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.