I think all humans should be expected to give something back to the planet we live on. Most animals have an obvious place in the ecosystem, and at one point most humans did work that was obviously productive to their community. Men hunted and protected their families and women gathered food and raised children.
We’re still doing work, but a lot of it isn’t that useful anymore. Most people are stuck begging rich people for money in exchange for their time, and I think we all have the right to be a little indignant about that. Of course, I think doing a boring job to help rich people get richer is better than starving to death or being eaten by wild animals. But some economists think we should take the next step to assure human comfort, now that the resources for survival are readily available.
Enter the universal basic income. Last year, a group of Swiss activists proposed that the government give 30,000 francs ($34,000 USD) to every adult citizen, just for being alive. The idea gained enough of a following to make it to the ballot. Movement leader Enno Schmidt explains the benefits to society that could come from people not having to spend most of their time doing something they don’t like to earn the right to exist.
The idea of a guaranteed income has been around in different forms for a long time. Thomas Paine published a pamphlet called Agrarian Justice all the way back in 1797, proposing an estate tax redistributed as a stipend to every adult citizen. The idea behind a land tax is that land belongs to everybody and everybody should benefit from it. In fact the closest existing thing to a universal basic income is a land tax: the Alaska Permanent Fund gives every citizen a small dividend from the state’s vast oil reserve.
Libertarian economist Charles Murray supports a $10,000 grant to every citizen every year unless they earn enough not to need it, in which case they pay it back in taxes. The plan has a surprising number of conservative supporters, because it could cut back on expensive programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Instead of Social Security, everyone would just get the $10,000 and they can use it as they see fit.
The universal basic income would allow people to spend more of their time doing meaningful unpaid work, like taking care of their families, volunteering, starting their own companies, etc. The problem is ensuring that the necessary work gets done. I don’t mean helping Walmart market $5.99 Santa hats: I’m sure civilization will continue unharmed if such careers no longer existed. I mean jobs like garbage collection and other things that few people would do for personal fulfillment. One possible solution would be to necessitate a certain amount of infrastructure work to qualify for the basic income. Not 40 hours a week every week; maybe for 4 to 6 months out of the year or 15 hours a week.
As for less necessary jobs, I think corporations would eventually manufacture robots to sling burgers and work the cash register if no human was willing to do it. I don’t believe there’s a vast corporate conspiracy to make people do meaningless jobs so they won’t have the time to rebel against their overlords. But I do believe that corporations would be forced to act more in the interests of regular people if they needed us more than we needed them.
The other problem is funding the plan. America certainly can’t afford to give everybody $34,000 a year. That would cost over $10 trillion dollars. Our annual GDP is about $17 trillion. Supporters of the universal basic income propose taking the money back in taxes when the recipient makes over a certain income or has above a certain net worth.
I could see putting money towards a universal basic income by putting a small tax on stock trades, legalizing and taxing drugs, capping CEO incomes, and instituting an import/export tax on corporations. People don’t support that kind of protectionism these days, but I’m from Appalachia and I’ve seen how much damage outsourcing has caused.
I don’t know how much money a universal basic income could realistically provide, even when people with other sources of income pay their share back in taxes. I don’t know if it would be a better plan than Social Security for taking care of the elderly and the sick.
I do know that the Obama administration planned to provide useful jobs that would benefit society, like expanding Amtrak service and developing alternative energy. I know that some progressive CEOs are proposing shorter workweeks. More people are working from home. Top companies like Google are incentivizing performance by providing things like flexible schedules, community gardens, and nap pods. The 40-hour workweek was a revolutionary idea during the Industrial Revolution. Now people are openly seeking valuable work and more control over their lives, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.