Universal or Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is not a new idea. In fact, it is a concept that goes back hundreds of years. From Thomas More to Thomas Paine, all advocated some form of a universal basic income.
Today, the topic of UBI seems to have moved to front and center again for a few reasons.
First, you have a presidential candidate by the name of Andrew Young who is running a one-issue campaign around Universal Basic Income (UBI) which he calls the Freedom Dividend. In its simplest form, Yang proposes that every individual receive $1,000/ month unconditionally. His rational is based “on the numbers” recognizing that half of Americans work in only five types of jobs; Trucking, Administrative, Retail, Food Service and Manufacturing and “tech is already doing a number on those jobs.”
While new technology will create new jobs, he points out that most Americans have a high school degree creating a deeply disturbing imbalance as more jobs are lost than are created. In the end, Yang’s argument largely pivots on the numbers.
Yet, UBI is gaining momentum for an entirely different reason. Slowly, people are sensing a social imbalance around them as though are “falling apart.” This is driven by the reality that technology has created tremendous wealth and power for relatively few while leaving behind vast swaths of the global population. This dawning realization does not just reside in over-excited imaginations but are validated by the rapid concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer people. In January 2019, The Guardian reported that the world’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%, (Source) The global income inequality gap is unprecedented and unsustainable.
This is why UBI is slowing beginning to move from a fringe topic to a mainstream conversation. Yet unhappily, critics’ arguments continue to dominate the conversation – choking off meaningful debates about UBI.
Therefore, let’s unpack the top four arguments to see what they get wrong.
1) “It will make people lazy.”
When people first hear UBI, this is their kneejerk criticism. Yet, it is a shallow argument because UBI doesn’t offer a livable wage but it is enough to help people plan for future or deal with an unexpected emergency. This offers citizens a safety net that the individual controls in an increasingly chaotic world. Instead of demotivating people, it will increase their motivation knowing they can plan reliably.
2) “We can’t afford it.”
Another argument that comes to a conclusion without looking at the financial facts. There is no end to the funding options such as reducing expensive, Federal safety nets programs just to start. Mostly though, funding for UBI is a function of political will born of a desire to narrow the income inequality gap. Where there is a political will, there will be a financial way.
3) “People get their identity from work – UBI will destroy that.”
This line of thinking is flawed because it inappropriately conflates our work identity with human identity. Our human identity is a compilation of lots of things, including to what we do. With UBI, people can be freer to focus their energy on initiatives that strengthen their human identities instead of forcing people to stay in jobs because they have no options.
4) “It can never work”
This is patently wrong. There have been and continue to be many success stories covering the globe. The model has been proven to work. What lags is the political will to execute. This is where UBI warriors come in like Scott Santens who have their eye on the long game. There is no silver bullet but there is a clear path forward. See case studies here: The Manitoba Story – a rural town that underwent a profound transformation.
In the end, the conversation of UBI has to transform from an interesting fringe topic to a mainstream topic that is as visible and argued as universal healthcare is today. One thing is clear. Once you look a little deeper into the reasoning behind UBI – it really gets under your skin and doesn’t let you go. As well it shouldn’t.