You Deserve a Universal Basic Income Regardless of Your Work
Are you a robot?
Probably not, but take a test: look around your place of work. How many of your co-workers are actual people – as opposed to virtual people you only ever meet via email, co-working platforms and an occasional conference call?
The machines are taking over the world. Fine, I made that sound scarier than it probably is; after all robotization is not a new or exceptional situation – jobs have always been lost to technology, what is new is that jobs long deemed secure are now eyed by robots. Not any old jobs, but those your parents told you to study hard for: real estate agents, office clerks, accountants and, of course, the World Chess Champion.
Here’s a nifty little tool to help you calculate how likely you are to be replaced by a microchip.
How did you do? Will you still be making rent by the end of this year? And wouldn’t it be nice if we had a system in place that would act like a safety net while we’re figuring out what to do next.
Such a system could be implemented: it’s called the universal or unconditional basic income, the UBI or BIG and it seems to be a pretty neat concept. The idea itself is not new, but has been falling in and out of public discourse (and favor) for the last two hundred years, depending on the economic and political climate.
It was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, all but “forgotten” in decades that followed, and has been gaining traction since the millennium. For good reasons, too: it is pricy, but as a society, we can definitely afford it. If you think this is too humanitarian, the good people of the World Economic Forum also think we should have some sort of UBI – the changes in the economy require a change in income distribution. Strangely enough, the UBI is supported and rejected across the board: there are traditionally more progressive parts of the society that support it, while some have reservations – and the same is true on the more conservative side.
It would distribute income more equally and help people get through hard times – or give them some fun times.
Ah, but doesn’t the current system of benefits take care of this? Well … no. Benefits target specific groups and problems, and they often carry a stigma. The UBI is, well, universal.
As Roope Mokka of the Helsinki-based think tank Demos Helsinki explains: “It’s creating something that is universal, that is for everyone. We haven’t seen anything like that in politics or in governance for, I don’t know, 40 years or something.” And he should know: Demos Helsinki has been helping the Finnish government set up and run the largest recent experiment with the UBI in Europe: for two years, “560 euros […] will be handed out to 1,500 people.”
Which people? Well, the pilot study eventually selected 2000 Finnish unemployed – 500 more than Mokka had originally anticipated – and started providing them with a fixed guaranteed basic income at the beginning of this year. All three adjectives are of utmost importance here: the income will be fixed at 560 € no matter what, it will be guaranteed by the government regardless of the employment status of the recipient and it will be considered basic – in other words, if recipients find work with which they will be earning a little or a lot more, this will not make one iota of difference to the 560 € they receive every month during the two years of the study.
Why is that important? Says Mokka: “You have a state that provides some universal stuff, like basic income,” – universal stuff that he refers to depends on the said state’s definition of “universal”: could be health care, could be housing, could be food stamps – “[…] basically you can live with the income you get from the state, if you’re unemployed. Not in the big cities, but you can – not a fancy life, but you can support yourself in the countryside, no problem. No problem with that. However, you know, when you start working, or you start a company, or you work too much in an NGO for example, you’re gonna lose your benefit or some of it.”
And that is exactly the point of the UBI: it is yours regardless of your employment status, income, or any other circumstance. You can do whatever you want with it – it’s money in your bank account and you can use it to pay off your mortgage, put it in a college fund for your kids, go on holidays, go on a bender, no questions asked.
This apparently scares the shit out of some people. It would be a disincentive, they say. It’s worth noting that often they’re the same people who oppose living wage, but let’s leave this debate for another occasion. According to them, however, the UBI will be the end of the world as we know it (and not for the first time, of course).
Could it be a disincentive? Sure, but every small scale experiment shows that it would be much less so than the current system. As Mika Ruusunen, one of the participants in the pilot programme, told the Guardian, under most current systems around the world: “If someone wants to start their own business, you don’t get unemployment benefits even if you don’t have any income for six months. You have to have savings, otherwise it’s not possible.”
This is an important point that comes up over and over again: in today’s world of gig-based economy, where a growing proportion of workers belong to precariat (are self-employed, if that sounds better, but really, it’s pretty much same difference), some sort of guaranteed income could be the difference between whether you eat or not.
Those of us who freelanced through the last economic cataclysm can vouch for that. Informal interrogations of my tribe of freelancing writers and translators reveal that none of us would stop working if we received some sort of guaranteed income. Think about it: Finnish 560 € every month, $1500 in the pilot study in Oakland, around 4000 pounds per year that the above Guardian article cites, or 300€ a month that would be considered adequate (and sustainable) for Slovenia, are not nearly enough to live on. (At least I can say that for Slovenia, which is where I live: 300€ will pay basic utility bills and put cheap food on the table for most of the month, but you’re on your own to make the rent.)
The fear that I hear from freelancers lies elsewhere: with UBI, how do we prevent clients from continuing to lower our fees? Considering that “human resources” are often seen as “cost” in today’s economy and not as added value, this is a serious concern. Particularly for workers in precarious forms of employment, who are much less protected by the current labor laws than workers employed in “traditional jobs” and rarely have unions to back them up in their negotiations and disputes.
So, is the universal/unconditional basic income a good idea? Yes, but it has to come hand in hand with new understanding of the labor market.
We should be watching pilot programs in Finland, Oakland, Kenya and elsewhere learn the good practices and improve the not so good ones.
And while it’s not cheap and there might be people who’d abuse it … well, it’s not all sunshine and lollypops right now, transparency-wise, as the Oxfam reports for 2016 and 2017 show – particularly the parts explaining how the elites are currently, ahem, creatively using the existing system of tax havens. We even wrote about it here.
If you’ve ever lived on a freelance income, you know very well how important it is to be able to take a breather from time to time. The UBI could be a safety net to provide such a breather.
Roope Mokka of Demos Helsinki was interviewed by Stuart Schuffman in December 2016.