A radical view? Or soon to be reality – Universal Basic Income

Universal basic income has been a buzzword in the media lately, but how far back does this ideology go? Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and author, who wrote the book Utopia for Realists. Bregman sheds a very interesting light on the topic of universal basic income and how it has progressed through history to present day.

A Universal basic income (UBI), is where all adult individuals receive a set payment that allows people to meet their basic needs. The UBI payment would be enough for a person to live on, without experiencing poverty. It is not considered a welfare payment, since welfare payments are targeted at a specific group. Whereas UBI is for all adult individuals, regardless of your circumstance.

In other words, you don’t have to work, mystery shop or do weird surveys to get this money, it’s completely free. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, this could either be the best goddamn idea ever, or a total nightmare. There are pros and cons to this radical view, but where did it all start?

During 1974 to 1979, a little farming town of around 10,000 people underwent an experiment to eliminate poverty. This town is called Dauphin and is situated in Manitoba, Canada. For five years, monthly cheques were given to residents and for five years, poverty was non-existent. Frances Richardson was a mother of six and was one of the individuals who were given a monthly cheque. It provided her family with a constant and stable income. The fridge was full, the bills were paid and the kids stayed in school.

“We kept track of everything and somebody would come once a month” she explained, “I kept track of what I made and they could pay the difference to what they figured to be the cost to live.”

This, however, is where things get a little sad. A new government was voted into power and all their findings were archived into two thousand boxes, for almost thirty years! This experiment was pretty much forgotten about until Evelyn Forget, an economist, analysed the data back in 2011. The results showed that the Dauphin experiment was a huge success. Hospital admissions, crime and domestic violence went down, school students were doing better and the government actually saved money.

The story of Dauphin was just one of many experiments that were trialing a UBI. Areas in the United States also trailed a form of basic income guarantee, except with thousands of people. Left and right winged economists truly believed this policy of a UBI was going to be implemented no matter what. Five famous economists – John Kenneth Galbraith, Harold Watts, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson and Robert Lampman – wrote that, “the country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income is no less than the officially recognised definition of poverty.” This statement was published in a letter by the New York Times. What followed was 1,200 signatures by fellow economists for a universal basic income.

Even President (and Republican) Richard Nixon was in favour of a form of basic income guaranteed, however needed some evidence. Nixon ran a series of basic income experiments for over 8,500 Americans in cities around the country. The researchers wanted to answer three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less with a guaranteed income?; (2) Would the program cost too much? And (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible?

The results were no, no and maybe.

The bill being passed through was to give all poor families US $1,600 a year, which is an equivalent to just over US $10,000 today. The bill got through the House of Representatives, twice, but then was rejected by the Senate. The Democrats had rejected the bill, because they wanted a higher basic income and thought it would be going forward no matter what.

Rutger Bregman’s utopian ideas about UBI also link to some pretty interesting stuff. Have you ever thought about your job and if it is adding any value to your life or to society? Bregman’s theory looks at jobs that are useless and how we can redefine our work. This also relates to job automation and the prediction of mass unemployment.However, the real issue that isn’t being answered is what constitutes work?  

The Harvard Business Review surveyed 12,000 professionals, half said they felt their job “had no meaning or significance”. 230,000 employees from 142 different countries, answered a poll that showed that only 13% of people liked their job.

When referring to these useless jobs, I’m not talking about teachers, garbage truck drivers or nurses. Rather, the growing number of bankers, consultants, tax advisors and so on. Do you know what happens when teachers or garbage truck drivers go on strike? A lot happens, the community pretty much has a breakdown. Guess what happened when Irish bank employees went on strike for six months? Nothing happened, for SIX MONTHS.

Long story short, the value of your work should not be determined by your paycheck. Rather the amount of meaning you give through your work. This ties in quite nicely with universal basic income and people being able to fall back on this minimum income. It also allows people in value-adding jobs to have bargaining power and for wages to hopefully correct itself.

Looking now to present day, Finland, North America, Scotland, Kenya, the Netherlands, India and Barcelona are all trialing a universal basic income. Concrete results of these experiments are yet to be released, but these are some of the finding so far:

The idea of a basic income in Australia has been floating around for almost a century. In the 1920s, Milner’s State Bonus Proposal was discussed by Labor backbencher, William Maloney, in Australian Parliament. In the 1970s, more basic income proposals were being raised by the Whitlam Labor Government and were seriously considering it. Following this, in early 1980s more Labor Party members, such as Barry Jones, were pushing for a guaranteed income scheme. Today, the idea of universal basic income is just that, an idea.

Rutger Bregman’s somewhat radical view may become a soon to be reality. The opportunity of a universal basic income may change the way people work in society for the better. With the rise in technology and automated jobs, people may actually be able to do something that they feel will provide value. It’s been an interesting progression for universal basic income and to think it could have actually been implemented way back by President Richard Nixon. The years to follow will put to the test whether this ideology could actually work.

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