Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of many famous tech celebrities that believes everyone should have some amount of basic income. Now, one more voice is joining in to support the social media creator’s idea, and its Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield.
Butterfield isn’t only known for making the team messaging app, but is also the co-founder of the Yahoo-owned, popular image website Flickr. On Twitter, the CEO shared his stance on the matter, saying that just by giving people a small amount, people may be more open to pursuing entrepreneurial idea and investments.
Butterfield joins Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Y Combinator president Sam Altman, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Zuckerburg has spoken repeatedly about his opinion on unconditional basic income (UBI), and has pointed to Alaska’s UBI program as as example the U.S. could learn from. Musk, in February, said the rise in autonomous technology will greatly impact the workforce, and could eventually force government to introduce a basic income program.
Despite the number of people in favor of the concept, knowing how much it is, and knowing how it works, it’s hard to tell if it will be incorporated any time soon, or at all. The idea of a “free handout” or “free money” doesn’t sit well with everyone, and some would probably prefer to earn their wages with hard work.
Furthermore, not every wealthy tech luminary and philanthropist agrees with UBI. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for example, has called it “one of the worst possible responses” to the evaporating job market. That said, he also believes existing safety net programs should be better, if only to be more efficient and able to distribute more money with cheaper operating expenses.
Some of the most common questions ever asked in regards to the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) are in regards to the details. “How much income? Who gets it? Who pays for it? How is it paid for? What does it replace?” These are all great and important questions, but the answers vary from person to person, because the answers are a matter of personal and political preferences when it comes to fine-grained details. With that said, after years of studying basic income, below you will find what I currently believe in May of 2017 are the details of an optimally designed UBI blueprint.
First, how much are we talking about? In the United States, I suggest starting with the definition of poverty we already use, and eliminating poverty entirely. According to 2017 federal poverty guidelines, this means if we were to pass legislation tomorrow, it would need to be $12,060 per adult citizen and $4,180 per dependent under 18. The amount for kids is imperative so that income floors scale according to household sizes. A child basic income is also in large part a revenue neutral consolidation of existing expenditures presently unequally distributed. However, for reasons I will explain below, I suggest adding 10% to each amount, so $13,266 ($1,105/mo) per adult citizen and $4,598 ($383/mo) per citizen under 18.
Taking into consideration that we are talking about US citizens only (which would also incentivize legal immigration) who comprise an estimated 92.8% of the population, this particular basic income design requires finding about $3.4 trillion in total (not net) revenue. This may sound like a very big number. It is. Some people even just stop right there or decide we have to eliminate ALL government programs to do it. But it’s not as big as you may think, and we don’t have to eliminate everything to use a great deal of existing revenue.
Welfare State Reform
First, there are welfare programs we can eliminate entirely once basic income is enacted into law. Food and nutrition assistance programs ($108 billion) and temporary assistance for needy families ($17 billion) for example would both be better accomplished by simply giving people money without conditions. TANF especially needs to be fully replaced for reasons I’ve described previously. It’s important to note my plan will not touch health care, child care, or housing, although we will still spend less on all of these for reasons I’ll explain further down.
Second, there are welfare programs in existence that we don’t tend to see as welfare because they are targeted mostly toward those at the top of the income and wealth spectrum. They’re called tax expenditures. Such invisible welfare programs that disproportionately reduce tax bills are essentially the same thing as not reducing taxes and just giving people money, and so they too can be entirely replaced by basic income. They include: the earned income credit ($73 billion), the child tax credit ($56 billion), home ownership tax expenditures ($340 billion), married filing jointly preferential tax treatment ($70 billion), the tax break on pensions ($160 billion), fossil fuel subsidies ($33 billion), and treating capital gains differently than ordinary income ($160 billion).
Next, there are existing programs that can be considered as proto-basic incomes that are mostly achieved through the Social Security system like retirement pensions and disability incomes. I believe these programs should be reduced because they were designed without basic income in mind, but should function supplementally in a way that shifts some revenue to the basic income revenue pool, in a way that leaves all recipients better off. This can be achieved by replacing just one of every three dollars with basic income.
For example, someone receiving $1,500/mo in Social Security right now would instead receive $1,000/mo in Social Security in addition to their $1,105/mo in basic income, for a new total of $2,105/mo leaving them $605/mo better off. Someone receiving $2,100/mo in disability income would instead receive $1,400/mo in addition to their $1,105/mo in basic income for a new total of $2,505/mo leaving them $405/mo better off. Applying this method yields the following revenue shifted to UBI: Social Security ($324.2 billion), SSI ($20.6 billion), veteran pensions ($29 billion), and unemployment insurance ($13 billion). I also recommend lifting the cap on Social Security so that everyone pays in no matter how much they earn, which would raise an additional $380 billion.
At this point I’d like to introduce some new taxes, none of which involve raising any tax rates on ordinary salaries and wages, and all of which are highly progressive when combined with basic income.
Carbon Tax (Fee and Dividend)
The most important new tax for the survival of our species is in my opinion a revenue-neutral carbon tax. I suggest starting at $50/ton with annual increases of $15/ton. The result would be an immediate $150 billion in the first year that would grow annually in a way that results in a basic income that also grows annually, and carbon pollution that shrinks annually. Using a model provided by the Carbon Tax Center, I’ve calculated that In just five years, it could be providing everyone over $100 per month and have reduced CO2 pollution levels to a third of what they were back in 2005, while going on to cut them in half by 2030. By 2040 it could be distributing $1.5 trillion to all citizens as co-owners of the sky they’re paying more to pollute 60% less.
I suggest a financial transaction tax starting at 0.34% based on a microsimulation by Urban-Brookings which concluded it as the maximum rate before changes in behavior result in revenue decline. This would be a tiny but very progressive tax on the financial transactions of mostly the wealthiest (the top 1% own about 50% of all financial investments and the bottom 50% own about 1%) that would raise an estimated $75 billion and make financial markets more stable by putting a price on destabilizing and rent-seeking high frequency trading.
It may come as a surprise to learn that money itself is a public good that’s now almost entirely created into existence not publicly by government “printing” but privately as digital accounting entries on commercial bank ledgers. Since this money creation is free for banks, and interest on it is charged, the interest is essentially a private tax that serves as a tool of upward redistribution. It’s welfare for bankers. By replacing debt-based private money creation through seigniorage reform with debt-free public money creation, and simultaneously removing the ability of banks to create new money, we could not only fund basic income in a way that requires no taxes, but it could also help prevent future bank-created market crashes. Considering that the M1 money supply has been expanded by $2 trillion since 2008, that’s about $213 billion per year we could have instead just created ourselves in the hands of all citizens equally, no taxes required.
Whereas income taxes are direct and unavoidable as long as earning income through work is required to live, consumption taxes are indirect and avoidable because they’re only paid upon purchase. We are familiar with this in the US in the form of sales taxes, but sales taxes are only applied on the final product. A value-added tax is applied at each step along the chain of production, and thus is a tax far more difficult to evade paying.
A 10% VAT could generate around $750 billion per year in new revenue. It would also function as a clawback mechanism for basic income similar to a negative income tax with a 10% clawback rate, where individuals consuming more than $132,660 per year would pay more in taxes than what they receive in UBI, while all those consuming less would receive more in UBI than they pay. Essentially, with a 10% VAT, everyone spending more than $132,660 would be funding their own $13,266 basic income and thus carry no cost to any other taxpayer.
A 10% VAT applied to all purchases in the US would also raise the poverty line about 10%, which is the reason the basic income I recommend is 10% above the existing federal poverty line. Also, for those who fear the idea of people taking their basic incomes and earning no additional income, it would mean that aside from the other 90% that gets transformed into wages and salaries through purchases of goods and services, 10% of their basic incomes would go right back into funding everyone else’s basic income.
Last but not least, in fact in my opinion most important of all economically in the long-term as a new tax to increasingly replace existing taxes with, is a tax on the unimproved value of land — aka land-value taxation or LVT. Not to be confused with property taxes that tax what’s built on land, LVT taxes the total value of real estate minus what’s built on it. The owner of a high-rise apartment building providing homes to hundreds of families would pay the same tax as an identical adjacent lot that stands empty, thus providing a disincentive to idle speculation and an incentive to develop unused and underused space.
The value of land is perhaps the best example of all of the wealth we all co-create, because the value of land depends entirely on everything and everyone that exists around it, not on it. If all your neighbors burn down their houses, your house will be worth less. If all your neighbors fix up their houses, your house will be worth more. The increase in value is clearly collectively (not individually) generated.
Since the 1980s, housing prices in the US have increased by 5% on average (minus the real estate bubble creation and burst), which means a 5% tax levied on land values and distributed to all as basic income would be distributing the value created by everyone to everyone. It would raise an estimated $750 billion and function as an entirely unavoidable tax on both corporations and individuals alike. It would also serve alongside the VAT as an additional clawback mechanism, where all owners of land totaling more than $265,320 would pay more in LVT than received in basic income.
This combination would be hugely progressive, not only economically but racially, because the top 10% own 78% of all non-home real estate, and where the median white household has around $76,000 in home value wealth, the median black household has only around $1,500 in home value wealth. In other words, under this plan, median white households (not counting any other taxes but LVT) would potentially be net receivers of $9,466 in basic income and median black households would be net receivers of $12,966 in basic income. For those hoping for a UBI that provides extra as reparations, this plan achieves that by clawing back less from African Americans, not for being African American, but for being systematically excluded from property ownership for centuries.
This proposed basic income plan is not only fully funded at this point, but has surpassed the mark by over $300 billion. However, I’m still not done, as I firmly believe basic income needs to (aside from being indexed to inflation) grow as productivity grows, so now we need to look at ways of accomplishing what is effectively indexation of basic income to the automation of labor.
As I’ve written about previously, Alaska points the way forward as a model to expand upon. Economic rent should be diverted from rentiers and back to citizens through recognition of citizen co-ownership of natural common assets like water and minerals, and social common assets like big data and patent royalties, with that revenue feeding into a national fund whose purpose is universal dividends. There are some very clever methods of achieving this already being proposed. Renowned economist Yanis Varoufakis has suggested that because taxpayer money has funded so much of the technology around us, like for example the iPhone, the process of filing for every new IPO should involve a percentage of those shares being added to a giant sovereign wealth fund, like in Alaska, whose dividends will pay into the total basic income pool. Robert Reich has suggested that because governments are the ones providing patent and trademark protections for the technologies that are eliminating jobs, that a share of the profits from that protection should go to citizens as the condition of such protection.
Just as an annually rising carbon fee could be returned to us all as a dividend for our co-ownership of the air, I suggest that an annually rising intellectual property fee could be added to any intellectual property wishing to be monopolistically excluded from the public domain, with the revenue returned to us as co-investors of the government granting such protection. I also suggest that big data should be seen as a new form of property being digitally created by everyone through everything we do, and that as a result, citizens should see a percentage of the money derived from it as a big data dividend. Companies like Facebook could pay into the basic income pool a percentage of what they earn from selling our data as a royalty for mining us like oil fields.
There are a lot of ways to grow basic income from something that just covers the purchase of essentials into something more like a prosperity dividend that covers far more than the basics over the decades to come. Let’s figure them out. The automation of human labor demands it, as does human flourishing.
One of the main points of division among supporters of basic income is the choice of eliminating the welfare state or supplementing it. I’ve already covered how this is a false choice with my suggestion of a partial transformation of the Social Security system into a top-up program of payments of reduced size, but there is I think a key point to consider as a grand compromise. If considered identical to ordinary income for the purpose of welfare qualification, the basic income will raise people’s total incomes above the point of qualifying for many existing welfare programs due to their very means-tested nature. This would greatly reduce the benefits many programs provide, some even to nothing, just as working a job would, without actually eliminating anything at all.
Take Medicaid for example. Right now to qualify, one must be earning less than 138% of the poverty line. This means that if we treat a basic income set at the poverty level as an increase of everyone’s earned incomes, only those earning 38% of the poverty line right now will still qualify for Medicaid after UBI, just as they would no longer qualify after getting an equivalent raise through their employer right now. That could effectively lower the total Medicaid bill from $650 billion per year to under $200 billion. Those earning more than 38% of the poverty line who previously received Medicaid would instead receive ACA (assuming it isn’t repealed and replaced) subsidies to afford private health insurance in their state market exchanges, and those currently receiving subsidies who are earning more than 300% of the poverty line right now would no longer qualify for them.
Looking beyond Medicaid at all means-tested programs designed to help those living in poverty, lifting everyone above the poverty line would result in many programs becoming entirely pointless based on their own existing definitions of deciding who is deserving of help and who isn’t. If the only people deserving of help are those earning less than $12,000 per year, then after UBI is enacted, no one is deserving of that help anymore having newly joined the ranks of the undeserving.
Additionally, no discussion of the cost of basic income and the savings it stands to provide is complete without asking the cost of not implementing basic income. How much are we spending right now on the full costs of poverty, inequality, and insecurity in the form of all the crime, poor health outcomes, worse educational outcomes, and reduced productivity for example that would not exist with basic income? I’ve attempted to calculate this myself, and I think the amount, whatever it is, is greater than the cost of this UBI plan. In other words, basic income entirely pays for itself by reducing countless other costs that we currently consider entirely normal to pay, across all of society. Basic income is akin to a vaccine, or a strategy of fire prevention versus fire fighting. It’s an ounce of prevention instead of a pound of cure.
The above combination of revenue sources and entirely new funding methods has the potential to bring in multiple existing constituencies — each already advocating for these ideas albeit separately — while also enhancing the ability to adjust the basic income over time by creating a series of new economic dials. Additionally, by simplifying the income tax code and implementing these new taxes, fees, and royalties universally as part of putting money into the pockets of citizens directly without strings instead of indirectly with strings, citizens may show greater support for further improvements over time, to increase the basic income or further redistribute existing tax burdens.
There is also a purposeful modularity to this plan, where parts can be pulled out and implemented on their own, as strategic steps toward the larger plan. For example, the passage of a national carbon fee and dividend policy should be seen as successfully taking a big step toward a full UBI, as would initiatives to get such policies implemented at the state level. If everyone is already receiving a $100 per month carbon dividend, a full basic income policy is then $100 per month cheaper to implement. Full UBI implementation would then also be less of a shock to the economy with people going from $100 per month to $1,100 per month instead of from $0 per month to $1,100 per month. (Note: phasing in UBI over a matter of say five years may still be wise though.)
A key detail of any well-designed basic income plan is to make sure it is at the very least indexed to rise automatically with inflation so that the value does not erode over time. But an optimally-designed basic income in my opinion will rise with the growth of the economy as a whole. At the moment, this means automatic indexation with inflation-adjusted GDP. However, being that GDP itself needs to start being questioned, especially after the adoption of basic income where everyone is more able to engage in unpaid work untracked by GDP, we will at some point need to index basic income to this new measure, whatever it ends up being, that’s a more accurate reflection of our increasing wealth generation and our growing technological ability to do more with less.
Additionally, a counter-cyclical element is optimal, so that during recessions, the basic income does not shrink along with the economy. This is one of the reasons I believe the citizen seigniorage element to be so important, so that in times of economic contraction or even inability to hit yearly inflation targets due to exponential technological deflation, this component can be ramped up by the Federal Reserve without the need for legislative process, to function as essentially quantitative easing for the people (QEP), and also ramped down in the case of an overheating economy.
To illustrate this, think of a basic income of $1,500 per month where $1,200 of it is indexed to real GDP, $100 is new money, $100 is the carbon dividend component, and $100 is the natural and digital resource-based national wealth fund dividend component. In the case of economic contraction, the $1,500 part may shrink to $1,400, but the Fed could then decide to increase their $100 to $300 to stimulate the economy in time of need. Once the economy is growing again, this amount could then be reduced back to $100, or even $0 if inflation targets are surpassed and it would be preferred to interest rate hikes.
Meanwhile, the $1,500 component could be adjusted at any time by adjusting the tax components. Perhaps the LVT would be seen as especially effective and thus increased from 5% to 10% for an extra $200 per month for everyone. Or the VAT could be increased or decreased to disincentivize or incentivize consumption while adjusting the amount of basic income or other taxes.
And the $100 national wealth fund component? That would be growing year after year as IPO stock after IPO stock gets added to it, such that it would hopefully after decades, surpass the tax-funded component of the entire basic income package. In total, it could all then be considered as far more than basic income. It could be prosperity income.
Hopefully this all helps illustrate what I mean by economic dials and UBI optimization. The basic income should be designed with flexibility and long-term viability in mind. It should operate as a platform we construct above the poverty line, that we can continue ratcheting up year after year ever further above the poverty line, but at any point adjust and optimize through ongoing funding method decisions.
By combining tax reform and welfare reform along with the introduction of new non-income-based taxes, especially those designed to correct for market externalities, where the resulting revenue goes to all citizens equally, I believe basic income can more strongly appeal to both the left and the right, and through its adoption, we can simultaneously introduce long-needed additional improvements like the public creation of money, the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the discouragement of rent extraction, the sharing of naturally created and collectively created wealth, and the predistribution of the great wealth being generated by the technology we all effectively paid to research and develop.
This is my proposal for a better future. What’s yours?
In the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, viewers are shown a historic moment in time where primitive man used the first tool. It was a bone, and used like a club, it allowed a physically weaker group to overpower a physically stronger group. The story is of course fictional, but at some point in time we as humans did use our first tool, and ever since that day, directly because of our tool usage, we as a species have been able to accomplish increasingly more with increasingly less. Buckminster Fuller referred to this process as “ephemeralization.” The theoretical endpoint of this process exists as an asymptote that we can only approach but never reach, where we gain the ability to accomplish everything with nothing. This should sound great. It is. But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch.
What’s the Catch?
The catch is of our own making. The catch, and it’s a big one, is two-fold. First, we require the exchange of money for the basic necessities of life like food and shelter. And second, we require the exchange of work in order to obtain money. The result of this pairing is that we systematically require the exchange of work to stay alive. So as long as everyone can exchange their labor for income, moral issues of involuntary servitude aside, everyone can then theoretically survive in a system where private property is established and enforced. However, tool use throws an unavoidable wrench into this system.
That Wrench is Technological Unemployment.
The ability to find paid work is rooted within supply and demand. If there is a demand for your labor, and few can supply it in the same way you do, you will do well. If many can supply it just like you, you may not do so well, but you may also manage to get by if you’re lucky. However, we’ve been busy building tools far beyond those made out of bone, and these newer tools are increasingly able to meet our demand for labor without any need for us. So the question becomes, if machines can supply the demand for labor, and at a lower price point, what happens to the ability of living human beings to work, and therefore to live, and even to obtain what all the machines are producing?
There can only be three solutions to this self-created conundrum based on our two-fold catch. We can either stop requiring the exchange of money for basic needs, essentially making certain things like food, water, and shelter entirely free. Or we can guarantee that everyone can always find paid work for enough income to exchange for the fulfillment of basic needs. Or we can stop requiring the exchange of work for money by paying everyone an income whether they work or not, and the amount would just need to be sufficient enough to cover basic needs.
The first option would destroy the price system for basic goods and services. This would in turn destroy the ability to calculate just what to produce, how much of it produce, and where it’s needed. This option is a planned economy for basic goods and services. The second would guarantee that in a world of machines able to do an increasing amount of work better than us humans, the work we could guarantee to ourselves would be increasingly pointless — the equivalent of digging holes and filling them. This is the job guarantee (JG). The third would fully preserve the price system and entirely avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary work. In fact, it would not only preserve the price system, but enhance it, and it would not only avoid the creation of unnecessary work, it would reduce it. That third option is the unconditional basic income (UBI).
If technological unemployment is the Gordian knot of the 21st century, basic income is the sword that cuts through it. By simply severing the connection between income and work through the unconditional provision of an income for life always sufficient for basic needs, the fear of technological unemployment is removed. It doesn’t stop there though, because the right to a basic income has repercussions beyond the removal of fear, and these repercussions are themselves systemically transformative.
To understand just how transformative basic income thus stands to be, we must first more closely examine the full magnitude of technological unemployment as something that is not a problem that exists in the future, but one that is already here. To claim everyone is just crying wolf is false. Sheep are actively being eaten as we speak. We just don’t choose to see it. Then we must look at the economic system we’ve created with new eyes to see the core problem that’s been with us for so long we accept it as normal, and that’s the inability of anyone without sufficient property to say no to working for those who own most of it. And finally we must come to recognize our interdependence within an economic system where our growing productivity is our common heritage, and thus our common wealth no one person or group can claim a monopoly to. As productivity grows with ongoing automation, as too should the basic income grow as a kind of prosperity dividend. What is at first basic should eventually be the right of every citizen shareholder to the vast wealth of an automated nation.
Warnings of oncoming technological unemployment have been with us for over a century. Over and over again someone has called attention to the ability of capital in the form of machines to replace labor in the form of humans. This fear has been expressed so often, people refer to it as the Luddite Fallacy. It’s actively considered fallacious to point out the very real potential that machines can do the work of humans to the point that human labor sees as much demand as horse labor after the introduction of cars. And so here we are today, where very smart people are looking around at all the jobs that still exist and are actively being created, and then claiming it as evidence in support of a perceived fantasy of technological unemployment. The thing is, we aren’t looking closely enough at the jobs we have, because we need jobs, and thus it’s in our own interest to not look closely enough. Never underestimate the unwillingness of someone to see the reality, if their lives depend on seeing a fantasy.
The invention of the computer did indeed change the way we work forever. Beginning in the 70s, we have been eliminating jobs involving a medium amount of skill — consider, for instance, manufacturing as we replaced car assembly line workers with robots. And what jobs we couldn’t automate, we used our new technologies to pack up and ship offshore to places like China and India where labor was cheaper. In place of those jobs that made up the heart of the middle class, we created and grew the service industry in its place. For decades we’ve created more and more low skill jobs — think fast food restaurants — to fill the holes in the labor market cored out by technology. Since 1990 even the growth of jobs defined as involving routine tasks has ended. More than that, because not having a job and simultaneously not being impoverished is something we’ve never really allowed as a real choice, we’ve perpetuated and even created jobs that need not exist.
In an article for Strike! Magazine in August of 2013, David Graeber refers to this kind of employment as “bullshit jobs,” e.g. lobbyists and telemarketers as opposed to actually important work like refuse collection and nursing. This is what’s likely behind the huge percentages of people all over the world who don’t feel engaged or even feel actively disengaged by their jobs — estimated at 87 percent. People are increasingly spending their days in jobs where they are not actually working, plastered instead to their social network feeds and smartphones. People are clocking in 47 hours of work a week in jobs that require only 40 and oftentimes working for only 25–30 hours. This is a huge drag on productivity and a monumental waste of human potential.
Meanwhile, it’s more than just the binary situation of job or no job. Jobs themselves have been in the process of transforming from full-time decades-long careers to a series of non-full-time alternative jobs that are bounced among in terms of years, months, and even hours instead of decades. This century alone something new has taken over, and that’s the growth of these forms of alternative work where people are no longer really considered employees but alternative workers. Such alternative work is in the form of temp agency workers, on-call workers, independent contractors, and freelancers. Some call it the 1099 economy, short for the different form required by the IRS at tax time for “nonemployees.” In fact, since 2005, all nine million net newly created jobs are in this sector.
It’s the rise of short-term and self-employment where employee benefits and rights have gone by the wayside, and though many love the greater sense of autonomy, a greater sense of insecurity comes right along with it. Even more recently the gig economy has been born, where self-employment has been taskified, and it’s up to everyone to patch together sufficient income on a minute by minute basis, never knowing for sure if they’ll be able to cover the rent like they once could with a long-term, steady paycheck.
All the above is the invisible flock of sheep being eaten one by one as we turn our heads away and claim technological unemployment is a fantasy. Technological unemployment cannot exist in the way we’ve always feared, where no new jobs are created as a result of elimination, as long as we require the existence of jobs. We will instead fill that hole with useless jobs, and jobs ripe for replacement as soon as the technology becomes cheaper than the cost of desperate workers willing to work for handfuls of pocket change in order to get by. Technological unemployment is so much more than actual unemployment. Because technology allows the greater granularity of breaking jobs into tasks — taskification — another facet of technological unemployment is technological underemployment. In other words, it’s not just about automation, it’s about atomization.
Meanwhile our existing safety nets are not built to handle such realities. It’s one thing to maybe once in a lifetime need to meet with a program administrator and jump through their hoops for financial assistance. It’s entirely another for bureaucracy to become a perpetual fact of life, where you never know if you’ll meet the requirements, and you must make the decision of whether taking that part-time job/gig as an Uber driver is even worth it if you’re going to lose your benefits and be faced with the possibility of trying to jump through all those hoops all over again. Our safety nets are not built for flexibility. They are sticky. They ensnare. They trap. What we need is a firm non-stick springboard of a floor that lies underneath everyone and requires no bureaucracy. It would always be there. It would be under full-timers. It would be under part-timers. It would be under sub-contractors. It would be underneath everyone in the gig economy. It would even be under would-be entrepreneurs. Unconditional basic income would be such a bureaucracy-free universal floor built for maximum flexibility and propulsion.
The time to prepare ourselves for the future was yesterday. The effects of technology are not around the corner. They’re in our past and they’re here right now. And it’s directly because we’ve never instituted basic income, and in so doing made working fully voluntary, that we’ve not allowed our jobs to disappear without replacement. The boy cried wolf, and the boy was right. We just happen to have created a world where seeing dead sheep is considered delusional, when really the world where we create useless work and look the other way as inequality grows and economic security shrinks is what’s truly delusional. The granting of a basic income will release us all from this collective delusion.
The Missing Right
What lies at the heart of the invisible sheep problem is our inability to say no to jobs. Without that power, we are effectively enslaved. To live we must eat. To eat we must have money. To have money we must sell our labor. There is no real option to just live off the land with our own sweat because all the land is owned. And so we must toil for those who own land. There is no other name for that but slavery, but we don’t call it that. Instead we call it the labor market. But anyone interested in free markets must care about free people within those markets, and the only way for people to be free is to be granted the right of refusal to work for others.
Once one understands how important the right of refusal is, much more comes into focus. There can be no individual bargaining power without the right to refuse. Being able to walk away means being able to negotiate the true value of human labor. If human labor were thus priced accurately in a free labor market, low demand jobs would be rewarded more because fewer people would be willing to do them unless paid sufficiently, and where the cost of human labor becomes higher than the cost of automation, machines can be welcomed to fill that job.
Think garbage collector. If no one wanted to do that work for $30,000 per year because they already have a basic income of $12,000 per year, an offer of $100,000 per year in additional income would attract many to do that job. If the cost of automating that job is the equivalent of $90,000 per year, automation is then the cheaper option and no one need do that job anymore. The result is the complete transformation of a social system built around a goal of full employment, where everyone has a job, to a new goal of full unemployment where as many jobs as possible are offloaded to machines, granting people the ability to pursue whatever is most important to them as living breathing humans with limited lifespans.
The right to refuse is even so important it lies underneath all other rights. Do you really have the right to free speech as long as you’re afraid of being fired? How many times have you wanted to say something, and decided against it, just in case? When was the last time you considered taking to the streets in an act of civil disobedience, but feared the repercussions to your present and future employment? How many times has someone somewhere not voted out of fear they’d be late for their job, and potentially lose it? For those who most value the right to bear arms, do you really have that right if you can’t afford to purchase the arms? To what else can that be applied? How many things in life do we think of as right that don’t truly exist due to lack of money or fear of economic destitution?
Arguably, it’s the right to a basic income that makes all other rights actually possible. People become free to speak their minds with the fear of destitution off the table. People become free to march in the streets and to get to work late because voting was more important. With a guarantee of economic security, all other rights are empowered. Without the recognition of economic rights, all other rights are infringed. Basic income is our missing economic right, from which our other incomplete rights become complete.
Finally achieving the ability to say “No” after the adoption of basic income changes the rules of the game entirely. It represents the dawn of recognition that any advanced society should pursue not full employment, but full unemployment. Society prospers when every member within it is fully free to prosper.
The Return of Common Wealth
No one person can claim 100% ownership of their wealth. It’s all fractions of the whole. As the saying goes, no one person can make a pencil. As simple a creation as that seems, it is the collective work of humanity. The wood comes from somewhere. The graphite comes from somewhere else. The eraser and what comprises it comes from elsewhere. Shipping networks transport raw materials that are made into component parts that are manufactured into a finished product that is shipped all over the world. More than that, no one alive thought of the pencil. That person is long dead.
We all prosper because of knowledge from the past, passed down to us. This is our collective “something for nothing” we all enjoy on the one hand, while deriding the idea of something for nothing on the other. Civilization itself is something for nothing. It is the result of billions of interdependent parts working together as part of a social system known as humanity.
Land value too is its own clear example of wealth created collectively. When something we own goes up in value as the result of our doing nothing, that added value is the result of everything and everyone around the land, not anything we ourselves did. Similarly, transport a piece of high-priced metropolitan land into the middle of nowhere, with no one else around, no resources, no infrastructure, no nothing, and the value of the land becomes nothing. It should be clear that the increasing value of land should be shared with the ones creating the value, which is everyone.
Advancing technology is also common wealth, the result of those today standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Additionally, it’s even the result of tax dollars being invested into the public research and development that makes all the advancements possible. The iPhone wasn’t created in a vacuum by Apple. It was built on the technologies pioneered by government-funded research. Big data isn’t created in a vacuum either. It is the result of our collective interactions. It is the mining of natural resources where the mines are each and every one of us, and the ore is the information we all create through our interactions with each other. Market research firm IDC has estimated that by 2019, the US market alone for big data and the tech to mine it (and by it I mean us) will be worth $98 billion.
We are completely surrounded by uncompensated commonly created wealth. Now, this isn’t to say that 100% of all wealth should be shared among all equally. It’s simply the recognition that a fraction of all wealth should be justly shared with everyone, because that fraction is created by everyone. And as productivity continues to grow, as our society continues to achieve more and more with less and less — Fuller’s ephemeralization process — that productivity should be recognized as the shared creation it is and compensated appropriately.
This is where basic income becomes more than basic income. The idea of a basic income is simply the starting point. It is the recognition that at the very least, our collective wealth creation and our right to say no to each other in a technologically advancing world should be met with an absolute minimum of sufficient access to resources to have all our basic needs met. And as technology continues to advance and productivity continues to grow, our unconditional access to all resources should grow as well because we are all in some way contributing to all of it. In ways impossible to measure, we interdependently grow our collective prosperity, and it should be recognized with a growing dividend — a prosperity dividend — universally provided without condition.
As prosperity continues to grow, the eventual endpoint of basic income is thus an amount of access to resources that can only be considered effectively infinite. By effectively infinite, I mean the ongoing process of ephemeralization through advancing technology will allow the meeting of wants and needs with fewer and fewer resources. Whereas 20% of a $20 trillion economy is $4 trillion, 20% of a $200 trillion economy is $40 trillion, which is the difference between a $12,000 per year basic income and a $120,000 per year prosperity dividend. The higher the minimum amount, and the cheaper the goods and services possible to spend it on, the harder it is to spend all of it, and therefore it increasingly becomes effectively infinite.
Once everyone receives as a minimum an amount of access to resources that goes so far that most people find it difficult to ever actually “spend” it, and work is increasingly motivated not by money but by the pursuit of meaning, money itself loses meaning. The result is something more like an economy based on resources instead of money, where what is possible is measured by if we can physically achieve it instead of if we can “afford” it. Some may call this postcapitalism. Others may call it a Star Trek economy. Still others may call it a resource-based economy. But it doesn’t really matter what we call it, because it lies beyond, and only if we make that first all important step together — unconditional income.
The connection between work and income must be severed. That Gordian Knot of our own creation must be undone. Our growing insecurity must be ended. Our inability to say no must be abolished. And our interdependent creation of our thus far uncompensated common wealth building must be compensated.
An unconditional basic income achieves all of these things. It is far more than what some see as “a few crumbs” tossed to the great masses as compensation for technological unemployment. Basic income is the abolition of enslavement once and for all, and the beginning of a new kind of society built on higher achievements of purpose than just toil for paychecks. It is the destiny of a species that picked up its first tool and imagined a way to use it to achieve all that could not otherwise be achieved without it.
Is basic income a sufficient response to technological unemployment? It’s more than that. It’s the most important response of all. It is a collective step that is humanity’s next giant leap.
The above essay is a pre-edited and updated version of my chapter published in the book: Surviving the Machine Age, published by Palgrave Macmillan.