Universal Basic Income isn’t just a solution for the future, it’s a solution for now

Much has been written in the last few years about Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a solution to the coming wave of job automation. It has come to be seen by many as the only way to provide economic security in an age when job displacement is high and frequent. However, there is no good reason to wait. UBI could do a great deal to sooth the current wave of left wing and right wing populism in Canada, the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.

It is true that job loss to automation will be deep and many will be displaced. That is no longer something in the far off future, it is something that is already underway. Politicians could wait until the pain is felt a little more deeply to implement a UBI but it seems to me that doing it now, before people lose their jobs, will make the process a little less frightening to individuals and society. It will also give people a chance to make adjustments to their skills and career trajectory before they are replaced by a machine.

Beyond that though, a UBI could quickly solve a number of problems for a wide variety of constituencies and quiet the current wave of populism which has manifested itself as nationalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism and protectionism. In other words it could allow national leaders to make better decisions rather than being forced into self-destructive measures like Brexit and harsh immigration restrictions. Measures that are meant to reassure an angry or fearful population but that are economically destructive.

Of course racism, nationalism and protectionism are always present to an extent in society but those forces only seem to become truly dangerous to large numbers of people at times of economic insecurity. When people are feeling anxious about their own economic future, or that of their children, it is easier to sell them economic snake oil or to point to “others” as scapegoats for their stress and anger.

In general, when people aren’t stressed about money they sleep better, they seem to make better and more thoughtful decisions. They also appear to be more tolerant and peaceful and enjoy a variety of other personal and social benefits.

Over the last few decades, wages have tended to stagnate for the middle class and the working class. Automation began taking jobs as early as the 1990s and while globalization, and the computer revolution has helped some tremendously others have been left out entirely. Additionally, better health care, longer life expectancy and a lack of retirement savings have kept people in the work force longer, which has kept younger people from being able to get in at all.

At this point a short list of economic stresses being faced by significant portions of the population would include:

  • An inability to pay for university education 
  • An inability to pay back loans from university 
  • Being stuck in the (short term, temporary, part time, freelance) “gig economy” 
  • An inability to afford health care (in the United States) 
  • An inability to afford prescription medications (in many places) 
  • An inability to afford mental health care or dental health (in many places) 
  • An inability to afford housing (especially in large cities) 
  • Being asked to accept unpaid internships to gather experience (before being hired for an actual job) 
  • An increased use of homeless shelters and food banks 
  • Working people, including military families, forced to apply for food stamps and welfare benefits 
  • An inability to afford quality day care (coupled with an inability to work full time as a result) 
  • Parents who can almost but not quite afford private school 
  • Parents who can’t meet the needs of special needs children or develop the gifts of gifted children 
  • Workers who can’t take time off to help a sick or incapacitated loved one 
  • High levels of credit card debt at very high interest rates
  • The inability to miss more than a single paycheque without being late on bills
  • [the list goes on, but that’s a good start]

Add to all of that a general uncertainty about the future. People have these stresses (or some from the list) and aren’t sure things are going to get better; In fact there is a growing sense that things are going to get worse due to economics, or climate, or globalization, or technology or all of the above. It should not be surprising that when people get a chance to vote, many of them express themselves in angry, even reckless and irresponsible, ways.

Yes, you can take a hard right wing approach and circle the wagons; call government a failure, scream 'every man for himself' and ‘take care of your own’. You can take a hard left approach and try to address each of these problems (and more) individually through a myriad of new government programs and services. But with UBI you can simply significantly increase the incomes of everyone proportionally, to the extent that they need it and give people an opportunity to solve whichever problems on the list impact them the most.

UBI, in the most general sense, is typically pegged at ‘the poverty line plus a bit’. Basic Income Canada recommends twenty-thousand dollars for each Canadian adult, so I’ll use that as an example, for now. Imagine what a poor, middle class or working class person could do to solve their own problems with an extra $20 thousand - go down the list above and imagine how many of the problems on that list could be solved with the money. Imagine what it would do for poor communities, for First Nations people and for the peace of mind for just about anyone who is currently feeling less than comfortable.

Would it be expensive? Yes, absolutely it would but the UK has just voted to diminish their geopolitical and economic clout for the long term, possibly permanently, out of fear and anger. The United States has just undermined its own democracy, damaged its international reputation and possibly national security, added fuel to the fire of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia that have always lurked there and done other damage to itself still unknown out of fear and anger. Those things are going to be expensive too and who knows how much more damage may yet be done if the anger, stress and anxiety is allowed to foment for years to come.

Even if you wanted to create dozens of individual programs to address all of the concerns I listed, it would take many years to do so, would greatly expand the bureaucracy and would certainly cost even more than UBI.

The bottom line is that there is an opportunity to nearly eliminate poverty, at least in its extreme forms; to create a system where nearly anyone who is working full time is thrust into the middle class and to remove much of the stress and anxiety from the working class. To create economic stability and freedom for individuals but with a system that still rewards hard work and actually shrinks government.

In it's own way this is as ambitious as the Moon landing. It is something that has long been dreamt of but never accomplished in the history of civilization. However, in this case there is nothing to invent, we don't have to figure out how to get people onto the surface of the moon and back safely or overcome the dangers of space. We just have to figure out how to come up with the money.

The idea of the social contract has been the bedrock of western, liberal democracy since the beginning. In North America we haven’t revisited that contract in significantly since the 1930s. Given the technological, societal, economic and geopolitical shifts since that time it is no wonder that the old one isn’t holding up well.

Whatever the future may hold and whatever direction we decide to go in, it is time to pass a universal basic income and put an end to the days when anyone is forced to go to bed hungry or sleep on the street in the world’s most affluent societies.
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