Scotland is united in curiosity as some of their councils trial Universal Basic Income – have a read of the news about this here and we also have some insights from one of our dedicated Media Officers, Jakob Fichert.
A few thoughts on Society and Universal Basic Income
Recently, on a train in South London, I overheard the conversation between four boys returning from school. They, each of them around 10 years old and from ethnic minority backgrounds, were discussing politics and football with much engagement. I couldn’t help eavesdropping and heard the names of Theresa May and Vladimir Putin interspersed with references to Arsenal and Champions League. I wasn’t paying full attention but overall I rather enjoyed their lively exchange of arguments as it is great to see young people engaging in current affairs and being curious about the world. An elderly man got on the train at the next station addressing the passengers in our coach and asking them for spare change. Most people ignored him: sadly, this kind of scene happens too often on London trains for many to take notice of them anymore. Actually, the man wasn’t just asking for money but indicated that ‘a few crisps or biscuits will do’, and the boys, still engaged in their conversation, offered him their Pringles. At first the man didn’t want to accept the gift from the children but one of them managed to persuade him to take the crisps after all. It was clearly evident the man was hungry as he started to eat straight away.
This short and seemingly banal occurrence has stayed with me ever since. On the one hand it conveys an upbeat and positive message about a wonderful young generation of immigrants, but on the other hand it sadly also mirrors the widespread destitution in our country. Like many others the old man was suffering from hunger and saw no other way to make ends meet than going through the humiliating process of begging for money on the train. Unfortunately his case is not singular: Around 1.9 million pensioners in our country have been hit by poverty, and according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the numbers are increasing.
Overall 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, 4 million children amongst them. Given that the size of our population is around 65.5 million, this is in excess of 20%.
The shocking fact is that we are not looking at a developing country here but one with a strong economy – in fact one of the strongest in the world – and with an abundance of wealth floating around somewhere. According to a survey quoted by the Guardian the total household wealth in the UK exceeds £10 trillion with £5 trillion being owned by 10% of the population, whilst 15% don’t own anything or are in debt (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/aug/08/total-uk-wealth-city-property-homes-inequality-saving).
This obscene inequality rises inevitable questions: Why does a wealthy society like ours allow this kind of poverty to exist? Is there any reason why anybody would have to suffer from malnutrition or even homelessness? Shouldn’t it be a basic human right to be able to live life in dignity? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the effects of this crass injustice could be alleviated?
Over the past decades the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become more popular and is now on the brink of becoming mainstream. UBI essentially means that every citizen regardless of their age, wealth or background is entitled to a modest sum of money provided by the state in order to cater for basic needs. This will enable everyone to live their lives in humane conditions and fully participate in society. An unconditional income will also make the humiliating process of applying for unemployment benefits unnecessary, and free people from the stigma of being out of work. As more and more jobs become superfluous due to automation, the demand for UBI becomes ever more pressing. It is evident that much money is saved by job cuts, whilst the level of wealth generated by industry and service sector remains consistent.
Instead of forcing people into doing jobs merely to generate an income UBI will give everyone a real choice. It will make employers less dependent on their bosses and has the potential to provide entrepreneurs with greater flexibility as well. UBI is neither a socialist nor a neoliberal project and is advocated for across the political spectrum. Supporters range from left-wingers such as the former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis and the Marxist thinker Erik Olin Wright to entrepreneurs unsuspicious of any socialist association like Mark Zuckerberg or Pierre Omidyar, the founders of Facebook and eBay. It can be argued that because of the diversity of its advocates UBI, amongst many other benefits, has the potential to contribute to the reconciliation of our divided society. Some of its critics, however, argue that UBI will in effect water down employment laws and regulations and provide corporations with a carte blanche to hire and fire as they please. Whilst this is a valid argument, and we might have to accept that with the introduction of an unconditional income the sustainability of paid work will decrease to some extent, in my view the social benefits of UBI by far out-trump its risks as it has the potential to radically reduce poverty and increase general wellbeing.
When discussing UBI the most common reservation is affordability. UBI is sometimes seen as some sort of utopia, an idea concocted by people living in cloud cuckoo land. There are numerous different models and suggestions with regards to financing UBI and various forms of taxation have been proposed. I am no expert in this matter and the juxtaposition of these concepts would go beyond the scope of this article anyway. The Green Party, one of the organisations spearheading the UBI movement in the UK, has published a detailed document on the subject as part of its 2015 manifesto (https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Policy%20files/Basic%20Income%20Consultation%20Paper.pdf).
The topic often features in Green Party seminars and workshops as well. Further information is provided online with the Wikipedia article on UBI providing a sufficient overview of the whole spectrum of financing proposals (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income).
Judging from my own experience, the most important step towards understanding the logicality of UBI has been the realisation that we don’t live of money but of goods and services, an argument put forward by Götz Werner, the owner of DM, Germany’s biggest drug store chain and author of numerous books promoting UBI. Just by looking at the massive surplus of goods and services we produce it becomes evident that there is enough wealth to support UBI, i.e. the catering for everyone’s basic needs.
UBI probably won’t make us better people or solve all our social problems, but it has the potential to bring out the best in us. Pilots have shown that the vast majority of recipients of an unconditional income have utilised these resources to invest in their and their families’ futures in a meaningful way. The additional security of UBI has enabled the participants to work for something they deemed sensible and allowed them to make long-term plans for themselves. Bottom line productivity has grown with the help of a guaranteed income because it creates space for creativity and thus generates motivation.
It will not be possible to implemented UBI over night. Changing a system mainly based on work generated income will have to be gradual, and the economy as well as our benefits system need time to adapt. In advocating UBI we, the Green Party, pursue a longterm vision, and we believe that our vision can help to create a fairer and truly inclusive society. A society in which our man from South London doesn’t suffer from poverty and malnutrition, but where everyone has the resources to live their lives in dignity and no-one is in danger of falling through the net. Is it realistic to hope for a better future, where having the means to live is not a privilege but a basic human right? When I think of the boys on the train who were showing such an interest in society and sympathy for the poor, I am cautiously optimistic about this future.