Universal Basic Income

tags: basic income

Marshall Brain of the How Stuff Works franchise, and the Manna novella, presents his case for a universal basic income.

He starts off by painting a picture of the society we should be living in, then announces the plan: everyone gets paid a universal basic income.

The idea is simple: everyone in society receives a regular income simply for being alive. The ultimate goal is for the Basic Income payment, by itself, to provide a comfortable living for every member of society without working.

He’s not alone, as this is a theory that’s been floating around for essentially forever. There’s even an advocacy group that’s been in operation for almost 30 years.

Where this idea has always fallen short is in how it gets paid for. A town in Manitoba actually tried it in the 70s:

Between 1974 and 1979, residents of a small Manitoba city were selected to be subjects in a project that ensured basic annual incomes for everyone. For five years, monthly cheques were delivered to the poorest residents of Dauphin, Man. – no strings attached.

A conservative government took power in 1977, and closed the program down two years later. However, besides the obvious political differences, the program just wasn’t funded to be sustainable – there was apparently a $17 million bill for it, and no plan to pay it.

“It was a lot of good, but see, the Manitoba government and the federal government both went out of power that year and they ran out of money -– so it was just dropped […]”

Brain claims to have solved that by piggybacking off technological unemployment. My reading of it says we’ll take jobs displayed by automation convert them to “virtual jobs,” which are still paid by the (now fake) employer, Instead of this money going to the employee (who doesn’t exist anymore), the money goes into a fund to pay the basic income.

He explains this by discussion self-serve vs. full-serve gas stations:

Right now, in most states, people pump their own gas. But in Oregon and New Jersey, the states actually prevent this practice. Gas must be pumped by attendants. If we applied that philosophy across the country, we would suddenly create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. These jobs would all pay a living wage because of the new minimum wage rules. That same philosophy could easily be projected across many industries, until we have created enough new jobs for everyone to have one.

[…] But as you think about it further, you realize the following. No one actually wants to fill these new gas pumping jobs. Who wants to stand outside pumping gas all day long on a bitterly cold winter day? No one. And besides, automation has eliminated the job, so no person actually needs to do it.

Therefore, instead of creating an actual job and requiring an actual person to fill it, we create the job on paper only. Every gas station begins to employ several of these virtual employees. The pay checks for these virtual employees do not go to actual people, but instead go into the central account […]

He humbly refers to his plan as “Heaven on Earth.” (Not a joke. That’s what he calls it.)

Obviously, there’s zero chance this would ever get adopted in currently politically climate. It’s too far left for a sizable portion of the U.S. populace.

What’s valuable here, however, is in asking what happens when we run out of jobs? If automation accelerates, we may simply come to a time when there are significantly less jobs that people willing to work at them. When this happens, what do we do?

Advocates of Universal Basic Income claim that their cause is the answer.

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