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Karl Widerquist: “Universal Basic Income Is a Good Deal for People Who Like Capitalism”

Karl Widerquist, vice-chair (at the time of the interview he still was co-chair) of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) was interviewed extensively by Keith Brown from the “We Are Here Podcast” on April 28th. During the interview, Widerquist explains Universal Basic Income (UBI) creates a market economy where income doesn’t start at zero and where people have a positive, rather than a negative, incentive to work.

“Employers currently have an incentive to pay very low wages because income starts at zero. You can work fulltime a whole year and still live in poverty.” In almost every country, there are conditional systems for people who do not work. Widerquist argues that these systems supervise recipients and create high overhead costs. “If you can show you can’t work or can’t find a job, then you are eligible for something. If not, you will get nothing. This means people have a negative incentive to work and will accept jobs with very low wages to prevent them from falling into [extreme] poverty.”

UBI is going to help people that are afraid of becoming poor when they lose their job for whatever reason. According to Widerquist, “UBI can free people from that anxiety.” Widerquist explains UBI is not just for the poor, but also for the middle class. It gives people a choice to leave their dead-end jobs and do something else they really want to do. If you are struggling to meet your basic needs, you will be miserable. If you have UBI that meets your basic needs, you will not be in misery. We will get a situation where money no longer buys happiness. Freedom is the power to say no.

UBI can also be seen as compensation to people for the duties that have been imposed on them, according to Widerquist. For instance, a plumbing system is created because the water is polluted, and people have to pay for it, even if they are not the ones that polluted the water. They don’t have a choice. He gives an example of how this can be compensated: The state took the land from the natives (Inuit) in Alaska to let companies drill the oil from it. These companies pay the government and a small part of it is given ‘back’ to the citizens (Alaska’s “Permanent Fund Dividend”).

There are many variations on what people think UBI should look like around the world. Most people agree that it has to be at least enough to meet your basic needs (food, shelter, clothing and enough to live on is the minimum). The maximum is the highest sustainable income possible. Widerquist’s personal view is that “you should be compensated at the highest sustainable level, as it is a compensation for non-equal duties that the government is opposing on us.”

Starting at $12,000 in the US a year would be okay, in hopes of building up to $20,000 or more if it proves to be workable. But starting off at a higher level than $20,000 without building up to it gradually would be risky.

According to Widerquist. “The government is already spending over 2 trillion dollars a year to maintain people’s income and we still have 13.5% of the population living in poverty. So the current system is not working and extremely expensive”.

Widerquist does not believe that UBI requires cuts in other programs, but he gives some examples of government spending that can be replaced by it, including foodstamps and most unemployment benefits.

“It is feasible; the only thing we need is the will to do it. It has not been attempted before on a large scale, but there is a first time for everything”.

On the topic of the “Alaska permanent fund dividend”, which started in 1982, Widerquist argues, “In Alaska they have a very small basic income of one thousand US dollars a year for every resident (man, woman, and child) and even that very small amount has made Alaska one of the most equal states with very low poverty rates. It has been going strong for 35 years now. It makes a huge difference when you realise that a single mother with four kids will get 5000 US dollars a year. In a good year even 10000 US dollars a year.”

UBI can be popular across the political spectrum once it is in place, because the benefits are diverse. “We are tired of inequality growing and poverty staying where it is. The middle class needs a pay raise. Nothing else has worked for the middle class. Let’s try UBI”.

Widerquist continues, “Realize it is also a good deal for people who like capitalism, because it gets out a lot of the bureaucracy and paternalistic attitudes. It is simple and without supervision. The market economy will still exist, but without poverty.”

We spend so much time making our living that we never have time to live our lives.

With UBI, a lot of us would still want to work to get our luxuries, but we can take our time to reflect and do things we really want to do.


Info and links

Full interview podcast: we are here # 006 universal basic income

Special thanks to Josh Martin and Dave Clegg for reviewing this article

About Hilde Latour

Hilde Latour has written 21 articles.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.


  • Wingnut

    UBI won’t work. Cost of living (pricetgs) will increase, then UBI will need increasing, then C.O.L. will increase, back and forth… racing.

    No matter what, the bottom layer of the pyramid scheme called capitalism… will be kept “over a barrel” and “behind the 8-ball” and “jumping thru hoops”… because… those are the servants/servers.

    If you allow the servants/wage-slaves to get out-of desperation-for-survival, they will no longer be forced to serve/service the caps anymore. They will not build expensive toys/luxuries for the caps., or cook their lobsters, etc. They will not install sewers or climb under cars. Caps will no longer have grunts upon-which to place “orders”.

    The caps will not allow ANYTHING that removes the fear-of-starving terrorism from the wage slaves. Might as well close this site… it is a waste of time. Abolish economies/ownership, instead.

    • lisa

      Same thing was said by certain people when social security was introduced after the market crashed.

    • Andre Coelho

      Dear Wingnut,

      Just watch us. 🙂


    • We are already paying the price. If you add up the cost of tax expenditures and the taxes foregone from having progressive brackets at the bottom, then you are already pretty close to the lower target — if you mean 12K/year/adult citizen.

      As for people refusing to work if they can eat, that is nonsense. We have lot’s of people in the welfare ghettoes working now illegally. They’re called drug dealers. At the bottom, this is simply retail. A bit more pay than working at a shop, but when you throw in the risk of jail time, the pay is low.

      There are upper middle class couples with kids where both parents work. They are willing to forego quality time with the kids for additional income far, far, far above what a UBI would bring.

  • Nancy Campbell

    Not UBI, (universal basic income) but UBM, (universal basic money) that’s the solution. Not funded by taxes, but used to infuse newly printed and minted money into the economy to keep the ever-increasing GDP, (gross domestic product) in motion.

    It’s no coincidence that our National Debt numbers and the GDP are nearly the same. Currently, both have reached $19 Trillion dollars range. For as long as anyone knows, governments have been introducing new money into the economy by loans and debts that need to be paid back with interest. National Debt appears to be a horrific bookkeeping “doppelganger” created by politicians: people who have long forgotten whatever they once knew about balancing a daily ledger in a businesslike manner. Business accountants know that posting the same new entry as both profit and loss at the same time results in the exact chaos and confusion that seriously disrupts the various world economies today.

    UBM, distributed evenly at the “grassroots,” to every person who is eligible to vote, as needed, without any other changes attached, in neutral money, (NOT a loan to be paid back, NOT taxable as income until after it is first used in exchange for goods or services) would be a very easy fix that’s very easy to adjust.

    • Gerald Nelson

      Let’s have neither but have UJG Universal Job Guarantee–pretty much like during FDR’s 1930’s. Use this for building or providing whatever is in short supply to everything from infrastructure to medicine to art.

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