Basic income – How would it affect us as human beings?

Report from Penny U

Didn’t Penny U talk about basic income before?

Yes, indeed, this is essentially the same topic that prompted a Penny U conversation back in December 2015. [More about Penny U here.] We suspected then that there was more to say on the topic…and we were right! So, for Penny U in March 2016, we used this as our overarching question:

What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or what their financial status is?

This second Penny U on basic income was organized in partnership with Town Hall as usual, but was held in the cabaret at the Richard Hugo House – a space that’s very conducive to discussion. The specific questions for the evening included one that triggered the discussion reported below:

Would a basic income lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good, or would it encourage people to be lazy and to work less?

A second set of notes [here] reports on other conversations that evening that took up other questions. Some got more into the nitty gritty of how it would actually work: If basic income is a good idea, should everyone get the same amount, and where would the money come from? And others ttook a big picture view and considered the whole of society: Would a basic income just be a concession to capitalism, and why are we having this discussion now?

In drafting both sets of notes, I haven’t tried to synthesize the conversations, opting instead to try to more closely reflect its spirit, offering a record that’s more like dialogue. So, as you read, imagine lively exchanges, each one a combination of four or five discrete voices at one of four tables, all talking at once. The animated conversation went on for a good two hours and sometimes headed in unexpected directions. The notes add a modest order to it all by grouping somewhat similar ideas together.

Our hope is that Penny U gives us practice listening to each other and speaking up, whether uncertain or confident, whether drawing on study and research or on our daily lives; a place where we hear our own voices and listen closely to others, even when faced with conversational styles and ideas fundamentally different from our own.

What would happen to our sense of self worth if everyone got a basic income?

“Our jobs are linked to our feelings of self worth,” one person claimed. “Our sense of purpose in life is tightly tied to the way we make a living. We become what we do.” The speaker worried that today many, maybe most, people have no habit of defining themselves. “We let our jobs do it for us.” She went on to say that it would be a huge shift in the basic framework of our lives and our understanding of who we are – psychologically, emotionally – if we didn’t have jobs to give us a purpose. As an example, she mentioned friends on social media who “don’t love their jobs,” and she’s aghast at what they do with their time off.

“Our identities very often come from our jobs; we become what we do.”

“Perhaps having basic costs covered would take the fear out of having or losing a job.” Without that fear underlying their lives, they’d be freed up to define themselves in new, more meaningful ways.

“But, if people are released from the burden of economic fear, would society’s necessary, sometimes unpleasant, work still would get done? Would people just be lazy?” On the other hand, maybe we could “run society like a household, where everyone takes turns doing the unsavory jobs.”

“I’ve been an artist/writer all my life. It would be easy for me to fill my time, I’ve had practice. But, so many people haven’t had the chance to define themselves, and it could take a long time to adjust.” How long would it take for most of us to develop a purpose-driven life? “I’m nervous about our ability to float while we make this transition. Money has been such a driver.”

“Who says not producing something has no value!”

“A basic income shouldn’t be tied to individual results. Who says not producing something has no value!” “The program wouldn’t be a failure if some people simply sit back. That will happen.” “It isn’t necessarily bad if some people don’t get engaged. That can benefit society as well.” “We have such a Calvinist approach. Society’s understanding of work and our sense of what’s valuable are huge cultural hurdles to an idea like this.”

“We need to change our mindset about leisure. Leisure is meaningful. Education could help us. Its purpose can be directed to developing skills for a vocation or it can be directed to the liberal arts. College should be free.” “A college for all one’s life.” “Has social security created a lazy generation of seniors?”

“Young people will find their self-actualization outside their jobs.” – Andy Stern

In a 2014 discussion of similar themes, former SEIU President Andy Stern told a Town Hall audience, “My 3-5 year-old niece and nephew won’t think about work the way we do.” Referring to his own generation, he went on to say, “We often found our social environments through our work, our jobs. Young people won’t, and many have already made that shift.” They find what he called “their self-actualization” outside their jobs.

Would people still fight for supremacy, still strive to get the most or the best?

“People will always seek the advantage, everyone wants to optimize. Trying to convince others to our way is an universal aspect of human nature.”

“But, is this just an institutional overlay? It isn’t true everywhere. If this impulse is allowed free reign, we’ll lose our democracy. Fighting for supremacy is a way of moving forward in a patriarchy, characterized by an attitude of ‘you’re with us or against us’.”

“Can we shift to seeing ourselves as part of a collective whole?”

“How can we develop a spirit of cooperation, can we see ourselves as individuals who are part of a collective whole? How do we encourage a culture of generosity?” “The commons gives us a different mode. It is an ancient system that still continues in many ways and in many places around the world. The commons is not, as a famous essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garret Hardin, suggests, an unregulated resource to be taken advantage of by everyone. It is a resource, used by many and managed by the community that uses it, and this community of users establishes rules, values, and protocols for its use.”

“I’m feeling optimistic. Surprising, radical transformations are more possible now.”

“Younger people are less sympathetic with radical competitiveness. They feel they’ve been given a ‘bait and switch’ deal, for example, big college debt for jobs that are disappearing. It’s why they’re in love with Bernie Sanders.” “I’m feeling optimistic.”

[This conversation continues. See additional notes, here.]


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