Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly sum of money with no strings attached, regardless of other income sources. The idea isn’t exactly new, and it has supporters and opponents anywhere on the political spectrum. It also featured prominently during the pandemic. So far, no country has implemented it, but there are a variety of experiments. None of these reflect the universality of a basic income, but they’re helpful nonetheless. I hosted an Interintellect salon - my debut as a solo host after my Personal CRM salon co-hosted with Vajresh Balaji - to discuss the idea with fellow curious minds.
As is usual with salons, I asked an intro question, which was: “Who do you think would benefit from UBI?” We talked about cash transfers for low-income countries through charities like GiveDirectly, an approach popular in the Effective Altruism community. We also mentioned creative and innovative people in rich countries who may not currently have the freedom to invent or express their creativity as they’re stuck in their jobs. It reminded me of the description of basic income as “venture capital for the people”.
How high should basic income be? Public discussion centers around round numbers like $1000/month or a minimum livable wage equivalent. An alternative would be defining it as the percentage of the average or median income. The definition of what a minimum livable wage is may change, so tying it to existing wages avoids the discussion. Another idea is to look at current government spending per person and pay it out directly. The latter leads to another question, whose answer seems to depend on whether you’re more on the left side of the political spectrum or more libertarian. Which public services can and should basic income replace? Should we even see it as a replacement or more as an add-on to the current services? While large infrastructure projects such as flood defense should probably remain with the government, they could privatize communal services like swimming pools. Of course, it’s too early to propose anything specific, so we didn’t spend a lot of time discussing this point. There should be more research first.
If there was a way to implement basic income on a global scale, it could give people additional opportunities to move around the world and find the life that fits them. Even though it’s a fascinating idea, it’s probably even further away than national basic income. There are, however, exciting approaches for voluntary funded basic income that doesn’t stop at national borders. Most use blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Examples include Circles and GoodDollar. We’re not yet fully convinced, especially since these often create custom coins that don’t have serious trade value, so they need a lot of trust and buy-in into their currency first. How far can voluntary approaches go anyway, in terms of funding basic income or other worthy causes? High-income countries and businesses could do more to drive people to give to charity, for example, by offering benefits in exchange for (zero-knowledge) proofs of donation. They could also give people more say in where their tax dollars go, although that may be unfair and undemocratic when it gives high-income individuals more influence on the state’s budget.
A common criticism against basic income is that it’s people’s fault when they’re poor. Therefore, we shouldn’t give to “undeserving” people. However, we believe that poverty is mostly the cause of bad decisions, not its outcome. We should also look at the future where society benefits when we allow people to recover and grow. Another point of criticism is that, because basic income is a substantial money redistribution machine, it gives too much power to the state. The government might eventually use that as an excuse to increase demands on their citizens. Asking how basic income influences the job market, people are forced to take any job to survive without it. As a result, it currently creates pay rates below market rates, leading to an unfair market. That would change.
Our last point of discussion was whether technological unemployment would become so common that it’s a solid argument to make basic income necessary? We’re unsure. On the one hand, there is no precedence for new technologies destroying more jobs than they create. On the other hand, it’s much more likely now, primarily due to the differences between manual work and knowledge work.
Overall, the salon was a good discussion and exchange of ideas and thoughts. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation some other time.