Another post in which I try to get a firmer grasp on Universal Basic Income

Yet another post about an article about Universal Basic Income, this one from Charles Murray writing in the Wall Street Journal. (I’m in learning mode about UBI, what can I say.)

A couple of key points from this one:

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.

“It has to be done right” is the key here. UBI sounds great in principle, but so did Public Key Infrastructure for digital signatures (&c) and so does the blockchain. The devil is, as they say, in the details, and Murray offers an approach that makes sense. At least on the surface. (Damn it Jim, I’m an engineer not an economist!)

The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse. I don’t think it would. Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax.

And, besides, so what if it discourages work? Work is not our purpose in life. If someone can get by on just a little bit, more power to them. Or maybe someone’s purpose in life is something that doesn’t count as work, but is still of value. To them or to others.

Murray’s got that one covered, too:

Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear, but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern. And the wealth in private hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imagine the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Americans, left to themselves, have always responded.

And this changes the dynamic for people who say they need help, because everyone will know that they have the basic income. That they have the ability to help themselves if they choose.

The known presence of an income stream would transform a wide range of social and personal interactions….

Emphasizing the ways in which a UBI would encourage people to make better life choices still doesn’t do justice to its wider likely benefits. A powerful critique of the current system is that the most disadvantaged people in America have no reason to think that they can be anything else…. A UBI would present the most disadvantaged among us with an open road to the middle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to people who have never had reason to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

In principle. The devil is in the details.


Another quote / link on basic income, this one from FiveThirtyEight. A long article, worth the read. It’s not just about today’s poor, but tomorrow’s (robot induced) unemployed too.

Increasingly, technologists envision basic income as a “hack,” or fix, to the system — it offers a way of coping with an economic future dominated by automation, a fallback plan for when most human labor isn’t valued or needed.

“We think there could be a possibility where 95 percent — or a vast majority — of people won’t be able to contribute to the workforce,” said Matt Krisiloff, the manager of Y Combinator’s basic income project. “We need to start preparing for that transformation.”

What would happen if we just gave people money?

The dividend of progress

In the lead up to the last US Presidential election (2012) I wrote a post entitled If the government were run like a business… in which I asked (and somewhat answered with more questions):

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model? … It seems reasonable to say that citizens are the shareholders, but what is their investment? How do you measure return on that investment? Are all citizens/shareholders equal, or do some hold more “shares” than others?

With the presumptive Republican nominee being who he is, the question of government as a business has been on my mind again, although this time around I’ve got a bit more reading and thinking on the subject under my belt. I still don’t have any answers, but I’ve got some more ideas I want to explore.

The title of this post was prompted by something that author Rutger Bregman said during an interview on the radio program To The Best of Our Knowledge – which, as I mentioned yesterday, includes several great stories about the future of work in the context of economics – specifically (and this is a paraphrase):

The universal basic income (UBI) is the dividend of progress

This frames the citizen (we’ll keep it at that for now) as a shareholder in the country. The citizen’s investment is whatever they contribute to the progress of the country; be that in a regular job, as an investor, or maybe as a volunteer. The return  on that investment – to the country – is the progress that results from their investment; in some cases this will be the creation of a product, an increase in treasure, or a service that improves infrastructure. (These are, obviously, very basic and simplistic examples.)

utopiaRealistsWhich, in the end, means that every shareholder – every citizen – receives a dividend, in this case as a Universal Basic Income. Yes, everyone. Including the wealthy. Of course, their contribution of treasure will increase as well, which will allow those contributing in non-financial ways (yes, those are valid, too!) to continue to make their own contributions to the success and progress of the country.

But but but…. That’s <gasp> re dist ri bu tion of wealth. Isn’t it? It all depends on how you define wealth, I guess, and at what level you consider the distribution and redistribution. (fwiw, I am likely making a complete mess of Bregman’s arguments and points, since I haven’t yet read the book on which this interview was based, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek; it’s on my Kindle waiting to be read.)

As it turns out I had been reading some stories and interviews about Automattic, the company behind, this past weekend as I attended WordCamp STL 2016 and came across this quote from WordPress creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg

We just look at the company as a whole. Maybe there’s a team of 4 people that throws off like $10 or $15 million in revenue. Or maybe there’s a team of 40 people that barely makes any money, or loses $10 or $15 million. Things basically balance out between them.

— An extended interview with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg

So maybe it’s not a perfect analogy / comparison, but I can’t help thinking that Matt – and Rutger and many many others – just may be onto something here.

Rethinking work

Another interesting hour from To The Best of Our Knowledge.

Rethinking Work

American companies generate a lot of wealth. But Americans aren’t seeing much of it. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says that’s because today’s corporations are obsessed with one thing — growth. We’ll find out why our economy’s operating system is broken and how we can fix it, as we rethink work. Also, we’ll explore the six-hour work day and the case for a universal basic income.

I’ve recently completed Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus (highly recommended) and Dan Lyons’ Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble is towards the top of my to-read list.

I have been thinking lately about Universal Basic Income, and the interview here with Rutger Bregman has some useful insights. (Which means I’ll need to read his Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek soon, too.)

The phrase that really jumped out at me, and which will likely become the title of a future blog post, was that “UBI is the dividend of progress”. Ties in nicely with my musings a few years back on the idea, If the government were run like a business…