Universal Basic Income is a concept that is catching on like wildfire, especially with a potential future where more and more jobs are being taken over by artificial intelligence or robots. It’s also seen as a way to address growing wealth inequality, a system where 10% of the people have 90% of the wealth.
In the last year alone, Mark Zuckerberg called on Harvard’s graduating class to “explore ideas like universal basic income,” Elon Musk told a gathering of world leaders in Dubai that “some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary,” and President Obama remarked that universal basic income is a subject we’ll be debating “over the next 10 or 20 years.”
A gallup poll released last month says that 48% of Americans support Universal UBI, that’s up from just 12% of Americans approving of the concept just 10 years ago. The idea is more popular with certain groups. For example, 65% of Democrats want to see a Universal basic income, and 54% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 do. In comparison, just 28% of Republicans support universal basic income.
The public doesn’t necessarily want the government to pay for UBI. Instead, 80% of supporters say the companies that benefit from artificial intelligence should pay the higher taxes to fund a basic income.
The concept is not actually new. Reportedly Thomas Paine proposed a basic income for every citizen as early as 1792. Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed the idea in the 1960s as a way of fighting poverty. In 1971, a basic income for poor families almost became law under President Nixon.
Give me money? Why?
Support for UBI is gaining traction for a number of reasons.
•The U.S. economy is increasingly unstable, with wealth accruing at the top while most Americans remain stuck in low-paying jobs.
•The middle class, and path ways to the middle class are being squeezed.
•The threat that automation could ultimately devastate the American labor market.
Even amid a booming economy, wage-growth has been sluggish. At the same time, the list of jobs robots are able to fill is growing more impressive (and perhaps worrisome). The recent Gallup survey showed that three quarters of Americans believe machines will take away more jobs than they’ll generate.
How it could Work
Proposal for UBI programs vary, but the most common one is a system in which the federal government sends out regular checks to everyone, regardless of their earnings or employment. Full UBI would cover basic living expenses, versus smaller scale programs that involve just a subsidy. Conservative advocates favor an approach where programs in the current safety net, such as Social Security and food stamps, are replaced with a UBI. Others favor an incrementalist policy in which current safety net programs are expanded to include all Americans.
Despite their differences, all approaches to UBI policy share the core goal of establishing an income floor for every American. This floor would help American workers in a number of critical ways. Relieved of the immediate pressure to pay bills, workers could pursue training for the kinds of jobs that automation will bring. A UBI would allow skilled workers to take entrepreneurial risks they cannot afford now. It would also allow Americans to work fewer hours but maintain their living standards, leaving more time for caregiving and raising children.
A Better Society?
Overall, UBI would provide a significant boost to the American middle class, which has stagnated even as productivity and overall wealth continue to rise. By putting more money into the pockets of workers, a UBI could fuel aggregate demand and job growth in different sectors across the country.
UBIvangelists argue that automatically providing for basic nutritional and shelter needs liberate people to ascend the hierarchy of needs and focus on more valuable activities, like developing social relationships and civic and cultural engagement. Others hope a UBI would foster a more harmonious, cooperative post-work simply by countering scarcity and selfishness.
One of the thoughts of UBI is that a basic income will make people lazy and they’ll stop wanting to work. That’s a myth, said Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, who spoke on the subject at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
That’s “an insult to the human condition. Basic incomes tend to increase people’s work rather than reduce it.”
That’s because research has shown that a basic income can improve people’s mental and physical health, Standing said, as well as encourage them to pursue employment for reasons more meaningful that just a need to put food on the table.
Truly society hasn’t begun to grapple with the concept of a post-work future. Robots might not take all our jobs, but continuing technological developments may create a society with new social norms, where work isn’t an important part of people’s psychological and financial well-being.
With UBI and less dependence on a job, the confounding social challenge may one day be, how to wisely and meaningfully spend our lives.