James Collura was a recipient of basic income in Ontario’s recently cancelled Basic Income Pilot experiment. This is his account of what it was like and how the experience has impacted his life and his thinking about the idea.
Who am I, and why did I apply for basic income?
I was one of the 4500 citizens in Canada to be given a basic income (BI). I applied for BI while working at a bank in downtown Hamilton. Part time employment is all that is available as a modern bank teller. The top priority given to us by our managers was to teach customers how to use our online banking platform and cell-phone application.The better I did my job, the fewer faces I saw coming into the branch. I was in the midst of a job-performance paradox, witnessing and facilitating the replacement of my job by technology. And moving up the ladder didn’t make much long-term sense either, seeing as financial planners are now being publically shafted in Super Bowl advertisements by automated robo-banking platforms like Questrade.
As I counted the coins emptied from the hats and cups of homeless customers onto the bank’s imported Italian marble countertops, I had plenty of time to think about how we as a society could better provide for the mentally ill, sick, poor, and the precariously or underemployed. That’s when I discovered Ontario’s 4500-person basic income pilot study, a concept that had been introduced to me as an economics student at McMaster University. I thought about how it might help those I saw struggling everyday, and so I encouraged as many people as I could to apply for the program.
I thought about all of the passionate, creative people, stuck in cubicles, selling their valuable time and energy for the sake of a barely livable wage – people like myself. With housing, rent, and food costs continuing to rise as wages stagnate, the prospect of losing those jobs is unsettling to the most capable among us. Over 50% of people – Yes, even the University and College educated ones – now live paycheck to paycheck. I know this first-hand; I saw your bank accounts…
Since I fit the program’s criteria and was interested in taking the survey, I decided to apply for myself. I got a letter in the mail about a month later saying I’d be given $900 per month for the next 3 years. My stress levels, health, and overall life improved dramatically. I was so grateful to be taken care of by my society that I put a great deal of my time, effort, and energy into community involvement and self-improvement. I gave out clothing to the homeless with Straight to The Streets, volunteered my time, painted my first wall mural, played the guitar at my first open mic, I learned new job skills (video editing), took new classes, got involved with more community projects, and made choices that improved every area of my life.
What is BI, and why does it matter?
If you don’t already know, BI is the economic concept of a government giving all citizens a minimum amount of money per month. And it’s worth considering as a viable solution for a successful society; though not everyone reading this sentence will agree. It has already worked wonders for myself and many others. Top economists, Nobel Prize winners, and many leading academics believe in its potential – and have solid evidence and reasoning to support their stance. Many well educated people also see potential problems and flaws with having a BI, and their concerns deserve to be listened to.
As hard to believe as it may be, conservatives and liberals alike have agreed about BI over the years. In fact, Milton Friedman, the prominent free-market economics professor who famously advised Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party, already supported universal basic income in the 1960s.
Also referred to as the ‘Freedom Dividend’, this basic monetary stipend helps people to pay their bills, educate themselves, start businesses, pursue creative work, improve their housing situations, spend more time with their families, and have a greater sense of social and financial freedom. You may be thinking, “getting yourself a good paying job can do the same thing!” – and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Got a plan for a 30 year career? Me neither.
The job market is undergoing a transformation; the likes of which have never been seen in human history. No historical evidence can fully serve as a valid comparison to the rise of artificial intelligence and 21st century technology and robotics. This massive wave in the obsolescence of human labor is unprecedented, radical, and new – and as such, it will require radical, new, ethical economic solutions.
Our jobs have provided us and our families financial security for hundreds of years. The idea of ‘losing’ them to technology may seem frightening, and the concerns and worries this might cause are entirely valid. The ‘loss’ of jobs due to technological advancements is a measurable fact we must face. As we transition to these automated technologies, these worries and concerns can be met with effective solutions – solutions like BI.
For those of you who boycott the self-serve checkout lines and avoid using the cell-phone applications to keep checkout clerks and bank tellers applied… I get it. The intention is to protect and help your fellow human beings, and that’s admirable. But consider what those human beings might otherwise do with their lives if they weren’t compelled to work repetitive, mundane, robotic jobs for the sake of putting an over-priced roof over their heads. Perhaps, with a BI, they could do something they truly want to do, and enthusiastically enjoy doing!
Rather than solely experiencing the ‘loss’ of their jobs, individuals could experience a great ‘gaining’ of personal freedom, creativity, choice and abundance. We’re living in a time where we must start rethinking the way we will live, work, survive and thrive as a species.
When talking to democratic presidential nominee Andrew Yang on the topic of UBI, the economist Eric Weinstein said, “we never knew that capitalism was going to be eaten by its son – technology.”
Capitalism has done a great job of advancing our technologies and changing the way products are created and business is carried out. With some effective economic reform, this leap in progress and massive increase in profitability is something that can benefit all of us; not just the shareholders and business owners.
What’s the problem with business as usual?
Take a moment to deeply reflect on how and why we are able to have the things we have or live the convenient and comfortable lives we do. You’ll find that the vast majority of what we use, own, or consume are brought to us by a massive network of hard working humans – soon to be replaced by robots, self serve checkout lines, driverless vehicles, and AI algorithms. Though many human beings are working hard at supporting the economic system, the system does not seem to be ‘working hard’ to support them. This can be seen in the deterioration of our environments and ecosystems, a rising homeless population, and a massive increase in anxiety & depression over the last several decades. The growing economic disparity between the 99% vs. the 1% is also a symptom of this problem.
The mental and physical health and well-being of others directly affects all of us and our lives. Each time we go to the grocery store and fill up our carts with goods, there is a massive network of human beings who made our purchases possible. The car we use to drive to the store is cared for by the mechanics that we trust to have it drive safely. The shirts on our backs, shoes on our feet, and phones in our hands are all there because of the peaceful and efficient cooperation between us.
That, and also because the exploitation of cheap labour in developing countries & various other human-rights abuses. But, that’s a whole other story.
It’s time we recognize the damage that ‘business as usual’ has done, and could continue to do. Beyond that, it’s time we recognize the power, potential and possibility that positive, technological changes can create. The way business is done must change – we all know it – and it currently is changing, for the better.
With adequate financial support, the environment can be cleaned and cared for, all people could be housed and fed, and the appropriate support for physical and mental health services would be available to everyone. Traditionally, we have had this support given to us through social programs, local governments, corporations, and other bureaucratic organizations. With a universal basic income, financial support will be placed somewhere more effective than any bureaucracy could ever be – directly into the hands of working-class people like you and I.
We’re all in this together
We are all connected. Every person that plays a role in bringing the modern conveniences and necessities to us is part of this global network. Each of them has added value to our lives. In exchange for their hard work, we provide most of them with financial compensation. However, this ‘compensation’ is falling short of true financial security for many of people and their families. Not just for us in North America, but for the people and families that are paid ~ $1 a day to produce the fast-fashion $5 tee-shirts that modern capitalism has made available to us.
With the way our profit-driven, shareholder oriented system works, there is one very important fact to remember. When companies are technologically able to replace workers and save even more money… they will. For many, that time has already come and their jobs have been displaced. And for many others, that time is rapidly approaching. Working part-time as a bank teller in 2017, that time had come for me.
People can change, and the way we see people can change
It seems there is a social stigma around. ‘handouts’, and some people tend to think that everyone will sit around at home, watching Netflix, playing video games, & not contribute to society if given a basic income. In all honesty, there will be some people who will make that choice – and many, many others that will not. In fact, like me, they may get up off their asses and contribute more to society in one year than they had in the previous 10 combined.
Consider that it’s the system we live in that drives our behavior. We humans do what we can and behave how we behave based on the set of circumstances and parameters we are made to live within. These man-made economic circumstances are subject to change – and it’s about damn time.
Perhaps it’s the profit-driven system of monetary exchange and capitalizing on cheap labour that has convinced some of us that humans are inherently selfish. But I believe the human spirit is fundamentally driven toward cooperation, compassion, community, and connection – and I know that most others will agree. For the sake of ourselves, our families, our children, and this beautiful planet with inhabit, it’s time we transition to an economic system that embodies those qualities.
With basic income, I had the chance to live in a new sort of economic system, and what I came to realize was profound. I want my hard work to benefit not only myself, but all of the other humans that make my modern life possible. I know that the well-being of others positively impacts my life, and so I will continue to work towards a world where everyone and their families are as happy, cared for, secure, and healthy as humanly possible. In order to make that happen, networks of cooperative humans (and robots) will have to continue to work hard doing jobs that contribute to creating that world – and we will.
We’ve got more to be grateful for
I am incredibly grateful for the country I live in, the technologies I have the privilege of having, and the massive network of people that have to come together everyday to make it all possible. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, ‘a society is only as strong as its weakest link’. BI can serve as the bond of integrity that makes sure all citizens have their basic needs met, especially in this era of rapid advancements and job instability. You might still disagree, and that’s okay. Healthy disagreement allows us to see the flaws in our logic and work towards shared solutions that work for all of us.
Speaking of healthy disagreement, a reporter for the Toronto Sun – outspoken against UBI – had incorrectly reported that I chose to “quit my job” in order to “join the UBI pilot project”. The truth is, I have been happily employed throughout my experience on UBI. I left my job at Scotiabank after securing a position at Zee Float, a float-therapy business where I have met some of the most loving and supportive people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This transition allowed me the freedom to create, learn, grow, and expand my horizons. It has also given me more stable, secure employment.
Having BI helped me transition into a far more meaningful and fulfilling field of work. This is a massive opportunity that something like basic income could provide for all citizens. This is something I would like to make possible for everyone, including that reporter and his family, no matter our differences in political opinion.
If the government decides to give you a BI, and you don’t want or need the help, Great! Donate it to a worthy cause, give it to your church or place of worship, or use it to organize and create your own social programs. Be creative.
If you still think UBI is unaffordable, consider the value that could be added to the GDP if a UBI were to help unleash the creative potential of a nation, giving millions of individuals the the freedom to choose career paths best suited to their unique abilities. And think how much money our government would have to spend on effective social programs if companies like Walmart, Google, Amazon and Coca-Cola paid more than $0 in taxes every year. Afterall, it’s the money we spend that make them their billions.
Abundance really is a state of mind
It’s time we take a long hard look at the things that might scare or upset us; like cultural change, UBI, job loss, technology, AI, and the depths of our own problematic psychology that make progressive political dialogue so difficult. It’s time we meet each other where we’re at, have the patience to understand each other’s point of view, and consider where we can improve upon our own. There is lots of room for improvement.
We really are all connected. And we really do have to share this tiny space-marble called earth with a bunch of other humans we may not always agree with. And, each time you look down at your grocery cart full of delicious foods from around the world, just remember… we are in this together. With the advances we’ve made in technology, humanity has the possibility of creating a well-organized, efficient, equity-driven system that benefits everyone.
I’m no expert, but I do have a very expensive piece of paper that says I know a thing or two about economics. If I’m being completely authentic; I can’t say that I ‘know’ that BI is the ‘right’ solution. Likewise, it would be inauthentic for anyone to be certain that it’s the ‘wrong’ one. It is one, however, that had a massively positive impact on my life and the life of many others in my community.
Don’t just take my word for it, have a look for yourself. And if you catch yourself getting caught up solely in criticisms, remember that a successful society is built on actionable, achievable solutions. So let’s have some humility, hear each other out, and work together on creating a world we want to see; a world that works for you, me, and all of our families – both now, and into the future.
If the above bit of text was TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) for you, and you scrolled straight to the bottom, I made this short video to sum it all up: