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The Humans of Basic Income Project, feat. Ontario Activist Jessie Golem

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Humans of Basic Income Project, feat. Ontario Activist Jessie Golem

Recently, as our listeners will know, the new administration in Ontario, Canada, announced that they will cancel the ongoing basic income trials there. In response, Jessie Golem, a photographer and basic income recipient, started a project called Humans of Basic Income (@HumansBasic on Twitter). Golem takes portraits of other basic income recipients in Ontario holding up handwritten signs describing what basic income has meant to them. The project both humanizes the basic income program and argues for it to continue. Jim spoke with Jessie Golem about the Ontario program and the Humans of Basic Income project.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: Recently, as listeners of this podcast will know, the Ontario Basic Income trials– there was announcement that they would be canceled. Now as of now, we have no details about when or how that’s going to happen, and so the recipients of basic income are pretty much left in limbo, wondering if they’re going to get their payment next month, next year, and so on. Since the announcement, a photographer, named Jessie Golem, started a project called Humans of Basic Income, in which she takes photos of basic income recipients in Ontario holding up a sign with a sentence or two about what basic income has meant to them. Since then, the project has completely taken off.

Jim: I had a chance to sit down with Jessie and talk to her about her experiences with this project and where she sees it going.

Owen: Here’s Jim and Jessie Golem on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: Jessie, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Jessie: Awesome. I’m excited.

Jim: Now, you run the Humans of Basic Income project, which is telling stories of participants in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot. Beyond that, you’re actually enrolled in the program yourself, correct?

Jessie: Yes, that is correct.

Jim: Can you tell us a bit about what your experience has been before and during the pilot?

Jessie: Yes, I worked four jobs before signing up for the pilot. I signed up in December, and I found out I got approved in February. I was working four jobs. It’s basically like I was up early in the morning and just working nonstop between all of my jobs and not really having time to make meals for myself or I’m just going home just to sleep and shower and that’s it and nothing else. It was just a very, very exhausting and frustrating existence. I was also finding that I was still just barely scraping by and still living paycheck to paycheck, but still feeling like I didn’t have time and the opportunity to pursue the things I want to do or focus my energies into the jobs I want to be doing.

When I got basic income, I dropped down from four jobs to two jobs. Those two jobs was on both building and managing my own business as a freelance photographer, so advertising, booking photo projects, doing the thing I love, and also I’m the operations manager at Photographers Without Borders. That’s a rapidly growing organization and in itself, it is a full-time job. It needs the energy and time to devote to it and basic income was buying me that energy and time to devote to growing PWB.

Jim: Wow. That sounds like exciting stuff. It would be a very positive shift to be able to really focus your energies in that way. As I think all of our listeners know, last month, the new Progressive Conservative Government of Ontario announced that they were canceling the pilot, despite having promised that they would not do so during the election.

Jessie: That is correct.

Jim: What was your reaction to that?

Jessie: I was devastated. Before the pilot had gotten canceled, there’s actually a series that the Huffington Post is putting out called No Strings Attached, where they were following a couple of different people in Ontario on the Basic Income Pilot, and I was actually one of the subjects that they were going to be following. They produced a number of videos. One of the videos is out already, it’s really good. It’s about this couple in Lindsay that started their own business, and they hadn’t done my video yet.

I was literally– an hour before they made the cancellation, I was talking on Facebook with the editor at Huffington Post about planning the video and having the shoot ready and what we were going to do. Literally, an hour later, she messaged me and said, “They’re winding down the program. I’m really sorry,” and I felt like the rug was just pulled out from underneath me, and I was devastated and furious. My dad called me later that day because he found out and he was like, “Jessie, just be calm.” I just started crying because I was just so upset and so angry. I realized that I have this relationship with Huffington and I have a platform and I have this ability. I’m not going down without a fight. I want Doug Ford to know my name, and I want him to know how angry I am.

I wrote an opinion piece for Huffington Post. I did a number of radio interviews. Then I started contacting people in my city, which is Hamilton. I went to Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, and they ended up going to Queen’s Park where I participated in a press conference there. Somewhere along that line, I got the idea for the portrait series. This was both inspired by my work at Photographers Without Borders because our big mandate is amplifying people’s voices and using the power of visual storytelling to communicate change.

I recognize here that my story is just one story but there are 3,999 other stories out there of people who were using basic income to get themselves out of poverty or start new careers or go back to school or move into safer living or like so many really, really good things that would contribute to our society in a positive way. I realized I could tell those stories. Then, I just started reaching out on social media, putting call-outs on community groups on Facebook and everything.

As soon as I got a couple of portraits started and people could start to see what I was doing and see the vision of what I was doing, that’s when the ball started rolling. More people kept on coming forward to me and wanting to get their portrait taken. I would set up times where I would meet up with a group of people and take all their portraits or go to their places and meet them personally and take their portraits. It’s just kinda gotten the ball rolling from there and the momentum has been growing.

From there, I shared it on my personal Facebook, and then one of my friends got the idea of doing social media. We created a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I’ve been posting all the pictures on there and telling all these stories. The impact has been tremendous. It’s really taken a life of its own. It’s grown beyond me, which is beautiful to see.

Jim: I think, so often when you hear public conversations around basic income, it tends to be more mired in the economics and larger systemic view of things.

Jessie: Very policy-oriented.

Jim: Exactly. I think part of that is because, in general, up until now it has been more of a hypothetical. You don’t actually have these real cases. I would say, personally, it’s inspiring me to see actually, “Oh, this is a human policy. This is actually affecting people’s lives and actually–”

Jessie: We’re directly negatively affected by this cancellation because they had plans. There were people I’ve met who have had three-year plans that were going to use this money to do this, that, or the other, but now, those plans are suddenly canceled. The other thing I need to point out is that the Conservative government hasn’t communicated anything to anyone. Like I said, I found out because of the editor of Huffington Post told me. Nobody got any letter in the mail, nobody got an email or a phone call, nothing.

Nobody knows what this looks like moving forward. When they say that– the Conservative government keeps on saying that they’re going to do a compassionate wind-down but leaving 4,000 people completely in the dark wondering, “Am I going to get money this month? I don’t know.” They’re terrified because they’re depending on it. It’s not compassionate, it’s evil. It’s horrible.

Jim: It’s almost the exact opposite, going from actually full security to suddenly complete insecurity as to where your life will be in a week or a month.

Jessie: Yes, exactly, and not giving anybody any adequate time to plan for what happens next. I know for myself, I haven’t had a moment to think about what is plan B. I haven’t thought about plan B yet, and partly because I’ve been so busy doing this portrait series, but I also think emotionally for me, part of doing the portrait series is avoiding having to think about plan B and think about the reality that the Conservative government has forced me into.

Jim: Now, as you’ve talked to other basic income recipients, have there been things that have stood out in your conversations? Anything that surprised you or seemed particularly noteworthy?

Jessie: Yes, it’s honestly been one of the most heartbreaking photo series I have ever done. Everybody I have talked to has all expressed about the sense of helplessness and fury about what’s happened and like, “Well, what can we do now? We can’t speak up.” When I’m coming to them and saying, “Hold this sign. Write your story on it,” it’s giving them a voice. People have been really thankful that I’ve been coming to them.

I had one encounter that was particularly heartbreaking. It was an older gentleman and after I took his picture, he just– a few minutes, I was working with some other people getting their portraits, and he just shuffled up to me, and he was like, “Jesse, I have a question. I’m really afraid of the answer.” He looks genuinely afraid. There’s this older man fellow talking to me, and then he’s like, “Am I going to get this month’s payments?” Just that kind of fear and that really struck me because I was just like, “Wow, we’re all in the same boat.” I had to look at him and say, “I think we are, but I don’t know.” To have to say that to him was really, really heartbreaking.

There were other people. Actually, a person who– actually, outside of all this, she’s a very good friend of mine. She was studying. She’s going to school for manual therapy and osteopathy, but she’s also working as a bartender. It’s like she’s working all night and closing up bars and then waking bright and early and going to school all week. To have to return to that life is going to be exhausting for her. I also know another person I met is living in a motel. She is washing her dishes out of her bathroom sink and doesn’t have– it’s just not an adequate living situation whatsoever.

She was saying, “Thank God, I was going to get an apartment, and if I had gotten an apartment, I would be homeless right now.”

Jim: Wow. That is intense.

Jessie: To see that and to be encountered like this is, this is what poverty in Canada looks like. This had an opportunity to get this small group of people out of poverty, and you’re just taking it away without any– any of the reasons that they are using to justify doesn’t have any research or citation to back it up. There isn’t actually a reason, and they aren’t providing us any information.

Jim: Now, I realized that you may not have had a whole lot of time to figure this out. I’m curious, do you have a sense at this point as to where you hope this project will go in the shorter and maybe longer term?

Jessie: I’m hoping that it changes public opinion. I’m hoping that in the long term, it opens up a very real conversation about poverty and the stigma around poverty. A big thing I’ve noticed especially advocating for basic income and doing this project is that there’s a lot of very dehumanizing vernacular when it comes to talking about people in poverty. People have called me a parasite or a leech or saying that I’m stealing taxpayers’ money. That kind of language, it’s dehumanizing in a sense that you aren’t a human, you’re a parasite, you’re a leech, and your humanity is only dependent on your ability to economically contribute to the society.

I’m hoping by bringing these stories forward and saying, “These people are working. I am working. I’m managing a rapidly growing international not-for-profit.” I’d like to think that the work I’m doing is good and justifiable work. Other people are working and were using this to better their lives. They aren’t using it as an excuse to be lazy or sit around and play video games all day or whatever it is. It was an opportunity, not an excuse to build and better their lives.

I’m hoping that helps to change the stigma and change the conversation because especially in these times when we have people like Doug Ford or Donald Trump in positions of power that utilize tactics of fear and misinformation and ignorance and propaganda to further their agendas, I feel like that kind of vernacular is very divisive and polarizing and can be very dangerous in the long run, and very violent. I want to be able to shift away from that.

Another goal of this is obviously, to get the pilot back or to get some sort of remuneration or compensation for the damages that are caused. I am working with people in Thunder Bay, Lindsay, and Hamilton in discussions about what a class action lawsuit would look like, which actually one was just filed yesterday by four people in the city of Lindsay. We’re looking at that and also trying to put pressure both on the government, on the Conservative government so that this is widely denounced as a very bad and very unpopular move to bring it back or to see if the federal government would take up the project, which would be in everybody’s best interest.

Jim: I’ve been still impressed to see how much is happening there in response to that announcement. We had a chance to talk with Sheila Regehr a couple of weeks back, and she was talking about some of the things is in her work. That seems like a really big deal. There’s actually legal actions that’s moving ahead now as well.

Those were all the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jessie: Yes. I just want to say in terms of what you were saying about like you’re impressed with everything that’s happened, I think the biggest thing that would contribute to the success of this whole movement is that we maintain a united front. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in cooperating and collaborating with everybody is keeping everybody on the same lines of communication and saying that “We need to be united, we have the same goals. Let’s not fragment ourselves, because if we do, it won’t be successful. If we have one united front and we come to the government with one strong voice, then we can make a change.”

I’m seeing it happen right now with the exposure that it is getting and all of the attention that it is getting. I do feel cautiously optimistic for a positive outcome for this. Again, it is all about amplifying voices and the power of storytelling to create change. It’s been a huge blessing for me to be in a position to be able to amplify these voices and tell these stories in a platform where people are listening.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Jessie Golem on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: I would say Ontario is a fairly rare instance in the UBI space where just generally, we’re seeing more of the human side of basic income, because you’ve actually had recipients. And just seeing the pushback that’s come from there, I think that it has just broadly felt like there is– it’s more of a people issue.

But I think with Jessie’s project, that’s just being taken to next level. Like you’re actually seeing these first-hand accounts of how people’s lives were actually changed and what it will mean to them if this program was canceled. I think as we’ve talked about many times before, it’s hard to overstate what impact these sorts of stories I think could have on the basic income debate going forward.

Owen: Yes, it’s really true. I think when you have a program where it’s like, “We built a school, and we created a mentorship program,” and so on and so forth, that basically creates a story in your head without any more details. Or if you just say we gave someone money that feels like the first sentence, and we don’t know what happens after that, but you know Jessie’s project is showing what happens after that. It’s a lot of very uplifting results and hopefully, it can keep on.

Jim: I’m very curious to see as this grows, how elected officials are going to react if there is the potential that they may change their mind and particularly with this lawsuit as well. It seems like there are efforts from all fronts, so hopefully, they are able to change what happens. I’m also curious to see over the longer term how this affects the ways that different organizations decide to engage around basic income.

Certainly, in the US, my sense in Canada as well is there has been or at least had been still a lot of skepticism around the idea of unconditional cash and that it wasn’t necessarily a good way to support people. Now that we have these stories out there, it’ll be really interesting to see if folks there change their mind as well.

Owen: She is creating a lot of really good data points, just really humanizing the program because I think we’re often just waiting for the program to finish, the analysis to come and then some paper where we say, “Aha, look, great, positive results!” And that’s three years after the initial program began. And this is– it’s instant, it’s human, you look at the picture and you see right away. Even just looking at their faces, there’s something about just having that visual, you’d say, “Oh, of course, this person is– their life is made better by a little bit of income security.”

Jim: Right.

Owen: This makes it very intuitive.

Jim: Absolutely. As Jessie said, if folks want to be supporting now, a great way to do this is to be sharing new stories because they are being posted online. You can be sharing them on your social media as well, sending them to friends. If you’re not already, you can follow Humans of Basic Income on Twitter. It’s @HumansBasic, all one word, and see what stories have been posted and help get those stories out there.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please rate and review us on Apple Podcast or the service of your choice and subscribe while you’re there if you’re not already. And tell your friends; we are always looking to bring more people into this conversation. We’ll talk to you next week.

Combining Basic Income with a Jobs Guarantee, feat. Alyssa Battistoni

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Combining Basic Income with a Jobs Guarantee, feat. Alyssa Battistoni

Basic income and jobs guarantee are often juxtaposed as two policies that are mutually exclusive, politically or policy-wise. Alyssa Battistoni, writing for In These Times, suggests that both are worth fighting for, and that the two policies could work in concert. Battistoni, a PhD student at Yale in Political Theory and editorial board member of Jacobin, spoke with Jim on how these two policies might work together.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Many of you have probably heard a lot recently about the idea of a job guarantee: a proposal where, rather than just giving people cash, the government would actually provide them with some sort of decent job that gives them a good wage and good benefits. There’s been more discussion about that from some Democratic candidates running for office, and the idea does seem to be picking up some steam.

Owen: Jim had a conversation with Alyssa Battistoni, a PhD student at Yale and contributor to Dissent, n+1, and Jacobin, on the idea that a jobs guarantee and a basic income are not necessarily mutually oppositional. Here’s Jim’s conversation with Alyssa Battistoni.

Jim: Alyssa, thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Alyssa: Thanks for having me.

Jim: There’s been an increasingly heated debate over the last few years between the ideas of universal basic income — providing everyone with unconditional cash at a level sufficient to bring them above the poverty line — and the idea of a job guarantee program, which would aim to provide a job with a living wage and decent benefits to any person in the country who wanted one. People generally seem to view these as two competing proposals for how to guarantee economic security to everyone.

You recently wrote a piece for In These Times that propose a combination of the two might actually be the best of both worlds. Can you walk us through your thinking there around the hybrid proposal?

Alyssa: Sure. As you say, the job guarantee/basic income debate has become a very contentious debate on the left, and these are rival ideas of how to solve the problem of unemployment, particularly after 2008 and the rise in unemployment that resulted. There are sometimes phrases: “full employment” as the job guarantee proposal or “full unemployment” being the UBI where people say, “There’s not work to do, we would we just make jobs?”

It’s always seemed to me that these are proposals that are trying to address the same problem essentially and that there are a lot of things that could be more complimentary, it doesn’t have to be completely opposed. I think there are a few ways to think about that. In the In These Times debate, there was one proposal for, one set of authors making a case for the job guarantee then another author making a case for basic income.

The case for basic income in that instance, this is Matt Bruenig arguing that UBI is a good thing. His version of the UBI is not intended as an income replacement or to be at the level of a full– to basically provide a full income to everybody. That’s premised on a more claim– the UBI is like a claim to public resources.

Obviously, the most famous example of this is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which always comes up in UBI debates. Matt Bruenig says everyone should have a claim to national resources of whatever kind. The most prominent examples are typically oil, gas, and mineral resources.

That’s actually something that I have a complaint with because I come to this from the prospect of thinking about environmental issues, climate change and wanting to use political economy and economic programs to address climate change. Thinking, I don’t want us to build a new set of universal social benefits on the back of fossil fuel. That seems like a bad idea to me.

But you could certainly imagine a version that was almost going the other direction, that I was trying to tax resource depletion or make other kinds of claims to public resources that aren’t necessarily extractive industries, up to and including things like– there’s been some proposals to do a version of that for the rents coming out of patents and things like government subsidies and so on. That would just be a more of everyone gets the money as a claim to public resources and you could pair that with some jobs program.

I also frankly think that you could just have a much more robust UBI that is actually an income replacement. If people really also wanted to work– job guarantee people say, “Well, people want to work, and we need to create jobs because everyone wants a job, and it’s good for people’s well-being.” I’m like, “Okay, if people want to work they can go get a job on top of their basic income.” That seems technically complementary possible.

The obvious problem is money: where these come from, how you do both. That is really the problem with certainly doing both UBI and job guarantee or with doing either comes in is the problem of politics and power and where we’re actually going to get those things for these both potentially quite radical transformative programs, how we can actually realize is a big question.

Jim: Yes. Definitely. I’m curious, what reactions have you gotten to your piece and to your proposal? Have you heard from both basic income and job guarantee proponents on how they feel about it?

Alyssa: On my argument that these can be complementary, I was pleasantly surprised, honestly, to mostly have people say they appreciated a perspective that was not as firmly in one camp or the other, that you can have some version that recognizes some of the complementarity. Part of that is also that neither is going to solve all the problems. For a while, there’s been UBI as the utopia that will fix all these problems, like Rutger Bregman’s book last year, Utopia For Realists, has this account of how a UBI will fix tons of problems from depression to climate change and so on. You see the same thing from the job guarantee folks a lot. It’s going to solve income inequality and racial disparity and all these things.

Both of them have the potential to make inroads and certainly policies matter, but frankly, I don’t think either of them is likely to just wipe away all the problems of contemporary American life and so we should take that into account. Certainly, the job guarantee idea is in ascendance on the policy left right now, and there’s been some proposals put out recently.

People have been amenable to particularly the environmental and climate critique of potentially– you have to be very careful what kinds of jobs you are creating and not just do a job creation and “any job is a good job” sense, which job guarantee is not necessarily saying, but the kind of language around just “jobs are good” can be the message. That, I think, is not a good message to be putting out. People recognize that they’re important points on both sides if you really make that case. I hope that we can do that.

Jim: Yes. I can certainly understand the appeal. If there are a lot of people out there who feel strongly that, “I don’t just want financial support. I need, I want to have a job. I want to have meaning, and I don’t have a path the one right now.” Then that certainly seems attractive from the perspective of a job guarantee because you are then guaranteeing it.

One concern I have—this actually is something that’s been raised by Matt Bruenig, and I’m curious if you have thoughts here. I do get the sense that there often are a conflation of two different programs in job guarantee discussions, at least, if not proposals: one being setting up the federal government as the Employer of Last Resort for anyone who can’t find a job, at least a job they like, in the private sector could always look to the government for work. Effectively a public option for jobs, and that’s where guarantee aspect of the program comes from.

The second being a large public works program, which if we’re talking about repairing crumbling infrastructure, tackling big projects that move us towards a green economy, generally important work that isn’t actually being handled through the private market today. So a new WPA, effectively. I think those both seem like really interesting proposals, but they also seem different because the Employer of Last Resort—inherently, if you have a guarantee, you can’t have a litmus test on experience or skills. Whereas if you want to take on big infrastructure, you probably do want people who have a lot of experience and skills if we’re actually going to do that right. I don’t know, is that something you’ve thought about? Do you have thoughts on that distinction?

Alyssa: Totally agree that that is an important distinction to make, and I also agree that that sometimes it’s conflated in discussions around job guarantee where it’s jobs programs that– it seems often there is an idea of a major jobs program that would also function as a job guarantee but also going above and beyond a job guarantee in many ways. Frankly, I have this feeling that there is a lot of work that doesn’t need to be done. We should figure out ways to move out of that and diminish work overall and let people have time for other things.

I also recognize that there’s a lot of work that we should be doing. I think actually quite a lot of that is, there’s both short-term jobs program, like short- to medium- term, like you said, infrastructural projects and things like that where you would want people who were committed to a project for the duration of the project. I also think there’s some very long-term jobs we might want to secure or work we want to make sure was done that the government was creating basically permanent jobs in or permanent work in, like a lot of the care proposals.

There’s been more recent job guarantee proposals: [the proposal] from Stephanie Kelton and Paulina Tcherneva has been very emphatic on care for people, planet, and communities, which I am totally on board with as modes of work. I think it’s very important to be supporting that work and giving decent jobs with decent wages and all that in that work.

I also think that that should be very long-term, not a tailored to cycles of the business cycle or job creation and unemployment or whatever. I want to just be like, “Okay, we’re just making a bunch of jobs, and they’re just going to be that and actually jobs that are good enough to crowd out a lot of private employment.”

I imagine there’s ways to design a job guarantee that has some overlap with a broader jobs program that could function together, but I do think sometimes the job guarantee has become the New Deal / WPA type thing, and I agree they seem like distinctive things, and I also would like to make sure that we– I think sometimes the job guarantee, in the less transformative versions of it, functions as a backstop to private sector job creation, and it’s one that does give people and workers more security certainly, more ability to demand higher wages and better jobs and so on. This doesn’t really control what kinds of jobs or seem to care what jobs are being created in the private sector.

If you think, as I do, that a lot of private sector jobs we don’t want to encourage, or we would like to replace private sector work with things that we think need doing like care for people and planet like that. It would be good to crowd out private sector employment in some respects. I think sometimes the job guarantee proposals I’ve seen or just like different ones have more or less of “This will stimulate private sector growth and employment and just be a place for people to hide out for a while while the private sector creates more jobs, and then they can get whatever job the private sector has created” versus “We have an economic and social agenda that we’ll try to– we’ll try to merge an economic and social agenda through the job guarantee.” I’m more favorable to that, but it’s certainly a more demanding proposal and one that I think goes beyond that base level.

Jim: Right, it does seem as though– while all of us are clearly thinking far beyond what is politically possible today, we do have our own internal thresholds, or it’s like, “Whoa, okay, no, that’s too big of an idea. Can’t have that combination or can’t have that particular approach.” I feel like there’s some interesting arguments that arise as a result of those different perspectives.

That was certainly also something that came up when I had my conversation with Jared Bernstein last year about his thinking on job guarantee is that he at times– and he recognized this during the conversation, but said, “We’re suspending political disbelief, but only to a point.” Where that leaves us is always interesting to see.

Alyssa: Yes, and it’s hard, because I think it’s important to have distant horizon utopian type ideas that are what we’re working towards and also some more pragmatic short-term view of how to get there. It’s one of the things that has been tricky in getting UBI off the ground, it seems to me, it feels like the left version of it feels so utopian, people can’t imagine how you would make it happen in the short term. it’s rethinking so much about work and production and how we expect that to function that it’s an easier sell politically in many ways to be like “Well, you get a job, and you contribute to society, and you get your good wage” and stuff like that.

I think there are ways to do that that are not totally just reinvesting in the dignity of work and work as the means to all social welfare that I think would be important to try to integrate into the job guarantee rhetoric. I also took the point that it’s hard to totally transform where people think about work and income very fast. That’s fair.

Jim: Right. With basic income, you’re not just talking policy change, you’re talking culture change.

Alyssa: Yes. Which I think needs to happen, but I also get that it will take a while and so figuring out ways to continue to not cede the ground of social rights and universal benefits and so on, while also recognizing that there is a long way to go to get– if anything, it sometimes seems like things that we’re retrenched since things like welfare reform and so on have demonized recipients of benefits as undeserving and so on.

Jim: On that note, you wrote explicitly in your article about the hybrid proposal that one of the main thing was that attracted you to basic income was that idea of separating livelihood from jobs. When I’ve talked to other basic income advocates, my strong sense is that is a powerful underlying driver for much of the support of the policy.

I think that maybe why there’s been such a strong negative response from many in the basic income space to the idea of the job guarantee program, because they do see that going in the opposite direction, and if folks — and I include myself in this as well — would like to see that conception of deservedness be decoupled from having paid jobs and that job guarantee is moving away from that, then that’s obviously a reason to not be supportive of the policy.

Then my question is, for the hybrid policy, let’s say that we could make this happen. I’m curious to get your thoughts in that scenario, do you think there would be then a natural shift towards separating deservedness from work or from paid jobs if that was an option for people or might we end up just entrenching these two camps of thought and we’d have the Sharks and Jets ongoing?

Alyssa: Yes. I definitely worry that the latter will happen, because it’s more politically palatable in the short term to do a kind of like “you get income if you do a job” thing, which people say everyone needs to do work, like it says in the piece. If the idea is everyone needs to contribute to society then that would be more like a mandatory work requirement program.

If you have a trust fund, you also have to get off your butt and go take care of the elderly or whatever, but it’s not that. It is explicitly to access livelihoods, you get a job and so that I do worry about. One of the things that I’ve been thinking is that there are certainly ways to structure for a job guarantee and basic income that oriented in different directions in terms of what vision of society it is holding up and aiming to achieve.

I do think that there are ways to try to use a job guarantee to put forth a different idea about what we think work is, how much work people should have to do, in a way that might be able to have a conception of work that’s more limited, that’s more widely distributed. I do think that that will be a political challenge.

Even if you have it like you have a reasonably, a lower reduced-hour work week or something and a high wage for reduced hours and increased leisure time and all of these things that have historically been part of Left approaches to work. You can have all of those things, but still, at the end of the day, to get access to these things and you have to have a job.

I still think that is a thing that we should try to– but that’s just going to be part of the job guarantee, so I do think that it’s very important to also be defending certainly what remains of welfare provision in the country, but I think also trying to advance that and to think about ways that we can increase access to unconditional benefits or even like semi-conditional benefits, like the child allowance is often discussed as a good kind of UBI adjacent policy. Obviously not everyone has a child and will unconditionally receive the child allowance, but just things that are increased social benefits.

One thing I mentioned in the piece that I also think is an interesting idea and have actually heard discussed very little in the US is the idea of universal basic services, which is people having access to public housing, free public transportation, and food stamps. A lot of the things that you actually need to live that you would have freely available.

I think it always can be helpful in solving some of the problems of the basic income, which are if you get X amount of money and then the private sector hikes up the cost of healthcare, housing so much that you can’t afford those things. This is one of the ongoing debates. If you just do in-kind service or good provision, people can still have the basics that they need to live whether or not it’s called income. Then that also seems compatible with a job guarantee. At the same time, it’s like– I still feel like at the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to try to make them more– to recognize that there are– to have a job guarantee that’s not just like “work is the greatest good of society.”

At the end of the day, I still think it’s crucial to insist that you shouldn’t have to have a job to be able to live and to have an income that you can live on, and all of that, and that your access to a livelihood. An economic mode that is premised on a lot of people not having access to a livelihood, that shouldn’t be at the basis of whether you’re able to live a decent life. I think it’s very important for the Left to insist on that, especially if we’re going for the job guarantee.

Jim: Your note on Universal Basic Services brings up an interesting point, which is beyond the question of deservedness, whether you have a job or not, one of the other, I would say, strong underlying drivers in the basic income space is the idea of choice. A lot of this, I think, has been certainly at least fueled by some of the research around unconditional cash that’s been done by GiveDirectly on others in developing nations.

Different people view it even more through a pragmatic lens or more through a moral lens, but it is often better to give people support in a way where they decide for themselves how they use that support. Hence the preference for cash over the services. Because with cash, yes, you are subscribing then to a capitalist market, but that provides a way for people then to choose for themselves, “Do I spend this on food? Do I spend this on rent? Do I spend this taking my kids to Disneyland?” That has a substantial value in itself. I’m curious what your thoughts are about that?

Alyssa: I’m sympathetic to that in some ways. I’m also suspicious of it in that I like both. I think a lot of the critique of certain aspects of the welfare state that come from the Left and from welfare recipients are around the paternalism of the welfare state and the 60’s and so on, where single mothers are being given a hard time by bureaucrats who are telling them how they should take care of their children and treating them like they don’t know what to do.

There certainly is a lot of that. I think actually, one of the reasons to make access to certain benefits more universal, coming with less terms attached is to minimize the degree to which you have people having to jump through hoops to get access to the things they need.

I guess my concern with the framework of choice is less that people shouldn’t be able to choose things. It’s more a couple of things. One is just the way that I think choice has become so– I think the framework of consumer choice comes very strongly out of a lot of neoliberal policy thinkers. This is the free-to-choose as Milton Friedman’s classic idea. It just frames the greatest decision-making power you have is as a consumer in the market and that is where your choice really lies.

I’m a little wary of just creating a program that’s like, “Okay. Well, that’s our paradigmatic value is.” Everyone has the freedom to choose in this sense that that means you get dollars to spend in the market. I do think that there are ways to be free to choose things about your life that if you have access to a set of things including housing, I don’t think that means that housing says you have to live in X place or Y place.

Hopefully, there’s ways to both choice into access to public goods and services, like free public transportation. You can choose where you go. There are many ways to think about choice that aren’t just like, “Here’s a dollar. Where are you going to spend it?” I do think the concern about what happens when people have a basic income and the price of goods is too high for you to choose those things.

Choice in the marketplace depends on how much money you have and how much money other people have to spend on things. I think that especially housing markets and healthcare seem like the most problematic for that. it can be so extreme if your choices are between two extremely expensive health care plans.

This is getting into the more like basic income as a replacement for all welfare state provision, but which is advanced under the banner of choice. It’s like, “Well, people can choose how they spend their money. If they don’t want to buy a health insurance, why should they have to?” Then you’re like, “What happens when people choose not to but they have cancer?” I think I would like to step back from that as the paradigmatic framework for how we think about how we choose things and what that means or what kinds of action that entails.

Jim: I do think your example with health care is a good point because most basic income advocates I know favor a single-payer solution on that. They don’t view healthcare as something that should fall under the auspices of what would be covered in the basic income, specifically because price is so variable that you’ve effectively eliminated choice on the supply side. From my perspective, a pure solution in either direction is very problematic. The question is, where do you draw the line as to what the market actually can handle versus what society should be providing directly.

I think this is a good segue into talking about– you mentioned in your recent piece that you’ve grown more wary of UBI, as you mentioned earlier in the conversation as well, as it’s gained prominence, in particular, due to who the visible champions are and some of the details of the policies being proposed. That touches back to your piece last year, The False Promise of Universal Basic Income, where you were cautioning those on the Left about supporting the policy. I thought you raised some really important points in that piece. Would you be able to just generally walk through your thinking around that?

Alyssa: Sure. Yes, this is a piece slightly misleadingly titled, because it’s more like “some warnings about potential basic income” rather than like “it’s a false promise totally.” However, I am more skeptical. I’d written a previous piece arguing for a UBI as a way to break the growth-job cycle and environmental climate proposal. I was like, “Okay, there’s been all this stuff coming out about basic income. I should see where the debate’s going” and so on.

As I was following the debate as it went on, I got more and more nervous that some of the rhetoric I was hearing, and particularly coming out of—not just rhetoric, but the policy ideas people are putting forward. I think particularly seeing how popular it was amongst Silicon Valley venture capitalist types, gave me real pause. One of the things that UBI people always bring up is that it has supporters on the left and right and there’s these different ideological trajectories. Maybe that makes it potential– you have this potential “big tent” of UBI supporters or something.

I don’t think the fact that there are people in the right who have supported a basic income idea disqualifies it at all. There are very distinctive versions. I was like, “What is going on here?” The more I came to think reading, for example, Andy Stern’s recent book, Raising The Floor on basic income, that it was being proposed basically as– for some people, it is a techno-futurist solution to automation, and there will only be a few gig economy jobs and then what are we going to do with all these masses of unemployed. There are these different competing anxieties about “Will the masses come for us wealthy venture capitalists? We should throw them some UBI to keep them calm.”

That is not I what I’m looking for in the UBI. There’s an idea of UBI as a way to basically have a baseline for the very low wages of the gig economy. You could be an Uber driver and make whatever crappy wages — they’re not even technically wages because they aren’t technically employees. You can make whatever you make on a ride, but the government will backstop that basically. It seemed like a public subsidy to shitty paying private sector jobs, which I think is also not whatever I want UBI to do.

Things that are along these lines, that are positing that basic income as a way to stave off a more egalitarian political economic framework and to deal with the problems of automation. That made me concerned and the thing that I came to think a bit about UBI is that the idea of it as you sometimes see in, for example, in Rutger Bregman’s book, that presents that was rational post-ideological idea that’s solution oriented or it just makes sense as a policy proposal and it doesn’t have an ideological valence, sometimes seems like the good thing about it, but I came to think it was not the good thing about it.

I think that there are a lot of ideological components built into different conceptions of the UBI, and it’s really important to articulate those. My version is actually very different from this other one, and it’s not just the same because we both think a basic income is good. Andy Stern has this imagined debate between Charles Murray and Martin Luther King, Jr., which I found baffling, kind of offensive, that they actually agreed on more than they disagreed on because they thought a basic income was good.

No, I just don’t think that’s true. I think people who are coming at this from the left. I really don’t want to say because there’s a few– because there are people want version of the basic income that I don’t like, this poisons the thing, in the same way that I don’t think that whatever Republicans trying to attach work requirements to food stamps should disqualify job guarantee proposals, which are not trying to do that, even though they both potentially have this work-oriented mode of accessing benefits.

But I think it’s important to be aware of that, to make clear distinctions. I wrote this piece saying, “Here are the things that concern me about the basic income.” I think in this more recent piece, I’m trying to remind the people who are firmly in the job guarantee camp to also be aware of those same things, because I don’t think that job guarantee proposals are workfare, but as people on the Right are calling for workfare, i.e. requiring work to access welfare and other kinds of benefits, that will be something that seeps into that debate whether people on the Left like it or not.

I think we just need to be aware of who are the people who will try to get in on the proposals we’re putting forth, how they will transform from the ideas we come up with and the ideal version – “this is all the good things about it, and this is how it could work.” Those things will change through the political process and particularly when…

Jim: The sausage gets made?

Alyssa: Yes, the sausage is not pretty as it gets made, but also we are not powerful enough like the people who have a Left UBI or Left jobs guarantee to just implement the one we want right now. Right-wing Republicans are very much in power right now, and it is going to be very hard to achieve the utopian vision of either of our policies. I think it’s important to remember how that might shift as things go through the political wringer.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Alyssa Battistoni on The Basic Income Podcast.

What I found interesting and insightful about that was that both basic income and jobs guarantee– they are aspirational proposals, and some of the detail can get left out sometimes. I think with both there is the small version and the big version, I’ll call them, where with jobs guarantee there’s, as you described it, there is the Job of Last Resort, where if you can’t find something else, you would still have this, and then there is the idea that you would be able to have a good, middle-class job through a jobs guarantee program.

Those are very different proposals. With basic income, you might see something with a few hundred dollars, maybe up to a thousand, or a true income replacement of $30,000, $50,000 a year or something like that. I think for jobs guarantees, those are very different proposals. For basic income, it is the same idea just more. Maybe people will disagree on that, but I found it instructive just to think through that.

Jim: Yes, I think that’s right. I think you see these different ideas out there, and depending the details you have it, it does make a really big difference. I think that– and this is certainly not true for every job guarantee advocate, you do hear people out there who are very specific in the version that they’re pushing. But there is sometimes this general conflation, and people wrap this up into some big general idea of a policy and then talk about what things that maybe some form of a job guarantee could potentially solve, but it all gets muddled into one.

I think that it does a disservice, I would say, to the idea of a job guarantee because it doesn’t allow you to really understand, “Alright, what are we talking about here? How does this connect to our core values?” It becomes hard to really have a good discussion on that in that case.

Owen: Yes, I think you can get away with it, when it’s a very far off thing, but now it’s being proposed by Democratic candidates for the House and State offices. Yes, I think it’s time to pick a path if you’re one of those people.

Jim: That’s not to say that we need every detail answered, because you can obviously make the same critique with basic income. There is a lot of specific questions that if someone were to say, “Ok, go. What is your national policy?” We wouldn’t have necessarily specific answers to. But I do think particularly the difference between Employer of Last Resort and just the general public works program, it’s not that those are details, those are really different policies. I really would like to see people make that distinction when they do talk about this.

Owen: One other question I would throw in there for a jobs guarantee people is, is this a program that works anywhere, where you live? Do the jobs come to you essentially? Or is there a difference between maybe a more robust public works thing that you might have to travel to and the guaranteed jobs is where you are? I think there are different ways to structure that and potentially some different good ideas in there, but that is a question that always comes to my mind.

Jim: Yes, I feel like most proposals I’ve seen have talked about local jobs, so that seems to be the thrust. But I think that’s also a good follow-up point, which is, if you are considering bigger infrastructure projects, that does likely require more people to move, so yet another reason why it doesn’t fit cleanly into an Employer of Last Resort model.

All that said, I think it’s important to say I personally agree with Alyssa. I don’t think that job guarantee and basic income have to be oppositional. I think that you could absolutely imagine a hybrid proposal where you provide a job to people who want them but then everyone is getting basic income, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If people actually like these jobs and want to take them, okay, they can do that. If not, they have basic income and can figure out their own path.

Owen: Yes, I feel like part of the opposition between these two ideas is the sense that we only have room for one big idea and that they address similar problems. But absolutely on a policy level, I’m just imagining how things would play out, there’s no reason these can’t fit together in the same world.

Jim: Just thinking politically, if you are a supporter of basic income, I think that there is very good reason not to come out hard against job guarantee or at least insist upon leaning into that in debates. because if we are talking about people who are in the general bucket of “thinking outside the box on how we actually guaranteed economic security for everyone,” there is going to be a good chunk of folks who maybe they were first introduced to the job guarantee, that’s what they are used to and so that’s what they advocate for. They could potentially be very open to basic income, but if it’s presented in a way that actually starts with their values, not as, “your idea is terrible, this is better” and so it becomes — it could really galvanize people into these two camps an unproductive way, I think.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. We are back, so we’ll have more episodes in your feed soon, and we’ll talk to you next week.

Bringing UBI into the Public Discourse, feat. Annie Lowrey

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Bringing UBI into the Public Discourse, feat. Annie Lowrey

Annie Lowrey, Contributing Editor at the Atlantic, has caused a buzz with her new book “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.” In addition to the book itself, she has furthered the conversation with a recent New York Times op-ed and an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. She joined the podcast to discuss her book and the reactions it’s received.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

One big recent development in the basic income space was the release of a new book. Give People Money: How A Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, And Remake The World is a new book from Annie Lowrey. We’ve had Annie on the past talking about some of the journalistic work that she did around the GiveDirectly experiments in Kenya, but this book is making quite a splash. We thought it might make sense to talk to her again and hear a bit more about her experience with that, and what thinking went into it.

Owen: Here for the second time on the podcast is Annie Lowrey. She’s a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic and author of Give People Money. Welcome, Annie.

Annie: Thanks so much for having me back, guys.

Owen: Yes, I should mention you are, I think, our first repeat guest ever on the podcast, so that’s kind of cool too.

Annie: I am honored.

Owen: By writing this book, you are now very publicly identified with the basic income movement. What made you decide to throw your full weight behind basic income?

Annie: I think as you guys know and folks who read the book, although I feel like the listeners of your podcasts are so probably deep in the weeds on this that there’s not too much you can possibly tell them about it, but there had been a number of things that were written about basic income from an argued perspective. People who are really concerned about technological unemployment, really concerned about stronger anti-poverty measures, or looking at it from a green perspective, or even like a philosophical perspective.

The idea was to do a journalistic look on for folks who maybe have heard of it but didn’t know much about it, maybe had never heard of it. To write for a more generalized audience. As you guys know, and I’ve covered extensively, there’s just so much interest. I feel like it’s like every day or every week you hear about a new proposal, a new pilot, something going forward. It just feels like there’s just so much momentum behind it.

That’s a really fun thing. Very often economic policy is kind of a really slow burn. To see something rapidly developing in this way is really exciting and really fun to watch.

Jim: On a related note, talking about some of the past books that folks have written on basic income, often times the titles are more broad value statements, something like “Fair Shot” or “In Our Hands.” You went very direct: “Give People Money”. I’m curious, was that tied into thinking about who your audience was here? I’m curious what led to that decision.

Annie: Yes, I think that there in the United States is so much kind of– there’s almost like a philosophical objection to this idea that the government should ever just give people money despite the fact that through how many hundreds of programs in a lot of cases that is what it should do or is doing. Despite the evidence that in a lot of cases that is what it should be doing, as opposed to giving them in-kind benefits.

I feel like it just gets to the argument at the heart of the book, which is that, we have progressive government that redistributes income, but very often we have this really deep-rooted cultural and philosophical objection to just giving people cash, despite there being such fantastic evidence on how powerful a thing that can be.

It was somebody in my publisher who was like, “Oh, I like the title ‘Give People Money’. It’s just eye-catching.” Because we’d gone through a bunch of titles, but that was the one that they felt was gripping. Which was is I think the literal reason that it got picked.

Owen: Yes, so speaking of how people think about basic income, and there’s the philosophy behind it, you obviously know the political landscape around this really well, but I’m wondering if any of reactions of the book have surprised you.

Annie: Yes, I think I flipped in the book to anticipate a lot of knee jerk reactions that people have. It being too expensive is a pretty central one and one that I think that you can rebut pretty strongly in the US. People really get caught up on that, but I just wanted to get out in front of that one and some of the other ones, the usual suspects about work and about the idea of getting something for nothing, which I obviously think is problematic just in its construction.

A lot of the response, I’ve been really happy. One thing in writing in the book was I wanted it to be instead of sort of an argument, more like a jungle gym where people could come and think and explore and didn’t feel like they were in a position to be persuaded as or not, so much as they were there to kind of get their minds expanded. It’s been nice people seeing that and saying this is, in some sense, a book about basic income, but in other sense, it’s really not. It’s about all of the ideas that intersect with it, which is really what I had at least tried to do or would hope would be true for some readers.

Jim: I’m curious as you were painting that picture, were there parts in particular that stood out as being difficult to wrestle with? How did you untangle and explain some of the aspects of it that might be a conceptual lead for a lot of folks?

Annie: Yes. I think if you’re thinking about a UBI, you have to go back to the Kuznets first principles of what gets counted in an economy and what doesn’t. This goes back as far as economic research goes back, so you can probably go back to Adam Smith even. The whole issue of what you’re measuring and what you’re counting and how that relates to money as opposed to effort or labor. I think that that stuff is all super fascinating. What I think is interesting is, you have economists as a profession who say, “We understand that what you are measuring economically is not the same as value in the economy and what’s being produced and the importance of the roles that different people are playing.”

Nevertheless, you actually don’t have that much economic research that plays with the boundary of that, like looking at household production and looking at what’s counted and what isn’t. I think that that’s surprising. I wonder if there isn’t just a lot more interesting work to be done there. Maybe it’s a data limitation thing. That’s just one example of the big ideas that you can get caught up in there.

I think that there’s just a ton of really interesting political economy. Questions about who counts, who matters, who has political power. A lot of that is sort of– one of the issues that I think is really hard here is, do you create even more of an us and them dynamic if you have a stronger social safety net? There’s a lot of evidence of that, not just in the US, but from some of the Nordic countries and the way in which they might have become more anti-immigrant or even more nationalist in some cases.

All of that stuff I think is really interesting. UBI is an interesting frame for looking at it.

Owen: Yes, so there are a lot of rabbit holes, you can jump down when getting into UBI. I’m wondering, because this book is going to be a lot of people’s first comprehensive introduction to the topic, what do you think goes into a thoughtful, responsible introduction to basic income?

Annie: I feel like if you just say, “Look, this is an idea that has been around for a long time. Many brilliant people have adopted it as their own for their own reasons, with their own motivations.” That sort of looking at it as being a really fascinating but very malleable trend. I think it’s so fascinating that it’s one of these great ideas that on the one hand, it’s so simple and so singular, and on the other hand, it’s just so malleable. It has such a rich history. I feel like I’m at least pretty well up to date on a lot of the research, but even I keep on finding things that I had never found.

It’s kind of humbling in that way. As you were commenting on, there are just so many rabbit holes, and there are many people who put so much thought into it. I wanted to capture that and highlight a lot of other work and research and all the thinking that’s gone into it. I think it’s probably only been in the last 20, 30 years that you’ve really had a movement around it, too. That’s interesting as well, that you have people who are straightforwardly advocating it, sometimes for a really different reasons, but nevertheless are just trying to promote this idea around the world, which is a really fascinating trend as well.

Jim: This is generally been quite a big month for basic income. Beyond your book coming out, we also had President Obama talking about the need to pursue the policy in his Nelson Mandela lecture. Then Chicago, it came out is considering doing a pilot there.

On one hand, we have this movement here. On the other, looking at the federal government, we’re clearly a long ways away from seemingly being able to pass much of anything. I’m curious from your perspective, where do you feel like the movement is right now? Are we close in some ways? Are we far away? Do you have thoughts on where we go from here?

Annie: Close and far away is probably a good way to put it. I think it’s going to be really hard– I’m very interested to see how things like Stockton and Chicago and the Y Combinator experiment and others that were looking at how those — some of the guaranteed and minimum income ideas that are out there — how those play out.

But I think it’s going to be pretty hard to get convincing evidence on some of this stuff without the federal income tax lever. States have to balance their budget. They just don’t have the kind of capacity that the federal government has. Nevertheless, I would love it if you could get some kind of laboratory of democracy effect where you would have something smaller that could scale up that could really convince people it was a good idea.

Federally, or nationally, to put it in a different way, I do think that you could see a lot of movement towards considering a negative income tax, an EITC expansion, a conversion of TANF into a child grant or some kind of modification and expansion of the Child Tax Credit. That’s where I think that it’s more marginal policies that are really influenced by the idea of UBI and in some cases have a lot of the same proponents, that you could see movement.

There’s just such excitement on the left for these big blue sky ideas. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a shift in power and some of them get the pushed. There’s obviously just so much uncertainty, not just around the midterms, but who knows what’s going to happen in 2020? But it’s impossible to imagine that whoever is the Democratic candidate is not going to at the very least have something, something big along these lines, although I’d be very surprised if it was UBI itself.

Owen: Yes, it does feel like whether it’s jobs guarantee or at least an EITC expansion, that were at that point where everyone is going to have something like that in the platform, in the presidential race.

Annie: The thing that I’m actually hopeful for is folks have been pretty tentative about saying, “We need to do more for the lowest income Americans.” They don’t vote, they don’t have a ton of political power. You get into this whole thing is like why would you help somebody who won’t work to help themselves, which obviously is a very problematic sentiment, but nevertheless a common one.

I just have my fingers crossed that you’ll move to something like child grants or, again, the total reform of TANF, which would be a really good bang-for-the-buck-wise. I’m just not sure that anybody would run on it for political reasons.

Jim: Yes, I guess we’ll see. Politics seems like a crazy space these days, so I feel like “Never Say Never” anymore.

Annie: Yes, seriously.

Jim: You were on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah just recently talking about your book. Congrats on that.

Annie: Thank you.

Jim: During your conversation, one issue that came up was race and what impact that’s had on the history of our social safety net, but also around implications for it going forward. I’m curious if you want to say a little bit about your perspective on that front.

Annie: Yes, absolutely. If you are looking from the discipline of history or the discipline of sociology or the discipline of economics. It’s pretty clear that one of the main reasons — and I think it’s one of these things that it’s perhaps not a sufficient answer but it’s a necessary part of the answer — is that we don’t have the safety net that you would see in Canada or in other high income, similar high income OECD countries. It’s because of race and racism and how that played out in construction of the New Deal and Great Society programs.

I do think that racism explains a lot of the welfare chauvinism that you have in the United States, a lot of the judgment of lower income folks. Obviously, UBI pushes really hard in the other direction and basically says like, “No.” To the extent you’re means-testing anything, you just want this to be about poverty. You don’t want this to be a work effort or anything else if you’re thinking about a minimum income or even some kind of loose means testing, which is perhaps not a pure UBI, but that’s the idea.

I think that on the one hand, it would be good as a policy not to remedy the injustices of the past — obviously UBI wouldn’t touch wealth inequality, the racial wealth gap, which is a really pernicious problem — but would probably be more fair and less racist going forward. Like eliminating a lot of the requirements that you have in TANF and SNAP and converting to just a basic cash transfer program.

You have this really fascinating thing happening where the Republican Party is becoming older and whiter and more male and retaining power, out-sized power. You have a Democratic Party that is becoming younger, more diverse, in some cases more female, at least among white folks. I just think that it’s really uncertain how that is going to play out, but the polarization is kind of a frightening thing.

I think that you’re going to see entrenchment on both sides. I was just reading, Amy Chua’s book, which touches a lot on this. I think it’s going to be a really difficult thing, as the United States is going through in some ways a legitimately pretty sudden demographic change, how that’s going to affect what policies become popular among whom and what things raise the hackles and the tribalism of the other side.

Owen: Yes, that’s harrowing to think about sometimes. I’m wondering if you see any other major challenges. Obviously, there’s more than a few, but in terms of actually seeing basic income as a federal program or a robust state program, do you see any other major hurdles?

Annie: Yes, in some ways, I think that there’s probably opportunities that we’re not thinking about. Say some state got a waiver to take its TANF program and turn it into a cash grant for kids. Nothing is stopping that happening. My understanding is that the waivers for TANF are pretty– nobody’s talking about that, but that would be a pretty cool way to do things and maybe a way to kickstart the conversation.

Also, going forward, it’s going to be interesting to see how much especially, progressives and liberals feel hemmed in by government spending in the safety net. Whether they feel like they need to be the stewards of fiscal responsibility and cut spending while they’re also raising taxes. That’s a big question mark.

Certainly, I think it’s an exciting time in which the Overton Window has really been thrown open. I wouldn’t be surprised to just see exciting and more expansive policy-making in the future. I really hope that just getting a bigger sense of what’s possible and what the government and society by extension could be doing.

I think that the other thing is, imagine that in the next recession, there’s a recession, we’re recovering, and GDP is growing, and productivity is increasing, but the unemployment rate isn’t going down or even as going up. It’s the cocktail of those three things — so productivity increasing, GDP increasing, and unemployment increasing — that would be I think a pretty powerful trigger to say, “Oh, man. Technology is changing our economy in a way that’s really frightening. Let’s start thinking about how we want to help people through that.”

It’s just something to keep an eye on. Who knows if and when that might happen, but I think that that could really change the political conversation pretty quickly.

Owen: That was Annie Lowrey, Contributing Editor at The Atlantic and author of Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionized Work, and Remake The World.

Jim: I was really curious to hear from Annie as to what her motivations were around publishing a new book in this space. I thought her point about bringing a journalistic perspective to this made a ton of sense. As we talked about, if you look at the other books in the space, there’s a decent number out there at this point, but they do come at it from these different perspectives that inherently bring this lens. That affects how people perceive it. It affects who decides to read that. By taking this new approach, it opens up the potential that this might reach potentially a quite significant new audience.

Owen: Yes, I agree. It may reach a more, hopefully an academic crowd, but also a more popular audience just because she does have that cache as a well-known economic journalist. She gets into stuff that are a bit more weeds-y, like turning TANF into a cash grant. We should say TANF is the…

Jim: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Owen: I was having trouble with the T. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or expanding the EITC, which of course is what Chris Hughes is calling for and maybe has a bit more momentum than UBI in terms of something that could happen sooner. It’s just good to get her perspective because it is very grounded in the data and the policy.

Jim: I thought it was also interesting and compelling to see how much of her perspective is informed by historical precedent. That she’s really thinking about what’s happened in the past, what has led us up to this moment, and what implications that has going forward.

I think often, particularly when people talk about UBI in the context of technology changing work, there is a tendency to just look at the system today and then extrapolate forward from there, as opposed to saying, “Well, let’s actually take the whole picture.” Let’s say, “How have things changed over past decades, and then given this moment, what do we think will actually happen going forward?”

Owen: We asked her about, her book is called Give People Money as opposed to some sort of value statement. But I feel like if you follow economics far enough, it is based on value statements. It was interesting to hear her unpack that a little bit in terms of the values, in terms of what we call work and what we call labor, and what’s compensated and what’s not. Obviously, that goes back at least a few hundred years, if not a few thousand.

Jim: It’s exciting to see how much traction this is getting so far and in the media pick up. Hopefully this just keeps momentum building.

Owen: Yes, more and more dominoes are following.

Alright, that’ll do it for this week on the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. Please subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts or the service of your choice. Tell your friends, we’re always looking for new listeners and more people in this conversation. We’ll see you next week.

Basic Income Q&A: How to Pay for It, Which Country Will Go First, and More (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income Q&A: How to Pay for It, Which Country Will Go First, and More (Rebroadcast)

In this episode, which initially aired last October, Jim and Owen answer listener questions from how to pay for basic income, which country will implement a basic income first and how we will get there. You can send your questions to the Universal Income Project on Facebook or Twitter, or tweet at Owen (@owenpoindexter) or Jim (@dr_pugh).


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: A while back we asked you for questions about the basic income, and a number of you responded. In this episode, we are just going to go through a few of those.

Jim: Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to get to everyone’s question, but we did have a few that we thought would be good ones to start with. Here goes.

Owen: Alright. The first one is from Abigail Irwin, it came in through Facebook, “Here is the one big question I keep getting: how is it going to be funded?”

Jim: I would say for me as well, this is a question that people ask all the time. Since we’re talking about such a big program, people are naturally curious about, “Alright, where does the funding come from here?” One thing that I’ve mentioned before that I think is really important to remember is a lot of the conceptions we have right now about what the government “can or cannot afford” are really not based on reality.

That if you look at our economy and how much it’s grown over recent years, there’s actually so much money out there. Our Gross Domestic Product over the last 15 years has grown by four trillion dollars. Just taking a big picture snapshot, it’s important to know that there is money out there.

Owen: Yes and on top of that, I’ll say that while I think it’s important to talk about how are we going to pay for things, the government is very willing to drop billions of dollars on some programs without having this discussion. It’s only around new big programs where we do say, “Okay, well, where is that money going to come from because we haven’t already baked that in.”

Jim: We do see often around things like military spending, spending tens of billions of dollars ready at the drop of a hat is not uncommon, but as soon as we talk about billions or even hundreds of millions of dollars for social programs, people suddenly get very nervous about how we’re going to actually afford that.

Owen: And getting more into, “okay, how is it going to be funded?” — obviously, there are a number of ways you could do it. If you structure it as a negative income tax, you could just have a tax that runs backwards essentially. At a certain income level, you receive money instead of pay money in. That’s one way to do it where you don’t have to touch anything else.

Jim: Something I would add to that is, with negative income tax, one concern that I know people have is that if you’re actually not giving the same amount to different people, that could complicate the logistics figuring out, “alright, how do we actually assess someone’s income in the moment and decide alright, how big is the check we mail to them?” You can actually accomplish exactly the same thing using the tax code. You can structure it so that you give everyone the same amount of money every month regardless of how much they’re making but then make sure that you’re actually clawing back more of that money earlier on, based on how much they’re making when you’re actually assessing taxes. The same way you do now as far as withholding from paychecks.

Owen: Right, and just to offer a crude version of that, you could impose a flat tax and the revenue from that would just be turned into a dividend that would go equally to everyone. So everyone is paying the same percentage of their income into the basic income fund, but the way it works out is that at a certain point, you are paying and receiving about the same amount, and everyone above that ends up paying more, but they still get the dividend.

Jim: To give some more specific, since I want to actually make sure that we do give an answer to this question, there are actually a lot of different ideas for how we fund this out there. Depending on who you ask, you’re going to get different answers. Some of the most common ones that I hear proposed, one is the idea of — I think, particularly as the starting point — looking at the Carbon Dividend.

We’ve talked about that in the past. There was a proposal in California. There is currently, in fact, a campaign in Washington, DC around taxing carbon and paying out to revenue that comes in as a universal income, as universal dividends to people in the region. That could at the very least provide us with a powerful first step towards basic income by saying, “alright we’re setting up the system that gives everyone equally regular payments of money.”

Owen: I think that Carbon Dividend idea is my favorite in this whole space because it does start to address climate change as well. It takes this idea that we have shared resources, in this case, the air and the environment and that we are all invested in this whether we want to be or not. By taxing the use of the environment essentially which is a shared resource then we can all benefit from it.

Along the same lines, though very different, is the Financial Transactions Tax. That’s another one that gets thrown in periodically. We all benefit from the infrastructure of our financial system, and some businesses and people use that quite a lot to conduct business, trade stocks, whatever. By having just a very small fee on financial transactions, you could also do the same thing and fund the basic income.

Jim: Another one that often gets discussed is the idea that a Land Value Tax, where you’re assessing the value of any given piece of property that either a person or a corporation might own, and then saying, “we’re going to set some low level of taxation so that every month or every year, you are paying a certain amount based on the value of that piece of land.” Not just the land itself, but what’s actually on the land.

One thing that I think is really interesting about the Land Value Tax is it actually starts to get closer to the idea of a wealth tax. Something that is taxing not just how much money people are bringing in, but how much they actually own. Land isn’t a perfect measure of someone’s wealth, but it tends to be pretty close a lot of the time. That could help not only with providing the support that you get from basic income but also to share prosperity and share wealth across the country by really looking at that as the source of the funding.

Owen: Right. I think this is an important concept because while income is easy to track, or easy enough, a lot of the disparity that we see in the world is through wealth, and an actual wealth tax is very hard to administer because unless you have some way to track all forms of wealth, people are going to be able to move it around to not be taxed. But land is always there. You can’t pick it up and move it somewhere else. It does tend to be a good proxy for a holding place for wealth, especially in California, where we are.

Lastly, we can touch on general progressive taxation. We mentioned the income tax before but it doesn’t have to be a flat tax. It could be a progressive tax that increases as you go into higher income levels. There’s also a capital gains tax and perhaps others that you could mention.

Jim: Yes. Touching on the capital gains, right now we have the level of that set considerably lower than income. What that’s effectively doing is saying, sitting on wealth, you and the amount of money you get from that, you’re actually paying less in taxes and someone who’s working for the money.

Owen: You see those incentives pretty clearly in the market.

Jim: Right, exactly. That’s actually encouraging people to hoard rather than to spend. Also, again, if you look at the various campaigns that are going on around different policies, you’ll hear people talking about closing tax loopholes as well, particularly for corporations. There’s a lot of ways that companies are able to avoid what is the supposed tax rate that they might owe, due to how complex the tax code is in many places.

Owen: Hopefully, that gives you a sense of how we might fund the basic income. There are a lot of paths to do it, a lot of different sources you might look to. It should be said there’s no one answer to this. I’ve said this before the first step in creating a basic income is deciding that we want one. Once you have that destination, there are a bunch of paths to get there.

Jim: Right. I think it’s important to remember that oftentimes when we talk about these big bold policies, we know they’re going to cost a lot, but in most cases, we don’t necessarily have to go through all the math right upfront. It’s important to just know that yes, the funds exist out there. Let’s think about what this is going to do for people and then if this is actually something that’s going to help folks, let’s fight to make it happen.

Owen: Okay. Next question comes from Darcy Lengthier — hoping I’m pronouncing your name right, Darcy. “Which country will be next?” I have a couple guesses, and they’re pretty unoriginal.


Jim: Yes, we’ll probably have similar answers here. I would say any country that’s currently doing a pilot for basic income is probably pretty high on the list for ones that have potential to enact one. We talked about this before, but Finland launched their pilots in the last year. Ontario in Canada just launched their pilot. We do have the pilot happening in Oakland through Y Combinator, but it’s a little bit of a different situation since it’s a private entity funding it. I wouldn’t read quite as much into that as these programs that are actually being initiated by national governments and what that signifies as far as intentions.

Owen: I think my first pick in the draft would be Canada because they’re doing a pilot, and it feels like this federal government that seems like it would be ready to try something like this at least in terms of a Carbon Dividend or even like an Alaska style, natural wealth kind of thing.

Jim: That said, I think that there certainly are other countries out there talking seriously about it. Particularly for some of the smaller countries, if the people in power decided alright, this is a priority for us, if it was a country that was in a situation that have a reasonable amount of wealth or a lower cost of living for their population, they could potentially move pretty quickly to enact something.

Owen: I wouldn’t put Switzerland at the top of the list right now, but they have already had the referendum. It’s a small country with a lot of wealth. The math is a little easier there.

Jim: I think the big answer is, we don’t know. I think as far as what country will do pilots next, we haven’t talked about it much, but Barcelona is in the process of getting a pilot going. I do know there’s a lot of others that are in these discussion phases if not quite ready to launch.

Owen: The one last thing I’ll throw in there is, if you were to say the five most likely countries or the field, I’m probably going to take the field. I could see this coming out of somewhere unexpected or somewhere we’re not figured out right now.

Jim: Absolutely. Our third question is, “what kind of timeline are we looking at for America as a whole to implement basic income?” That came from Tim Kelly on Twitter.

Owen: Maybe December, January?


Jim: They’re just about there.

Owen: More seriously, I think one step might be to have this become more mainstream within the Left / Democratic Party in the US. If and when the Democrats take back power, maybe we could see something like a Carbon Dividend. I could see that happening in the 2020s, to give a decade.

Jim: If we can have it in 2020, I would be very happy. That is probably a little sooner than I was–

Owen: It’s a bit aggressive.

Jim: I would say, I generally tell people that if those of us who support the policy approach this right, 15 years seems like a reasonable timeline. That said, I think this is a kind of policy where it’s going to be very, very far off until it’s not. I think that there’s going to be nothing linear about the progression of the basic income movement. It’s going to be those of us who are in the space talking about it, getting more people hearing about it. Really writing the playbook for how this might happen, and then it’s going to be a question of when is that moment.

When is that moment when suddenly people are like, “Oh, we need something really different. We actually need to guarantee fundamental economic security for people. How do we do that?” If at that point, we have really set the stage for basic income, it could happen really, really fast.

Owen: I agree. I used to think of self-driving cars and trucks as the moment when everything was going to flip. I have actually backed off that a little bit just because they’re already on the road. This is already happening, and it hasn’t really catalyzed a discussion in a way that means policy is going to happen very soon, but I think we might see something at some point where one day Amazon lays off thousands or tens of thousands of workers. It’s them, plus Google, plus others, and it creates some amount of desperation where people are looking for a policy fix.

Jim: I will say, I don’t think we haven’t seen any significant amount of layoffs around self-driving vehicles.

Owen: Right. That could still happen.

Jim: It’s something that I know at this point, a lot of people think could be coming relatively soon, but how that will actually proceed? I think we’ll have to see. I will say I think I’ve been struck by how much people’s perception about the fundamental characteristics of work have changed in the last couple of years. That two years back, I felt like most people believed that the way that we do work would stay — I think stay is actually the wrong word because it was already shifting at that point, but could remain similar to how we did that in the 20th century.

Now, I think more and more people recognized that that model for how our labor space operates just is — there isn’t a way to go back. We are in uncharted territories here. We do need to be thinking more outside the box as far as what are the right policies to provide people with security they need.

Owen: I think just to add a little bit onto that. The moments that might catalyze something might just be something where we realize that we are in uncharted territory, the collectively “we.” Because I think we’re already there. We are already into the woods, and we’ve lost our map. But you don’t necessarily know that until some day, you woke up, and you realize you’ve lost the path. Sort of a strange metaphor for us [laughs].

I think it’ll be as much a realization of where we already are than something where we get to a point and, yeah, we are there.

Jim: We’ve meandered a bit from the original question here. So if we had to name a timeline, I would say I’m going to stick with 15 years.

Owen: Okay, I’m going to go Price Is Right style and just take the under on that one.

Jim: [laughs] 14 years?

Owen: Aggressively optimistic there. On the Price Is Right, you say one year and then you get all the years below that, the below years. This is a very dated reference, I’m realizing. I don’t know think that show is even on the air anymore. Haven’t watched TV in a while. Okay, related question, also the final question, “how do we get there?” So, Jim, how do we get there?

Jim: Well, this is asked by StepUpBG on Twitter, and we covered a little bit of this in the last question. I truly believe that the right approach to move towards basic income is to say that right now, we are laying groundwork. We are doing the things that make basic income more familiar, more understood and so that once we get that moment, we can say, “Alright, we got this. We know what this is. We’re ready to go. Let’s make this happen.”

Owen: I think you find, at least in America, that often the first time people hear of this policy — maybe less so, I’m getting this reaction less and less — but the most common first reaction is some amount of shock towards the idea of just giving people money unconditionally. I think people do need to sit with the idea for a little bit, and it needs to penetrate into more circles and become something that people are less afraid of talking about.

Jim: Right, I think part of that is just talking to more people about basic income and what it might do, having it be a more familiar concept that people they know and trust actually think this could be a really good solution and I think part of that is looking at what are the stepping stone policies that, in practice, can actually show people more what this is about. I think what to makes sense to go back to here is looking at the Alaska model and how the fact that everyone there is getting an unconditional payment every year is actually something that makes this whole thing make more sense to people a lot of the time.

Owen: Yes, and along that, I’m very excited about the trials in Ontario that just started and the upcoming one’s run by Y Combinator because those will be real trials, real stories, real people who are benefiting, so then it’ll be that much less abstract and that much closer.

Jim: I think those stories are going to be important and then what I would really like to see is for some city or state in the US to enact some small universal dividend in the same style as the Alaska model because I think that it’s that combination of hearing the stories of people who are getting full basic income and then yourself receiving this smaller additional income. Suddenly the intellectual leap between everyone getting basic income is much, much less than it is today.

Owen: I’m of the mind that $100 a month, even though we usually talk in terms of around 1,000, something like a 100 could be transformative for a lot of people and, if not transformative, would make a big difference. You would feel it.

Jim: If you’re scraping by, 100 a month is a game changer.

Owen: Yes, and speaking from my own experience, I wouldn’t say I’m scraping by, but I’d love $100 a month. [laughs] That wouldn’t be nothing.

So, how do we get there? I think a lot of what we’re already doing, and hopefully more trials, more support, more talking about it, more and more podcast episodes.

Jim: I think this is one where all y’all listeners can actually play a big role here. Again, make sure you are talking to people about this, looking for ways that you can push the idea forward. That’s actually what’s going to help make this happen.

Owen: So thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Please keep those coming, you can send them to myself @owenpoindexter at Twitter or Jim, you’re @dr_pugh there.

Jim: Or just tweet out the Universal Income Project, @UIProj on Twitter. We’ll get them there too.

Owen: Or you can find the Universal Income Project on Facebook as well.

Thank you so much for listening to the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Again, please tell your friends, talk about basic income, talk about the podcast. This could be a good conversation starter for them. Subscribe if you have not already on Apple Podcast or the service of your choice. And while you’re there, please do leave us a rating or review. It’ll help more people find the podcast. See you next week.

Basic Income vs. The Status Quo (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income vs. The Status Quo (Rebroadcast)

Most arguments against the basic income can be summed up in two words: “status quo.” Owen and Jim explore the thinking behind some of the most common objections to the basic income and why these arguments are understandable but ultimately shortsighted. This is a rebroadcast of a previous episode. New episodes will resume in mid-July.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Today, we are going to be having a discussion episode.

Owen: We’re going to be tackling some of the issues around how the basic income bumps up against the status quo.

Jim: I really see status quo broadly as one of the biggest obstacles. When I talk to people about basic income usually with a long conversation, once they get past some initial hurdles, they think if not that is a great idea, at least, that the idea has some merit for further exploration.

Owen: Yes, in fact, I think you could sum up almost every objection to the basic income with the word status quo just with different details inserted based on who’s doing the talking.

Jim: We’re going to try to delve into some of the key areas where it seems like status quo thinking is really creating a barrier to people accepting or even sometimes recognizing how the idea could actually be really helpful.

One of the first ones that I have seen often is those people who have more of an incremental vision on how policy progresses thinking that the way we’re going to make progress is by making small tweaks to the programs we have today, rather than exploring big new ideas that very much differ from what we have right now.

Owen: Honestly, I think we saw this in the last election. There is a strong political appeal to big wholesale ideas that present a vision that is very clear and is maybe different from what we have right now.

Jim: I think if you’ve been particularly operating in Washington for the last 5, 10, 20 years, just because there hasn’t been an opportunity to implement big policy, it’s very easy to get caught up in the thinking that that will persist indefinitely.

Owen: One of the first things I hear is like, “Well, sounds like a nice idea, but that’ll never pass Congress.”

Jim: Yes, exactly. I think one of the recent examples that really stood out is, for those of our listeners who saw the Intelligence Squared debate between Andy Stern and Charles Murray arguing for basic income against Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economists from the Obama administration. If you looked at the arguments that were being made almost all of them boil down to, “This is too big. We have to come at these problems in smaller ways that more resemble what we have today, and that something as radical as what you’re proposing just doesn’t make sense.”

Owen: Right, because most people aren’t thinking like, “Okay, what politically could be accomplished in 10, 20 years.”

Jim: I will say that I have noticed a pretty marked shift in recent months that seemed to coincide and likely be caused by the November elections. I think that’s a lot of, what was standard conventional wisdom leading up to that got thrown out the window, and suddenly, a whole lot more people are willing to consider that maybe some things that are much different than they are today might actually be quite possible.

Owen: One thing that we should keep in mind is that even though yes, there is this grand vision of a universal unconditional basic income, you will still have to have stepping stone policies along the way. For instance, we’re currently very excited about the trials going on in Canada or that are about to start in Ontario, and it’s 4,000 people in one area of Canada. It’s very small on one hand, but it’s looking toward this broader vision.

I’ll throw in another one that I actually just heard about today. Ro Khanna, I think that’s how you say his name, who is the new representative in Congress from Silicon Valley, is going to propose a drastic increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit and has no real hope or optimism around that becoming law anytime soon. Also, I think he is looking more toward basic income, which the earned income tax credit is not exactly a basic income, but these are little steps that we’re taking with this broader vision in mind.

Jim: Yes, I think, and there’s talk, at least, of some state-level policies that start to move us in that direction whether through some universal child allowance or through some other smaller universal income driven by a carbon dividend or something like that. I think people often do miss that when we talk about the ideas, it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing being considered. It just means that we’re keeping that big end goal in mind. That we’re saying that this is where we want to end up, and there will be smaller policies along the way. We can be strategic about how we fight for it, but we are always saying this is where we want to be ultimately and having that North Star policy to fight for.

Owen: Another major monument of the status quo that we want to take on is the austerity versus abundance mindset. This inserts itself in the background of a lot of basic income discussions that I’ve had, and Jim, I’m sure you’ve had too. Basically, it’s people generally have the idea that our resources are ultimately scarce and there’s only so much to go around.

Jim: This one actually surprises me often because, while most basic income advocates I’ve talked to recognize that incrementalism is a bad status quo perspective to keep when talking about basic income, I’ve found that a lot of advocates themselves fall into the austerity mindset when thinking about the policy. As they are trying to figure out, how do you actually pay for providing basic income to everyone, they end up in this zero-sum mindset where they’re thinking about, “I have to cut something or figure out a very, very specific source of funding in order to be able to cover the cost,” rather than recognizing that we have an amazing amount of wealth in this country at this point.

Owen: I think a lot of it comes from reverse causality thinking. This one example is, at least, here in Bay Area, we have a lot of homeless people. I think it’s natural to think, “Well, there just aren’t enough homes to go around. Otherwise, why would people be sleeping on the street.” In fact, there are enough homes to house the homeless population six times over in the US, which is an incredible statistic. I’m sorry, it’s enough empty homes, not enough homes. You won’t have to take on a new roommate. We’ve got empty space for these people, and it’s not just homes, it’s wealth, generally.

Jim: Yes, if you look, our GDP has grown by four trillion dollars in the last 15 years. We’re growing enough food in the US to feed everyone twice over. There’s absolutely enough resources to go around. The idea that inherent to our society, we don’t actually have enough to provide for everyone is a complete myth.

Owen: Yes. It is a logistical challenge to get the abundance of food to hungry people, but that’s the magic of cash, is that you give people cash, they will find food. That’ll mostly sort itself out.

Jim: I do think something that is so relevant here is, there’s a quote from Nelson Mandela which is, “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” I think that’s very much what we’re looking to do with basic income.

Owen: And I would just tack on to the end of that quote, “especially today.”

Jim: I would say that incremental versus radical change and austerity versus abundance mindsets are the two most obvious ways that I see status quo thinking blocking progress on basic income today, but I do think as we move forward, as basic income becomes more of a mainstream idea and as we get to the point where we’re actually starting to be close to enacting policies, we are going to start seeing some pretty serious pushback from industries that are actually rooted in the way things are done today, and particularly, in poverty.

Owen: Yes, I think it’s not too controversial to say that, there are giant industries out there that see the economic opportunity in having people that are desperate or just have difficult circumstances that ultimately, there’s money to be made there.

Jim: If you look at our larger prison system that exists today, it has become one, very privatized. There’s a lot of companies that are cashing in on the fact that we have such an enormous prison population in the United States. The driver of people going to that system is ultimately, poverty. It’s people who are being put in situations where they don’t see that they have better options, and so, are ending up in a situation where they’re susceptible to ending up in jail.

Owen: Yes, and of course, those people also tend to not have the same legal resources to defend themselves when they do get involved in the court system. Another one is payday loan companies. Someone who is middle class or above probably won’t need to get $200, a thousand dollars a month to just pay their rent or to feed themselves for the end of the month, but people who are doing less well have to do that regularly. There are always payday loan companies that can charge exorbitant interest rates just for a short-term loan, and they could effectively go out of business if we had a robust basic income.

Jim: I think as we move forward, we’re going to start to see rumblings from some of these sectors and the others that really have their economic model based on the idea of people being on the edge and needing to claw for resources in times of desperate need.

Owen: One more topic that we want to take on here is maybe more of a philosophical one, which is the idea that we’re to some degree decoupling income from work, and this can make people pretty uncomfortable.

Jim: This whole idea, this Puritan work ethic, where in order to actually be deserving, you need to have a paying job. This is so much at the core of how people view life to a large degree. It’s not something that’s existed forever. If you go back more than certainly a few hundred years and even I would say early 20th century, there is a pretty different view on people’s deservedness, and whether it was, in fact, necessary to be slaving away at a job to actually make ends meet, but it is certainly rooted in the American consciousness that we have today.

Owen: I’d say this is another kind of reverse causality situation where I think people somewhere in their minds assume that we have to be doing all this work otherwise everything would fall apart. I can personally say I don’t think I ever had a job that was necessary for directly causing me to have a house and to have food. I’ve never built houses. I’ve never farmed outside of my own backyard. I’ve done things like blogging and marketing and that contributes to the economy, it has some effect. You have to connect a whole lot of dots before you tie that to me or anyone else being able to eat or feed themselves or take care of their basic needs outside of the income it brought in.

Jim: I think something else worth considering here is, we often talk about automation as a need for basic income because there may not be enough work to go around in the future, which doesn’t really fit with our model today, but there could be a positive side to that which is automation is allowing us to do more for less. It means we don’t need to work so much, that we actually can produce enough to cover maybe not just basic needs, but far more than that and have plenty to go around so that everyone has access to it.

Owen: Automation should be good news. If we have deemed certain tasks to be valuable and then you just have to hit a button and they happen by themselves, that’s great. As long as we have a society and an economy that makes it okay for whoever was pressing that button before to step back.

Jim: I do think it’s important to also remember though that basic income doesn’t mean we’re expecting people to not work — it just means that we are decoupling that income from their nine-to-five jobs. They may still be working as much or even more than before, but that work could be somewhat different. It could be a broader definition. We could be recognizing care work at home as actually valid work. We could be recognizing art. We could be recognizing community service. All valuable and important things, but ones that aren’t actually getting compensated today.

Owen: I feel this is a case where opponents of the basic income or just people are hesitant about the idea can get a little bit extreme in the degree to which they think people are going to quit their jobs and watch TV all day. Proposals you see out there are usually maybe around $12,000 a year per person, maybe up to 15 or 18 in today’s dollars. That’s not really enough to live certainly not a lavish life. Here in San Francisco, you’d barely be getting your housing together for that amount. It’s not like the economy will just be on a volunteer basis. People, to maintain their current standard of living, are going to need to work.

Jim: We actually had some pretty hard evidence on this front. We have the Canadian experiment in Dauphin where they provided the whole town with a negative income tax. We had four negative income tax experiments in the United States, and the decrease in work was pretty small. It was on the order of 10%. We know pretty clearly that even if we were to provide basic income, we wouldn’t have a mass exodus in the workforce. It would just open up more options.

Owen: A lot of that exodus, I believe, was high school students and parents and people who you can understand why they would leave the workforce and maybe focus on something they deemed more important.

Jim: I do think it is worth, at least, considering though some of the variants on basic income that people are talking about that may make this more palatable from a working perspective. In particular, I’m quite interested in a proposal from Roy Bahat which is that we should actually, along with basic income, create some national service program and that, upon entering adulthood, you could spend a couple of years working in service, and then, basic income effectively is your pension that you received throughout the remainder of your life as compensation for being an active citizen.

Owen: Yes, that’s an idea that I’m still tossing around in my head personally, but I think I like that one. I like the idea that probably a lot of people would do it after leaving high school or college, but you could maybe do it when you’re 35 or whatever you want depending on your life.

Jim: I think there’s a lot to explore here, but I think there’s both an implementation question and really in some ways, a marketing question. I do think that this is a really big obstacle that exists today, and so, we’re going to need to be thoughtful about how we approach it.

Owen: On that note hopefully, this discussion has helped you and maybe helped some other people get out of their usual headspace and how they think about basic income and how it will interact with our society.

Jim: As I said earlier, when we have actually had a chance to have longer conversations with people on basic income, they usually go really well. I usually am able to get through to them and get them to think critically about what a world with basic income might look like, and how the assumptions that they have today don’t necessarily need to apply in that situation, but it takes a fair amount of effort to get them there.

Owen: One thing that I think will help and has helped already are all the pilots that are going on right now. We’ve got Canada, Finland, and Kenya, through GiveDirectly. The evidence that’s come out from similar work has been really good, surprisingly good, both in how people generally don’t stop working, and a lot else in their life like health outcomes and even things like domestic violence rates, GiveDirectly has found, have gone down. As more evidence comes out, hopefully, this will be a less scary topic.

Jim: I think not just the evidence, but the actual stories. Hearing about how people’s lives are changed and how receiving a basic income can really open up so many more options, can lift them up out of some really bad situations in a lot of cases, but actually giving people a chance to empathize because I think that’s the other obstacle here. It’s always easy to think about, “What would the other person do? How would this have a negative effect or not turn out well for them?”

If we can actually show people how basic income can be transformative across the board, that I think will certainly help getting around the work hurdles that they see as obstacles and I think can set us up with a very strong coalition to be able to overcome some of the more institutional status quo obstacles that will lie ahead.

Owen: All right. That’ll do it for this discussion episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. A big shout out to Erick Davidson, our producer. To hear more episodes like this and some fantastic interviews, please subscribe on iTunes or you can go to TheBasicIncomePodcast.com and subscribe on the podcast service of your choice. Have a great day.

Momentum Toward Basic Income in Scotland, feat. Jamie Cooke

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Momentum Toward Basic Income in Scotland, feat. Jamie Cooke

Momentum is building in Scotland to explore basic income as a policy that can be a centerpiece of the modern social contract. While automation is often mentioned as a catalyzing force in the basic income discussion, Scotland is looking at the policy more from a social justice angle. In this episode, Owen interviews the Head of RSA Scotland and Board Member of Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland, Jamie Cooke.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. One of the countries where there’s actually been quite a lot of progress around basic income is Scotland. There’s been a lot of political development, people are talking about new ideas, but it’s been a bit difficult to actually follow everything going on from the media reporting around what’s happening there.

Owen: To get an actual sense of what’s going on on the ground, I got a chance to interview Jamie Cook. He is the head of RSA Scotland and sits on the board of Citizens Basic Income Earth network in Scotland. Here is my conversation with Jamie Cook. Welcome, Jamie.

Jamie: Thank you for having me on.

Owen: To start, can you just tell us about the work of RSA Scotland?

Jamie: Sure. So we’re an international think and do tank. We’ve got a presence in about 90 countries around the world. Headquarters down in London, between 90,000 fellows in different parts of the world, and covering a broad range of different topics and ideas that we’re looking at. Particularly around civic impact, and how we can not just think about things but actually make a difference with it.

Which I suppose is partly where we’ve become particularly interested in ideas around the economy, the future of work, artificial intelligence and automation and obviously connecting all of those really, basic income.

Owen: Of course we’ll get into that in a moment, but first I’d just love it if you could ground us a little bit in the general political climate in Scotland. What’s that like these days?

Jamie: It’s really interesting time we have here. Obviously, 2014, we had a referendum on Scottish independence which the new vote, so the vote stay in the United Kingdom, won by 55% to 45%. Since then, we’ve had quite an interesting political context I suppose. The Scottish National Party are very much the dominant political force in Scotland controlling Scottish Government and most leaders of political representation. I think there was a feeling that perhaps after the referendum that was once in a generation votes and therefore we would go into a different context.

The referendum in European Union membership that we took, and obviously the fact that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU whatever that may end up looking like, at the same time as Scotland actually across every single local authority area voted to stay in the EU, I think created quite a different context. Again, showed a bit of a disconnect between the politics and the discussions in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. That’s really kind of kick-started some of the debate again around Scotland’s constitutional future.

Just now, we’re at a position where we’ve just had the launch of a new growth commission by the Scottish National Party and Scottish government looking at what the economics of an independent Scotland could look like. I think very much signaling the beginning of at least a new discussion around Scotland’s constitutional future. At this stage I think it’s Brexit is so chaotic, and we’re not quite sure where it’s going.

I’m not entirely sure anyone knows what’s going to be the next steps or the next elements of discussion, but as it stands, I think there’s a very real chance we’ll have another referendum in our discussion around constitutional future of Scotland, whether that’s within the UK or actually as an independent nation.

Owen: Well, that’s really fascinating. We always have these conversations in a political context, but that one is very much in flux it sounds like. As you alluded to, the basic income discussion is alive and well in Scotland. Can you tell us what the status of that is right now?

Jamie: Sure. I think this reflects partly the fact that in Scotland, I suppose, wherever anyone stands on the constitutional debate, there is an understanding that as a small country, whether that’s independent or as part of the UK, Scotland is trying to find its place in the world, and how it can interact with other nations, how we can make decisions for some of the challenges we face here in Scotland. Really, what’s been quite exciting about that is opening up a space for considering more radical ideas and perhaps would be considered at other points.

For example, we’ve seen quite a push in Scotland around world-leading environmental change targets. There’s questions you can have around the implementation of those, but certainly the targets we’re aiming for are quite hard. We’re looking around new ideas for our Social Security and how some of these ideas can work in a different way in Scotland to the rest of the UK. I think that’s opened a really interesting space that basic income has been able to find a bit of traction.

I’ve been involved in it for a couple years now, and really the shift in momentum and interest during that period has been phenomenal. From something that was very much a fringe concept, as we’ve seen in other countries around the world, to one that actually in September last year the Scottish Government, so Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister, arranged within her program for governments, the outlining of her strategic or policy priorities for the coming year, basic income experimentation being one of those key priorities.

I think that’s been a massive step forward in terms of the engagement with political decision-makers but also the wider push within Scotland around whether we could explore some of the ideas attached to a concept like basic income really has pushed forward a lot of momentum. We’re at a position now where the Scottish Government has put money aside to support feasibility work by four of Scotland’s local authority, so council areas, to look at what basic income experiment might look like in those areas.

Glasgow and Edinburgh is our two biggest cities. Glasgow is the biggest, Edinburgh is our capital. Also North Lanarkshire and Fife, which are two areas that combine both commuter towns but also rural communities as well, it’s quite a diverse spread. We’re in a really interesting space of testing out these ideas and seeing where they might be able to go for Scotland.

Owen: And the conversation also in the US has really picked up in the last few years. What’s motivating that sudden surge over where you are?

Jamie: I think it’s been really fascinating having those conversations with our colleagues in the US, but I think there are slightly different pushes. I’m generalizing slightly here, but I think in the US there’s definitely been a huge push for you guys around the future of work, automation, artificial intelligence, how this is going to impact on jobs and how we see the next stage of, if you like, economic evolution. I think that’s partly why there’s been such a push and buy-in from some of the big tech leaders and so on.

I think here in Scotland, the pitch has been primarily from a social justice perspective; how can we create an economy and a society that is better balanced and better supportive to all of our citizens? I think there’s been a huge disconnect in many ways between political decision making in Scotland around social security and welfare in the United Kingdom. We’ve seen a system introduced under Universal Credit from the UK Government, it’s very much rooted in sanctions and presuming the worst of people. Really the idea you have to force people to behave in a positive manner or they will game the system.

Even though that isn’t written in any sort of evidence or, in fact, much to the contrary, it’s defined how our approach to social security has been in the UK over the last few years. I think within Scotland, there’s been a bit of a push back against that. I think as well within a Scottish context, there’s a recognition that in some of our communities, we have very long-standing challenges.

A city like Glasgow has been booming, has done a lot of really good renovation work over the last few years, is recognized on an international level for being a very attractive place to visit, to do business, and so on. Yet, there are also communities, particularly in east-end of Glasgow and the north of Glasgow, that have deeply entrenched issues around unemployment, around education, around health, well being, addiction, and so on.

I certainly have found with my conversations with a lot of community leaders and local authority representatives, that there’s a realization that we’ve tried to do the same things over and over again and they haven’t made those changes. In fact, we can’t just look to incremental change anymore to hope that the economy will pull everyone up with it. Actually, we need to try something quite radically different.

I think basic income has therefore offered space to challenge and to debate some of the norms or the expectations around the economy and around society that perhaps we’ve taken for granted for several decades.

Owen: That starts to get into what I wanted to ask you next, which was, if you have this goal of a more balanced society where people are a bit more equal, why is basic income the answer as opposed to say a jobs program or other social benefits?

Jamie: I think there’s several reasons that. One is there’s almost that kind of philosophical element to basic income and the recognition of us all having rights, connections, responsibilities, and opportunities as citizens. Actually, taking away from the idea that what we receive or give in to society is purely based on our economic activity. Actually, all of us, every single one us citizens, are entitled and deserve to have an element of security from that wider system that we’re in.

I think that recognizes those who’ve gone before us. The cliche about being an island, no man is, no woman is, we all are based on those who have come before us and those who come after. I think there is that recognition of having a better connectivity amongst society. Probably, and I think in a Scottish context, we shouldn’t over exaggerate these ideas of being more socially progressive as a nation than other places, I think we try to and that’s not always borne out.

But I think the political environment lends itself to the type of discussions around community involvement and connectivity and social responsibility that are sometimes harder elsewhere. I think though as well, there’s a recognition about the way that the job landscape is changing. Actually, the very nature of work is and should change. When we see the growth of insecurity, when we see the precarious lives that people are living, there are traditional ways we’ve approached that.

The social contract in the United Kingdom we created in the post war period, in response to Beveridge’s giants that he identified within the society, that we had to combat, we created the NHS and all our other fantastic and vitally important social security and welfare systems, but actually, they need to evolve and adapt to a different world were in now. There is a recognition that that’s an important space for us to start to get into.

How do we create a flexibility? As a small country, I mean Scotland is a very small country. It’s one of our strengths and one of our challenges where we have a smaller population than London does. That gives us a great flexibility, but it’s only a flexibility if we are able to give security and the ability to change and adapt to our citizens. There’s partly a recognition within that of this is a system that gives people the opportunity to grow into try new ideas and respond to the opportunities and challenges that arise for them.

Owen: Along those lines, there are a lot of different versions of basic income that you’ll hear proposed, from a straight universal basic income to a negative income tax, to a carbon dividend, or a sovereign wealth fund. What do you think might be the most feasible and best fit for Scotland?

Jamie: I think for Scotland, it’s funny, in some ways when we talk about the universality of basic income, you can sometimes get a bit of a instinctive negative response to that in Scotland. Because there is a feeling of, why would we be giving money to people who have more money than they need already? One of the important things we emphasize within all of our discussions in Scotland, is the basic income is not a policy that can operate in isolation.

For me, it’s a foundation stone to a new social contract. We wouldn’t introduce a basic income in Scotland with nothing else alongside it. It would go alongside reforming the tax system. It would go alongside, for example, looking at rent control, because if you don’t introduce some control of our own rent, our basic income would just vanish into the pockets of landlords. It would go around looking at the current measures we have in place for a minimum and living wage, for example.

That’s an important element whereby we look at that, and actually the universality therefore is very attractive. I find it very fascinate — I find it funny when I talk at quite a lot of events, sometimes people will stand up and shout at me at the end and say, “Basic income is a policy that Hayek and Friedman supported. You’re just trying to destroy the welfare state,” which I’m quite happy to defend the fact that I’m not.

The negative income tax as variation upon or way to approach it, hasn’t had the same resonance. It has a lot of negative connotations within the Scottish political context because of some of the proponents behind it previously. I would expect if we were to see success with this moving forward, and I think we have a very strong opportunity with the work we’re doing just now to really push towards basic income as a national policy in future years in Scotland, if we can demonstrate the evidence of success, I would expect to see that on a universal level.

I would expect to see it across society, because within the Scottish combination and political environment of basic income being both policy that supports individual decision making, but within a wider social context. It’s not one or the other. It doesn’t ignore the individuals, but also doesn’t ignore the fact that society does exist. That’s probably the most natural way that we would see that fit in Scotland moving forward.

Part of the interesting element of the experiments: one of the things I would give the most credit to the Scottish government, and to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon for, is the fact that, when you see a policy that suddenly picks up a lot of interest and momentum, and quite frankly fashion in some ways as basic income has, which is great and we’re really excited about. It’s very easy, I think, for a political decision makers, especially leaders of a country, to go one of two ways. Either they throw themselves into wholeheartedly and this is the answer to all their problems, which is not helpful or sustainable, or they reject it because it’s just a popular decision.

I think actually what’s been really positive to see from Scottish Government from the First Minister, is that what they see the popularity showing is that basic income is worthy of being explored further and being explored within a Scottish context, but with global conversations. They’re not throwing themselves into saying this will definitely be the policy in Scotland moving forward, but they’re also giving the space for us to experiment and explore and see what kind of implications this might be able to have for Scotland.

I think that gives us a really interesting space and opportunity and environment, that we can actually create quite a Scottish specific and targeted version of the policy in many ways that will work within a particular context that we have here, but also can learn from what’s happening in Finland and Stockton, California and Ontario and various other places just now as well.

Owen: You started to get into it there, I’m wondering what the public reaction has been to this whole basic income discussion. Do you think people are generally supportive?

Jamie: I think it’s getting there. I think one of the biggest things we need to do over the next year or so is really work on that public engagement. I think there’s probably still to big a proportion of the Scottish population haven’t engaged with the context yet. What I found in doing a lot of public speaking and public events and workshops and so on around the topic, is within a Scottish context you tend to get one of two reactions.

I think we’re lucky in Scotland in that we have a political context where we’ve had quite an open space to start from, maybe more so than in some other countries. For example, after the independence referendum debate, I think you had this huge growth in civic and citizen engagement in politics around the independence referendum. Registration for voting the referendum was not far shy of 100%; a huge turnout, people engaged in events.

I think when the referendum finished, people wondered where to go with that. Some people joined political parties, but I think for a lot, they were looking for that idea of a better Scotland. Whenever they sat on the constitution that was what was motivating them. I think therefore, we’ve had this great parts of the population we could tap into in a sense, who are looking for a progressive positive idea to really get behind, and I think basic income has lent itself to that.

Interestingly, the other reaction you find is quite a knee-jerk. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it’s quite an instinctive reaction, which is when you talk about the concepts or giving people money and choice over what they spend it on, a reaction of, I know Jimmy in my street would spend that money on drink. He will spend it on alcohol, he will spend it in cigarettes, that’s not a good use of any sort of policy.

It’s a very quick and it’s very powerful and understandable reaction, but what I’ve also found with a lot of those reactions is it doesn’t take much of a space of discussing and allowing people to play with the idea and explore it. To also hear them saying, “I know he would spend it on alcohol, but I also know my cousin has been looking to set up a business and this would give her the spur to do it.” Or, “I know so and so who spent this time where they want to care for their husband who’s unwell, but they haven’t been able to do so because of financial reasons.”

I think it gives me the feeling that we won’t get 100% population behind this concept straight away, because you never do and that wouldn’t be sensible or indeed frankly [unintelligible] in many ways. I think there’s a real space there for us to be able to play with and challenge and experiment with the idea. That actually when we do that, and when we give particularly citizens the chance to do that instead of telling them this is a policy you’re going to accept whether you like it or not, there’s a real appetite in Scotland for doing that.

I think the more we can expand that and that’s — you mentioned me being a board member at CBINS, which is the Scottish affiliate of the Basic Income Earth Network, it’s one of the areas that we’re really looking at within CBINS is how do you train and empower and give the confidence to people to take these ideas out into the communities to discuss and challenge them. Frankly, maybe that will come back and push us in different directions, but that’s good. It’s a good way to engage the wider population.

Owen: What would you say are the next steps for basic income in Scotland?

Jamie: I think there’s a few elements. I think the biggest bet just now is the four local authorities who have been identified as the key test areas, if you like. They’re working. They’ve set up a steering group. They’re bringing in a kind of small staff team who will focus on developing a feasibility study into challenges and opportunities around experimenting with basic income in Scotland. I think it’s worth being honest about the fact that we do face challenges in Scotland.

As it stands, Scotland cannot introduce a basic income because we lack the devolution of fiscal powers and Social Security powers to be able to do that realistically. Currently out of the entire Social Security budget in United Kingdom, about 15% is controlled by the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. We have a realistic situation just now where we can’t do that forward.

If in the feasibility, for example, the financial costs of experimentation or the potential issues around the Department of Work and Pensions who run our Social Security Systems in the UK primarily, or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who run our tax system, we are going to have work to really explore what are the ways that these could impact on any experiments.

Actually, therefore, what can we experiment with, what can we expect to be able to test and demonstrate, and frankly what do we have to be very honest about and say, “We can’t do that in this context.” That feasibility work is going to be to be vitally important and from an RSA perspective, we will be looking to engage with and support a lot of that and contribute to it. We’re looking at a number of complementary areas, but it will be a very important opportunity for Scotland.

I think the other thing that’s particularly important over the coming months and year really, is our engagement in Scotland with the rest of the world. One of the really exciting things with the basic income movement just now, so why we’re on this conversation just now is because it’s taking on a global dimension. Maybe taking on different characteristics in those areas, but we’re very much looking to learn from the rest of the world.

We’ve been working with our colleagues in Finland with a experiment underway just there. We’ve got events lined up in Scotland over coming months with leading basic income academics, Karl Widerquist from Georgetown University in Qatar, Evelyn Forget from Manitoba in Canada. We’re looking at how we can engage, I’m speaking at the Basic Income Earth Network Congress in Finland in the summer.

I think there is a really exciting space there for that global dimension; what can we learn and what can we share? I think that’s one of the things that’s been attractive in a Scottish context, but also shows us that we’re not just being individually radical here, we’re actually looking at something that’s taking on a lot of attraction and a lot of relevance in a number of different geographic and international contexts just now.

So I think the next year will be really exciting. I think it’s a space for us hopefully to identify the challenges to experimentation, but therefore ways around those. I think it’s definitely a space for us to start to design the process of what experimentation in Scotland would look like. I think with very much a strong focus and emphasis around the evaluation stage of that, the capacity building, the way to really build in wider society to the conversations where we’re having.

If we can take those forward, then I think a very exciting space for us to be able to put a package to the Scottish Government, to the Scottish Parliament, to our local authority partners and say, “This is our chance to really experiment and do something radical and exciting in Scotland.”

There are obviously political challenges to that, Brexit is a huge issue. If we are into a second referendum on Scottish independence that could have political connotations for this. I think by creating the model of what a basic income pilot or experiment in Scotland could look like, I think in the very least, we will create something very powerful that could be used in many different parts of world.

Realistically, I think with the discussions I’ve had and the feedback from various people, I think a very powerful opportunity, a real chance that we could do this forward and have a direct impact on Scottish policy moving forward.

Owen: Great. It’s a lot of exciting stuff. Those are the questions I had for you, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jamie: No, I think that’s the crucial bits. I think it really is about that international dimension. I think we’re really keen to learn from what happens in Stockton, discussions you guys are having across California, I think potentially that impact around tech. For me, I feel we need a better synthesis between the element of tech AI focus, automation focus, there has been at points in the US with the social justice focus in Scotland because actually, I think what we need is both of those brought together better. Anything we can we can be learning and we can be contributing to in a global perspective, I think is definitely a hugely attractive particularly given the political context in Scotland just now.

Jim: That was Jamie Cook, head of RSA Scotland, on the Basic Income podcast.

Owen: I thought it was nice to hear that all these experiments, all the trials going on in different countries, it is a global conversation, especially within Europe, but also over here in California, these places are learning from each other and watching each other and it’s becoming a global movement.

Jim: That’s absolutely true. I think we often talk mostly about what’s happening here in the US, but we wouldn’t be having a lot of these conversations if it hadn’t been, well, a few years back for the Swiss referendum, but also the traction that this policy is really gaining in countries around the world. All of that adds onto itself and so I think altogether, that’s what’s led to more this snowball effect and you’re starting to see a lot more general conversation around the policy.

I also thought it was really interesting that his view is that automation is not the driver in Scotland, that it’s really about the social justice framework. I think that, certainly here in the US, the tech motivation is what you hear, at least in the news media for the most part. I think that’s why we feel like there’s more of a conversation today just recently. It’s really interesting to hear that in Scotland it is not about the tech it is about what could this do to really lift people up.

Owen: Yes, and that’s encouraging that the conversation is broadening to the social justice issue because automation provides a catalyst. Instead of us just coming out of nowhere and saying, “Hey, why don’t we just start giving people money”, it’s a motivating force, but there are so many more reasons to pursue basic income beyond that.

Getting back to how so many countries are doing this, it is hard to address every issue at once. Finland’s focusing on unemployment benefits. Stockton is more just about getting stories and lifting people up. Y Combinator, we’ll get a better sense of soon, but it is nice how because there’s so much going on, we are able to segment different parts of this conversation through different experiments.

Jim: Yes, absolutely. I think his view that this is really a foundation stone for a new social contract, and that he’s seeing other policies really going along with this to create that full picture of what it means to move into 21st-century social contract. That’s, I think, an exciting and smart approach to take.

Owen: I think that is where the conversation needs to go because that is an open question of what does the whole social safety net look like when you have a basic income and obviously there are a lot of opinions around that on both sides, but that is the next big question.

Jim: That will do it for this episode of the Basic Income podcast. We’re actually going to be taking a break over the next few weeks. We’ll still be releasing episodes, there’ll be some of our hits over the last year and a half. You’ll still keep hearing from us and we’ll pick up with new episodes in a month or so.

Thank you for listening. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. If you’re like what you hear, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or the podcast service of your choice. Please do tell your friends about the podcast. We’re always looking to reach new people. We’ll talk to you soon.

Land, Housing, and Basic Income, feat. Laurie Macfarlane

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Land, Housing, and Basic Income, feat. Laurie Macfarlane

A universal basic income would have myriad interactions with existing markets, and one that is worth thorough consideration is the housing market. Laurie Macfarlane, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation, recent speaker at TEDxTotnes, and co-author of the book ‘Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing’ joined the podcast to discuss the various factors within the housing market and what they could mean for basic income. Macfarlane proposes a method to share wealth from rising land values, based on the Alaska Permanent Fund.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. We’ve talked about in the past that, while a universal basic income would really be a game changer on so many fronts, there are certain areas where it certainly wouldn’t solve the problem, and a big one of those is housing. Particularly here in the Bay Area with the astronomical prices of housing and rent, receiving something like $1000 a month really would not cut it for actually allowing people to be able to fully cover their basic needs.

So we thought it would be interesting to spend an episode delving more into understanding how we actually got to this place where housing has become so expensive and such a massive cost in certain parts of the country and around the world.

Owen: So here to help us think through those issues is someone who’s thought quite a lot about housing and land as a public resource. So today we’re joined by Laurie Macfarlane. He’s a Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation, recent speaker at TEDxTotnes, and co-author of the book Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing. Welcome, Laurie.

Laurie: Hey, thanks very much for having me.

Owen: So land and housing are major fields of study for you, and you trace much of the modern condition, both positive and negative, to private ownership of land. Could you explain why private land ownership, something most people take for granted, is so crucial to how the world works today?

Laurie: Yeah, sure. So, like you said, often people don’t realize that the idea that land can be owned as some kind of private property that can be traded, bought, and sold, and the right to exclude people from that land is actually quite a new idea in the history of humankind. It’s actually very, very recent. It only really came to the surface in the 16th century.

Before that, land couldn’t be owned. It was governed by rules of social custom and obligation and various other types of governance. But that transformation that took place, beginning in England, but then obviously spreading around the rest of the world, was really transformational on so many levels. And I think, for the purposes of this context of this discussion, I think the key thing is that it has a kind of a double-edged sword if you like.

So on the one hand, it really, as we know, gave birth the capitalism, transformed our whole economy, drove economic growth, technological advancement, living standards, and all the rest of it. But at the same time, it was inherently exclusionary. So by its very nature, as soon as you give some people exclusive rights over what was previously a commonly own resource, that inevitably involves taking away the rights of others.

And what happened in many countries is, whether it’s in the UK with the enclosures and the clearances or indeed in the US with the native population, millions of people were driven off the land violently, and those that were allowed to stay found themselves that they now had to pay rent to owners, to landowners to access what they previously could get for free.

And landowners effectively became the kind of gatekeepers, if you like, to this resource that we all need. You can’t live without land, you know, you need space to exist in. And therefore, it created this section of people who really were the gatekeeper to this essential natural resource.

And the way that we talk about this tension, this kind of what we call Paradox of Property is that private property is both on the one hand theft, which is the famous phrase that Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, used, the Socialist, that property is theft, but it’s also freedom, and that’s the kind of conception that you hear in the kind of classical liberal thinkers, that private property is key to liberal free society.

And we argue that actually both of these are true for different people, and the tension between them is really one of the dynamics that shapes modern societies. And that the way that this can manifest itself most obviously in modern advanced economies like the US, the UK, and Europe is actually through the housing market.

Jim: So, let’s delve into that a bit more because the history of housing in the UK, I think there’s a lot of parallels to the US as well, but over recent decades, the past century, how has the changes you talked about manifested in policy, and what has been the implication there?

Laurie: One of the things I think it’s really important to highlight when we’re talking about land is, although you can make comparisons between countries, certainly countries that have similar legal frameworks or whatever, what really determines the land economy most significantly is the rules, the politics, the customs, the laws, the history of each specific country.

It’s the rules of the game that really matter the most. And in the UK, we’ve had a significant transformation effectively over the past 100 years in how the land market in relation to housing operates. So if we first rewind back to the beginning of the 20th century, we had a situation where most of the population rented. They didn’t own any property at all, and they rented often in pretty horrible conditions in kind of slum landlord conditions in some of the growing new cities. And you had a class of people who owned lots of land and who basically rented out to renters.

Between the World Wars and after the World Wars, we had a change, quite dramatic shift where the government began to see it as a key role of government in response to some of the other conditions and the uprising that was happening with the people to really start providing low-cost affordable housing as a role of the state. And we had the extension, the building of what’s known here is council housing, which is public sector built housing rented out at affordable rates.

And this kind of continued after World War Two combined with taxes on property and, crucially, tight financial regulation. So in the post-war period, sometimes called the post-war consensus, there was really quite strict regulations on the financial sector. Many of them are legacy of the Great Depression when the dangers of a really laissez-faire financial sector were seen. And the effect of this was really to keep supply of housing and land up and the prices down more or less. They did a pretty good job of actually housing population, which is growing quite significantly at this point in time.

That all really began to change dramatically in 1960s, but particularly the 1970s and 80s. I’ll just very quickly paint some of the key changes that we can maybe then talk about because they were also mirrored in other countries as well.

Firstly, we had some of the taxes that were on property removed. We also had subsidies for home ownership introduced. And this was part of a political project sometimes referred to as the Property-Owning Democracy. That was the kind of brainchild of the Conservative Party in Britain. And the idea was really that they wanted to give more people a stake in private property and a road, this collective housing provision, that they saw as something that breeded kind of socialist mentality.

And there was also introduced a policy called Right To Buy, which was basically sold off a lot of the council housing. If you’re in public housing, you can actually buy it at a big discount, so you could own your own property for the first time. And that was something that was really popular because people liked getting, the idea of getting their own home, but also getting a discount to the market rate.

One of the most significant changes, though, as I touched on before was the liberalization of the financial sector, which really meant that whereas before if you wanted to buy a house and get a mortgage, you needed to save up for a really, really long time with what was known as building societies, which were mutual, almost like mutual associations that you had to be a member of. And you could only borrow quite a limited amount relative to your income.

But that all changed with the big bank and the deregulation of the financial sector, which liberalized mortgage credit markets and incentivized banks, big banks to come into the mortgage lending market. And that triggered a shift in the role that banks play in the economy, certainly in the UK and to some extent in the US as well, which was the tradition, away from the traditional view, which is they’re there to lend to productive business and finance investment. A shift away to effectively become real estate lenders. So effectively lending predominantly against land and property as collateral.

And this really unleashed a flood of new credit into housing, into the housing market, particularly in an environment where the supply side was pretty constrained as it was in this country. And when you have a really elastic supply of credit interacting with a fixed supply or near fixed supply of land and housing, the inevitable consequence was house price inflation and land price inflation was actually what was what was driving it.

And then, so what we’ve seen in the past few decades, is this feedback loop emerge. This interaction between housing prices and mortgage lending and levels of private household debt. And this feedback loop has been fairly prominent in driving the trajectory of house prices in many countries around the world.

Important to note: not all countries have gone through this. It’s important to highlight that. But certainly quite a few countries, particularly the Anglo Saxon countries that have all followed a similar trajectory in terms of financial sector, we’ve seen this take place.

Owen: So, some of that sounds like it’s firmly based in an ideology of homeownership and encouraging people into this system of private property, and some of that sounds like it’s unintended consequences or warped market forces at play.

I’m wondering, how should we think about land ownership? You mentioned that Paradox of Property, where it’s both theft and freedom, and that’s, you know, I think a lot of people get stuck there where they’re not sure which fork in the path to take. So, how should we think about land ownership?

Laurie: Yeah, so this is really the key issue because the way I think about it is, we can separate out ownership, which is basically a set of rights that you have to a bit of space, we can separate that out from the actual value that you can gain.

As a landowner, you’re in a very privileged position of being able to extract much of the value that’s being created in the economy around you, whether that’s through as a landowner charging out rents or whether it’s through just owning it and actually benefiting from the capital gains.

Because one of the differences, one of the things that makes land unique versus other types of asset is its value is essentially socially created. It’s not the product of the efforts of the individual landowners. So just to illustrate that, you can imagine if you own just an empty field somewhere in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn’t be worth very much because it’s not very useful. There’s nothing there.

But if you effectively fell asleep on that piece of land, and in the meantime, the government came in and built roads, railways stations, businesses popped up, and there was lots of activities, skills built all around you, you could can wake up in ten years time, and that land is suddenly worth quite a lot of money. And that’s not because of anything that you’ve done. That’s being socially created. It’s the result of the efforts of the surrounding community.

So the way I think about this is to separate out that value, in effect, that land owners can benefit from at the moment, and their actually ownership. And if we can capture that increase in the value of land that’s socially created, capture that and use that for public benefit while still allowing people to own land. We’re not talking about abolishing private property. We’re just talking about capturing the uplift in land that’s generated by the community at large, rather than land owners, and using that value, spreading that.

And what that then does is disappears, it kind of penetrates through this paradox, because the problem with, as I mentioned earlier, with land owners, with land value. It’s not that having valuable land’s a bad thing. It means that some people benefit at the expense of others. When land prices go up, that increases the wealth of one person, but then somebody else needs to pay higher rent. So it creates this wedge between two types of people. And if we can then capture that value of land and share it among the population, that then does away with this wedge, this kind of wedge that’s polarizing society, while still maintaining private property intact.

Jim: In your recent TEDx talk, you actually proposed a model that was in many ways akin to the Alaska Permanent Fund and their model of issuing universal dividends. Can you say more about what your idea is there?

Laurie: Yeah, sure. So funnily enough, the idea here really dates back to one of the earliest proposals of basic income, actually, which was Thomas Paine and a pamphlet he wrote called Agrarian Justice. And in that pamphlet, he identified what I just talked about, which is that it’s the value of, what he said the improvement only and not the Earth itself, that’s individual property.

And what he proposed is that the value accruing from land should be collected in a national fund and distributed via a one-off payment. And he was proposing it to young adults as a one-off annual payment and to pensioners as a way of capturing that value of land and then sharing it. And this was really one of the earliest formulations of what we now call a form of basic income.

And really, what I was proposing in my TED Talk is really a kind of updated version of that for the 21st century, and a similar way as the Alaska Permanent Fund today has recognized that oil is a natural resource, it’s a valuable natural resource that should be managed, the value of which should be managed in a way which benefits everyone. It’s really taking that idea but applying it to land and therefore, the basic idea being the anyone that owns land would be, would pay equivalent to a royalty just like oil firms have to pay royalties on the oil that they extract into a public fund.

And then that would then accumulate. It could be invested and other things, and the dividend of that would then be shared out equally among all of the population. And really what this is doing is meaning that the increase in the value of land that happens partly naturally just through progress is therefore captured and shared out, rather than just being concentrated in the hands of landowners. Meanwhile, everyone else faces higher rents in the rental market.

Owen: So, you’re not the only person who’s bringing up this sort of thing. The RSA recently garnered a lot of attention by calling for a serious look at bringing a universal basic income to the UK. How would you describe the current debate in the UK on basic income and shared wealth?

Laurie: Yeah, it’s interesting, actually. Basic income obviously is something that’s gained, I think, growing traction in recent years, and it’s started to be looked at more seriously in the sense that we’ve had a number of organizations here in the UK, policy organizations, actually crunch the numbers and look at this in a lot more detail. So there’s definitely a lot of interest.

The way that I see it, I think there’s two key issues. One of the key issues, I think, is this whole issue of, where is the money going to come from for it? And this is something that is always the question that comes up whenever you speak about basic income. And I think that really does matter, not only in a technical sense, but it matters also to the extent to which you can get public support for it.

Because if you, in the case where we’re talking about in the land stuff, if people can see that actually what we’re doing is collecting wealth that’s socially created and then distributing it, that carries with that a certain sense of justice, which makes it easier for people to support the idea of a basic income.

Whereas if we just say, oh, we’ll just get it from you know normal taxation or whatever, I think still there’s evidence that a lot of people still aren’t quite comfortable with the idea of giving people, of giving everyone money. So I think that whole debate around where does the money come from is an important one.

I think the other main challenge, though, and this is where the number-crunching has come into it, is the extent to which it is possible to implement a universal basic income in such a way that means that no one is worse off as a result of it. And obviously, this has quite a bit of complexity to it, in particular in a country like the UK where you have a welfare system that exists today with lots of different individual policies that affect everyone in different ways, and particularly when we’re talking about stuff like, you know, housing benefit and lots of these other welfare policies that exist today.

It’s challenging to have a universal basic income high enough to make sure that nobody is worse off, but I don’t think it’s impossible. But I think that’s where a lot of the work has been done. There’s been various modeling by different organizations that looks at how exactly this could work and how high it could be, and if so, where would that money come from?

Jim: We’ve been looking at here in the US, I mean, certainly we’re nowhere close to being able to pass a federal basic income or much of anything federally right now that would move us forward in that direction. But we’ve been looking at what we’ve called “stepping stone policies,” which take us some distance in that direction.

I’m curious, are there any current proposals or do you think that there is a decent chance of enacting new policy that does move us to some degree towards some of these bigger ideas in the relatively near future in the UK?

Laurie: Yeah, so I think there’s two things I would mention there which I think are relevant.

So firstly, you might be able to tell from my accent, I’m actually from Scotland. And Scotland has its own devolved Parliament and its own First Minister and various devolved powers. And the Scottish government has now launched trials of basic income in three different towns across Scotland that’s going to be happening over the next few years. And actually to try and trial some of the, tease out some of the practical issues around how it could work and how it could be implemented. So that’s a positive sign if their results from that are positive, then that will be a stepping stone, not just in Scotland, but actually across the rest of the UK.

The other way when we’re talking about the UK government as a whole, we obviously, firstly, we have a Labour Party who are in opposition to the government who are looking at this idea quite seriously and are doing some work in the background to look at how this could actually be implemented.

And actually, the current Conservative Government that’s in place just now has actually inadvertently made it slightly easier to implement a universal basic income because of the policies it’s undertaken in the past seven years. What the government has done since 2010 is introduce something called Universal Credit. And the idea was that, whereas in the past we’ve had lots of these individual welfare policies, they’ve basically tried to roll them all up into one single payment called Universal Credit.

Now the Conservatives have done this in such a way that basically reduces how much people get. It was done in a way to basically make cost savings, if you like, and cut back. But that could quite easily be, that process of consolidation could quite easily be taken, modified, expanded, and grown and turned into universal basic income. But a lot of that logistical IT systems work needed to amalgamate lots of payments into one single payment is actually being done by the government at the moment, which means that, which is in itself a helpful stepping stone. It’s just that it’s not currently being used that way at the moment.

Owen: Well, those are the questions we had for you. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to add?

Laurie: I mean, I suppose one of the things that’s probably worth getting your thoughts on is, there seems to me at the moment to be lots of different slight variations on universal basic income in terms of how it could be funded and how it could be applied. And I’m just wondering, do you think that there’s an idea, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, called the Social Wealth Funds or Citizens Wealth Funds. And I actually did an interview with a team at City University in London who are looking at this as a potential way to fund a universal basic income.

And interestingly, what they’re looking at as a Social Wealth Fund is not only the kind of classic Social Wealth Fund of accumulating different financial assets and investments in a public fund that’s then used to pay for it, but they’re also looking at what they’re calling a Land Trust, which is also looking at how they can utilize land, all the public land that currently exist, but then also looking to build up land assets as well and use that to fund it.

So that was an interesting space where there’s this combination of ways of funding it. But I don’t know where at the moment, what the state of plays in the US. What’s the kind of state of debate in terms of where people think is the best route in there?

Jim: So, there’s a lot of different ideas floating around here. But both of the ones you laid out are being discussed. In particular, sovereign wealth funds that issue universal dividends. There’s starting to be more and more interest in that idea, not just from the universal payments perspective, but also motivated by the idea that this is a way to create commonly owned wealth, that we really don’t have to any significant degree in the way our economy is currently operating.

Owen: There’s also the idea of the Carbon Dividend, where you put a tax or a fee on carbon extraction, and that would add to the sovereign wealth fund or just be a dividend itself. So that, you know, there’s some crossover with the environmental movement there.

Jim: Yeah, there’s a lot of different ideas floating around as to what is the right / feasible way to actually fund this. Actually, just this morning, there was Chris Hughes, who runs the Economic Security Project, published an article in The Guardian advocating for a “data dividend” and applying a, really a fee or tax on companies that are profiting off data from a substantial number of people. I think there’s a lot of questions as to how do you, how does that actually work out policy-wise and implementation-wise. But there seems to be more and more, there seems to be growing interest in the idea that, let’s look at how, what is actually driving the concentration of wealth, and can we figure out mechanisms to actually allow that to be shared more broadly?

Laurie: Yeah, definitely. There was an article today, actually, and so I spent a bit of my time at an organization called Open Democracy. We’re running a project called New Thinking for the British Economy, and today an article by someone who is making the argument with UBI. The quote was, “Proponents of UBI need to go big or go home.”

I think what he meant is that by going big means that you need to take on this issue of ownership in the economy, kind of the root of the concentration of wealth. And that’s their agenda, and only by doing that will you really be able to get the UBI that is large enough, but also has acceptance that actually works.

And he was highlighting examples where he was quite worried that people are going straight in for the UBI or a halfway house UBI without touching the ownership stuff, and that, in his view, you could end up in not a very good place if you do that.

So you’re saying, yeah, go big and tackle the structural and make sure we go down that route. Otherwise, if it’s a kind of a halfway house UBI that doesn’t do that as well, then the outcomes you’re going to get aren’t going to be anywhere near as good. So it’s worth checking out, if you want to have a look at it.

Jim: That was Laurie McFarland, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation, recent speaker at TEDxTotnes, and co-author of the book Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing.

Owen: So I always find it useful to zoom out and think about the power structures that we have inherent in our economy. And the one between land owners and renters and, you know, everyone else is so integral that we don’t even see it most of the time. But I found his perspective really helpful on that.

Jim: Yeah, it’s such an internalized idea that, oh, of course everyone should aim to buy their house, and we all get our private property, and that’s just the way it’s system works. And understanding that that’s not historically how the system has worked and that’s actually a relatively modern invention — I think it does, it forces you to then start to raise questions about, oh, if this isn’t an inherent model, is this the right model? Should we be thinking about differences there?

Owen: Yeah, and I also found his general proposal of, allow for land ownership because, I mean, the idea of going back on that, I know some people, that’s an ideal for them. It just seems so far-fetched to have a world where it’s all shared land, and I’m not even sure if that’s what we want exactly.

But anyway, to be able to capture the value of rising land prices, you know, of course, that’s something that has a history in the basic income movement, largely through Henry George. But you know, I like that he’s reviving that proposal.

Jim: Yeah, I think that there’s often a tendency to go to the extremes: either everyone fully owns what they have or we’re all sharing everything. I mean, it’s basically pure capitalism or pure communism.

But I think with the levers that we have through public policy, there often is an opportunity to find the sweet spot in the middle, saying we still want to encourage growth and progress. It’s great that we’re doing developments that make land so much more valuable. Let’s just make sure that everyone has a stake in that, and that is something that’s not incredibly exacerbating inequality in the process, but rather broadly growing our prosperity.

Owen: Yeah, and of course, we’re seeing that every day here in the Bay Area where there’s a ton of money flowing into the area, and it should be good for everyone, but it’s really exacerbating wealth inequality.

Jim: Yeah. I also think that this whole conversation is just a good reminder: universal basic income is a systemic policy. It’s aimed at everything, which means that even as simple as the policy itself is, how it touches everything, what funds it, what implications it has, what are the potential pitfalls that we are likely to face as we try to lift everyone in our society out of poverty, that connecting it back to these other big thorny issues like housing is important.

And helping us to understand what that relationship is and, as we talked about with Laurie, that it’s not just a separate thing. Not only does the cost of housing have major implications on how you design basic income, housing itself may actually be, the rising value of that may actually be a driver of the basic income.

Owen: Sure, and I think housing is the biggest thorniest issue, at least in terms of how it interacts with basic income. Almost everything else, I just think “basic income makes it better.” But with housing, you know, it is a lot trickier, and so to have a solution that incorporates both I think is a very sensible way to go.

Jim: Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you for listening to the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson, and if you like what you hear, please do make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcast or to podcast service of your choice.

And please do tell your friends — we’re always looking for new listeners to help get the word out. We’ll talk to you next time.

An Update on Finland’s Basic Income Trial, feat. Aleksi Neuvonen of Demos Helsinki

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
An Update on Finland's Basic Income Trial, feat. Aleksi Neuvonen of Demos Helsinki

Recently, there have been a lot of media reports on Finland’s basic income trial, some stating that it is ending, that it failed, or something along those lines. The reality is much different. To get an understanding of what’s actually going on, and what caused all those news stories, Owen spoke with Aleksi Neuvonen, cofounder of Demos Helsinki.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Many of you may have read headlines in recent weeks claiming that Finland’s basic income experiment had been canceled. Now, for those of you who took time to dig in a bit, you probably discovered that was not correct.

The Finish experiment, in fact, is continuing as originally planned and the quote unquote cancellation actually referred to a proposed expansion of the experiment.

Owen: So we thought it would be good to get into the details about what’s actually going on there. And find out, you know, if the experiment is not cancelled, what is happening.

So, I got to speak with Aleksi Neuvonen. He’s the founder of Demos Helsinki and someone very close to the situation. And he gave a really good take on what’s going on there.

Owen: Welcome, Aleksi.

Aleksi: Thank you.

Owen: So, to start, could you just remind our listeners what the original basic income program in Finland was and what its goals were.

Aleksi: The basic income experiment in Finland is one of the twenty-seven policy experiments that the current coalition, government coalition in Finland is running. And they started their program in 2015. And basic income experiment is the biggest of all these politics experiments.

I would say the reason why they decided to experiment basic income is that there has been, for 15 years practically, an intention to renew the Finnish welfare system, which different types of committees during each election term trying to come up with certain suggestions on how to modernize the welfare system, which is a rather big system, takes quite a big chunk of the budget in the Finnish government with no results for the past 15 years.

And now, when Finland elected new government, or new Parliament, three years ago, there was an idea of changing the way they do policymaking. Then they introduced the idea of going towards experimentation culture. And as welfare reform was one of the key areas, they decided to try it with a new policy tool, which is an experiment which would last two years from the beginning of 2017 till the end of 2018.

Owen: Okay. Yeah. So, in the last couple of weeks, as I said, there have been a lot of reports about some changes to the experiment, that it’s ending, that something’s different. Has anything about the experiment changed?

Aleksi: No, actually, there has been no changes whatsoever. The current experiment comprises of two thousand people being selected to the experiment. Those people still get the basic income of 560 Euros per month. And that will run till end of this year. No analysis on the impact of the basic income or changes in the benefits that they receive have been done. And that was the intention from the beginning.

They will start analyzing the results at the beginning of 2019. So nothing has changed in the experiment itself. And from the beginning, there was a plan to make it a two-year experiment with some speculation on whether they could extend it to last longer.

Actually, the group that did the pre-study and design of the experiments suggested that, based on previous experiments, usually it takes from three and a half to four and a half years before you start getting positive well-being impact on the people participating in such an experiment, hence it should be longer, but no one promised it to be a longer.

However, there were plenty of discussions on whether they could extend it but apparently now politicians especially have come into a conclusion that there are no means of extending the experiment from the current length.

Owen: And so that’s what caused all the reports, is the decision to not extend it?

Aleksi: Sure. So it has been done somewhat official, actually that happened already last fall around November when they put out a press release saying that now they are approaching the midpoint of the of the experiment, and it looks like it won’t be extended, which was not stated very clearly, but anyhow, rather implicitly stating that it won’t be extended.

Owen: I see. And so, the basic income pilot was focused on the unemployment system. And, am I correct in thinking that there were some changes to Finland’s unemployment benefits system?

Aleksi: Yes. I mean, the system of of unemployment benefits comprises of number of different types of benefits regarding on for how long have you been unemployed or what has been your previous work history like. So people currently receive some unemployment benefits that are proportional their previous wages for almost almost two years. And now there has been some changes for this, these benefits.

So the idea is to incentivize people to be more active in taking job, while they still enjoy this much, much larger benefit than the basic income is. So they are conditionalizing those benefits by requiring people to send a certain amount of job applications or participating in different types of trainings during that period of time, which is, I would say ideologically somewhat quite opposite to what we’ve been thinking of basic income to be.

So it’s more about motivating people to seek for jobs, especially that they would get immediately quite soon, instead of, with the basic income, to pursue some other paths in their career.

Owen: I’m wondering what your reactions and maybe the public reactions as well have been to to these reforms?

Aleksi: The public reaction to these these reforms has been somewhat infuriated, I mean, there’s been big, big demonstration against the initiatives, for good reasons, I would say. It was prepared in a really fast pace. There are several contradictions, which would make it very difficult to be implemented point-by-point.

So there are… and it’s somewhat contradictory also to some other parts of legislation. And, of course, there are quite different types of situations where it doesn’t necessarily work that nicely. And probably, one of the underlining questions there is whether that should make people to move from from one town to another if they wish to get employed, which in Finland is a rather new thing.

We’ve had an idea of providing employment in all part of the country. And now with this new piece of legislation it would require people to commute longer distances or go from their hometown to seek job.

Owen: I see. And are there other problematic aspects of the new reforms that are causing a lot of uproar?

Aleksi: Yeah, I would say it’s over, of course, quite opposite to what people think of their what contemporary world should look like in how detailed some type of supervision there is on what you do when you are unemployed. And, I mean, really encouraging people to get jobs really fast instead of, I mean, look for some other some other opportunities in life.

And I mean, there are different types of people, I mean, reacting to this in a really, really negative manner. There are plenty of very highly educated people who think that once they’ve received good high quality education, they should be allowed to search for a job that somehow would meet their skills.

And then there are less educated people who feel that they are now already having quite difficult situation in their life. And now their benefits are getting even narrower becasue they always are at threat of meeting the sanctions.

And overall, I think this type of a sentiment that people feel that they are continuously being supervised or that they are in a constant threat of losing their benefits, it’s not necessarily the way of making people more motivated and to improve their skills. We know very well that threat is not necessarily the best motivator in very many things. It doesn’t make them necessarily very productive,

Owen: Right. One thing we talk about sometimes in the US is that, you know, we have people who are on many different benefit systems, and it almost becomes a part-time job just to stay on those benefits.

Aleksi: Yeah, there is pretty good scientific evidence on that happening, that people who really fall on benefits, they, I mean, first of course realize that they have to spend quite a lot of time sorting out these different forms and so on. And also, then feel that they are being disempowered because they are in a constant threat of losing those benefits.

And actually, that was one of the founding ideas of the basic income experiment that, would it help those people to become employed if they wouldn’t be stressed out because those burdens of constantly feeling the problems or being kind of, having these conditional benefits that require quite a lot of time applying them and waiting the benefits to be paid.

Owen: And getting back to the basic income experiment. While, I know it’s not completed and the official analysis is not been conducted yet, do we have any data or any stories even from the experiment so far?

Aleksi: There is no official data. It is actually based on the Finnish law that the officials cannot cannot give out any data on people because it’s all based on the official unemployment benefits system, and you cannot give out any kind of details on that.

And also that the one of the founding principles of the experiment was that it should be kept as a closed laboratory for the period of an experiment. In some of the previous experiments in the 70s, some of them were failing because there was so much things intervening. People were interviewed quite constantly and getting other people contacting them constantly, so that somewhat hampered the experiment itself.

There has been some stories on a couple of people who are participating in the experiment. So some journalists have searched for people. And at least these stories have been rather promising. So people who’ve been, I would say, rather prototypical people who have certain level of education, not necessarily in a field which would provide very secure or a long-lasting job opportunities, but is somewhere between freelancing and entrepreneurship and occasionally some opportunities of getting employed for long periods of time.

For instance, a person works having a training in as a professional dancer. And it has implied that the experiment seems to be offering her better opportunities for getting certain level of income where she is not in a threat of falling between different types of benefits, or she can do some freelancing and even have a private company while receiving the basic income as a benefit.

Owen: Yeah, for freelancers, I think the benefits are pretty obvious. From your estimation, do you think basic income is more popular in Finland now than than it was when the experiment started?

Aleksi: Probably. I assume that at least the overall understanding and knowledge on basic income is much, much better.

There has been so many articles on that in the newspapers, of course. Overall, things seem to be rather positive on basic income, of course, depending on how lucrative the basic income would be. So what level of benefit it would be finally when introduced. Quite a few people are, would allow people to have, let’s say, 800 or 900 euros basic income are rather okay for having that 600-700 still per month.

But there hasn’t been any kind of a survey on that over the past half a year, which would have been the probably a good time of polling that. And I’m really interested in hearing what the levels that they will be at the end of 2019 when people are being exposed to so much information on basic income for the past couple of years.

At the same time, political debate around basic income as a possible solution after the next elections hasn’t been that, the level of that discussion hasn’t been that high, which is somewhat surprising I would say.

Owen: Yeah, that is surprising. Well, those are the questions that I had for you. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you would like to add?

Aleksi: I would say that… Two things: the first is that the basic income experiment in Finland wasn’t initiated because any of the political groups in coalition had any ideological stance for basic income.

It was more merely thought to be one way of advancing some type of social security reform in the coming years. So, I’m quite sure there will be some reforms, some discussion on some type of reform, which, in a way or another, will resemble basic income over the next few years in Finland. It will be discussed after the next parlimentary elections which take place April next year.

It might resemble more, for instance, negative income tax or universal credit, which is now being tested in the UK. But there will be something which will continue the idea of reforming social security system to meet the needs of our age better.

Owen: So the idea is far from dead in your country. It sounds like it’s alive and well.

Aleksi: It is alive and well. And at the same time, there are no technical reasons why the experiment wouldn’t be relaunched after the elections and after the new coallition has been formed next year.

So there’s, according to my understanding, a full technical capacity to restart it, let’s say, at the beginning of 2012 with a bigger and more diverse amount of people. And then in Finland, we would have also a dynamic online income register in place, which would make it easier to combine those benefits with taxation.

So then they could also test different taxation levels combined with the basic income. Some experts say that with the current experiment, one of challenges is that we cannot be assured which thing are we actually testing? Whether the freedom from all the types of bureaucracy, of applying for welfare, really incentivize people to seek job better or whether it’s just the mere free benefit that they receive, which is tax-free, that incentivizes system.

So they’re actually two things which both have some type of effect on these people. And we don’t know, which are we testing right now? And when we could combine it with taxation, it doesn’t have to be then a tax-free benefit, which would then be, lets say, a more realistic way of implementing it as a permanent solution.

Owen: I see. So, you can start to move towards something where it could be, you know, something that’s a stable part of the government going forward.

Aleksi: So it would be much, much more a realistic real-life experiment than what it is now as a rather robust robust solution.

Jim: That was Aleksi Neuvonen, founder of Demos Helsinki, on the Basic Income Podcast.

Owen: So what struck me other than just that, how wrong the media has been about this, because you know you… I’ve had so many people come up to me and say. “I heard the Finland thing didn’t work out”, and it’s just not true. But moving beyond that, what struck me is just how this is an incremental fight on so many different levels both in term in current benefits like the unemployment system in Finland, the fight they’re having their now, and also the SNAP system here.

But also over the experiments that were doing because, you know, that is going to be an ongoing battle

Jim: Yeah. Policy is complicated. To actually set up anything, not just logistically in applying the policy, but actually to make sure that you’re aligned with all the different organizations and key stakeholders, that just takes a lot of work, and that’s pretty much always true.

And so it doesn’t really matter even if you have a super simple policy of handing out cash, that’s still gonna have a lot of complicated steps in the process to make it happen.

Owen: Right. And it is encouraging, you know, even if it does make the whole thing take longer, that there is a real desire to do it right, and to have these sorts of experiments.

And also, I was encouraged by the fact that there was a big public outcry to the, you know, the changes in the unemployment system and to the fact that they’re maybe not continuing the basic income pilot. Usually changes to the social benefits system, they can kind of pass mostly unnoticed.

Jim: Yeah. It’ll be really interesting to see how things progress there, particularly when we get to 2019 and can actually see the results. Will that actually change the conversation? Will the government there suddenly become more amenable to the idea of expanding and continuing on with that trial in order to to see how it might apply to different groups and over the longer term?

So I’ll be curious to see what ends up happening with that. I also think that this really points to how important it is and will be to frame conversation around experiments, because as we said, a lot of these details, there’s so much complexity there. And that’s going to be true of results as well.

When we actually start seeing that quantitative data coming out, depending on how you look at it, it can it can say many different things. There’s the old quote “Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” and I think that can certainly apply here. And so I think that not only thinking about how do we talk about the experiments leading into it? And then how does that translate into our interpretations of the results coming out of it?

Owen: Yeah. It’s going to be fascinating, and I think this episode really shows that, how just the initial round of journalism was, a lot of it was just inaccurate. And so yeah, there’s gonna be a lot of, you know, diligent work to be done to find out what actually is going on in these experiments.

Jim: Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you for listening. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. If you like what you hear, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcast or the podcast service of your choice.

And please do share with your friends. We’re always looking for more listeners. We’ll talk to you next time.

A Basic Income Presidency, feat. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
A Basic Income Presidency, feat. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang

What would it take to truly prepare the U.S. for the potential of widespread technological unemployment and invest in people in a way that allows them to really reach their potential? These questions and some novel answers inspired Venture for America founder Andrew Yang to run for president: he is a declared candidate for the 2020 election. Jim interviewed Yang at an event in San Francisco on his candidacy, vision, and the political path forward for basic income.

UBI and the Values Embedded in our Social Safety Net, feat. Almaz Zelleke

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
UBI and the Values Embedded in our Social Safety Net, feat. Almaz Zelleke

To understand our current anti-poverty measures and the full impact of a basic income, we need to understand the values and assumptions embedded in the safety net right now. In this episode, Owen discusses these issues with Almaz Zelleke, Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Shanghai, who is working on a book on the ethics of basic income in the U.S.

Zipcar Cofounder Robin Chase on UBI and the Emerging Economy

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Zipcar Cofounder Robin Chase on UBI and the Emerging Economy

We are watching the economy change before our eyes, and Zipcar Cofounder Robin Chase has been at the forefront of that change. She gives her observations on the platform economy, automation, self-driving cars, and how a basic income could be what smoothes the transition as we move to a different type of relationship between people and their work.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. When people think about basic income, they often tie it to some future scenario where automation has drastically affected the way that the people work. But just thinking about how technology affects work is not something limited to the future — it’s actually something that exists today.

Owen: I feel like automation and just the way that technology impacts employment and how people relate economically is something that comes on much more slowly than people tend to appreciate. And the self-driving cars may be a perfect example.

We think of them as this kind of futuristic thing that’s going to be a whole new product that looks pretty unlike what we have today. However, we’ve got automatic transmission, cruise control, a lot of cars have lane-keeping right now where it automatically stays in your lane, self-parking. The same kind of thing happens with the economy where recently more and more we have shared resources, the collaborative economy, the sharing economy. These are slowly chipping away at the legacy structures that have existed for decades.

Jim: There’s more and more companies out there that are adopting new approaches to the way that they employ people and the way that, really the conception of what a worker is. The people who are working in these companies really have a first-hand experience as to seeing what’s happening here and what impact it’s having on people’s lives and the economy at large.

Owen: This week, we are very lucky to have someone who’s at the forefront of the new economy. Robin Chase is co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jim: To start with, Robin, can you tell us a bit about what first got you interested in universal basic income?

Robin: When I was writing this book Peers Inc, I was thinking a lot about, I would say, the platform economy. I was understanding from a trend basis and from economic basis that everything that can become a platform will become a platform. That the outsourcing of workers — and I say that in a kind of negative way — is incredibly economically compelling. That companies that think of themselves as platforms grow faster, they learn faster, they are hyper-adaptive and hyper-localized. They’re very hard to beat. So if your company can take that shape, you’re going to take that shape.

We’re seeing it today. I was looking at something that was the top 50 innovative companies in the world. I would say 98% of them are what I would consider to be Peers Inc companies. Companies that are based on a platform with this satellite of assets that are outside of them. Once you understand that trend and internalize that trend, it says, “Whoa, oh my god.” We have completely structured our economy on the idea that people work full-time and get benefits full-time.

The fact is, I don’t know if that was ever true, maybe it was true in 1940, but it is not the economy that we’re seeing today. Our social safety nets and workplace rules have been tied around this aging idea, outdated idea of what work looks like and that is not the future. I’ve realized we really need to have a universal basic income.

I would say the other place that has taken me down this path is I do a lot of work on the future of self-driving cars. Unlike previous transitions, I expect this one to happen quite quickly because it’s economically compelling to make the transition from both the supply side, if you’re a supplier of transit services, and from the demand side, if you’re a consumer of transit services.

It’s very compelling, economically compelling to make the switch. Which means we’re going to put a lot of drivers and their ecosystem out of work not in 60 years but in 5 to 10 years. Another reason why I am definitely supportive of doing pilots at a minimum around universal basic income because I see it’s something that we definitely are going to need to have. We need to have it today, and we’re going to need more of it, we are going to need it more profoundly in our future.

Owen: The changing economy is something we talk a lot about here. How would you describe what it’s like to be a worker in the platform economy?

Robin: If I think about, let’s just talk about the upsides first. I am 58, and when I got a job, my first job, my first job was boring as hell, and I hated it. My mom would say, “You can’t quit that job. You can’t quit that job for at least a year and a half because it’s giving you benefits. If you quit any earlier, you’re going to look like a shifty worker.” It took me years and many different jobs to figure out what it was that I was good at, what I loved to do. It was a kind of very slow iterative process sequential learning of what it was I was good at.

One of the beauties of working on these platform economies is that I can do many things at the same time. There’s this nice sentence I got from someone else that said, “My father had one job in his lifetime, I’ll do six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will do six jobs at the same time.” Those six jobs at same time — and so maybe it’s going to four, who knows? But when I do that, I can have a passion job. I can have a job where I’m learning. I can have a job that’s my money job. I can have these different types of parts of my life where I’m exploring different things that I might like to do or that I’m interested in while I’m making some income.

One of things that people really love about it is being in control of your time. Being flexible, having the flexibility. You are your own boss. Coming back to the contrast with the idea of full-time jobs as being the end-all: in a full-time job economy, you’re in a binary position. You’re either employed or unemployed. You either have income or you have no income. That choice about being employed or unemployed is out of your hands. It’s some boss that’s choosing to hire you or not hire you.

In this platform, Peers Inc economy, I am able to choose my own, I can make money with my own initiative. I can work the number of hours, I can earn the amount of money I need. All that said, those are all the positives. So, positives: flexibility, figure out what you’re good at, having economic agency. Those are really positive things.

On the flip side, it’s very precarious. It’s precarious while you figure out what you are good at. It’s precarious in that some of these things are– some of this work is seasonal. It’s precarious around health benefits and workplace rules. All of which now fall into the burden of the individual. If we were precarious before, when we work in this Peers Inc economy, this platform economy, we are more precarious than before. There’s both resilience and precarity built into this doing four jobs at the same time.

That’s kind of how I see the upside and downsides. I just want to say one more thing about this: when we talk about the collaborative economy, of which we are finding and discussing many negative aspects, I want to say the fact that there are negative aspects doesn’t mean it’s not a great thing because I just explained lots of great things.

If I go back to the foundation of industrialization, people worked seven days a week and we had child labor. We fixed those things. The fact that this new way of work has downsides, it does have downsides, and we have to correct and work on those downsides. Right now, we are seeing people increasingly having to work not in full-time jobs work at many things and we don’t have the– we haven’t corrected for the downsides that come with that way of work.

Jim: On that note, how do you see basic income connecting here? How does it serve to deal with some of the issues that you just described?

Robin: There’s that common– there’s that statistic that, I think it was Gallup that did, that was saying 40% of people couldn’t cover a $400 bill. I look at that and when you do sociological reading, you see that these outlier events are the things that take people into bankruptcy and take them into terrible jobs. I see universal basic income as being the minimum platform on which we can now arrange our life.

It’s giving us a basic income security, and what is that number? I think about, one thing about universal basic income, I don’t know if it’s going to be $1,000 a month or if it’s going to be $400 a month. I don’t know. I know that at both of those points, it’s incredibly valuable to people. It takes away the precarity. Then I was interested at Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech and that he also pointed out this other upside which is rich, well-educated, privileged people have the opportunity to follow their passions and take risks.

Poorly educated people who don’t have rich parents, spouses, cousins, and relatives to support them can’t take any risks pursuing any sort of interesting things. Basic income will enable them to do that. It seems, it’s not– it’s an equity piece, but I think it’s also an uncovering of innovation, improved quality of life, just a better– we’re getting more out of people. We’re getting more of the best out of people, rather than tying people to a go safe, don’t take risks type of work.

Owen: You mentioned self-driving cars earlier. A very common response to the automation issue is that, “Well, we’ve had these concerns in the past, and new technology always brings about new opportunities.” How would you respond to that argument?

Robin: That argument is extremely frustrating to me. That I look at it, and I say, and I think, you venture capitalist, you businessman sitting in your chair can say that. But the person who is in Bloomington, Indiana, who has a high school education, who’s 50 years old, who’s been driving a taxi for the last 30 years — that opening up of the new ideas of jobs, that is not going to help him. That is specific people with specific education and specific geographies. The idea that this is going to open up new jobs is, it’s a kind of rainbow fantasy dream.

Sure, in the fullness of time over the entire economy, it could have new interesting things that happen, but starting Day One and Year One and Year Two for specific people and specific economies, we know profoundly that that is not the case. That we have people in cities that have lost their steel industry that are still terrifying. We have Detroit. If it were so straightforward, wouldn’t that have– we wouldn’t be seeing 30 years on the issues you have, the unemployment you have in Detroit. I think that’s a specious argument.

Jim: There’s been a lot of discussion and germination of ideas around basic income in the last two years in the US. What do you see as the most exciting recent developments there?

Robin: I have to tell you a funny story to tee up this. When I was writing Peers Inc and I got to this chapter about the fact and I saw, whoa, everything that can become a platform is going to become a platform. I’m seeing this huge push of work into these insecure part-time types of things. I thought, “You know what? What we really need is– people need an income that just comes in every month as a basic standard.” It was as if in my mind, I had come up with a really crazy idea that I invented. Kind of like my 11-year-old coming home and saying, “Mom, what if dogs pulled sleds? There could be something called dog sledding.” I thought, that’s been invented.

I want to say, with humility, with incredible amusement at myself, two-and-a-half years ago, I had never heard of universal basic income. When I was writing this book, I thought, “Oh my God, we need a universal basic income.” I think I called it, We Need a Basic Income. Then when I was– after I wrote this chapter, I sent it out to an economist and a person doing tech futures, a kind of tech futurist. I said, “I feel like I’ve really gone too far in this recommendation.” Their emails back to me were laughing. “Robin, what are you talking about? This has definitely got to be part of the future. This is something that has been tested and piloted in other places.”

I was very amused. If I think about the last two years, what really struck me is that this has become an increasingly mainstream conversation. What I thought two years ago, as a person who worked in tech, who works in innovation, who is very well-educated, I had never thought about it. I had never thought about it, never heard of it, never considered it, and now we see articles about it all the time. Not just on Medium, we see them in regular everyday newspapers, on televisions, and around the world.

That’s been what’s been amazing to me over the last few years, is to see the increasing beat of discussion. Whenever I’m going toe-to-toe with someone on the idea of universal basic income, and they want to say, “We can’t afford it,” or “People are going to stay home, play video games, and smoke weed.” My answer to that is, “Maybe.” We have to do some pilots, because until we do some pilots, we’re just going to continue have this circular discussion about its impossibility and its impacts.

That’s what’s been quite interesting to me is to see a larger– is start to see the rise of more and more pilots, so that we’re going to get more and more data, so we can put an end to this circular conversation that I think has been– is where we used to be, and we can start getting to a place of real data.

Owen: You’re both the proponent and a builder of the collaborative economy. A great example of that is the company you co-founded, Zipcar, in which people, in which there are cars that anyone can access and take for the day or for the hour. Do you see the collaborative economy as a piece of the same puzzle along with the basic income, or are they more parallel to you?

Robin: I see the collaborative economy as a restructuring of our current economy. That restructuring requires new rules, and that’s where UBI comes in. In the old industrial capitalism, you would build– the way you extracted the most value out of something was to put a very strong barrier around the company. You knew– and we would do that with patents and copyrights and certifications and trademarks. You knew very, very clearly who worked for the company and who didn’t work for the company. Who owned what assets and who the assets belong to. It was very clear, the ownership model.

In this future economy, this currently blossoming and growing economy, this collaborative economy, it is very ill-defined and very fuzzy. Who owns these assets? Are you an employee, or are you not an employee? Who are you partnering with? What assets are you using? Is this a personal asset, a commercial asset? Is this — I’m looking outside my window — is this a residential district, or is it a commercial district?

Who owns my data, who has access to my data? Whose access to my smartphones? All of this today is becoming very intertwined and multi-purposed. All of those old rules that went with that old economy no longer suit this new way of working and collaborating and sharing assets and ideas and data.

UBI is a very nice underpinning to this new economy, to allow this fluidity of work, fluidity of ideas, fluidity of innovation to happen with all of– I just feel like, I feel a swirl, if you go deep into the idea of shared assets and data and space and time. If you want to get the most out of that multi-purposing and most of that potential, you need to have a nice, a firm economic standing that gives you the opportunity to take advantage of how you extract this new value, how you find new potential, how you share these assets in a fluid way. You need to have a kind of bedrock economic standing underneath that.

Owen: That’s fantastic. My last question is, I’m just wondering if there’s anything you’d like to add on any of these topics.

Robin: We haven’t talked about it a lot yet, but when I think about the automation of self-driving cars, if I had my dream future, which I’m working hard to help achieve in cities, all cars would be shared. Which would mean we’d only need 10% of them, which means 90% of the cars, let’s go to say 50% of cars we’re building today, we don’t need them to be built. We don’t need the resources to be dug up out of the ground, transported long distances, assembled in factories, transported to new places, housed and warehoused on streets.

It completely– it takes this big piece of the economy out, in a way, and I see there’s a huge upside to that. That we can take back our cities and our curbs and our houses and parking lots, if we get this gigantic win from sharing cars and not having to store them. All of that, I want that transition to happen as quickly as possible because it has so many upsides. In order for that transition to happen as quickly as possible, we need to provide this support structure.

I look at that, and I think that’s just one sector of the economy. I feel like our entire economy, from my perspective, a sustainability and equity perspective, is quite broken. I would like us to be able to evolve much more quickly without having the incredible anxiety over what’s happening to individuals within that economy. It’s another argument for me to have free universal basic income.

If we don’t do that, two things unfold. One is, when we think about the automation of agriculture, we did that in a horrible way and a lot of people, millions and millions and millions of people worldwide, suffered through that 20-, 30-, 40-year transition. We should be doing much better today. I’d like us to do a much better job of that transition, and I’d like it to be much faster because of the incredible upside and the potential to unleash people best selves instead of their worst, “how can I get paid doing whatever it is required” self. I want us to do many more pilots on universal basic income. Ultimately, I want us to be a adopting it and paying for because I think it will unlock a dramatically better quality of life and dramatically more innovation than we see today.

Owen: That was Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc. Thank you so much for joining us.

Robin: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Jim: You’ve been listening to the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. If you like what you hear, please make sure to rate and review us on iTunes, Stitcher, or the podcast platform of your choice. Also make sure to share with your friends. We’re always looking for new listeners who’d like to hear more about universal basic income. Talk to you next week.