Why Universal Basic Income Won’t Work
And What We Can Do To Fix It
Hallelujah! There’s a new hero in town. The one we’ve all been praying for. And she’s been globe trotting lately. Spotted in diverse nations like the Netherlands, Kenya, Canada, India, Scotland, Finland, and Uganda. She recently made her American debut in California. She’s a floor, not a ceiling. A shiny silver bullet, prepared to save the day when the dreaded AI and Robot armies come to take all of our jobs. Her supporters make unlikely bedfellows, ranging from the staunchest libertarians to the most liberal lefties. Her name is UBI. And like her or not, you can be sure her name will be on everyone’s lips for awhile.
People willing to dig a little deeper than the idealistic assumption that UBI will magically be funded, implemented, and effective in time to solve an upcoming unemployment crisis are curious about two things: “Where will the money come from?” and “Will it work?” And given that it isn’t so urgent to solve the former without the latter being affirmative, I’ll focus on why it might not work (and what we need to do to fix this overlooked problem that threatens to take the whole ship down with it).
UBI won’t happen in a vacuum, as a philosophy debated on ideals alone. No matter how much it should work because it is fair and equitable or how much it has to work because we have no better alternative, it’s a social system, which means its inputs are people. And unfortunately, anyone educated in our school systems has the wrong degree for the UBI job description. It requires people to have an entirely different set of skills and motivation than what is available among our current workforce. Because we have spent the past 200 years training to be bad at UBI. We’ve been trained to be more like AI, the uncontested champion of rule following. We’ve had our intrinsic motivation programmed out and replaced with a top down, extrinsic rewards system. Who needs an internal compass when we have answer keys, right and wrong solutions, pre-determined career paths, and corporate ladders directing which way to go (up! always, up.)?
If you want to see the challenges UBI will face, you have only to look at self-management experiments. Similar to UBI, this organizational model requires its adherents to be largely self-motivated. And the transition from hierarchical management to a more distributed, flat system, has been perilous enough that even some of the bigger champions of the cause have surrendered. Because for the vast majority of employees, there is comfort in simply doing what you are told to do. In believing that there is one right way for things to be done. In believing that someone above you knows more than you do, and makes the decisions based on that additional knowledge. In knowing you are secure in your job, paycheck, and benefits, because the role is clearly defined and you have the right education and experience for it. And there is comfort in the knowledge that if you just keep following the right footsteps, you too will earn the title, salary, and power — the success — that will finally make you feel fulfilled and happy.
Both self organization and UBI require operating under a whole new set of rules. Taking full ownership for one’s actions. Making steps based on curiosity or instinct, without having a clear path for where they will take you. Acting in the absence of full information. Learning from one’s mistakes and adapting. The best candidates for UBI are people who would immediately be able to answer the question, “what would you do if you didn’t have to work to meet your basic needs?” It invites people who would have no hesitation in answering questions like:
- What legacy do you want to leave?
- What are you uniquely capable of?
- How do you define success without the title and salary?
- What motivates you to work hard?
- What would you do if no one were watching?
- What are you willing to suffer for?
You know, the kind of questions rich people get to ponder while at retreats and in sessions with career coaches. The kind of questions we feel uncomfortable exploring outside the boundaries of our journals and meditations (if we consider them at all). The kind of fundamental questions that help us build careers and lives filled with individual purpose and meaning. The kind of universal questions that should be fundamental learning in our schools.
THE KIND OF UNIVERSAL QUESTIONS THAT SHOULD BE FUNDAMENTAL LEARNING IN OUR SCHOOLS.
Yea. I shouted that. Because it’s important. Because self-exploration and discovery are just as essential to UBI’s future as figuring out whether the system is a regressive tax or a tax on robots. A national system or a local one. Completely restriction free or conditional.
A population in which UBI succeeds is a population who is not paralyzed by the freedom they’d have to make career decisions that were not just about money. It’s a community of people who understand how they want to impact other people and the world. It’s a self-aware bunch that has spent time exploring their strengths and weaknesses, interests and passions. It’s a group that doesn’t need someone to constantly give them instructions and answer keys, because starting when they were young, they learned to tap into intrinsic motivation as a guide.
While we spend the next decade arguing over how to fund UBI, how to implement it, and how big it should be, we can also start preparing people for the massive mindset shift that is essential to the success of UBI. We can start by envisioning the future we’d want to create if we didn’t have to rely on jobs to meet our most basic needs. We can begin by helping the next generation define what success means to them individually, and offering them the tools to build their own path to achieve it. And we can do so by being an example, taking the lead in doing it ourselves.