Photo via / A giant poster covers part of the Plaine de Plainpalais square in Geneva in May while the country was considering the introduction of an unconditional basic income for all.

Learning Basic Income

This is part of my learning journey series, which I embarked in order to continually engage myself in the learning of various topics in the world, as well as to improve my writing. Despite being the first piece published (finally), this is actually the second topic that I worked on, after data visualization.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive write-up on the topic, but rather a brief introduction and reiteration of some of the things I learned.

The concept of basic income, otherwise known as basic income guarantee, Citizen’s Income, unconditional basic income, universal basic income (UBI), or universal demogrant, is one that was foreign to me until few weekends back when I went to catch the documentary “Free Lunch Society” screened as part of A Design Film Festival 2017.

With the idea of widespread automation and artificial intelligence beginning to sound more like a reality in the near future than science-fiction, the concept of basic income have came under the spotlight again in recent years.

Again, precisely because this isn’t a new idea at all — unless you consider an idea few centuries old as new.

So what exactly is basic income?

Simply put, basic income is a guaranteed income paid to you intended for you to cover your basic needs.

The concept of basic income has sprouted a variety of ways of execution, but in its most general form, it serves as a social security, designed such that every single person receive a periodic cash payment unconditionally. This amount of payment is to be determined by the state as one that is sufficient for an individual to meet the basic needs of life, keeping you above the poverty line, for the rest of your life.

Basic income is argued to be able to successfully tackle the issue of poverty, providing freedom and achieving equality, increasing administrative efficiency, promoting productivity, and generally making people happier and making the world a better place.

Since it’s so good, where is Basic Income?

The current state of Basic Income

Before we explore deeper into the whole idea of basic income, its pros and cons, and why is it not a real thing, let’s take a look at the current state of Basic Income and some of its brief history.

There are currently a number of ongoing experiments and pilots on basic income, such as in Finland, Netherlands, and Barcelona. Such initiatives are not found only in developed countries, as full experiments have been conducted in villages in Namibia and in India in recent years too. In fact, there has been partial basic income in Alaska since 1982, and the US has actually tested a version of the basic income in the 1960s and 1970s when Richard Nixon almost implemented basic income.

The idea of an unconditional basic income however, runs longer than that and dates back into 16th century. We even see some form of social welfare program being utilized way back in the Roman empire that can arguably be compared to what the basic income is trying to achieve — providing assistance in fulfilling the basic needs of every citizen.

Despite the aim of basic income to be for the greater benefit of the human community as a whole, there are arguments against its premises and execution, questioning if such an idea will actually work at all. These are just some reasons which may be preventing the full implementation of basic income for good.

Will Basic Income Work?

There are two main arguments against basic income.

  1. Basic income won’t work because people won’t work
  2. We have no ways to properly fund basic income for it to work

Having read so far, I’m sure these are among some of the questions in your mind right now as well.

It does sound a little Utopian; how do you get a society or a world where there is enough money to go around such that everyone receives money each month for doing nothing, yet they are still engaging in productive and useful activities instead of wasting their lives away with the free money they get?

Even if in time to come, assuming every single person in the world understands what is best for themselves and do meaningful things that will better the society as a whole, can the economy support such an idea?

Conversely, assuming that we do work out a way to fund basic income for each and every citizen, how can we know that things will turn for the better, and people will not stop working and start to indulge in negative habits such as gambling and taking drugs? Worse still, wouldn’t prices go up now that everyone can afford the bare minimum? Inflation will continue to rise and the inequality gap will continue to widen as the rich who owns properties and businesses benefit even more from the larger pool of money in circulation while the poor, well, remains poor even with basic income. The system will break down eventually and things would be much worse than they are now.

So basic income is purely an idea, a dream that only exists in fantasy and that will never happen right?

The good news is, among the numerous experiments done, most provides evidence that basic income brings about tons of benefits such as reduced hospitalization rates, lower crime rates, enhanced level of happiness etc., as mentioned above and that can be referred to from the reports.

The bad news is, as with the issue with many scientific studies, the way that most of these experiments were conducted simply could not provide substantial support that basic income does and will work on a large-scale, long-term basis in any form of country in the world right now.
Among all the studies, only a few consists of sample size above 1,000 people, and even less utilized entirely unconditional basic income. The problem of a control group for comparison, the time-scale in which the experiment is conducted, and the ability to generalize the results to different types of societies are all things that we should think about.

As of now, there exists simply insufficient evidence for and against basic income and without proper testing, it is of no use arguing if basic income should be implemented or not based on theories and our imagination.

The two main criticisms of basic income however, have been shown to not be that big of an issue as most people do continue to work in these experiments, and that calculations have been made to show the feasibility of implementing a basic income. Of course, context matters and each country will definitely have to take different factors into account when it comes to introducing such a huge change in the society.

Why are we talking about this now?

Now that we see how the idea of basic income have been through so much arguments, debates, and experiments over the year, seeing it almost being implemented and then subsequently left out of discussion at various points of time in our history, why is it becoming such a big topic now?

The answer, is one that is inseparable from many other issues in the world right now — automation.

For decades it has been said that automation and robots will take up all the work we have to do and we will have to find other ways to fill up all the free time we get, but instead we are still spending most of our time working as compared to before. 
This time, however, it seems that the prediction is finally about to come true as economists are forecasting that more than half of the jobs we currently have may disappear within the next one or two decades.

What will feed us then? 
For those who think that it is up to ourselves to continually upgrade and stay relevant, and that automation will create new and sufficient jobs for everyone, you got to think again.

Even if by the conservative estimate that just 10% of the jobs in the world disappear within the next decade, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be new job opportunities replacing that 10% appearing in the next decade. Why? To put things into perspective, among the list of most popular job, the highest ranking job to have been invented in the last 50 years was computer and software engineer ranked at 34, with the first 33 types of jobs accounting for 44.12% of the US economy. While it is indeed fact that technology has created more jobs than it destroyed, at least in the last 140 years of data, the speed of growth and increase in productivity haven’t been reflected in amount of jobs created for a while now. The efficient manner which tech giants such as Facebook and Apple are making money now means that they are generating much more revenue with less employees as compared to more traditional industries such as retail and manufacturing. In fact, Amazon generated twice as much revenue-per-employee as Wal-Mart as observed from the statistics in the first quarter of 2017. In the endless pursuit of efficiency, businesses are only going to find more and more ways to increase their revenue-per-employee, the easiest being to introduce automation wherever possible, cutting down costs of hiring by downsizing and allowing more and more jobs to be replaced by robots.

You may or may not be convinced by what was written above, but there have already been a lot of research done on the future of jobs and automation and I implore you to do your own research and find out more about it.

Here comes basic income

Whether you believe if robots will take away our jobs or not, I’m sure you can get the direction I’m going. The fact the possibility of us running out of jobs to work for suggests the need for another method to sustain our living.

And the answer is basic income.

Of course there are still so many factors to consider, and there is far too much uncertainties to claim that automation will lead to a huge loss of jobs and then basic income will be the solution to everything to keep the world running as close to the ideal situation as possible.

Basic income is not perfect, as we can see, but neither do we need it to be perfect. There is simply no one solution that can solve all the problems we have and we got to understand that. What we need, is simply something that is better than what we currently have, and basic income has the opportunity to be that.

And if that’s the inevitable outcome, shouldn’t we embrace it and start thinking about the possibilities, in order to adapt for a smoother transition? Rather than to be forced into implementing something like this, or to come up with any other solutions which have to be implemented without being thoroughly researched upon when shit hits the fan.

There is still so much for me, and for all of us to learn, because this isn’t just about basic income and automation. Besides economy and technology, this is pretty much a human issue that stretches across many other subjects as well.

There is simply too much to digest and for me to understand then reiterate out here. Below are some videos which I found to be useful in expanding on the understanding of basic income.

If my writing wasn’t coherent and comprehensible enough, I hope that these videos will provide a clearer understanding of basic income for you to start finding out more and thinking about the topic.

Basic income and other ways to fix capitalism | Federico Pistono | TEDxHaarlem

Federico Pistono is a writer, entrepreneur, researcher, and public speaker. In this talk, he gave a simple overview of the current state of affairs and changes in the system is necessary to better tackle the problems we are facing or are about to face. He emphasizes on goals and data, voicing the need for more experiments as there is yet insufficient evidence for or against basic income.
So we need a serious, real public debate, looking at data, looking at the evidence, getting in touch with experts, civil society, policymakers, everybody, to have a real public debate, so we can find together solutions, so we can reach our goal to give a high standard of living to everybody, all 7.2 billion of us, who are sharing this amazing experience for a very brief moment, in this pale blue dot, floating above the sky.

Why we shouldn’t have to work just to survive | Jonny Ross-Tatam | TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh

Jonny Ross-Tatam, the founder of the Buchanan Institute, Scotland’s first student-led think tank, focuses on the roots of innovation and progress. In his talk he promotes the idea of basic income, covering all citizens’ basic needs, to allow people to pursue their passions.
It’s not enough…until every single person, every single one of us…can at least wake up every single morning, and genuinely ask themselves not ‘What do I need to do today just to survive?’ but ‘What do I want to do, to live?’

A Universal Income needs a focus on citizen responsibility | Raf Manji | TEDxChristchurch

Raf Manji is a Christchurch City Councillor and chair of the Strategy and Finance committee. In this talk, he explores the idea of basic income as a right of a new social contract — one that requires us to rethink the concept of being a citizen and that recognizes the rights and duties of citizenship.
It seems to me, 250 years on from Rousseau’s Social Contract, 800 years on from Magna Carta, and 2,400 years on from the birth of Aristotle, it’s time to negotiate a new social contract. And it’s likely that a basic income will be part of that conversation. We cannot resist the trends of technological unemployment. We have to address a financial system that is on its last legs.
We have to build a system that is more human, that recognizes us as social creatures, not economic creatures.

Automated Economy Explained: Mechanics of a Basic Income

A video about the idea of basic income, the impending reality of automation and the mechanics of basic income that will takes us towards the automated economy.

Milton Friedman — The Negative Income Tax

An interesting video of Milton Friedman, an American economist and statistician best known for his strong belief in free-market capitalism, explaining his concept of the Negative Income Tax that will eliminate the need for minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, social security programs and other government assistance programs, while guaranteeing a minimum income for everyone.

Once again, the purpose of this writing was personally, for me to consolidate what I’ve learned about this particular topic, and to share it with all of you here. I’m not saying that all the points I made are correct, and that all the videos shown are definitive; I just feel that it is becoming more and more important to think and reflect about our economic systems and the issues we are facing right now, and to wonder if things can be better, can the system be improved, or do we need a change in the systems.
The answer for now, is of course, that we will never know until it happens. It is true that thinking about it now makes no difference, but it would have been too late if we do not think about it until we have to. We do not know what may or may not happen in the future, but it is precisely that that we have to make considerations about all sorts of possibilities we can foresee. Whether we end up being someone who can make a difference or not — to the society, or even to the world —I think that it is up to us to find out more, learn, and understand what is going on around us.

I hope that you’ve taken something away from reading this, be it learning about basic income for the first time, learning more about it, or seeing the need to learn more about it.

Thank you for reading.