WORLD: Universal Basic Income Discussed at World Economic Forum

At the World Economic Forum in January this year, four panelists were invited to talk about universal basic income (UBI): Professor Guy Standing (University of London), co-founder of BIEN and author of several books on UBI, Neelie Kroes, former minister in the Dutch Parliament, former EU commissioner, and current member of several boards, Amitabh Kant, CEO of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), and Professor Michael Sandel (Harvard University), author of “What Money Can’t Buy, the Moral Limits of Markets”.

According to Guy Standing, there has been much evidence gathered through foundational research on the feasibility, affordability and implications of UBI, but this research has been ignored for many years. Due to the realisation of the potential effects of automation, however, interest in UBI has recently increased. Automation is not Standing’s personal motivation though—he advocates for UBI for three main reasons:

  1. It is a means of realising social justice in line with Thomas Paine, Henry George and others, who have claimed that public wealth is created over generations. Therefore, if private inheritance is permitted, we should also establish public inheritance as a social dividend of this public wealth.
  1. It is a means of enhancing republican freedom: freedom from domination by figures of authority using their arbitrary power.
  1. It is a means of providing people with basic security. It is not designed to eradicate poverty per se, but rather to address the issue of insecurity, which underlies the rise of populism we see today. It is known that mental health and mental development is improved by basic security.

Standing: “I wish people would look at the evidence rather than continue with their views. We have done pilots, covering thousands of people and most fundamentally we found that the emancipatory value of a basic income is greater than the money value.

It gives people a sense of control of their time, so that the values of work grow relative to the demands of labour. The values of learning and public participation grow, the values of citizenship are strengthened. We found evidence from UBI experiments showing that the values of altruism and tolerance are enhanced. At the moment, society is suffering from a deprivation of altruism and tolerance.”

 

When asked to explain the support for UBI from both left- and right-wing politicians, Kroes argues that the flexibility of the concept is a reason why there is an interest from both left- and right-wing political movements: it can either decrease or increase the role of the government, the level of the UBI can vary and there are a number of different ways to fund it.

As Kroes explains, the UBI could replace large parts of the existing welfare system and would require choices to be made in advance regarding which benefits would be cut. This specificity would make it more difficult to find support from politicians across the political spectrum, which is why Kroes suggests starting off with a more modest system that would more easily find political support and can be seen as a starting point.

“The least ideological arguments in favour of a UBI are coming from technical entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley at the moment”, Kroes continues, noting that “they are trying to defend their own future”.

Kant is asked to explain the attractions of a UBI from a governmental perspective. He explains that the huge rural employment guarantee scheme and the public distribution system in India are very inefficient, mostly due to corruption.

Furthermore, India is facing changes in the labour market, where low skill-low pay jobs are decreasingly necessary, while the demand for high skill-high pay jobs is increasing. This shift requires radical restructuring of the educational system to provide the right skills, Kant argues.

There are huge inequalities in India: one third of the population is living below the poverty line. These are the people that should be targeted with a UBI, and 1000 rupees per person per month would be affordable, says Kant. India also has a few specific advantages, he further argues. There is a huge infrastructure of biometric and mobile phone payment systems in the country. At the same time, India recently transformed its ‘black economy’ of almost 1 trillion US dollars (parallel to a 2 trillion US dollar formal economy) into a ‘white economy’. This resulted in a significant increase of government tax income, so there is enough money to potentially fund a UBI, Kant explains.

Kant suggests it would be best to provide people with a UBI in the form of an interest-free loan for a period of three years, ensuring the money is repaid and recycled so it can reach more people. Simultaneously investing in creating jobs on the back of domestic consumption would give this scheme a push.

In response to this, Standing argues that, “in our pilots in India, we found that people improved their nutrition, family health, schooling, schooling performance, and entrepreneurship. The consequence was that they were generating more income and lowering the public service costs, as they were healthier. I would be very wary about turning it into a loan, because a loan rewards the entrepreneurial and therefore would increase the inequality in the villages. Where there was a basic income, it didn’t sort out the potential winners from the losers, it increased community solidarity”.

 

Professor Sandel is asked to talk about the role of work and the importance of paid work. “We tend to think of work primarily as a source of income, but work is also a source of meaning, an identity. The debate about basic income forces us to debate about the social meaning of work,” he explains.

There are two basic arguments for a UBI that are fundamentally distinct, according to Sandel: the ethical argument, which suggests that one can still choose to work and contribute to society, and the compensatory argument (from Silicon Valley), which sends the message that one is compensated for accepting a world without work and contribution to society is no longer of value.

Standing responds to Sandel’s view: “We need to reconceptualise what we mean by work. I believe the technical revolution is actually creating more work. The only problem is that it is not being remunerated, so it is contributing to growing inequality. The reason why Silicon Valley types are worried is because they think income is going to the owners of the robots and the others are going to be without an income.”

“The affordability question is a very easy one to answer,” Standing replies to a question asked by the chair. “Somehow, with Quantitative Easing [QE], the US government managed to fund Quantitative Easing of 475 trillion dollars. If that money had been used to pay a basic income, every American household could have received 56,000 dollars. That is just one little example. But I strongly believe that we must frame basic income as paid from rentier capitalism and from rentierism. Because at the moment the corruption of capitalism about which I’ve written is primarily because the returns to property and intellectual property and the rentier incomes from natural resources are going to a tiny minority – and we need to be sharing that.”

 

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Photo: Davos by Mike Licht CC BY-SA 2.0

Special thanks to Josh Martin and Genevieve Shanahan for reviewing this article

About Hilde Latour

Hilde Latour has written 12 articles.

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