Why UBI’s Cousin, UBS, Is Better
Examining universal basic income vs. universal basic services
The increasing concerns over automation and the future of work have started to fuel the popularization of ideas like universal basic income (UBI)—a policy which would provide every citizen with a certain amount of money a month that they can spend however they want. Perhaps most notably, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is centering his platform around this idea (albeit his version excludes those outside the 18–65 age group and those receiving welfare services).
Implementing UBI, without a doubt, would be better than letting the millions of workers who will lose their jobs to automation perish. However, there are some points that make UBI less preferable than its less flashy alternative: universal basic services (UBS), which, as its name suggests, entails that all necessary basic services (defined differently by every proponent, but could include healthcare, housing and utilities, transportation, education, and a meal plan) be publicly funded and made free at the point of service. If you are a UBI proponent, allow me to make the case to you as to why this is so.
UBI (or at least any UBI program that is not in addition to UBS, like Andrew Yang’s) will, at the end of the day, go towards paying for these services, but is less effective at it. This is because, by providing the services directly, if someone’s total cost in all these areas is $500, the government would spend $500 on that person, while if another person’s costs are $1000, it would spend $1000. But with UBI, the government would give the same amount to both people — if it is under $1000, then one has insufficient money to cover their basic needs, and if it is over $500, then one of them is receiving excess money. Evidently, this is a more inefficient use of funds than just covering people’s needs.
The biggest challenge with UBI, as any UBI advocate knows, is that it is difficult to pick the perfect amount. No matter the number, some people will receive too much, and some people will receive too little. This is why UBS ensures no one will go without the essential services they need in a way that UBI will never be able to.
Don’t get me wrong, a UBI on top of UBS would be great, and if feasible, I would probably support it. But a UBI in place of UBS (or in place of welfare programs, which are just non-universal basic services) is unacceptable. Many progressives fear that UBI is a neoliberal excuse to underfund these programs, and if implemented in this manner, their concerns would likely be justified.
With UBS, since people would have these expenses covered for them (remember—the money would come from the same place UBI money is intended to), they would save thousands of dollars and to re-invest in the things that UBI advocates dream of: consumer spending and starting small businesses. Also, they would be more prone to take business risks, knowing they have this safety net and won’t end up homeless or unable to pay for their kids’ education if it goes wrong. In other words, all the benefits that are supposed to be achieved through UBI — a healthier and more educated population, a reduction in homelessness, an increase in mental health due to alleviated financial distress, a safety net on which to rely on while going through job retraining, a reduced dependency on salary and consequent empowerment of workers — would be achieved, except more efficiently, since it is more targeted and provides each person with exactly what they need. Not a cent less, not a cent more.
Furthermore, counterintuitively to many UBI proponents, it is even possible to make the case that UBS is less bureaucratic — instead of the government giving citizens money and citizens providing it to the service, it is provided to the service directly, cutting out the middleman. It is more politically feasible, since most governments already have these programs reserved for a select few, and UBS would simply require expanding them to everybody as opposed to starting a whole new program.
Perhaps more importantly, though, providing services through a UBS program would be cheaper than through UBI, not just because of the increased dollar-per-person efficiency, but for the same reasons that healthcare and education are cheaper per capita in every other developed country than in the United States — the government has more bargaining power than any individual citizen, and would it be able to negotiate down the prices with the entity that is providing them.
Of course, any candidate proposing UBS would have to figure out the details of how exactly they would go about it, including whether they want the government to run these services or merely fund them (I suspect many would prefer the latter) and whether they want to offer the services as an opt-in option or as the sole provider (I suspect many would prefer the former). But I personally support UBS because, independently of all the economic and practical arguments, I think that in a society that can offer them, it is immoral to deny people access to any of these services on the grounds that they cannot afford them. It would not only have positive repercussions on society, but it is the humane thing to do.
If you agree with this ideal but disagree with its implementation, I would love to hear why (be it in the comments or on Twitter). Nevertheless, whether through UBI, UBS, or another policy, one thing is clear: We must find a way to cultivate a more modern relationship to work, because if survival depends on salary, it is very likely that automation will wreck havoc on our society.