Where did the Finnish Basic Income experience go wrong? If it went wrong…

Translated by Camila Teixeira, original in portuguese here

There is nothing easier than giving advice on how things should or should not have been done after someone has done it. Nothing is more comforting than saying that they were wrong in this or that, posing as a civil engineer inspector, about an area that is in the process of construction by experimentation. In other words, experimenting relies precisely on learning coming from the successes and mistakes of these initiatives.

Guy Standing is therefore correct in recommending that the benefits would be more evident in a smaller community. But, I ask, how would he know this if he did not have the opportunity to study the experience in India in 2012 and, before it, the experiments of Otjiviero Omitara and Quatinga Velho had they not indicated that that was a way? Note: “a” way, not “the” way, because, if the experience of Finland had achieved the expected results, enthusiasts would now be praising the success of their approach, and their detractors would conveniently be silencing about the same findings. Moreover, as Guy himself may recall, it was not until ten years ago, when the first experiments in small communities began to publish their results, the critics who claimed in advance that such studies (and projects) were completely irrelevant and because the number of people was significant — not just for any kind of scientific analysis, but for any claim to a larger governmental basic income: national. Thus, if we extend this time sampling, our certainty of today was, except for the standard deviation, the absolute certainty… diametrically opposed.

My criticism is therefore straightforward, but it is not personal, it is not given to Guy who I know and about whom I only have good memories. He was the person, for example, from whom I heard back in 2010 at a lunch in Switzerland, for the first time, the story of the mayor who pioneered in the implementation of the cash transfer (then still bolsa-escola), something that I did not know until then. Not to mention the undisputed fact that gives him all the authority to advise on pioneering practices, because he was not just one of the first theorists who understood what the projects would bring about, but also bought the idea and articulated an even greater experience in India, without wasting any time, already in 2012. My criticism, therefore, is against the recklessness of making advances to the recklessness of the trap of falling into the same place. The fact that the pioneer trail has been successful, or so we think, does not mean that it is the only, or the best, to take the rest of us to Rome.

Thus, if in this sense, an error has occurred in the experience of Finland, one should not discard the option of proceeding without copying or taking into account the successes (and errors) of the previous projects as a reference, but if, and only if, such a decision has been made consciously, or not. Whether or not they were aware of such references, whether they simply ignored them, or, in taking them into account, they chose other alternatives in their view more appropriate to the purposes of the experiment, this is something only those responsible can answer for. And let’s face it, this is the issue that matters most for future project design than for a fair assessment of the determinants of their results.

The role of small projects, community projects, is to make noise, sometimes desperately to be seen and noticed, regardless of whether the respectable audience wants to hear it or whether the show director wants them to disappear, because their survival depends on it. Already among the description on paper, the larger projects will not hear the speeches of those who are mere extras, when not also intruding in the script. So if they ignore the script, this is their merit, not exactly a flaw, just because it didn’t work out.

For example, the community approach is a costly issue for the Quatinga Velho project. And what was the cause of many of our worst attacks, was one of our biggest defenses:

Small is Beautiful

But so what? Give me 10 reais and the bus money, and I paint your house. I have no authority. And most importantly, even if I were a big shot, so what? If the Finnish project did not ignore the voices of those who have already followed or studied this path for pride, but because it relied on its reading of the problems of its reality and its world (and yet, in its understanding, failed), then they failed with dignity. More importantly, it failed with all the experience needed to persevere and try again, not as a mere detached observer, but as an activist crossing the fine line that separates social experiments with people, and the experiences that build social for us (and on principle so lay or wise), like us. And then I tell you, my friend, welcome to the “dark” side of the force.

Therefore, contrary to what the report suggests, there is nothing ambiguous in the results, except the interests that orbit around the basic income, including of those responsible for advertising such “money falling from the sky”. Not at all. The only thing I know that falls for free from the sky is rain, even acid, tastes like batteries, especially on the gone Sundays of toil in Cubatão. And yet there are those who pay their tithing on time, hoping that indeed someday something would fall from there. Although we are not unfair to those who rule the sky, has the money ever got there?

There is definitely nothing ambiguous about the results, because, like all other experiments, they are a repetition. And here we, the practice enthusiasts, have to hold hands with theorists, because the results only prove exactly what they predicted as positive benefits. Were they geniuses and pythonesses? No, we who are all idiots, who need to hammer a finger, give a flower to someone else, and write a report of an unknown number of pages saying that except for standard deviation, no one likes to starve, fear, or be obliged to sell oneself or do what one dislikes because one can’t say no. But more stupid than our “experiments” on basic income is our society, in which we still ask with a smug air: but is it, my love? No, one pulls out a pistol and tells everyone to run so that even a crippled person gets up and walks or not, and then we wonder, why is liberal democracy crumbling? Wow, why is it? Wait a minute, stop everything, let me carry out a study… no, better still, an experiment… honestly if that were the case, I would concede to Adam Smith, the best contribution I would give to get bread would be to open a bakery.

But this is not the case. In pioneering practices there are no good and bad examples, not a priori. There are only examples of application that, however much they fail, which is not the case, should still be considered as an example to be followed in the most important aspect: the pursuit of the practice and its accomplishment. This, by the way, increasingly moves social action away from mere testing, studying, or experience as purpose, and brings practice ever closer to the very realization and concretizing of social action as the purpose of its execution. And what else should it be?

In this sense, the Finnish project is, regardless of its results, an example of the lesson in itself of how to do a basic income project: it’s not just about talking but also doing, and rather to preserve by doing. Another good advice, especially when it does not need to be given, but just be copied. I never hid that the model applied in Finland was not exactly my “favorite” — and I don’t even have to say what it is, and it is not a matter of preference but of necessity. After all, our children, even if they are horrible, are always cute. But we must be fair: to infer that inconclusive results imply that the experiement cannot be adjusted and eventually work is simply false.

It is also absolutely false, from the point of view of realizing basic income, to attribute failure to any project that has had the courage and boldness to materialize. Just check how many were advertised and made a lot of noise, but did not materialize — even the most well-intentioned ones. Before being a project or an experience, it is a struggle. This dimension does not appear in the reports, at least not explicitly. What defines not only the success or failure of these battles and strategies, but the survival of an initiative that sometimes never had a chance to start.

It is for this and other reasons that I take Finland as a gigantic victory, especially when we have to remember that not even 10 years ago, the preaching of the idea was already crazy, not to mention the practice. It was an idea, by the way, well disqualified as impossible for centuries. Well, now the trenches of the possible-impossible are different, and getting to Mars is no longer impossible. We have the rockets and some of them work well, thank you very much. Now we have to find who wants to embark on them and above all finance this step of humanity, or manufacture other paths, whatever, as long as it gets us there. And I want to thank them publicly, simply because of the visibility they have given basic income in the world. I’m sure that they contributed to ensure that those who never heard about our project, even here in Brazil, would come to know via the interest that the initiative has awakened.

Enough with flattery. I end this writing with one last criticism (which basically sums up the litany of our speeches in Europe in 2015, compiled and published in some book out there):

The FEDEA researcher is right. Or at least he is right on two crucial points, in rightly defending his skeptical point of view: large-scale basic income is expensive and unworkable. Or at least according to the classic theoretical models. The other criticisms are silly. Nonsense and traps on which we waste time refuting with more nonsense, irrelevant points. It is like the joke of philosophers and mathematicians imprisoned with engineers on an island. While we are concerned, as the former, to make calculations and debates to prove that the coconut exists (it’s nutritious, and delicious), engineers are simply looking for where to find and how to open the coconut. We are very concerned with providing proof of basic income for those who do not want or do not need proof, they just need the coconut. Worst of all, we are working to provide evidence for those who, for their own reasons and interests, are fully convinced otherwise, and they know it better than us because they don’t want anyone eating, especially their coconuts, for free. And if the coconuts are theirs, it is not simply because they proclaim it, but it’s because they actually took them.

No advance in any field, whether good or bad, has ever been proven by evidence. These advances happen rather because someone put an instrument to work without asking for permission, or if they didn’t get it or copied it, they bought the idea because they thought they would make a profit from it, or just took it. From the bomb, to the airplane, through social welfare to toxic assets, no one wondered where these issues were going or, as Keynes would say, they knew, but it was not their problem, and rather their children’s and grandchildren’s. This does not mean that we should do the same, it just means that we are trying to provide scientific, social, philanthropic proof to an audience, be it in the market, in the state, or even in society. This audience doesn’t give a damn about that kind of proof but only cares about financial statements, some better elaborated in rational numbers, others reduced to mere emotional appeal, but ultimately driven by interests whether we like it or not. Otherwise, napalm would never exist.

So no, it’s not experiments, nor your reports that will change that mindset. Maybe a universal basic income will help to change it, but then we get back to the starting point. We need to design projects that do not dream of transmuting the lack of empathy of those who are satisfied with the personality of their physical and legal person. We need precisely the opposite, experiments which can be sustained regardless of the contempt and disdain, not to say opposition. Therefore, precisely the approach and the opposite procedure of counting or seeking approval and subsidy from the audience. I will not contradict the Finnish project coordinator’s impressions in the support of its institutions; I will not say that this may not be a fatal mistake in Finland, but I have no doubt how dangerously fatal this mistake is, not only for the projects, but for the co-ordinators who are on the fringes of the centers and peripheries, not only of the world but of domestic interests and powers in which this initiative is (geo) politically and economically located. That’s my tip.

One must think of basic income experiences less as a test and more as the development of a social technology program, preferably highly replicable and transferable. Anyone who builds a plane or a rocket doesn’t do it to test whether it should or can go or how it goes, but does it to get there, with the absolute certainty that it can or should be done, or merely as proof that it is possible. Making the project a mere test, by itself, means loss of opportunities and concrete steps for its realization and continuing improvement. The question about the construction of social programs and technologies, especially when we are past the phase of the first rudimentary models where we prove that it is possible to keep flying, is how to reproduce this in series with economic viability, that is, lowering its costs, increasing its autonomy and performance and socioeconomic impact. Anyway, the goal should be to make this social technology really a program that is not only viable and feasible for those who can finance it and who are really interested in doing so. I speak not only of the richest among the rich, who are a lost cause, but of the poor who are not so poor. For although these cannot do everything, they still want to do something. Not everyone sees the needy as beings of another race or species who occupy their space and eat their resources that divine providence has reserved for their own in this land, or those who insist not only on surviving, but, on top of it all, reproducing!

And when I say that some want to do something, I do not say that this awakening goes through the descriptions basic income doing all that is good or what good the basic income does for others, the people who receive the money. I talk about those who are ultimately paying for it and what they can earn from it. What good does basic income do for the life if not private, collective life for all of them? Basically, if this speech revolves around the taxpayer’s money, the ruler or even the financier, it does not matter, but what matters is what basic income does for the citizen as such. The problem is that we cannot be naive and buy the propaganda that these interests are harmonious or can be congruent, when in essence and in practice, as the accounting demonstrates, they are ultimately the opposite.

Constituting basic income projects that are not only politically but financially viable, and above all showing what their political and economic role is, is all that matters. This is even more so if this role represents not only possibilities of costs, but of long-term future gains. That’s all that matters. This is where basic income is underestimated and badly defended, even by its advocates, and that includes me.

Education, health, infrastructure are all investments that with the right financial model are not only viable, but highly profitable. It’s no different with basic income. The same areas of concentration of extreme poverty which are the basis of exploitation of the misery and tyranny is also where the greatest potential for growth and thus return on social investment exist. Am I in favor of profiting from misery? No. I would prefer that all the profits made in this process be invested to further accelerate economic and human development. But what I prefer or want is literally irrelevant. Whether the embittered uncle doesn’t like it, whether the orthodox scholar doubts, or the hideous unionist, populist ruler as well as slave boss have hives, it does not matter. May they all explode together. In the same way, all my reservations and moral considerations do not matter. If whoever owns the capital will finance basic income for purely altruistic or pecuniary interests, or what the percentage will be between them, this is another problem, one for which a concrete solution must first be developed, rather than keep pursuing one’s tail.

The question is, what do we want with this universal basic income? What do we want with that but a tool, a technology? End all forms of modern slavery disguised as employment and labor? Or remedy exploitation whether liberal or socialist? If it is the first option, I ask the following question: what is our priority? Freeing people, even children, who die or are forced to work as cannon fodder in the most remote ares of the world we don’t even want to know exist, or my shitty (un)employment? Make no mistake, I am not separating things, both are deeply and intrinsically linked. Not only does the order of combatting these things change the result, it also alters the cost of this battle and the chances of its progressive and solidary success, which is not national, but international and cosmopolitan. It is like universal and human basic income. Moreover, while suffering is always relative and subjective and immeasurable if not for those who suffer it, at the ultimate limit it is, unfortunately, always absolute, objective and inexorable equally for all.

No, universal basic income is not a mere instrument to combat extreme poverty. It is much more than that, it is in fact a guarantee of fundamental and universal freedom. In practice, if these liberties do not start from the guarantee of the most basic needs and dignities of those who can do most to those who need them most, they it is not about basic income, nor universal, not in all its libertarian, humanist and cosmopolitan potential. But if one has his basic needs met without another human being subtracting them, I set aside all my objections and join with anyone in favor of not letting a life suffer for the stupid and inhuman reason of not even being able to keep up, no matter why.

Anyway, basic income projects don’t have to prove anything, apart from demonstrating that it can at least sustain itself financially and deliver what they promise, not only in terms of income, but in economic gains that can be capitalized by those who made this investment. And whoever thinks that inside the state things work differently, it is because it has not realized that this time is over, or rather broke.

I honestly see no problem with those who look at poor people as a source of opportunity and wealth. I see a problem with those who look at them as the source of their wealth or worse, their problems.

Where economic development is lacking and inflation is paramount, it is precisely the locality that holds the greatest growth potential and the source of all future wealth. This does not mean a subtraction from others — also because they have nothing to take but more work for primitive deprivation — but as production and added value to the free initiatives and human potential hitherto wasted. The gains in these places as every loan shark and semi-slaveman know well are not only certain but obscenely high. The question, therefore, is not whether investing in these people and places is viable or profitable, but whether those who will fund it will only keep the earnings for themselves, or allow them to also take part and enjoy the common wealth that will be leveraged from this investment in the main infrastructure that sustains any society, its people. Otherwise, the name given to the process of exploitation is the same as we have known for millennia: slavery — but speakdifferently because we are today very politically correct and civicly sensitive and aware (especially with the use of words).

Then take Kangas’s words as mine:

I do not know. But without further initiatives that put into practice the unconditional guarantee of the vital and environmental minimum, via basic income or not, surely we will have nothing like another abolition, not to mention the end of misery. This does not mean that the “slaves” especially those of today will not disappear. Quite the contrary, as the history of the Americas demonstrates a little over 200 years ago…

Yeah, Edward Lorenz was right, a butterfly flaps (or dies) in the new world, it snows in the old, and vice versa.

The question is therefore not if investing in these people is viable or profitable, but whether those who will finance it will just keep the basic income or allow them to also take part and enjoy the common wealth that will be leveraged from this leap in investment in the main infrastructure that sustains any society, its people. When financing basic income becomes another obvious question, perhaps with luck and sooner than ten more years, this may be the next big question. Who knows? I apparently don’t know. Not without experimenting.

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