Time for UBI and re-examining humanity

In some ways, it’s already happening. Governments struggling with mounting unemployment and near economic collapse are giving money out – no strings attached. This is one of the underlying principles of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Thanks to Covid-19, with needs on such a large scale, governments have realised that it is more cost efficient to give money to companies and individuals rather than means testing or trying to facilitate how the money is spent.

Yes, dear follower, I have written about this before. That was an introduction to UBI (for me as much as anyone). A lot has happened since that blog. In America, UBI has been gaining ground thanks to Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. In the UK, the coronavirus lockdown has Britain’s Conservative government acting like socialists by doling out public aid. But in Britain, few people (George Monbiot among them, on Twitter) are seeing this massive government assistance programme as being akin to UBI. Is it that a pandemic has happened to people by no fault of their own, whereas unemployment and poverty is somehow deserved and a different – and unacceptable – form of government aid?

I’ve been reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, which is loaded with examples of UBI principles being applied successfully in communities going back to the 1970s as a way to eradicate poverty. These examples support Bregman’s attacks on common presumptions about poverty and individuals in need. Time and time again, these case studies show that giving poor people (including the homeless) money to do with as they please results in their using the money to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. And this is accomplished at a fraction of the cost of government welfare and unemployment programmes.

These points are as much social as they are economic and typical of writing on UBI. What I particularly enjoyed about Bregman’s book is that he looks at the bigger picture and asks why we humans place such importance on work. To state the obvious for a second, work is important because it’s linked to money – which is why women’s unpaid work, such as raising children and caring for the elderly, is not valued as work. This is a worn argument. Bregman goes a step further, pointing out that certain types of work are valued because they are ‘productive.’ Anyone who has taken up art, music or creative writing has had to fend off hints of being lazy and accusations of not doing anything really productive. I wish now that when I was in my teens and early 20s I had Bregman’s ideas at hand. He explains, “Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” If the pandemic lockdown has shown us anything, it is the human capacity to experiment and create when given the time.

Bregman’s book came out a few years ago. Since then we have seen more worrying signs of the damage brought on by climate change at the same time that the world is confronted with a deadly virus that has pushed millions into unemployment. This might be the opportunity to not only implement UBI, but to also create jobs in green energies and readjust our thinking about what it means to be human.

Work/Not-Work

When I first heard about a universal basic income, I thought it was a pie-in-the-sky idea, the product of navel-gazing and not living in the real world. Reading George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage, I found someone else who initially reacted to universal basic income as I did. But he’s changed his mind – so have I.

Out of the Wreckage only spends a small amount of time on UBI. It does cover the key points. UBI is an income paid to every adult, regardless of employment, poverty or attempts to find work. As it would replace complicated needs-tested welfare with a leaner, less bureaucratic system, many believe it could cut poverty and inequality. Others are looking to UBI as a way of dealing with chronic unemployment brought on by automation. Small scale trial studies – such as in sectors of Finland’s workforce, towns in Brazil and in poverty-stricken regions of India – have been successful so far.

But the success of any such scheme starts with individuals and communities and this is at the heart of Monbiot’s doctrine. Monbiot makes the point that identifying ourselves as, or being, our jobs feeds into an unhealthy protectionism of jobs. This protectionism can override the best interest of communities, national economies and our natural environment. The other weakness inherent in thinking of ourselves as our jobs is the stigma attached to those who do not have jobs. I confess, as you may have read in an earlier blog, my sense of identity comes largely from what I do for a living. I’m having a rethink.Monbiot

Monbiot’s book is also a worthwhile read for the way it explains the damaged done by neo-liberalism (a misnomer if I ever heard one). Unlike other authors who tackle this subject, Monbiot goes beyond describing the flaws of neo-liberalism in terms of deregulation, outmoded economics and capitalism run wild – we’ve all heard these points before.  Monbiot looks to the psychological and social ethos of our age and asks readers to rewrite the story we are living and draw from our cooperative nature and community spirit to supplant the ways of corporations and governments.

In this context, where financial and administrative pressures could be taken off the government with more community participation and less plutocracy, the idea of some sort of universal basic income fits in and perhaps stands a chance.