The idea of a universal basic income for all citizens has been catching on all over the world. Is it too crazy to believe in? We spoke to the author of a new book on the ins, outs, and utopian dreams of making basic income a reality.
The basic income movement got a significant boost this week when the charity GiveDirectly announced that it will be pursuing a ten-year, $30 million pilot project giving a select group of Kenyan villagers a basic income and studying its effects. As an anti-poverty solution, universal basic income appeals to impoverished people in Africa, relatively well-off Scandinavians, and Americans automated out of their jobs alike.
Rutger Bregman, a writer from the Netherlands, is the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. We interviewed him on the likelihood of this utopia.
Gawker: The US is a much more culturally, racially, and economically diverse country than the Netherlands. How much of a challenge do you think that poses to getting the population here (and in other more diverse and unequal societies) to collectively buy in to the idea of a universal basic income?
Rutger Bregman: It may come as a surprise that no other country has ever been as close to adopting basic income as the United States. Richard Nixon, of all people, managed to get a basic income bill through the House twice, only to have it blocked in the Senate by the Democrats, mainly because they felt the income Nixon was proposing was too low.
Frankly, I think universal basic income is a more natural fit for the U.S. than for modern-day Western Europe, given Europe’s social democratic, paternalistic systems. Even Milton Friedman was a fan of basic income, precisely because it would stop the government from constantly looking over everyone’s shoulder. It would really be the ultimate marriage of conservative and progressive politics. In terms of redistribution, it would meet the left’s demands for fairness, and where the whole welfare regime of interference and humiliation is concerned, it would give the right more personal freedom and a more limited government than ever.
Gawker: You advocate for a shorter work week, which is very counterintuitive to people who believe working more is directly tied to earning more. How does working fewer hours give us the money necessary to pay for a universal basic income?
Bregman: I think we need to fundamentally rethink our whole concept of “work.” There are legions of people nowadays who feel stuck in “bullshit jobs,” which is what the anthropologist David Graeber calls the jobs that even the people doing them feel are superfluous. If these people were to go on strike, the world wouldn’t be any worse off or poorer.
A recent poll in England showed that this applies to more than a third of all paid jobs. Now contrast these bullshit jobs – many of which come with fat paychecks, mind you, just take Wall Street high-frequency traders – with the vast amount of unpaid, but incredibly important work that people do. Caring for children and the elderly, taking care of the household, volunteer work; the list goes on. My advocacy of a shorter paid workweek is, in fact, a call for more real work.
There is also plenty of research showing that long workweeks are anything but efficient. In the 1980s, Apple employees sported T-shirts that read, “Working 90 hours a week and loving it!” Later, productivity experts calculated that if they had worked half the hours then the world might have enjoyed the groundbreaking Macintosh computer a year earlier. The Netherlands, where I’m from, has the shortest workweek in the world, but we’re fifth worldwide in terms of productivity.
Gawker: Many conservatives fear that giving free money to everyone will just encourage laziness and create a vast number of non-working “free riders” in our economy. What evidence do we have that that won’t happen?
Bregman: For three years now I’ve been reading everything on basic income I could get my hands on. Not once have I come across a basic income experiment that led to mass laziness.
In the 1970s several large-scale experiments in the U.S. debunked the idea. In Denver, for instance, the researchers reported that “The ‘laziness’ contention is just not supported by our findings. There is not anywhere near the mass defection the prophets of doom predicted.” People cut down on their working hours, for sure, but that was always offset by more time invested in education or looking for a better job. In another one of the trials, in New Jersey, the high school graduation rate rose 30% among study subjects. The basic income gave people the freedom to quit their bullshit jobs and do something else in which they could make a real difference.
There’s been a vast amount of new research in this area recently that has correlated “free cash” with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth, and gender equality. Poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash. And these studies demonstrate that, time and again. If you want to galvanize people, the solution is not to lead them around by the hand, but to give them the means to achieve something on their own.
Gawker: Why not just give financial aid to the poor? What’s the rationale for making a basic income universal?
Bregman: Richard Titmuss, the great British social welfare theorist, summed it up long ago. “A policy for the poor is a poor policy.” In a now-famous article published in the late 1990s, two Swedish sociologists showed that the countries with the most universal government programs have been the most successful at reducing poverty. Basically, people are more open to solidarity if it benefits them personally. The more we, our family, and our friends stand to gain through the welfare state, the more we are willing to contribute. Logically, therefore, a universal, unconditional basic income would also enjoy the broadest base of support.
Something that a lot of Americans don’t realize about the European model is that the “all for one and one for all” mentality isn’t because we are all such nice people, but because it works, plain and simple. Infrastructure that is well maintained, scarcely any homeless on the street, inexpensive education, good public transportation – they’re all things that benefit everyone, not just the poor.
And the further benefit of a universal income is that there is no stigma, whereas the conditional welfare state we have now is a system of humiliation and shame.
Gawker: Of the experiments with basic income that have already happened around the world, which do you think are the most persuasive?
Bregman: That would have to be the experiment in Dauphin in Manitoba, Canada, in the 1970s. It’s even known as “the town with no poverty,” because it raised all the poor inhabitants – 1,000 families in all – above the poverty level. At the start of the experiment, an army of researchers descended on the town – economists to monitor whether the inhabitants worked less, sociologists to scrutinize the effects on family life, and anthropologists to see firsthand how residents would respond. A few years later, a conservative government was voted into power in Canada, which pulled the plug on the experiment before the results could be analyzed. Only recently did a Canadian scientist, Evelyn Forget, gain access to the archives and discover that the experiment had been an unmitigated success. Kids performed better at school, healthcare expenditures plummeted, and people were able to spend more time on things that really mattered.
Gawker: What about the fear that giving free money to all will just cause inflation, rendering that money much less valuable than it was when we started?
Bregman: If you pay for basic income by simply printing more money, then, yes, you’ll get inflation. There are quite a few prominent economists who have advocated doing this now, precisely because inflation is lagging. A “helicopter drop,” Milton Friedman called this approach.
But, obviously, that’s not a long-term solution. Ultimately, basic income has to be financed from taxes. Not everyone will have more money; the basic income of the poor would then be funded by raising taxes on, say, the top 1%. I don’t know a single qualified economist who actually believes this method would spark massive inflation.
A much more important consideration, incidentally, is the effect that a universal basic income will have on wages. It would give people who do crucial work but are underpaid – take cleaners, teachers, nurses – a lot more leverage, because they would always have their basic income to fall back on. It is even conceivable that these jobs would eventually pay more than the bullshit jobs in sectors like finance or marketing. Which is, of course, the point.
Gawker: You talk in your book about how giving people a measure of freedom from wage slavery can actually open up opportunities for increasing overall wealth— can you explain how this could happen?
Bregman: Lots of people earn big bucks for jobs that have virtually no value, and we can all think of important jobs that are underpaid. Universal basic income would give everybody the freedom to do something of value. And how about all the people stuck in dead-end jobs, who don’t have the chance to tap into their potential. How many would-be geniuses are at this moment flipping burgers or driving for Uber?
As I’ve traveled around for lectures the past few years, I have met so many people who told me they have a part-time bullshit job. There were consultants who felt their work was pointless, but the money they earned enabled them to do useful volunteer work. Or the woman who had made a documentary on the harmful effects of advertising on children – and guess how she funded it? By making ads.
In journalism, it’s even worse. We have investigative journalists funding their work by writing advertorials for companies they can’t stand. Then they turn around and use that money to write investigative reports on those very kinds of companies.
In modern-day capitalism, in short, we are using bullshit to pay for the things we believe are truly important. Basic income would end all that.
Gawker: When you look at this issue with political realism, how close do you think the US is to some form of basic income? Or, where do you think basic income is closest to becoming a reality?
Bregman: There is an explosion of interest. Switzerland is holding a basic income referendum in June, Finland has announced a large-scale experiment, and in the Netherlands 20 cities will soon launch trials too. I know that universal basic income still sounds like a crazy idea to many people. But I like to remind them that every milestone in civilization – from the beginning of democracy to the end of slavery – was once every bit as utopian as universal basic income seems to us now.
It is precisely because our nations are richer than ever that it is now within our reach to give each and every person the security of a basic income, to take this next step in the history of progress. That’s what capitalism ought to have been striving for all along.
Translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.