The Basic Income Revolution

We in the West hear the same thing other and other again out of the mouths of our politicians: “we need to create jobs”. The current crisis in the West, with people facing massive unemployment or precarious and shitty jobs, is prompting policy makers to try lowering unemployment numbers if they want to remain in office, even if that means encouraging shale gas extraction or pipeline constructions. But in the long term, there will be fewer and fewer jobs. And that is something to celebrate.

We are heading toward a future of abundance, a post-scarcity world, where we can produce food, clothing, etc. for everyone with very little man-power. We are actually very close to being able to provide for everyone’s basic needs at a very low cost thanks to technological improvements to our methods of manufacturing. Automation has been the greatest achievement in production methods, from agriculture to aeronautics, since it has allowed to produce more with fewer people.
This process destroyed jobs. New ones took their place. Now, however, new jobs aren’t appearing fast enough to replace the old ones. Most farmers became factory workers because of farming’s automation. But now that farms and factories are mostly automated, most “white collar” jobs could soon disappear too, leaving only the highest skilled positions (engineers, surgeons, etc.) available for human beings to take.
There will always be jobs, even manual ones (for example, we can automate the process of making shoes, but there will always be people interested in making handcrafted shoes and selling them), but not enough to keep most of the population employed.
Most of the jobs we have will be replaced by robots in the not too distant future. I don’t think this is something we have to worry about. Machines are here to make our lives easier. If they can do our jobs, we would be fools not to let them! Machines can offer us the freedom to pursue our own interests: writing, shoemaking, you name it. They are here to do what we don’t want to do, because it is too dreadful, dangerous, or simply boring.
The fact that the robots are coming for our jobs means full employment is impossible. Sure, bureaucrats are coming up with bullshit jobs to try to hide the trend of rising technological unemployment, but it’s a desperate, unsustainable approach.
Today full employment makes no sense, and people are slowly starting to realize it. Some students in Japan and South Korea refuse to look for jobs after they graduate, because they find the job market too conservative and unfulfilling. Other people just aren’t exploiting their full intellectual potential, refusing to take part in a working environment that is both crazy and obsolete. They thus lead precarious, mostly unfulfilling lives.  It has to change. In a proto-post scarcity world, people should be able to lead good lives without employment.
How can we achieve this? Enters the Basic Income. Under a Universal Basic Income (UBI), every citizen, from his eighteenth birthday to his death, receives a monthly income from the government, whether he works or not. If he works, he gets to earn both his salary and his basic income. If he doesn’t work, the basic income has to be high enough to support his basic needs: housing, food, clothing, etc.
The UBI would allow everyone to lead a decent life.
The idea of a Universal Basic Income isn’t new, and has received the support of economists from the whole political spectrum. Even from libertarians and Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
As the Basic Income would take away the need for welfare programs, the money saved by not handing out welfare checks and not having a huge bureaucracy overseeing their distribution would in part fund the UBI. The rest of the money would come from other parts of the government’s budget, and would thus be funded by taxes.  While libertarians are more likely to argue for a rather low basic income (really allowing people just to survive on it) to keep taxes low, I’d argue for a more generous basic income allowing everyone to lead a satisfying, albeit modest, life on it. It is more than possible with our current tax rates, and even with lower tax rates if we make cuts in wasteful spending in the government (I know, that’s a pleonasm) – and I’m looking at you, Departments of Defense and Homeland Security -.
Another very important thing about the Universal Basic Income is that it has to be enshrined in the Constitution, so that government can’t put restrictions on it. If the UBI isn’t guaranteed by the Constitution, what keeps the government from deciding that some people can’t receive it? As Jacob T. Levy wrote over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, “If tomorrow the U.S. were to enact (but not constitutionalize) a $10,000 per year per person UBI, how long would it take for the first proposals for conditionality to be introduced in Congress? Not for felons in prison; not for felons after their terms are over; not for those who fail drug tests; not for the third or higher child of unemployed parents; not for high school drop-outs…”
You know they would do that.

So, the UBI: An income provided by the government (or ideally by an independent entity, like a cryptocurrency algorithm distributing money on a monthly basis to every citizen) and guaranteed by the Constitution that allows every citizen to lead a decent life whether he chooses to work or not. Where I live in France, a UBI of 1,100 € per month would be great (I pay 675€ for housing (including fees like water, gas, internet) + 400€ of food and diverse things each month). However the level of the UBI needs to take into account that some places are cheaper than others (if I lived in Paris, this 1,100€ UBI wouldn’t be sufficient).

What would happen if we enacted a UBI? Wouldn’t people just do nothing, and spend their days watching TV? We already have people who do mostly nothing all day and trick the welfare system to get by, but that’s not a lot of people. This is likely to continue under the UBI. A few people would indeed do nothing, but most people would either keep their jobs or find new ones, or dedicate themselves entirely to their passions.
The Basic Income subreddit is full of theories about what would happen if we had a UBI, such as this one from user aozeba: “For me, the point of UBI is to take people out of the workforce, so that we can stop trying to “create jobs” and start trying to create value.
If a robot can server burgers better than a team of low wage workers, then so be it. We shouldn’t stop automation simply because we are afraid of losing jobs. With a generous UBI, people can quit jobs they feel are pointless, and start working on whatever they are passionate about.
The cost of this, of course, is that some people inevitably will do nothing, but I think that a) that number of people will be smaller than we imagine and b) freeing the rest of humanity from drudgery is worth the cost of a few freeloaders.
I also believe that most people can only be a freeloader for so long before they get bored of it and find something useful/creative/interesting to do. And while they’re freeloading, they are also consumers, so it’s not like the money we give them is just going down the drain.”
People will follow their passions, and I don’t expect society to morph into the kind of dystopia Pixar humorously depicted in Wall-E, where the future-us are fat couch potatoes brain-washed by TV.
The ability to not work opens up a lot of possibilities for all of us. In ancient Greece, work was only authorized for slaves. “Noblemen” could dedicate themselves to thinking or exercising. Now the machines are kind of our “slaves”, and we should be able to follow our own interests instead of working just for our survival.

With the UBI, if you’re interested in building a company, and you thus get up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at 2am, you’re working, but not in the sense of “working so that I can put food on the table”.
If you intend to spend your days exercising and gardening, you can do that too, and it’s not a shame: you’re pursuing happiness, and if that means you don’t want a regular job, what’s the problem with that?
Our society right now is putting value in working just for work’s sake: the important thing is that you work, not that your work is making you happy. That’s terribly wrong. Work is a value only when it is directed towards one’s happiness. If you work hard because you love what you do, that’s amazing. If you work hard just because you have to, but would gladly do something else if you had the possibility, then that’s a shame, and the UBI would give you some kind of safety net so that you can quit and do something you like.

We need a Universal Basic Income, but with the current political landscape, with everyone focused on job creation and full employment and the value of working more to support the “economy”, a monster created by big corporations and their government friends, we will need a shift in our thinking to make the UBI happen. We perhaps need to start thinking more like Star Trek characters (see this amazing article on the economics of Star Trek, which was a great inspiration for this essay). To think more about happiness, fulfillment, discovery, than about survival. That’s what a XXIst century society should aim for.

I’ll leave you with this comment from “waffledave” on the Basic Income subreddit:

The reason I’ve always loved the Star Trek franchise is not so much for the science fiction, but the whole philosophy behind it. Particularly Picard’s sense of philosophy and beliefs.
What I find most facinating is the effect of the replicator on society on earth. Imagine, a machine that can create absolutely anything you want out of “nothing” (the idea is that light, energy and matter are all interchangeable). That means food is no longer scarce, nor does it need to be grown or farmed or produced. But besides food, you can make literally anything else. The newest smartphone, a huge TV, a book, a hockey stick, etc…
The whole idea is that this machine instantly eliminates materialism and consumerism. There is no need to buy anything because you can just replicate it. There is no need to “work” because you don’t need to buy anything anymore. The elites of the world allow it to happen because money no longer equals power.
Power is now measured on your worth as a person. Your intellect, creativity, strength, athleticism, bravery. And weakness doesn’t really exist, because instead of having to work to survive, you work to improve yourself.
Jobs still exist. They will always exist. A living being has a basic instinctual desire to want to “do stuff”. But the difference is that you do the job you WANT to do, not the job you NEED to do. I work in finance, and I enjoy my job. It’s challenging and fulfilling, and it pays me enough to support a lifestyle I enjoy. But if money was not an issue, I wouldn’t do this for a living. I’d probably be an artist or a writer. Those are the kinds of things that I’m passionate about.
In the Star Trek universe, that’s the kind of society the Earth has developed. Starfleet is all about exploration, and the characters are driven by a passion to explore and discover new worlds. It isn’t a job for them, it’s what they love to do.
When I have time off from work, I do spend most of it in front of the TV or playing video games or on the computer. But that’s because work is draining, physically, emotionally, mentally… I have little time and little energy left to put towards what I’m passionate about. I sincerely feel if I didn’t HAVE to work the job I do (for money reasons) I would have more left in the tank to dedicate towards art and music and writing.
Fingers crossed for 3-D printers to really take off…

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5 thoughts on “The Basic Income Revolution

  1. Good essay. I love the idea of celebrating rather than lamenting the loss of jobs. I would, however, question the utility of the term “freeloaders.” The very concept is rooted in the assumption of scarcity. If, as you suggest, there is or will soon be plenty for everyone, we can afford to let go of our contempt for folks who don’t seem to be contributing (by whatever narrow definition of “contribution” we might be using at the moment.)

    I’d like to think of all humans as stakeholders in the productivity of the Earth and humanity. The right to exist trumps the the obligation to be productive, especially considering that productivity as we currently think of it is an obsolete idea, a relic of the industrial revolution.

  2. This kind of thinking has lead me to create my website: http://www.habitationsystems.com. I want to say that the author seems a bit naive about how much human effort it takes to provide the physical goods and environment which is enjoyed by most US citizens. We dont see sweat shops, but they do exist. When I was a kid i figured that construction was largely automated, assuming that brick walls were built in sections and delivered. But after numerous years working on construction sites I can tell u that every brick/block wall is laid one piece at a time, every sheet of wood and drywall individually cut. Paint can be sprayed but much of it is cut and rolled. Architecture, engineering, design, and management systems have evolved drastically in the last 50 years. But amazingly, the methods at the ground level have hardly changed at all.

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