Let’s Talk About Universal Basic Income

September 21 2016

I can’t say I was expecting this: last time I won the listserve lottery, I wrote about how lucky I was to have been chosen only three years after joining. That was 15 months ago, and I assure you: the chance of winning twice in 4.5 years is even lower than winning once in three.

I won’t spend all my time again talking about luck, though. Instead, let’s talk about work. Why do you work? To earn the money to survive, right? Except it’s patently obvious that when some people inherit billions through no better quality than luck, and others spend their entire working lives doing jobs they hate because for whatever reason they can’t make a living doing something they enjoy, something is wrong with the system.

A Universal Basic Income seems like it could be the solution. If the poverty line in the US is $12,300 or so, what would happen if you scrapped all current social programs and simply gave every US citizen $12,500 every year?

In short, it wouldn’t work yet. That expense alone would cost something like 4 trillion dollars; the entire US Federal budget for 2014 was only 3.5 trillion. You would totally eliminate poverty, but you would likely crash the economy--there are still plenty of low-wage jobs out there which can’t yet be done by robots, which people still take because their option is to work there or starve. If people knew they wouldn’t starve even if they just lazed in their underwear and watched TV all day, it would take a much higher salary to convince them to, say, get out in the fields and pick fruit all day. This in turn would raise the price of fruit etc. dramatically.

Still, it’s a beautiful dream, and in an increasingly automated world, it’s one to keep an eye on. The promise is not simply to completely eliminate poverty, but to significantly increase wage equality. Some jobs are simply fun to do; there are people passionate about teaching, programming, engineering, and many other fields. Those positions won’t suffer under UBI. However, very few people have a true passion for being the graveyard shift clerk in a 24-hour gas station on the highway. Those sort of positions will simply have to automate, or pay more in order to stay staffed--a win for wage equality no matter how you cut it. In the meantime, you can expect a flowering of artistry and entrepreneurialism, as millions of people whose time had been consumed by jobs they hated now have the opportunity to do what they really wanted with their lives.

Within 20 years there will be no more truckers; as self-driving trucks catch on, those jobs will cease to exist. They won’t be the last field to be automated out of existence, either. Retraining after middle age is unlikely, and retiring too early is a huge financial risk. Do we just cast the affected individuals to the wind? I’d hope not. I’d dearly love to see a UBI worked out within my lifetime. What it really comes down to is what you want for your children: do only millionaires’ kids get to follow their passions, or should everyone’s?

In the meantime, I’m following my own passions, working as a freelance programmer. If you need a backend expert in Python or Rust, do get in touch!

Finally, US people: make sure you’re registered to vote, and then go do it. Please. Even if you disagree with my politics, voting is the only effective way you have to express that, other than significant political donations.

Peter Goodspeed-Niklaus
[email protected]
Würzburg, Germany

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