What if everyone, unconditionally, received a basic income?

A REPORT FROM PENNY U1

Image from website, "We Are Anonymous"
Image from website, “We Are Anonymous”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

–  Martin Luther King, 1967 3 

What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or their financial status? Would it be a good idea? If so, how could it become policy? How would it be funded?

About 20 people discussed this in small groups around cafe tables at Town Hall in December last year. Most, but not all, of us felt it is a good idea, though with much elaboration and many caveats and questions. Three tables of participants simultaneously discussed the ramifications of the idea based on questions posed in advance:4

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income a good idea? Would people use their time well? Would it lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good? Or would it increase laziness and freeloading?
  • If it is a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place? How would we build “a countervailing power,” “unrig the system,” and make rules that allow this to happen?
  • If it’s a good idea and the rules are changed, how would it be funded? A citizen’s bequest, a return on the use of personal data, eliminating the current welfare system, some other mechanism?

“A basic income would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it.”

The first group spent their time in a spirited discussion of the many reasons a basic income is a good idea: The policy could decrease income inequality, reduce racism, reduce stress, and improve health. A basic income would give everyone the opportunities that having more time offers, time to spend with and care for their families, to build relationships among neighbors and strengthen the social side of our lives. It would also “liberate people to discover their true professions,” would make room for creativity and provide the freedom to be authentic. It would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it. They didn’t address the practical side of putting such a policy in place or funding it, but they did raise few questions: Would things cost more? Would inequality just emerge in other ways? Could climate change be the catalyst to work together toward solutions like this? Who is against this and why?

Two views: “Without competition there is no freedom.” “Could we rely on cooperation instead?”

Right at the start, people at the second table discovered they were not in agreement about the value of a basic income. Beginning with the assumption that, as the first table also assumed, a basic income would reduce competition, the first speaker at this table said, “People need competition. Without competition there is no freedom. My job gives me money which gives me freedom.” Another believes that a basic income would take away an essential structure: “If I misbehave at work, they don’t pay me. That gives me structure.” Others in this conversation were supportive of the basic income idea. “What about a structure based on cooperation instead of competition? We’re so used to a competitive market it’s hard to see any other options, and other models are available.”

This beginning took the discussion in many directions, quite beyond its initial focus on a basic income to such topics as: alternate economic systems, the need to consider the common good, the availability of the commons as an alternative to marketplace commerce, Adam Smith’s belief that competition and “following your bliss” would have socially desirable results, Gates Foundation philanthropy, the government’s role, and the possibility of requiring work in exchange for basic income.

“A new type of education might be needed to help people find their true calling.”

The third table managed to cover all three questions. They reported being pretty laid back and comfortable with collective organizing and with the idea that a minimum basic income could increase people’s ability to pursue their passions and their creativity. They also thought that a basic income would make volunteer time more highly valued, reduce the status attached to wealth, and perhaps require a new type of education, one that would help people find their true calling. They wondered whether the policy would lead to inflation and how diversity would be expressed. And, quite beyond that, they wondered whether a plan like this that serves the common good could actually be put in place. The challenges include the current state of capitalism, our individualistic culture, and the fact that economic power rests with the ultra rich, lobbyists, and corporations. This economic power, they thought, might be countered by the political power of a much larger and broader base.

Where would the money come from?

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One person, critical of the basic income concept, was nonetheless eager to offer an idea that could support it: establish a government-run life insurance program where, at death, the proceeds are returned to everyone. The folks at table three came up with quite a long list of possible funding strategies: take from the war defense budget, maybe 5%; create a new national model for income taxation; close tax breaks and loopholes; institute 401Ks or socially responsible investments; tax places that aren’t taxed now, like churches and charities; eliminate the welfare system; address food security through gardens on roofs; save money by recentralizing municipalities and establishing new practices such as water systems that use gray water. They’d really like to see examples of functional economies that could support a system like this. And when each of the three groups came together toward the end, another idea was proposed: “How about a 100% estate tax for everybody?”

Clashes and new questions when we came together 

Strong but differing opinions on the effect of competition on freedom kicked off the exchange when we reconvened as a single group. For a few, freedom requires individualism and competition, which would be undermined by a basic income; and for many others, a basic income would make freedom possible – it would mean reduced competition and compulsory overwork, less stress and inequality, and time for relationships, volunteer work, and creative interests.

A few questions came up as we closed: Does anyone feel uncomfortable with the idea of people getting money without working for it? If education is available more broadly and more people choose it, the economy will grow – should it? And finally, a question about whether there is social and intellectual value to work drew a quick reply: “Yes, when the job is freely chosen.”

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1 Penny U is a conversation series on the nature of work, how it’s changing, and what it might look like in the future. Learn more here.

2  In Switzerland in fall 2013, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen, in support of a referendum that would institute a universal basic income.

3  Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967.

4 More detail on the questions posed can be found in the introduction to the Penny U session here.


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