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14 May 2018

The key questions about UBIA

The first few times I heard about the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I said to myself, that’s a pretty dumb idea.

Paying people without them doing any work is going to cause big problems for society, I thought. It’s going to encourage laziness, and discourage enterprise. Why should people work hard, if the fruits of their endeavour are taken away from them to be redistributed to people who can’t be bothered to work? It’s not fair. And it’s a recipe for social decay.

But since my first encounters with the idea of UBI, my understanding has evolved a long way. I have come to see the idea, not as dumb, but as highly important. Anyone seriously interested in the future of human society ought to keep abreast of the discussion about UBI:

  • What are the strengths and (yes) the weaknesses of UBI?
  • What alternatives could be considered, that have the strengths of UBI but avoid its weaknesses?
  • And, bearing in mind that the most valuable futurist scenarios typically involve the convergence (or clash) of several different trend analyses, what related ideas might transform our understanding of UBI?

For these reasons, I am hosting a day-long London Futurists event at Birkbeck College, Central London, on Saturday 2nd June, with the title “Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives: 2018 update”.

The event is defined by the question,

What do we know, in June 2018, about Universal Basic Income and its alternatives (UBIA), that wasn’t known, or was less clear, just a few years ago?

The event website highlights various components of that question, which different speakers on the day will address:

  • What are the main risks and issues with the concept of UBIA?
  • How might the ideas of UBIA evolve in the years ahead?
  • If not a UBI, what alternatives might be considered, to meet the underlying requirements which have led many people to propose a UBI?
  • What can we learn from the previous and ongoing experiments in Basic Income?
  • What are the feasible systems (new or increased taxes, or other means) to pay for a UBIA?
  • What steps can be taken to make UBIA politically feasible?
  • What is a credible roadmap for going beyond a “basic” income towards enabling attainment of a “universal prosperity” by everyone?

As you can see from the event website, an impressive list of speakers have kindly agreed to take part. Here’s the schedule for the day:

09:30: Doors open
10:00: Chair’s welcome: The questions that deserve the most attention: David Wood
10:15: Opening keynote: Basic Income – Making it happenProf Guy Standing
11:00: Implications of Information TechnologyProf Joanna Bryson
11:30: Alternatives to UBI – Exploring the PossibilitiesRohit TalwarHelena Calle and Steve Wells
12:15: Q&A involving all morning speakers
12:30: Break for lunch (lunch not provided)

14:00: Basic Income as a policy and a perspective: Barb Jacobson
14:30: Implications of Artificial Intelligence on UBIATony Czarnecki
15:00: Approaching the Economic SingularityCalum Chace
15:30: What have we learned? And what should we do next? David Wood
16:00-16:30: Closing panel involving all speakers
16:30: Event closes. Optional continuation of discussion in nearby pub

A dumb idea?

In the run-up to the UBIA 2018 event, I’ll make a number of blogposts anticipating some of the potential discussion on the day.

First, let me return to the question of whether UBI is a dumb idea. Viewing the topic from the angle of laziness vs. enterprise is only one possible perspective. As is often the case, changing your perspective often provides much needed insight.

Instead, let’s consider the perspective of “social contract”. Reflect on the fact that society already provides money to people who aren’t doing any paid work. There are basic pension payments for everyone (so long as they are old enough), basic educational funding for everyone (so long as they are young enough), and basic healthcare provisions for people when they are ill (in most countries of the world).

These payments are part of what is called a “social contract”. There are two kinds of argument for having a social contract:

  1. Self-interested arguments: as individuals, we might need to take personal benefit of a social contract at some stage in the future, if we unexpectedly fall on hard times. What’s more, if we fail to look after the rest of society, the rest of society might feel aggrieved, and rise up against us, pitchforks (or worse) in hand.
  2. Human appreciation arguments: all people deserve basic stability in their life, and a social contract can play a significant part in providing such stability.

What’s harder, of course, is to agree which kind of social contract should be in place. Whole libraries of books have been written on that question.

UBI can be seen as fitting inside a modification of our social contract. It would be part of what supporters say would be an improved social contract.

Note: although UBI is occasionally suggested as a replacement for the entirety of the current welfare system, it is more commonly (and, in my view, more sensibly) proposed as a replacement for only some of the current programmes.

Proponents of UBI point to two types of reason for including UBI as part of a new social contract:

  1. Timeless arguments – arguments that have been advanced in various ways by people throughout history, such as Thomas More (1516), Montesquieu (1748), Thomas Paine (1795), William Morris (1890), Bertrand Russell (1920), Erich Fromm (1955), Martin Luther King (1967), and Milton Friedman (1969)
  2. Time-linked arguments – arguments that foresee drastically changed circumstances in the relatively near future, which increase the importance of adopting a UBI.

Chief among the time-linked arguments are that the direct and indirect effects of profound technological change is likely to transform the work environment in unprecedented ways. Automation, powered by AI that is increasingly capable, may eat into more and more of the skills that we humans used to think are “uniquely human”. People who expected to earn money by doing various tasks may find themselves unemployable – robots will do these tasks more reliably, more cheaply, and with greater precision. People who spend some time retraining themselves in anticipation of a new occupation may find that, over the same time period, robots have gained the same skills faster than humans.

That’s the argument for growing technological unemployment. It’s trendy to criticise this argument nowadays, but I find the criticisms to be weak. I won’t repeat all the ins and outs of that discussion now, since I’ve covered them at some length in Chapter 4 of my book Transcending Politics. (An audio version of this chapter is currently available to listen to, free of charge, here.)

A related consideration talks, not about technological unemployment, but about technological underemployment. People may be able to find paid work, but that work pays considerably less than they expected. Alternatively, their jobs may have many rubbishy aspects. In the terminology of David Graeber, increasing numbers of jobs are “bullshit jobs”. (Graeber will be speaking on that very topic at the RSA this Thursday. At time of writing, tickets are still available.)

Yet another related concept is that of the precariat – people whose jobs are precarious, since they have no guarantee of the number of hours of work they may receive in any one week. People in these positions would often prefer to be able to leave these jobs and spend a considerable period of time training for a different kind of work – or starting a new business, with all the risks and uncertainties entailed. If a UBI were available to them, it would give them the stability to undertake that personal voyage.

How quickly will technological unemployment and technological underemployment develop? How quickly will the proportion of bullshit jobs increase? How extensive and socially dangerous will the precariat become?

I don’t believe any futurist can provide crisp answers to these questions. There are too many unknowns involved. However, equally, I don’t believe anyone can say categorically that these changes won’t occur (or won’t occur any time soon). My personal recommendation is that society needs to anticipate the serious possibility of relatively rapid acceleration of these trends over the next couple of decades. I’d actually put the probability of a major acceleration in these trends over the next 20 years as greater than 50%. But even if you assess the odds more conservatively, you ought to have some contingency plans in mind, just in case the pace quickens more than you expected.

In other words, the time-linked arguments in favour of exploring a potential UBI have considerable force.

As it happens, the timeless arguments may gain increased force too. If it’s true that the moral arc of history bends upwards – if it’s true that moral sensibilities towards our fellow humans increase over the passage of time – then arguments which at one time fell below society’s moral radar can gain momentum in the light of collective experience and deliberative reflection.

An impractical idea?

Many people who are broadly sympathetic to the principle of UBI nevertheless consider the concept to be deeply impractical. For example, here’s an assessment by veteran economics analyst John Kay, in his recent article “Basic income schemes cannot work and distract from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms”:

The provision of a universal basic income at a level which would provide a serious alternative to low-paid employment is impossibly expensive. Thus, a feasible basic income cannot fulfil the hopes of some of the idea’s promoters: it cannot guarantee households a standard of living acceptable in a modern society, it cannot compensate for the possible disappearance of existing low-skilled employment and it cannot eliminate “bullshit jobs”. Either the level of basic income is unacceptably low, or the cost of providing it is unacceptably high. And, whatever the appeal of the underlying philosophy, that is essentially the end of the matter.

Kay offers this forthright summary:

Attempting to turn basic income into a realistic proposal involves the reintroduction of elements of the benefit system which are dependent on multiple contingencies and also on income and wealth. The outcome is a welfare system which resembles those that already exist. And this is not surprising. The complexity of current arrangements is not the result of bureaucratic perversity. It is the product of attempts to solve the genuinely difficult problem of meeting the variety of needs of low-income households while minimising disincentives to work for households of all income levels – while ensuring that the system established for that purpose is likely to sustain the support of those who are required to pay for it.

I share Piachaud’s conclusion that basic income is a distraction from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms. As in other areas of policy, it is simply not the case that there are simple solutions to apparently difficult issues which policymakers have hitherto been too stupid or corrupt to implement.

Supporters of UBI have rebuttals to this analysis. Some of these rebuttals will no doubt be presented at the UBIA 2018 event on 2nd June.

One rebuttal seeks to rise above “zero sum” considerations. Injecting even a small amount of money into everyone’s hands can have “multiplier” effects, as that new money passes in turn through several people’s hands. One person’s spending is another person’s income, ready for them to spend in turn.

Along similar lines, Professor Guy Standing, who will be delivering the opening keynote at UBIA 2018, urges readers of his book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen to consider positive feedback cycles: “the likely impact of extra spending power on the supply of goods and services”. As he says,

In developing countries, and in low-income communities in richer countries, supply effects could actually lower prices for basic goods and services. In the Indian basic income pilots, villagers’ increased purchasing power led local farmers to plant more rice and wheat, use more fertilizer and cultivate more of their land. Their earnings went up, while the unit price of the food they supplied went down. The same happened with clothes, since several women found it newly worthwhile to buy sewing machines and material. A market was created where there was none before.

A similar response could be expected in any community where there are people who want to earn more and do more, alongside people wanting to acquire more goods and services to improve their living standard.

(I am indebted to Standing’s book for many other insights that have influenced my thinking and, indeed, points raised in this blogpost. It’s well worth reading!)

There’s a broader point that needs to be raised, about the “prices for basic goods and services”. Since a Basic Income needs to cover payments for these goods and services, two approaches are possible:

  1. Seek to raise the level of Basic Income payments
  2. Seek to lower the cost of basic goods and services.

I believe both approaches should be pursued in parallel. The same technologies of automation that pose threats to human employment also hold the promise for creating goods and services at significantly lower costs (and with higher quality). However, any such reduction in cost sits in tension with the prevailing societal focus on boosting economic prices (and increasing GDP). It is for this reason that we need a change of societal values as well as changes in the mechanics of the social contract.

The vision of goods and services having prices approaching zero is, by the way, sometimes called “the Star Trek economy”. Futurist Calum Chace – another of the UBIA 2018 speakers – addresses this topic is his provocatively titled book The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism. Here’s an extract from one of his blogposts, a “un-forecast” (Chace’s term) for a potential 2050 scenario, “Future Bites 7 – The Star Trek Economy”, featuring Lauren (born 1990):

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily.

As you may have noticed, the vision of a potential future “Star Trek” economy is part of the graphic design for UBIA 2018.

I’ll share one further comment on the question of the affordability of UBI. Specifically, I’ll quote some comments made by Guardian writer Colin Holtz in the wake of the discovery of the extent of tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers. The article by Holtz has the title “The Panama Papers prove it: America can afford a universal basic income”. Here’s an extract:

If the super-rich actually paid what they owe in taxes, the US would have loads more money available for public services.

We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US. Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions.

Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. But it has also faced unending criticism for one particular reason: the advocates of “austerity” say we simply can’t afford it – or any other dramatic spending on social security.

That argument dissolved this week with the release of the Panama Papers, which reveal the elaborate methods used by the wealthy to avoid paying back the societies that helped them to gain their wealth in the first place…

While working and middle-class families pay their taxes or face consequences, the Panama Papers remind us that the worst of the 1% have, for years, essentially been stealing access to Americans’ common birthright, and to the benefits of our shared endeavors.

Worse, many of those same global elite have argued that we cannot afford to provide education, healthcare or a basic standard of living for all, much less eradicate poverty or dramatically enhance the social safety net by guaranteeing every American a subsistence-level income.

The Tax Justice Network estimates the global elite are sitting on $21–32tn of untaxed assets. Clearly, only a portion of that is owed to the US or any other nation in taxes – the highest tax bracket in the US is 39.6% of income. But consider that a small universal income of $2,000 a year to every adult in the US – enough to keep some people from missing a mortgage payment or skimping on food or medicine – would cost only around $563bn each year.

This takes us from the question of affordability to the question of political feasibility. Read on…

A politically infeasible idea?

A potential large obstacle to adopting UBI is that powerful entities within society will fight hard against it, being opposed to any idea of increased taxation and a decline in their wealth. These entities don’t particularly care that the existing social contract provides a paltry offering to the poor and precarious in society – or to those “inadequates” who happen to lose their jobs and their standing in the economy. The existing social contract provides them personally (and those they consider their peers) with a large piece of the cake. They’d like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

They defend the current setup with ideology. The ideology states that they deserve their current income and wealth, on account of the outstanding contributions they have made to the economy. They have created jobs, or goods, or services of one sort or another, that the marketplace values. And no-one has any right to take their accomplishments away from them.

In other words, they defend the status quo with a theory of value. In order to overcome their resistance to UBIA, I believe we’ll need to tackle this theory of value head on, and provide a better theory in its place. I’ll pick up that thread of thought shortly.

But an implementation of UBI doesn’t need to happen “big bang” style, all at once. It can proceed in stages, starting with a very low level, and (all being well) ramping up from there in phases. The initial payment from UBI could be funded from new types of tax that would, in any case, improve the health of society:

  • A tax on financial transactions (sometimes called a “Tobin tax”) – that will help to put the brakes on accelerated financial services taking place entirely within the financial industry (without directly assisting the real economy)
  • A “Greenhouse gas tax” (such as a “carbon tax”) on activities that generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Continuing the discussion

The #ubia channel in the newly created London Futurists Slack workspace awaits comments on this topic. For a limited time, members and supporters of London Futurists can use this link to join that workspace.

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