April 20, 2016
Time for a rethink
In recent months, the Chancellor has twice tried to hack away at the benefits jungle to make more savings and twice he has been rebuffed by a mix of public outrage and most recently, Ministerial resignations. Governments of every hue have tried to reform the benefit system and all have failed although the current package has gone further than any before it. But perhaps in this modern, complex world a more radical (albeit not new) solution needs to be considered – an unconditional basic income for everyone. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction in many countries.
Imagine a Britain where the government pays every adult the basic cost of living. Whether rich or poor – or, crucially, whether you’re in paid employment or not – everyone gets the same weekly amount, with no strings attached. The harsh, punitive model of modern “welfare” is a distant memory; passing in and out of employment in the so-called gig economy is now something everyone can afford. The positive consequences extend into the distance: women are newly financially independent and able to exit abusive relationships, public health is noticeably improved, and people are able to devote the time to caring that an ever-ageing society increasingly demands. All the political parties are signed up: just as the welfare state underpinned the 20th century, so this new idea defines the 21st.
Welcome to the world of a unconditional basic income, or UBI, otherwise known as citizens’ income or social wage. It might look like the stuff of absurd utopianism, but the idea is now spreading at speed, from the fringes of the left into mainstream politics – and being tried out around the world. The UK Green party has supported the notion for decades: staunch backing for a version of UBI was one of its key themes at the last election. At its spring conference last month, the Scottish National Party passed a motion supporting the idea that “a basic or universal income can potentially provide a foundation to eradicate poverty, make work pay and ensure all our citizens can live in dignity”. A handful of Labour MPs have started to come round to the idea – and serious work is being done among thinktanks and pressure groups, looking at how it might work in the here and now.
Meanwhile, there have been UBI-type policies and experiments in India and Brazil. These have suggested that, contrary to modern stereotypes about “welfare” sapping people’s initiative, a basic income might actually increase people’s appetite for work, by adding to their sense of stability, and making things such as childcare and transport more accessible. A pilot of a UBI-ish policy whereby people on benefits are paid unconditionally is happening in Utrecht, in the Netherlands; other Dutch towns and cities look set to follow its example, and there are plans to pilot a more ambitious kind of basic income in Finland. On 5 June, the Swiss will vote in a referendum on a plan that would see all adults receive about £1,700 a month, with an extra £400 for each child.
And then there is the rising noise from Silicon Valley. The California-based startup incubator Y Combinator has announced that it wants to fund research into UBI’s viability. Its president, Sam Altman, says: “It is impossible to truly have equality of opportunity without some version of guaranteed income.” In New York, the influential venture capitalist Albert Wenger has been sounding off about a basic income for at least three years, claiming it offers an answer to a very modern question. If, as he says, “we are at the beginning of the time where machines will do a lot of the things humans have traditionally done”, how do you avoid “a massive bifurcation of society into those who have wealth and those who don’t”?
The idea of UBI has been around for years, voiced by such people as Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King and Milton Friedman…….to continue to read the rest of the article click here