My father has a basic income. As a retired United States Air Force officer, he has received a paycheck from the US government every month for about 30 years now, since he was 42 years old. His government pension is a monthly starting point above the poverty line — an income floor — always guaranteeing that no matter what, he won’t starve or end up on the streets.
My grandfather had a basic income. His father built up a small fortune and put that fortune into a trust. Upon my great grandfather’s death, my grandfather received the income from the interest of that fund on a monthly basis for the rest of his life. That money was his guaranteed basic income floor. No matter what, regardless of anything that happened in the world around him, he never knew poverty.
I too now have a basic income. Mine is crowdfunded. Leveraging the Kickstarter-like platform called Patreon, I’ve grown a large enough base of patrons through my writing and talking about basic income to perpetually start each month with $1,000 in total monthly pledges. I chose $1,000 as my monthly goal because the poverty line in the US is currently defined as $11,880 per year and I wished to create a floor directly above it.
Since attaining my basic income, I’ve learned some things from this new vantage point. The very first thing I learned is possibly the most important of all, and one I guarantee you dear reader won’t fully appreciate, until or unless you feel it yourself: basic income is about basic security.
What is basic income?
Basic income is money an individual receives regardless of whether he or she works or not, sufficient to meet our most basic human needs for necessities like food, water, shelter, and clothing. It’s an amount sufficient to keep us above the poverty line, not living lavishly, but basically. And most importantly, it’s a stream of income independent of all other income that functions as a baseline. It enables, and never in any way prevents, additional income.
Take my father as an example: Did he stop working the day he retired from the Air Force? No--he went on to pursue multiple jobs before finally retiring, and even then, he started his own small business for the fun of it in his late 60s.
Basic income for all people is also a government policy idea being increasingly discussed worldwide, where it’s primarily seen as the way to make unemployment brought on by self-driving vehicles and machine learning algorithms work for us all instead of the few. By simply cutting every citizen a monthly check and getting rid of most of the welfare state and tax code complexities we use today, everyone could be better off tomorrow, rich and poor alike. If machines are laboring in our stead, and aren’t buying any of the fruits of that labor, should we not receive the paychecks that aren’t going to them or us, so as to buy those fruits?
Because these technological advances are driving so much of the discussion today, some think basic income is a new idea. It’s not, and goes back as far in the US as founding father Thomas Paine. And some fortunate people have received it for decades or even centuries, for example recipients of Social Security, and winners of genetic and state lotteries. Anyone who receives an income regardless of any work they do or other income they receive, sufficient to prevent poverty, has a basic income.
Why I decided to crowdfund my own basic income
Three years ago, I read a fascinating discussion on the front page of Reddit about how quickly technology was advancing and how most people just have no idea how fast. Looking for solutions, I came upon basic income, and after looking deeper and deeper into it, I concluded it was the single most important change we needed to make as a civilization, in countries all over the world, for countless more reasons than just a solution to technological unemployment.
At the time I was working as a self-employed freelancer. Part of my interest in basic income was the recognition that all other work in my life was now an impediment to the work that truly needed to be done. As long as I was spending time managing websites or social media accounts, or writing about anything else for anyone else, that was a hindrance to far more important work – the work of advancing the adoption of basic income.
I couldn’t just stop earning money though, because rent, and that’s when I came upon Patreon. It hit me that there was the potential through my blogging to crowdfund a basic income that would not only enable me to focus 100% on helping make it a reality for everyone, but also to learn for myself what it was like to have a basic income. It took all of 2014 to go from $0 per month in pledges to $1,000 per month, but I did it, and walking in these shoes is already teaching me there’s far more to basic income than I thought.
Basic income is a safety net when terrible things happen
A couple months ago, I was driving home and without any warning, a large traffic barricade blew across the street in front of my car, followed by a garbage bin. Then my car started rocking. Then I heard a loud thump on the roof of my car – some debris had apparently fallen on it.
As quick as it all started, it was over, and I completed my drive home. To my surprise upon closing my car door and hearing glass fall to the concrete as a result, I found a shattered rear window and even cracks in my windshield that I hadn’t noticed in all the rain. When I listened to a news broadcast later that day, I found out that a tornado had passed right behind me.
A tornado touching down in the French Quarter of New Orleans is about as likely as an elephant stampede on Bourbon Street. But it happened, and my shattered window was an entirely unexpected and unbudgeted expense. I was able to handle it though, because my basic needs were already covered. I wasn’t faced with a decision of a mortgage payment or car repairs. I was faced with a decision of discretionary spending or car repairs, and that kind of decision is something entirely different, with a whole lot less stress involved.
Not too long after that tornado, so much rain fell in Louisiana that in some places it was measured as the kind of event that happens only every thousand years. Over 100,000 homes were damaged and 13 people lost their lives. Such flooding was so unexpected that many people didn’t have flood insurance. Tens of thousands of people were forced into spending money they didn’t have, and just as many were unable to go to work. Federal assistance was given, but such assistance requires many a hoop to be jumped through, effectively excluding many. Nor does it cover everything. It’s also only paid when all is said and done.
When the flooding happened, though I was not affected, I couldn’t help but wish every single person who was affected by it had a basic income too. They could have all more easily paid for emergency shelter and food. For those no longer able to work, they would still have had income, and for businesses left with far fewer customers, they could have had more customers, because people would still have had money to spend.
Through a vantage point of freak tornadoes and crazy flooding, universal basic income can also be seen as universal insurance. It’s always there. There’s no one saying you will be reimbursed, maybe, if you meet all the requirements. It’s unconditional, and that lack of conditions makes it the only kind of insurance that covers everyone, universally, all the time. It’s therefore also universal peace of mind, because that’s what insurance to a large degree is. It’s so that we can focus on all the important things in life that can go right, instead of all the terrible things in life that can go wrong.
Basic income transforms your relationship with work
Perhaps the most transformative effect of basic income I’ve personally experienced is the power it gives in any negotiation. For many people, this will be experienced as the power to refuse to work for insufficiently low wages (potentially nullifying the need for minimum wage laws), or unacceptable terms of any kind, be it work conditions, hours, benefits, etc. For freelancers like me, it means asking for what I’m worth, and also being able to choose to work for free on anything I consider important enough.
When I didn’t have a basic income, I’d accept a writing assignment for $50 even if it took me an entire week to research and write, because $50 is better than $0. If someone wanted to publish something I’d already written, I’d worry about asking for any compensation in case asking meant not only not getting paid but not getting republished. I don’t think I’m alone in these ways either.
Now that I have a basic income, I know my work has value. I know my time has value. I know I have value. I’m never again going to spend a week writing an article for $50 that’s going to be owned by someone else, but I will and have done it for $1,000. I’m not going to just allow some publishing company to profit off of something I’ve previously written without at least asking for a fee. If they say no, that’s okay, and we can go from there. But I’m not afraid to ask.
Too many people are afraid to stick up for themselves due to economic insecurity. This even affects relationships. How many people aren’t confronting their partners about something because of the fear of the economic costs of that confrontation not going well? How many people are in entire relationships only because they effectively can’t afford the cost of escaping them? I now think the conditionality of income is a root cause of a lot of society’s problems.
What people miss when they ask about the downsides of basic income
I get asked often about the potential downsides of basic income. One of the first questions people seem to have is if all prices will rise as a result, nullifying the entire point of it all. This is actually the first question I confronted in-depth. The answer is basically that it depends on a lot of variables, but for the most part not in any way to the degree people fear.
Another frequent question is if everyone will stop working once they have that ability. That is another question I’ve studied in-depth, where the answer is basically that very few people want to earn and spend only $1,000 per month, and that basic income is not giving people money to do nothing, but enabling people with money to do anything. Immigration is another big concern for people, usually because they’re assuming UBI will be given to everyone instead of only citizens, and therefore the potential for UBI to actually incentivize legal immigration is missed.
There are many other questions, and most all have likely answers for those willing to spend the necessary time to study the available evidence, but for me personally, these questions are translated in my brain at this point to sound more like, “What are the potential downsides of abolishing slavery? Will cotton get more expensive? Will former slaves just kind of sit around reading and dancing all day? Will the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free decide to walk in greater numbers through our lamp-lit golden door?” This is what I hear as someone who already has a basic income, so it’s not to say such questions aren’t valid, it’s that the very fact we’re asking them is itself something to question.
Why should only the lucky few have any choice but to do paid work? What is our infatuation with work, and why is it only paid work that seems to matter so much? What about unpaid work? Why is it considered valuable work worthy of pay when two people are paying each other to watch each other’s kids, but not valuable work when they’re each raising their own kids? If one concern is that people given basic incomes will work less, and another concern is that there will be half as many jobs due to automation, then everyone working half as much is exactly what we want so as to better share the available employment, isn’t it? Plus productivity tends to increase as hours worked decrease, so we’d accomplish more with less as well.
Perhaps most curious of all is the question of consumption without production – this fear that people given basic incomes will do nothing but consume. Why is making bread considered valuable but eating bread considered frivolous? Bertrand Russell once questioned why getting money is good and spending money is bad. He wrote, “Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad.” So if people decide to use their basic incomes to just buy what’s being produced (by lots of machines mind you) and we have a problem with that, what’s the point of producing it all?
There is really but one main thing to consider about the potential downsides of basic income, and we should consider it well. Basic income means more choice, and therefore the ability to take risks and make decisions we might judge to be mistakes made by ourselves or others. Of all potential drawbacks of basic income, I think this one helps further define what basic income is. It’s freedom. Freedom is the ability to make our own choices, and therefore our own mistakes. Who better to make choices, and to learn from them, than ourselves? Thomas Edison said he never once failed in making the light bulb. He merely learned thousands of ways of not making one. I think we should consider the possibility that what we currently see as preventing others from making mistakes for “their own good,” through the paternalistic application of strict conditions, is actively preventing people from learning how to succeed. It robs people of agency, and it inhibits the pursuit of happiness upon which our country was founded.
With basic income, people may make new choices that you personally would not make. You may also make new choices others would not make. Some may decide to sell less of their labor. Some may decide to watch more Netflix. Some may eat more, or smoke more, or forget to pay an important bill, or neglect to plan for retirement, but all of these are choices. Should the government prevent us from making these choices through withholding of basic income? Or are these choices ours to make for ourselves as free men and women?
As I see it, the benefits far outweigh the potential drawbacks
Making at least some income unconditional, of sufficient amount to cover basic needs, is a game changer of epic proportions. Basic income is far more than just some tool for increasing freedom and reducing both poverty and inequality. It’s far more than just some idea to shrink the size of government, or increase entrepreneurship, or unleash new Einsteins, or value all unpaid work, or improve health outcomes, or reduce crime rates, or transform technological unemployment from a fear to a goal. It’s all of these, but it’s also more. There’s something more fundamental about basic income.
If human civilization is a skyscraper we’ve been building together for thousands of years, unconditional basic income is the foundation we neglected to place underneath it all. Our lives require a minimum amount of security. Our bodies require a minimum amount of access to food and shelter. Our minds require a minimum amount of access to knowledge, and to each other. We’ve created a system where money provides the most efficient access to all of these needs, and yet our system is missing the crucial component to accomplish it all — a minimum provision of money.
I have that minimum monthly provision. Others do as well, perhaps even you or someone you know, in the form of a pension or a dividend or a lottery win, something that is there every month no matter what, regardless of how much you earn on top of it. If you don’t have anything like a basic income, instead consider for a moment how your life would change if you did have one. What would you do if you had a basic income? What new choices would you make? Think about it. It’s a question we all need to start asking each other.
Scott Santens is a moderator of the /r/basicincome community on Reddit and has written extensively on the idea of basic income. You can follow him on Twitter @scottsantens.
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