After Universal Basic Income, the Flood

What if we implement UBI and it makes everything worse?

Simon Sarris
Oct 22, 2017 · 14 min read
Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

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California Optimistic

When 20,000 people move to L.A. every year to become famous actors and only five of them really make it, it suggests a special kind of optimism on the part of those people and that place, an outlook so extreme that it actually becomes gloomy. California Optimism is an admixture of this hope and desperation. L.A. weather fits the ethos; sunshine every day, as they say, makes a desert.

Math Assumptions

Math-based objections to UBI are the most commonly cited, so I want to skip them almost entirely, except to talk about inflation.

Price inflation of basic necessities

Rent is currently eating the world. Rental income just hit an all-time high. If we adopt a UBI system and everyone is given a very predictable amount of money, it may be seen as a system easily gamed by landlords and possibly other producers of essentials. Implementing UBI without reforming land-use and zoning regulations may result in nothing more than a slow transfer of money to landlords. What are the odds of that happening? Well, it seems like it already did happen with healthcare and college tuition (loans) in the U.S., and if we use those are our guide, the “money” part and the “meaningful reforms” part should be done in a very particular order.

UBI Is a Transfer of Wealth from the Needy to… Everyone

UBI can be a hard sell because it is a koan of fairness, activating one’s empathy and rage simultaneously. The income is meant to support people who desperately need it, but also to support wealthy hipsters who just don’t feel like working. The one hand clapping begins to feel like a slap.

We must be careful to make sure that, if implemented, UBI is not a transfer of wealth from the needy to the hucksters.

Removing all welfare to create UBI (to give everyone the same amount) is a de facto pay decrease to anyone with needs outside their control — such as diabetics, who need all the things you do to live, plus insulin. So after cost-to-stay-alive is factored in, they get less money than you do from UBI. In this way, giving everyone the same amount results in its own kind of inequality starting from the very first check.

The difficulty of medicaid is under-appreciated

Speaking of hard problems to solve in society, the numbers aren’t the only issue with the “remove the old programs” assumption. Programs like medicaid provide more than just money or medicine; they provide case workers and associated footwork—and those things are needed. There’s a much higher no-show rate among medicaid patients than other cohorts. They don’t sign up, they’re afraid of doctors, they don’t have addresses, and so on. We know that the problems some groups face are deeper than others, and helping them may require difficult and not-very-efficient overhead, but it’s overhead that is still worth going through to become a better functioning society. This is what medicaid and medicare workers are doing every day.

The P.T. Barnum Objection

Very in favor of UBI. One of the reasons I like the idea is because it’d hold everyone accountable for their bullshit choices. What’d you do with your money this month? Spent it all frivolously? Fuck off… until next month.

— Some Guy on reddit

Is a person with two children and a gambling addiction better off with food stamps and housing vouchers, or with UBI payments?

All systems can eventually be gamed.

To implement UBI at the expense of every other social program is to make the presumption that the people helped by those programs are competent and capable of shifting to a life of budgeting and managing their own money and of avoiding exploitation. Think of the most vulnerable people you’ve ever encountered and remember that, with UBI, they all get the same amount of money. Now think of everyone from leaders at cigarette companies and at bling social-status brands to landlords who will want to take advantage of those vulnerable people. We must be careful to make sure that, if implemented, UBI is not a transfer of wealth from the needy to the hucksters.

The Existential Problem

“A basic income means they don’t have to work 40 hours a week just to survive so they can do what they really want to do in their spare hours.

— Some guy on Hacker News

When it comes to disability benefits, the data suggests that men really just want to watch TV and take drugs; that they don’t spend much time raising children or on civic engagement or other higher pursuits. Other people have written a lot about this, so I don’t want to spill more ink on the subject. The Commentary magazine article discusses the fact that most of those who are consuming disability benefits are not, in fact, physically unable to work.² This should be apparent from the fact that disability claims are strongly correlated with the economy, yet recessions do not cause people to become paraplegics. And this rise in disability claims has happened in spite of workplaces becoming safer over the decades. So we already know what many people collecting disability payments will do in their spare hours. Suggesting a more Utopia-laden vision may be unrealistically optimistic, and, when dealing with contemporary civilization, sobriety of view is recommended.

The Systems View

The Nassim Taleb point of view is that to be sustainable and stable the world needs to be decentralized and antifragile. In other words, instead of a single government, it would be better to have 100 functional governments with small, local democratic governance. Large systems have difficulty adapting quickly, or at all, and can miss the nuance of local conditions. When a large system fails, it could fail millions or billions of people. Large systems can make evolution, tinkering, idea sharing, and other positive forces difficult or impossible.

What you spend government money on matters

It is nice when money spent on civilization at large has a return on investment. Very broadly, some spending will disappear when great change or collapse occurs, and other spending (like roads or most infrastructure) creates more civilization-grade durable goods.

Other Ideas that Might Work Better

I’m fond of exploring “guaranteed minimum agriculture” or “basic job” ideas. Such plans are more resilient against shock or system collapse.


Thanks to Simplicity Anderson

Simon Sarris

Written by

Sacred things and making things. Literature, Food, Web Development. — In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.

Simon Sarris

Written by

Sacred things and making things. Literature, Food, Web Development. — In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.

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Bots are taking our jobs. Not all at once, but fast enough to make us think twice about the security of our futures. Enter Universal Basic Income — a proposal to give every citizen a guaranteed government stipend, for free. Brilliant solution, utopian fantasy, or all of the above? This collection explores the possibilities.

Bots are taking our jobs. Not all at once, but fast enough to make us think twice about the security of our futures. Enter Universal Basic Income — a proposal to give every citizen a guaranteed government stipend, for free. Brilliant solution, utopian fantasy, or all of the above? This collection explores the possibilities.

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