A few of you already know me, but for those who don’t, I’m just a guy who happened to get really into the concept of unconditional basic income ten years ago. I get asked all the time how that happened, so long story short, I was on Reddit, read through the many comments in a discussion thread about how quickly technology was advancing and no one was talking about it, found out about UBI, dove into everything I could find about it, and like in some cartoon, a light bulb appeared above my head and there was no going back after that.
What was the light bulb? It was this: there is no single policy more important to the future of humankind than UBI. When asked to describe UBI in one word, I say “civilizational.” It’s that big. People love to say UBI is no silver bullet; that it’s not a panacea. No, it’s not. But in a world where most of the population is perpetually being choked so they can’t breathe deeply, a “no more non-consensual choking policy” is a pretty big deal. It’s not that UBI will solve everything, but what it does do is make everything more solvable. In a world full of locked doors, it’s a skeleton key. If we want to move the world, we need a really long lever, a lot of effort, and a fulcrum. UBI is that fulcrum.
My academic background is in psychology and engineering physics. What I ultimately care about is what works and what doesn’t, and so I care about the scientific method more than I do about tribal affiliation. Something is true regardless of what anyone says about that something. Or more accurately, something can be determined to be false, and what isn’t false could be true.
Here’s what’s false: The Just-World Hypothesis. People do not live in poverty because they deserve it, and people do not live with great wealth because they deserve it. No. That absolutely isn’t true. Yes, hard work can lead someone from poverty to wealth, but not necessarily. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of hard work who live in poverty. There’s also a lot of people doing very little work or doing just as much work as everyone else who are living in great wealth. None of us chose who our parents would be and where we would be born. There is a great deal of luck responsible for where each of us are in our lives, but many of us discount all of that because it feels really good to feel we deserve our fortune and others deserve their misfortune. It feels good to think that as long as we work hard and avoid mistakes, everything will be fine.
But odds are it won’t be fine. Odds are, at some point in our lives, we’re going to need some help based on pure bad luck, or even a poor decision or two, and when that happens, what should that help look like? Should we treat people as we ourselves would like to be treated? Or should it be full of distrust, and strings, and paternalism, and indignity, and paperwork, and time? So much time. And should it disappear when we no longer need it, like a rug that gets pulled out from under us as soon as we get back on our feet after a fall? And should we even wait until we need help instead of helping each other avoid such a need?
Here’s what I think. I think we all need a floor under us at all times. To build our lives, we need a foundation. That foundation should always be there. Knowing it will always be there is security. It’s stability. It’s mutual trust. It’s society saying, “I believe in you. You deserve to start with something instead of nothing, just as I do, just as we all do. And with that universal foundation, that is only possible together, we will build and we will prosper, because when we all do better, we all do better.”
I’m an optimist and a dreamer at heart, but I’m also a realist and a pragmatist. Again, what works and what doesn’t? If something works, do that. If something doesn’t work, don’t do that. Poverty doesn't work for society. Neither does chronic insecurity or extreme inequality. These things are costly wastes of societal resources.
UBI works. It just does. We already know that. That’s what convinced me a decade ago, because the evidence was already there. UBI does not make people lazy. Most people who receive unconditional income act just like we ourselves would. People who want to work use it to find the work that’s best for them, paid or unpaid, and those who work a bit less focus on everything else in their lives of more importance than overwork. Oh no, someone with UBI started working less than 80 hours a week across three jobs. They’re so lazy. And that person with $500,000 in the bank earning $2,000 a month in interest? They’re smart, industrious people making their money work for them. Ridiculous double-standards.
We also already know that UBI improves health, especially mental health. We know babies are born healthier. We know it reduces crime. We know it reduces domestic abuse. We know it improves diets. We know it doesn’t lead to more abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. We know it leads to less private debt and more savings. We know it leads to significantly more entrepreneurship. And we know it increases trust in each other.
We know all these things, and we’ll never really know everything until UBI is permanently implemented, but pilots are still important, and pilots are definitely happening. One of the things that won me over originally was reading about the UBI pilots in Namibia and India, and just how powerful the results of such saturation pilots are. I was blown away that crime dropped by 42% in Namibia while entrepreneurship quadrupled, and how costs for food actually went down in India while entrepreneurship tripled. This kind of data can really influence those who can be influenced by data, but let’s be real, for the most part, that’s not who we’re dealing with who aren’t yet supportive of UBI. All the evidence in the world can be falsified by an experiment of one, an anecdote, more commonly known as — a story.
That’s what the pilots are truly all about and why even micro-pilots have value to the movement. One story is all someone ever really needs. My favorite story from the Namibia UBI pilot is a woman named Frieda who with her first UBI payment went out and bought what she needed to start her own bakery business for her village. Soon she was making four times in profit the amount of her UBI every month, on top of her UBI. She even hired employees. Ten years later her bakery shop is still in business and her three kids were able to attend the University of Namibia.
I love that story for a few reasons. 1) She clearly didn’t get lazy. She started her own successful business. How many others are there like her who want to start a successful business but don’t have the resources or fear the poverty consequences of failure? 2) Her UBI enabled her to earn far more than her UBI. It demonstrates clearly how UBI is a raised floor that better enables additional income; that first comes money and then comes work. 3) And this is the biggest one, her business was successful because she had customers. Everyone in her village had the money to buy her baked rolls. The UBI didn’t just create an entrepreneur, it created demand. How many businesses fail, not because of a bad product or service, but because of a lack of customers with discretionary income to spend?
That’s one of my favorite stories and I will put that up against anyone with their favorite anecdote about how they heard of someone on welfare who does nothing all day but drink and drugs. The challenge of a good story is finding the right one for the right person. That’s why I’m especially excited about all the many pilots in the US, because part of qualifying as a good story is being local enough. So many people don’t care about a baker in Namibia because that’s not 'here', that's 'there.' So local pilots help.
The other challenge for a good story is finding one that someone can identify strongly with. A good UBI story is one where we see ourselves, as if through the looking glass to a parallel universe where we ourselves have UBI. This is why I disagree with complaints about what’s going on in cities and counties across the US as not UBI. It’s true that nothing so far has been a saturation site testing universality effects, but all together, there’s a story that universality would tell.
In the US more than 115 mayors have joined Mayors for Guaranteed Income with the hopes of launching a pilot in their city and over 50 such pilots have already been launched. Some have already completed. Some are still ongoing. Some are already looking at permanency. Some are privately funded and some are publicly funded. Some are nonprofits realizing how powerful it is to just give people money instead of what they usually do. But what all share are the individual stories they are creating or have created.
An unconditional monthly cash program that only enrolls the unhoused is not UBI, but because UBI will include everyone who is unhoused, a good story from a homelessness-focused pilot can show how effective UBI will be at reducing homelessness. Here are the stories that are currently being generated in the US based on the specific focuses of the many pilots.
If you’re pregnant, or looking to be, or once were, there’s a story waiting for you. If you’re an unpaid caregiver, or a former foster kid, or a Black parent, there’s a story waiting for you. If you have or had Long Covid, or were once in prison, or identify as LGBTQ, or are a young parent or an artist, or a community college student or a person with a disability, there is a story waiting for you. If you’re not quite old enough for Social Security or are an aspiring entrepreneur, there is a story waiting for you. That’s what we need, and that’s what we’re creating all over the world, we’re creating stories of a better world, where you see yourself in that world, and you’re just - happier.
Stories can also be dangerous and that’s something I’m increasingly concerned about. What UBI has on its side are stories that are true. They are real. But some people are becoming increasingly lost to stories that are complete fiction. There are more and more people out there who believe that UBI is a trap laid by globalist elites who want to lock people in their homes and make them eat bugs. It’s completely ridiculous, but again, all someone needs is a story. And those stories are out there. So we have to get the real stories out there.
There’s also a bit of a chicken and egg problem here that has me increasingly worried. Studies show that reduced cognitive capacity and reduced social cohesion contribute to people believing in conspiracy theories. So the longer we go without UBI, the more our social bonds erode and the more cognitive capacity goes toward stressing out about just meeting our basic needs. People without UBI are out there seeking solace in the communities of conspiracy that make them feel less alone and more special, where they know secret information and are part of a club who will someday shout “I told you so!”, without ever realizing that the only reason the world’s wealthiest people would ever want UBI is not to increase their grip on power, but because of coming to the realization that if they don’t finally give up a bit of their power through UBI, the pitchforks and torches will eventually come for them.
That’s what’s going to start keeping more and more of them up at night, but what’s keeping me up at night is the fear that maybe, however much I don’t want to believe it, that maybe it’s simply too late. The climate crisis is already upon us. The world is on fire. Democracies around the world are eroding as authoritarianism is on the rise. As the climate gets worse, more people will be displaced from their homes, and that in turn will only lead to even greater anti-immigrant sentiment and outright fascism, especially with automation adding even more fuel to the fire by displacing people from their jobs too. We are in a very dangerous place, and we’re here because we have refused to tackle climate change for decades. We’ve refused to strengthen our democracies for decades. We’ve let inequality run rampant for decades. We took it all for granted. All of it. And now we're in a globally destabilizing feedback loop.
Still, I live with hope. Sometimes I feel like I’m tending a candle within me, and I have to protect it on occasion from being blown out. There’s a lot of stuff out there that can blow out the candles inside all of us. There's so much algorithmically amplified anger and hate. It can all seem like so much, just too much to deal with, and in those moments I remind myself that UBI is still possible, and if we can win it, we can start to finally turn this giant ship that really really wants to hit that iceberg up ahead.
So how do we get there? I wish I had the answer for you. The only truthful answer I know is one step at a time, and as long as each of us are taking those steps, and more people see us and our stories and want to take their own steps and share their own stories, then we can get there. Together. And really, that’s all we can do.
A big step I took recently is start my own nonprofit focused on UBI in the US called the Income to Support All Foundation, or ITSA Foundation as a nod to what UBI simply is. It’s a foundation! (.org) Our goal is to help get a small UBI going immediately and permanently and to leverage that to build the movement faster for statewide and nationwide implementations by accelerating two projects in particular that have been in slow development for years. I don’t know if it will work, but with the launch of generative AI and the distinct possibility of political violence in 2024, I decided at the end of last year it pretty much has to.
So that’s what I’m up to and why I think UBI is needed immediately, and why I think the focus needs to be on stories. The question then becomes what can you do? What story is it that you want to tell, or whose story can you help tell? What’s your own fulcrum? Find that. Find that fulcrum and push with all your might for UBI, because we need you.
And really, when you get down to it, that’s why we need UBI, because we need each other. We always will. We are an interdependent species, and that will never stop being true.
Thank you for listening, and good luck to you. We’re all gonna need it.
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