What is Universal Basic Income?
Back in the 1950 & 60s, there was still hope. Following the bleakness of the Second World War, Europe and North America decided to turn their eyes to the skies and dream of technological utopias.
In The Jetsons, a normal, middle-class family live out their lives in a towering aerial complex known as Orbit City. George Jetson, the family breadwinner, only works for 1 hour per day, 2 days a week.
His official job title is “Digital Index Operator”, which is a fancy way to say that he presses a few shiny buttons on a gawkish control pad now and then. Back home in their ‘Skypad Apartment’, the family has a robot housekeeper named Rosie, who – along with a bunch of other friendly automatons - carries out most of the housework, leaving the Jetson family to fill their time with leisure and adventures.
In many people’s minds this wasn’t a fantasy, but an inevitable future where machines tackled the mundane jobs we didn’t want to do.
Nearly 60 years later, this tongue-in-cheek romance has been replaced by a somewhat bleaker feeling of resigned cynicism. The hoverboards never came, and the last person to walk on the moon did so in 1972.
Blade Runner 2049, Fallout, Black Mirror; it seems like dystopia is the only conceivable outcome we can imagine on our current trajectory.
However, there is one movement that seems to be bringing back the same kind of optimism we saw in the space age and it’s called Universal Basic Income.
‘Universal Basic Income’, also known as ‘UBI’ or just ‘Basic Income’, is a proposed economic policy that would give every citizen a fixed amount of money each month, regardless of their socio-economic status.
The exact figure each person should receive is up for debate – most proponents tend to hover around £1000 ($1330) per month, as this would cover housing costs, bills, food and provide a basic living allowance. A recent trial in Finland distributed just €660 p/m to unemployed Finns, and has already shown promising results .
Basic Income is politically unique, as it manages to satisfy both the neoliberal CEOs, who would benefit from a larger percentage of the workforce having disposable incomes, and everyday people, who would be able to pick and choose work they enjoy and demand better working rights.
So why do we need Basic Income?
Automation has been predicted for decades now, but back then we didn’t already have self-driving cars, self-checkouts and customer service chat-bots. Companies in the US are expecting to shed over 1.7 million lorry drivers alone in the coming years and according to a study by McKinsey & Company, up to 50% of all jobs in the US could be replaced by robots by 2030.
In an interview with the LA Times last year, Stanford lectuer, Jerry Kaplan said “We are going to see a wave and an acceleration in automation, and it will affect job markets”.
Most industry experts agree that, at the very least, there will need to be a huge restructuring of how we approach work within the next few decades.
Some argue that implementing Basic Income will cause mass inflation in areas like the housing market, whereas others worry about the undeniably large funding costs Universal Basic Income would require to set up.
It’s likely that ancillary policies, such as the Bill Gates-endorsed ‘robot tax’, and other laws that focus on wealth-redistribution would need to be pre-emptively put into place – possibly on a global scale - before UBI could be successful.
As the economics behind Universal Basic Income are so highly contested, it’s nigh on impossible to imagine populist politicians like Trump and Putin getting on board with such radical change.
However, just as it will soon be more profitable for governments to back renewable energy over fossil fuels, it may soon be more politically beneficial to back Universal Basic Income. The societal price of having millions of unemployed workers would stretch the institutional resources of even the richest countries – it quite simply must be addressed, and within our lifetimes.
What are the social implications of Basic Income?
We come from an ancient lineage of hunter-gatherers who have replaced basic survival with highly abstract future reward systems, i.e. we work hard now so we can enjoy our lives later on. But what’s left when most jobs can be performed by robots or algorithms?
For many people this could provoke an existential catastrophe. Neoliberal ideology has become so deeply engrained in our cultures that most people cannot imagine what a life without paid employment would look like.
But needing to work for money and needing to be productive in society are two very different things. One could argue that the vast majority of people in the West have been drifting away from the traditional idea of ‘community’, and it’s likely that this drift is responsible for the misplaced anger, alienation and rising levels of bigotry we've seen spreading across the UK, France, America, and many other Western nations.
What Basic Income could provide is a baseline standard of living that would give people the opportunity to work on community projects (e.g. ecology, conservationism, knowledge-transfer, tree-planting programmes, etc.), without worrying about whether or not they can afford to do it. It’s likely that most people will continue to work part-time, which is a trend we can already see starting to take root now.
There may even be a convergence between the need for Basic Income and the need for large-scale environmental action, once the consequences of manmade climate change start to take effect.
to think of ways to fill their time.
In terms of societal progress, there’s no question that lifting millions out of wage-slavery and unemployment would have beneficial knock-on effects for the world at large. There’s a quote by Stephen Jay Gould that goes: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Tech moguls in Silicon Valley have been vocal about our impending need for Basic Income. This is half to do with market opportunities and half to do with wanting to protect themselves against market instability and potential revolution.
Universal Basic Income could take the heat out of what’s predicted to be a seismic socio-technological change in our world, and this is why we need to take it very seriously indeed.