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The Universal Basic Income Renaissance

I was invited to share my thoughts and research at the conference organized by the Dutch United Nations Student Association entitled “Universal Basic Income: the future of social security?” in the beautiful (and cold) city of Groningen. I shared the floor with the Belgium social justice researcher Francine Mestrumand Finnish economist and social welfare expert Antti Jauhiainen. I was impressed –as the organizers were too- by the audience in terms of assistance (almost 400 attendees hit a full house record on a Monday evening amidst exams week) and in terms of interest as reflected by a live discussion that continued long after the official schedule.

A Universal Basic Income -UBI in short- is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. The mere fact of having ‘money for nothing’ provokes many live reactions, in both directions: proponents that see in UBI a way to end up poverty, bullshit jobs and foster autotelic, creative and entrepreneurial work; and retractors that see in UBI an unaffordable mechanism to perpetuate human laziness. Work would no longer need to be incentivized or required in a capitalist society where life and self-worth is entirely organized around the idea of work.

Here I highlight some of the key points raised during the conference that I think deserve deep reflection and further analysis:

  • UBI versus social protection: there is a concern that the introduction of a UBI is likely to jeopardize social assistance delivered to guarantee social security to all citizens. Decades of progress on social rights can be meaningless if UBI does not explicitly address this potential tradeoff. We concluded that UBI adds-on social protection schemes, and that both should be complementary mechanisms to further increase social security and human rights.

  • A new (an increasing) interest of global corporations in UBI. High-tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (Tesla) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), among others, are in favor of UBI as they see it a response of the system to fight the exponential job loss created by technological disruption in the labor market and, therefore, a measure to fight the global inequality pandemic. However, this explicit support raises conflict-of-interest issues. Technologists lobbying for UBI could unveil a move towards dismantling –or discouraging- increasing social protection demands.

  • UBI experiments are fake. Pilot programs experimenting with basic income are happening in several parts of the world. However, none of them –at least in the northern hemisphere- are truly universal (that means giving money to all, including poor and rich). And if they are not universal, they are not unconditional. Even the pilot in Finland, which raised worldwide attention, is just an unemployment benefit program. Who will dare to differ?

  • Feasibility versus affordability. I’ve never been on a UBI symposium where the first reaction against it had not been its affordability. That is, who will pay for it? Current taxation mechanisms, austerity policies, high-debt and squeezing social budgets make UBI a utopia for many. And they are probably right. However, we need to introduce the variable of time delay and framing the UBI debate as it is in a design mode. That requires lateral thinking –out-of-the-box- in order to find innovative financial mechanisms to ensure, in the long-term, the feasibility of a UBI. UBI is, in essence, a social innovation. Alternatives propose real progressive tax systems, introducing technology taxation schemes or fighting tax evasion and ending fiscal paradises. The money is out there, the real question is: how do we capture and channel it through?

  • UBI as a mechanism of transition to the sustainable economy.UBI is not the all-in-one answer to the inequality and social inefficiencies of the capitalist system. That would be too naïve. It is, instead, a means to an end. It is a measure that rises amidst increasing inequality driven by fast technological change. The future of work maybe a work without future, and in the next decades we will see and increasing work and life decoupling. Are we ready for that?

Approaching UBI requires suspending our classical thinking on economics and opening up to the possibility of changing our predetermined worldviews that have been influenced by an economic paradigm that is agonizing. New generations are not attached to Marx, Engels, Payne, Smith, Keynes, or Friedman as we used to. They see UBI through new lenses, as a mechanism that allows reflecting on the deeper underlying structures of the current capitalist system. Hence, they see it as a leverage point for sustainable change. Perhaps we are witnessing a Universal Basic Income Renaissance, where UBI is no longer left or right, but a way forward.

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