economic stick these past 40 years – that is, practically everyone – should be championing, it’s universal basic income.
Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek, available on Amazon. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. This story has been translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.