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In the 21st century, all roads appear to lead to universal basic income

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
5 min read
In the 21st century, all roads appear to lead to universal basic income

The idea of unconditionally providing all citizens an income floor sufficient for existence — a basic income — looks to be at the intersection of an unstoppable congruence of events involving accelerating automation, growing inequality, the fragmentation of work, and the rise of the sharing economy.

First, automation is here and it actually arrived decades ago. Technology is accomplishing its purpose by allowing us all to do more with less. It’s been estimated that with existing technology we could even eliminate half of our workload right now, let alone with the technology the future will bring. That means less paid work, but as long as income is coupled to work, that also means less ability to purchase what is being produced. This crisis of silenced demand amidst abundant supply leads inevitably to a need to decouple income from work by providing income independent of work. Without that change, automation eats its own demand. Consumer buying power must be maintained because robots only work at Amazon, they don’t shop there.

Next is that the working class has finally exhausted all its options for trying to maintain itself after decades of entirely stagnant wage growth. Credit cards are no longer the way out. Home refinancing is no longer the way out. College educations are no longer the way out. In our globalized world, inequality between nations has decreased, but inequality within nations has increased. Movements like Occupy Wall Street were only the beginning of a growing sense of populism as the many watch the few siphon up all prosperity for themselves. There is a growing sense that the game is rigged, and it’s this sense that underlies historic shocks like Brexit and Trump, with undoubtedly more such surprises to come. Who knows what they will be? Want to gamble?

Another unstoppable change is how the nature of work has itself changed. It’s being chopped up from wholes into fragments. Although a fairly recent invention as a result of the Industrial Revolution, jobs were for decades synonymous with careers. Working in one whole job for forty hours a week for thirty years became considered normal. Obtaining one’s benefits through that employer, from healthcare to unemployment insurance to retirement pensions also became considered normal. There is however a new normal in the act of becoming. All new work since 2005 can be classified as alternative work. This means it’s part-time, or temporary, or contractual, or freelance, or gig labor. These ways of earning money do not come with the same pay or benefits. They do not come with a safety net, period. Therefore, where they excel at a sense of independence, they entirely lack a sense of security. This work requires a new safety net — a trampoline even — entirely decoupled from jobs as we once knew them, that allows for work transitions without friction.

Finally, there is a new economy being born within the confines of the old — the sharing economy. In this economy, people exist as prosumers instead of producers and consumers. In the 20th century, people got paid in exchange for work and then used that money to purchase what others were paid to produce. In the 21st century, people will increasingly do work at no cost and consume that which has no cost. Wikipedia is the classic example of this new economy, a collaborative creation that has become the world’s de facto encyclopedia with the unbeatable cost of free. The newest generation spends their time creating and sharing, not buying and selling. For companies, and for their employees, this trend towards free represents a clear and present danger to “earning a living.” Those born this century aren’t cord cutters. They are growing up in a world without cords, and understandably reject them.

Photo by Ran Allen licensed under CC 2.0

All of the above are trends that are converging. Technological unemployment, rising inequality, the transformation of work, the sharing economy, all of these can only go so far before something gives. Income must be decoupled from work and provided unconditionally, or like an anchor tied to our ankles, we will together be dragged down by our own unwillingness to evolve. The rope must be cut, and if we do that, not only will we not drown, but we’ll be truly free.

For me personally, it’s that last part that drives my imagination the most in advocating the idea of universal basic income. Although true that there are multiple forces pushing us towards UBI as the way to avoid dystopia, it’s all the positive benefits of implementing it that excite me as the way to instead pursue utopia. Yes, I just used that word. Somewhere along the way we lost the ability to picture a better future and invent it together. Utopia became a bad word, replaced by the normalcy of accepting the status quo. But here is an idea with the potential I think to change that. Our goal should always be to create a better future. Continual improvement should be our constancy of purpose. How do we achieve that? Evidence-based policies over politics.

What drives me is not party. What drives me is not authority. What drives me is what works. Show me what works. Where tried, the provision of unconditional income simply works. It has worked well in Alaska since 1982. It worked phenomenally in universal basic income experiments in Namibia and India. It works incredibly as unconditional cash transfers in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, and Lebanon. The evidence for cash transfers is solid and growing as more and more countries and organizations adopt its usage. The simple fact is that people themselves know better what’s better for them than anyone else does. In addition, we are all far more creative than we give each other credit for. Give someone a voucher for food and all they can buy is food. Give them cash and they can buy food, or housing, or clothes, or medicine, or school supplies, or use it as capital to start a new business. The possibilities are endless.

Perhaps most important of all is how the idea of basic income is not “left” or “right”, it’s forward. This is not just another idea that won’t go anywhere because one side hates it and sees the other side as evil for supporting it. Basic income is an idea that free market supporters like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek supported as much as civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and populists like Huey Long. Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, there is something for everyone to like about basic income. It gets everyone talking to each other again. It gets people to cross aisles. In our age of extreme partisanship, it’s an idea whose time has come, but it’s still up to us to finally bring it to fruition together. It will not be easy, but it can be done and I believe it must be done.

What would you do with an extra $1,000 per month? I know what I would do. What new choices would you make? Think about it. Visualize it. And help make that vision real.

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Unconditional basic income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Author of Let There Be Money; Senior Advisor to Humanity Forward; editor; Fund for Humanity board member