Just hear me out
I think this is maybe one of the most devastating misunderstandings we as a society need to move beyond if we’re ever going to start working our way out of the self-imposed, inhumane, and slowly imploding rat race we’ve created.
I’m a universal basic income (UBI) advocate. Whatever your opinions and feelings may be on the matter, I ask you to put them on hold for a few minutes.
I’ve written and read a lot about UBI, debated it, and interviewed people in the streets and in fancy offices all over the U.S., and there’s something that has been grating on my nerves about the way it is very often portrayed and perceived. Opponents and proponents either decry or laud this idea of “Free Money for Everybody” as either destructive or curative, respectively. Both, however, are missing the truth of the matter entirely. Every time I hear or read those two words — “free money” — it raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I can feel it actively triggering alarm bells for a large swath of the population, people who would likely be in favor of UBI, or at least be open to learning more about it, if it weren’t framed as some kind of monetary reward for doing nothing. On the other side, the growing number who are fond of the thought of “free money” have themselves an unhealthy way of thinking about UBI.
It isn’t free money. UBI isn’t money at all. This is because money isn’t even money at all, that is until it is enough to cover basic needs.
If you give a starving man $5, you’ve given him his next sandwich.
If you give a wealthy man $5, you’ve given him five dollars.
This goes beyond UBI, too. It’s something that has been bothering me about our entire concept of work, success, and money in America.
When two people compare salaries, common wisdom might point out that they should really only count after-tax take-home pay if they’re being honest with themselves.
But our mental adjustment needs to go deeper than that.
If, after taxes, Mark and Mary from the same neighborhood are making $40K and $20K, respectively, it might seem reasonable to conclude that Mark is making twice as much as Mary. This is extremely inaccurate.
If, let’s say, the basic cost of survival (rent and food and clothes) in their neighborhood is $19K, then that first $19K they each make is spoken for. They have no choice whatsoever in how to spend it. They must first have food and shelter before they can think about anything else.
Once the basics are covered, Mark and Mary can then begin to choose how to spend the extra (AKA disposable) income, by putting it into savings, paying for higher quality of life, or doing whatever their hearts desire with it. Beyond $19K (in this example) is when money becomes money. Before that it is only food, shelter, and absolute essentials.
Money isn’t money until it comes with choice.
Looking back to the example, Mark is making $21K in disposable income and Mary is making $1K in disposable income. He isn’t making twice what she is. He is making 21 times what she is.
Money isn’t money until it is disposable.
This is why increasing wealth and income inequality are so insidious. It is why the wealthy should pay a larger share in taxes. It is why we need UBI. We already balk to find out that CEOs now often make 1,000 times what their employees do, but the truth is that they even make far more than that in disposable income.
So what is UBI in this context? It is the floor that we all can stand upon that guarantees that when we go to work we’ll be earning actual money. It means we’ll be earning the ability to choose and build a better life than bare minimum survival, because contributing one’s time and labor should be worth more than bare minimum survival. With the wealth and technology of today, every human being should be able to take bare minimum survival for granted. This is the 21st century, not the damn neolithic age.
When welfare benefits are unreliable and can be taken away, and when the floor is set at absolute zero, then what we are working for, for the first dollars we earn, is nothing more than the ability to keep on working and to not die. We have no choice in the matter. We must work. Some people don’t even reach that bare minimum level, but even those of us with a decent income have to tread lightly. We know that an unlucky sequence of events — a layoff, a traffic ticket, an illness, a pregnancy — could put us in the same dire straits as those “unfortunates” in the streets who we try to avoid really seeing.
Work without choice is the kin of slavery, and while today’s wage slavery is clearly less savage and obvious to spot than the slavery of our painful national history, it is a form of forced labor nonetheless.
So please forget this idea of free money. UBI is so much more. It is the abrogation of extreme poverty and the abolition of wage slavery.
Cash is simply the tool best fit to achieve this end effectively, by the way. UBI wouldn’t necessarily have to be cash if we could effectively hand out the food and shelter everyone needed. I’d be for that. The truth is we can’t. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. It results in humiliation, stigma, waste of time, waste of money, disincentivization, poverty traps, system-gaming, and many people falling through the cracks. Different people have different circumstances and needs, and the government undeniably sucks at providing the unique food, housing, and basics that 325 million individuals require. Cash is simply the best tool we have at this time in history to provide these basic human rights. Cash trusts in people to know best what they need to survive. It empowers them to tend to those needs with the dedicated personal attention only they can provide. When we’ve tested cash before, it has shown us that individuals in most cases tend to be dramatically better at allocating those funds than overwhelmed, if well-intentioned, bureaucrats.
Hear my plea
Capitalists, rugged individualists, liberals, democrats, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and everyone else in America, on this I hope you will agree:
Human beings can’t live like human beings without choice and freedom.
Human beings forced to function as nonhuman beings are not able to contribute to society effectively, and they are subject to unnecessary suffering themselves.
Choice, freedom, and effectiveness don’t come until one can turn focus to the more important things in life — to growth rather than maintenance and the forestalling of catastrophe — until urgent basic necessities no longer consume our attention.
We have not simply a moral imperative but also a logical, self-serving incentive to make sure that everyone has a sturdy floor of minimum guaranteed income on which to stand.
This is why we need UBI. It is free basic needs. It is free human rights. It is the freedom to work for disposable income.
It is not free money.
Because money isn’t money until basic needs are met.
Want to read more? Here’s a handy list of links to all my Medium pieces on basic income.