The idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI) floor where everyone starts with the same minimum amount of money as everyone else each month as an economic right of citizenship is not a new idea. UBI is an idea with a long history and thus a long history of support. Among that support exists a number of Nobel prize winners. The following is a compilation of some of those names and what they’ve said about UBI in recent years.
This list is focused on living Nobel laureates and not economists throughout history like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Tobin, James Meade, George Stigler, Paul Samuelson, Herbert Simon, and James Mirrlees among others who all supported UBI during their lifetimes.
“A lot of economists would think that was not a good thing to do, but what happened was that child abuse dropped drastically, spousal abuse dropped drastically, crime dropped. Simply handing money to poor people was salutary…”
The following names appear in chronological order based on when they became a Nobel laureate.
1. Desmond Tutu: 1984 Nobel Peace Prize
In 2006, the 11th Basic Income Earth Network Congress took place in South Africa. It was on that occasion that Desmond Tutu recorded a strong endorsement for the entire basic income movement. His whole speech is available in its entirety below, but here is a short transcript excerpt:
“Friends, I do not need to remind you of the importance and benefits of campaigns such as the basic income movement that are designed to enhance the dignity, well-being, and inclusion of all people, and to move us closer to our vision of social equity… We have a unique opportunity to wipe out hunger and abject poverty, to make sure that no one falls into absolute destitution. For perhaps the first time in history we have the resources, the know-how, and the technology to make starvation and dependency relics of the past. But do we have the will?”
2. Robert Solow: 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics
During an interview in 2015 alongside fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, when asked about UBI and why he prefers universality over means-testing, this is how Robert Solow explained his reasoning:
“I think means-testing sounds so plausible. Why waste this on people who don’t need it? But we know two things about means-tested benefits. One is that they’re never fully taken up. If you offer a means-tested benefit, there will be many many eligible people who simply for one reason or another, maybe because they think it stigmatizes them in some way, maybe ignorance, maybe some other reason, they don’t do it. Even a kind of normal benefit as the earned income tax credit. It’s part of the tax return. It sounds so natural. There are many many eligibile people who don’t take it up. So means-testing eliminates part of the benefit, part of the good that a benefit can do.
The second problem is it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to design an effective means-tested benefit that doesn’t end up with an excessively high marginal tax rate on the beneficiaries as they earn their way out of the benefit. As their means increase, phasing out seems always to involve a very high marginal tax rate, so it provides a bad incentive, so it’s no good from that point of view. The idea of a non-means-tested benefit, especially a child benefit, which also bears on the equality of opportunity issue, and making it taxable as normal income, that sounds far more sensible to me.”
3. Amartya Sen: 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics
In 2017, Amartya Sen said during a discussion about UBI on New Delhi Television in India that when India reaches “the level of prosperity that Europe has,” that “basic income would be a good thing to have.”
4. Vernon Smith: 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics
In a 2017 article published in The Wall Street Journal, Vernon Smith wrote the following about UBI:
“How could you use the money from highway and land sales to benefit all Americans—and improve your own popularity? By creating a new Permanent Citizens Fund, invested in stocks, bonds and real estate world-wide. Every citizen would hold an equal share, with annual dividends paid in cash.
Better highways, more land for productive development plus a permanent fund sending checks to every citizen. A guaranteed basic income financed from public assets waiting to be monetized and put to work. You might even get the progressives’ vote. Have you ever made such a great deal?
If you think it’s pie in the sky, ask an Alaskan. The Alaska Permanent Fund, initiated in 1976 to distribute oil revenue, has a market value I estimate at $72,000 for each Alaskan citizen. Annual dividends began in 1982, when the public corporation that administers the fund cut the first checks for $1,000. Little wonder that Alaska is second among all the states in income equality.
After highways, bridges and federal acreage, your next project would be to start auctioning all US mineral, oil and gas resource rights for deposit to the fund. These assets also belong to the people, not the government.”
5. Daniel McFadden: 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics
In 2017, multiple Nobel prize-winning economists participated in the 6th Lindau meeting on economic sciences in Germany. During a panel discussion, Daniel McFadden explained how introducing casinos in native American communities along the Rio Grande enabled them to deliver a basic income to the poor and how surprisingly well it worked.
“A lot of economists would think that was not a good thing to do, but what happened was that child abuse dropped drastically, spousal abuse dropped drastically, crime dropped. Simply handing money to poor people was salutary. It really helped them. Being trapped in poverty, with the stress and insecurities associated with that, is progressively debilitating. Sometimes even the simplest kind of transfers can break the cycle.”
6. Muhammad Yunus: 2006 Nobel Peace Prize
In a 2018 interview with the Hindu BusinessLine, Muhammad Yunus, economist and founder of the Grameen Bank, said that because of artificial intelligence, it is now time to introduce UBI.
“To me AI is the most dangerous technology. While we are excited about all that AI can accomplish to make our lives more beautiful, at the same time thousands of people will lose their jobs with machines taking over. AI is now at a stage where it can wreak havoc, starting with autonomous cars that will render thousands of drivers jobless…
Human beings by nature are entrepreneurs, go-getters, problem-solvers, farmers, hunters, gatherers, that’s what our history tells us. But, somehow economic theory persuaded us that the only thing that we can do to survive is to find a job.
The Education system is job oriented where Universities take pride in saying they produce ‘job ready’ people which is a shame. They should create ‘life ready’ young people who know what is the meaning and purpose of this life. Why let a few people who have money hire you and make money? We are mercenaries of the whole system. Why should we be mercenaries?”
7. Peter Diamond: 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics
In a 2017 interview with Steve Schifferes, Peter Diamond said that he now favors UBI because growing inequality is an issue that has to be faced.
“Diamond believes that the debate on inequality can help focus discussion on policy failures: from the lack of investment in education, research and infrastructure, to the failure to compensate those who bore the cost of globalization through job losses in heavy industry. He also argues that direct transfers, including introducing child benefit to everyone who has children and a UBI, would help tackle poverty.”
8. Christopher Pissarides: 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics
During a panel at the 2016 World Economics Forum in Davos, Christopher Pissarides stated the following in support of UBI:
“The pie is growing bigger, there is no guarantee that everyone will benefit if we leave the market alone. In fact, if anything, we think that not everyone will benefit if we leave the market alone. So we need to develop a new system of redistributions, new policies that will redistribute inevitably from those that the market would have rewarded in favor of those that the market would have left behind. Now, having a universal minimum income is one of those ways, in fact, it is one I am very much in favor of…”
9. Angus Deaton: 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics
At a forum at the Taipei International Convention Center in 2016, Angus Deaton said that “the government should take care of people with low income and should be pushing basic income grants,” and that “basic income grants give everyone a stake in their nation.”
10. Abhijit Banerjee: 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics
After he signed up to help with GiveDirectly’s 12-year UBI experiment in Kenya and also after Switzerland voted against implementing universal basic income in 2016, Abhijit Banerjee wrote the following in an article in the Indian Express in support of UBI:
“This is an old idea, going back at least to the 1970s, when, interestingly, it drew support both from right-wing libertarians like Milton Friedman and center-left Keynesians like John Kenneth Galbraith. For people on the right, its attraction is two-fold: First, being unconditional, it does not create any direct disincentives for those who want to work more and live better. Second, by just letting people have the money and decide what they want to do with it, it gets away from the ‘nanny state’ that so many libertarians despise. On the left, the support comes from the sense that it makes a certain minimum standard of living a right rather than a reflection of the munificence of the state. This is something that I personally find very appealing: If you think of the mother (or the father) who stays home to take care of the children, it is not clear why we would think of her as doing nothing, rather than sacrificing herself to do one of the most important jobs that we do in society…
But even before we get there (if we do), there is the question of whether the current, multifariously fractured system of welfare, where multiple authorities give out different subsidies (money, food, housing, travel, education, healthcare), guided by their own priorities and targets (the young or the old, the mother or the child, the poor or the indigent), makes any sense. Why not have one universal basic subsidy that covers everything (perhaps except health and education) and let people decide how they will spend it, rather than trying to target subsidies based on our imperfect knowledge of what people need and deserve.”
11. Esther Duflo: 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics
In an interview with Business Today shortly after becoming the second ever female Nobel prize-winning economist, Esther Duflo said the following in support of UBI:
“It’s not just about public expenditure, it’s also increasing its effectiveness. Universal Basic Income is interesting as a concept, and could be tried out. If you’re poor, you’re always close to some disaster. So you are extremely reluctant to undertake any risky activity. And because you are not attending any risky activity, you are less productive. So what the basic income does is give people the assurance. That kind of security, I think, will give people the confidence to do new things to improve their lives. I think we should give it a try and experiment, it might work.”
With the above support now known, an endorsement of a Nobel-winning economist does not in itself make any idea a good idea, but it does make it very difficult to claim that because someone supports the idea of UBI, that they know nothing about economics. There are a lot of economists who support the idea of UBI. In fact, in 1968, more than 1,000 economists from over 125 universities signed a statement in support of guaranteed annual income as being “feasible and compatible with our economic system.”
A STATEMENT BY ECONOMISTS ON INCOME GUARANTEES AND SUPPLEMENTS
May 27, 1968
The statement below was circulated in May of 1968 to 275 universities and research organizations. More than 1,000 economists from 125 universities signed the statement.
The undersigned economists urge the Congress to adopt this year a national system of income guarantees and supplements.
The Poor People’s Campaign in Washington is demanding a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans. The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders called for a national system of income supplements. A group of business leaders recently advocated a “negative income tax.” These proposals are all similar in design and purpose.
Like all civilized nations in the twentieth century, this country has long recognized a public responsibility for the living standards of its citizens. Yet our present programs of public assistance and social insurance exclude the millions who are in need and meet inadequately the needs of millions more. All too often these programs unnecessarily penalize work and thrift and discourage the building of stable families.
The country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income no less than the officially recognized definition of poverty. A workable and equitable plan of income guarantees and supplements must have the following features. (1) Need, as objectively measured by income and family size, should be the sole basis of determining payment to which an individual and/or family is entitled. (2) To provide incentive to work, save and train for better jobs, payments to families who earn income should be reduced by only a fraction of their earnings.
Practical and detailed proposals meeting these requirements have been suggested by individual sponsors of this statement and by others. The costs of such plans are substantial but well within the nation’s economic and fiscal capacity.
As economists we offer the professional opinion that income guarantees and supplements are feasible and compatible with our economic system. As citizens we feel strongly that the time for action is now.”