On Basic Income
This simple concept could change the world: Give everyone a revenue without constraints.
Under the model referred to as Basic Minimum Income, all citizens would receive a monthly cheque for a reasonable amount of money. The amount would cover basic needs – food, shelter – allowing you to survive, but not stay idle. Citizens would still need to conduct some form of work and those that earn enough would ultimately pay back this stipend through their income tax. This proposal is going to a referendum in Switzerland and gaining increased attention amongst both left and right wing policy wonks.
In Switzerland, they are proposing to dole out $33,000 to each citizen every year. In oil rich countries, such as Qatar, salaries are already paid out to citizens. The Dutch dole out over $1800 a month to welfare recipients. The concept of free money to citizens is well established, it is just masked as pension plans, welfare payments and unemployment benefits. Yet, a simpler version could bring a number of benefits. There is mounting evidence that the best way to empower people, communities and reboot our economy is to simply hand out cash.
Basic Minimum Income is not a new idea, it has been proposed by leaders at both ends of the political spectrum. Proponents of basic minimum income range from the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman to the socialist civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who stated clearly,
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” — Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community
Money is power. By better distributing society’s wealth, while simultaneously simplifying its management, we will hand power back to the people. With the added power and freedom, citizens would be expected to more fully participate in public life, better care for their children and parents, and contribute to the improvement of their communities and country. Ultimately, democracy is about distributed egalitarian power and without adequate financial freedom a large portion of our population cannot participate in the governing of society.
The money for this program would likely come from a variety of sources. First, numerous existing programs such as unemployment benefits, welfare, pension plans and student grants would be cancelled. Secondly, we could cut administrative cost substantially since we will no longer need to manage these programs. Third, new sources of revenues could be identified, some likely candidates include natural resources, a sales tax on online business, the repatriation of money held in tax havens and larger taxes on bank profits. By combining a simplification of our complex social programs and our complex loophole prone tax code, we could find the money to pay for a Basic Minimum Income.
A monthly income of $2 200, basically minimum wage, currently puts you at the Canadian poverty line. By adding a monthly $1300 stipend to the lowest salaries, we would bump someone living on the edge of poverty to a much better position, where they can invest in their future and their children’s future. For someone already earning a middle-income, say $45 000, an additional $1500 would let them pay for extra activities for their children, invest in their home or start that company they were thinking of. I will explore the math for Montréal, Canada and Québec in a future blog post, but I am convinced that basic minimum incomes is the foundation of a new, more potent democracy for the 21st century.
Ultimately, a basic minimum income is about freedom. Freedom from some of the constraints of a wage labour existence and the empowerment of individuals to participate more actively in social life and in their communities. The link between labour and servitude is a struggle we have dealt with since the beginning of civilization. The Greek philosopher Demosthenes stated simply,
“Many are the servile acts which free men are compelled by poverty to perform…” (Against Eubulides, 57, 45).
The benefits for basic minimum income (also called guaranteed minimum income) are numerous, but here are three.
1. Simplify governement bureaucracy or take out the middle man
Right now, we offer a myriad of programs to financially help people integrate the job market, go to school, or retire. All of these programs, and more, could be cut. Instead, we simply give out cash.
In the American sitcom “Seinfeld”, George once made the joke that life would be much better if you started as an old person, with money, got younger and younger, while retaining you wealth and ended as an orgasm. A basic minimum income would help compensate for the aggregation of wealth in the top age bracket. It would also allow for students and young families to invest in their education and future, making all of society richer.
By handing out cash, we would take power away from government, bureaucrats, politicians and place that power in the hands of citizens. The point is not that all government workers are bad, but rather that people tend to have a better idea of what they need than someone else. Of course mistakes will be made with these monthly payments, but generally speaking, less errors will be made than what we are currently doing.
Studies are emerging that show foreign aid (1) is better spent with clean, simple cheques to families than complex investment programs designed by policy wonks. The more complex a program, the more prone it is to corruption and abuse. Both abroad and at home, our complex systems are abused by crooks, costing us all a lot of money. As crazy as it might sound, people generally have a good idea of what they could use money for and when put in their hands (especially women), they tend to invest, pay back debt and build a future for themselves. If it works in Africa, why not here.
2. Place a foundation under peoples’ feet
Poverty is not simply a financial figure, it is a mental state. People without reliable income or a secure job live in constant insecurity. They do not know if or when they can pay the rent, feed the kids or can ask for a raise or promotion for feat or losing their job. The constant stress and worry contribute to mental health problems which harm them, their families and ultimately cost society extra resources for their treatment and policing. The lack of stability also reduces low-wage workers or temporary workers’ ability to go to school and move up the social ladder.
A minimum basic income would stabilize these workers, allowing them to focus on their long term future, instead of their weekly bills.
3. Encourage consumption
Islamic finance claims that a fundamental part of a healthy economy is the constant circulation of money. Like blood in the body, you want money to be constantly circulating, any dead pools are just that – dead. By distributing cash to citizens, consumption of goods and services will increase. This will lead to more tax dollars for the government, more stores staying open and a general increase in economic activity – which benefits everyone.
Imagine for a moment the impact of giving $ 1 500 dollars a month to someone on minimum wage, which is about $ 2 200 dollars per month at 35 hours per week. That person, who is perhaps a parent, would instantly be able to buy new clothes for they children, purchase higher quality food or invest in their home. They would generate tremendous economic activity and this is of course true for people above minimum wage too.
Arguments against a basic minimum income
The most common response to this remarkably simple idea of giving money out is that people need to earn their money and free money will reduce incentive to work. While I agree that handing out free money may reduce some incentive to engage in work, it will probably reduce people’s need to do undesirable work – serve at McDonald’s, mop floors or make low quality products. If anything, giving people a good exit strategy from low quality work will force companies to innovate and offer higher quality, more creative and better work environments where humans actually want to work.
To head off on a small tangent, basic minimum income will probably push companies to automate repetitive non-value added tasks. Henry Ford once said,
“If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”
A similar expression is that if something can be automated, it should be. During my time as a coop student at McGill, one of my peers was offered a job at a mine site. The company later admitted that prior to offering him the job, they did a cost analysis comparing his salary to the cost of a machine that would do exactly his job. He was cheaper than the machine and unsurprisingly his summer job was as boring as you could imagine. He took samples and tested their acidity for 4 months. If we had a basic minimum income (and a higher minimum wage), they would have bought machine due to a lack of candidates willing to work for low salary and both the student and the company would have been better off. By offering a basic minimum income, employers will be forced to automate repetitive non-value added tasks in their workplace to encourage people to work for them. A push towards higher workplace efficiency will make the average job more intellectually challenging and fulfilling, ultimately making our economy more advanced and more competitive.
Another common response to basic minimum income is that people will waste the money on booze, cigarettes and luxury items. My response is to ask you, “What would you do with $ 1 500 extra per month?”. Most parents or grand-parents say they would spend it on their children, offering them more activities, and taking more vacation to spend with them, etc. The rest of us, without offspring, risk spending it on good and services, helping kick-start the tepid economy we currently have.
A last negative comment to rebuke is the idea that offering this money would cause inflation, rent-seeking or that we simply cannot print this money. First, most of the money I am proposing to hand out comes from existing programs. For the rest, we could print it with little risk. A recent article outlines how during the 2008 financial crisis the United States alone printed 3.6 trillion dollars! Some feared this would lead to inflation, but in fact inflation has not budged. The article in question proposes to print an extra 200 or so billion dollars to be used for foreign aid (5). It is an interesting idea and we could certainly print that money and more and give it to our our citizens at home – who might even donate some of it to foreign aid!
The concept of basic minimum income solves a number of problems – government bureaucracy, lack of democratic power, and a slow economy. It appeals to both left wing and right wing people and can act as a catalyst for a rebirth of the notion of government and shared societal responsibilities. Hopefully, once some forward thinking countries have adopted such a system (i.e. Switzerland or Scandinavian Countries) and we all see how well it works, we will do it here. This spring, there is a conference at McGill on Basic Minimum Income, I hope you will join me there.
P.S. After my stint as an Open Data activist in Montréal and Québec, I am considering putting my time towards Basic Minimum Income in Canada. Please let me know what you think of this idea and help promote it within your networks.
P.P.S. Be certain to check out Basic Income Canada Network as they seem to be leading the charge at the Federal level.
1. Study on handing out cash as foreign aid program
2. Government Guaranteed Basic Income
3. Moral Aspects of Basic Income – Marco Nappolini
4. Free Money for everyone
5. Print money for foreign aid
6. Switzerland referendum
7. Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All
8. Québec Solidaire support basic minimum income in Québec
9. Funny take on automation