The wave of basic income experiments in the last two years was a positive development in giving Universal Basic Income (UBI) some level of attention and political legitimacy in Western countries.
It is time to recognize the experimental wave is coming to an end.
Basic income activists in the next wave of UBI political discussions should push for policy changes in the direction of basic income. There are ongoing and completed trials testing cash transfers in countries with different stages of economic development. It makes more sense to build a foundation for policy changes as these results trickle out over the next few years rather than pushing for yet another experiment.
In Canada, the push for experiments backfired because a Conservative government canceled it before any results could be collected. I supported Ontario’s experiment and there was value in the research.
However, Ontario’s cancellation demonstrated that as activists move forward, we must recognize that experiments do not create a political constituency. In Alaska, the partial basic income policy has broad and significant support because everyone has benefited from it. Building a constituency that can be expanded and deepened is where activist energy should be placed in the next stage.
UNICEF funded experiments in India helped make basic income a real political discussion there, and now basic income inspired policies are being proposed by both of the main parties and a minimum income is set to be implemented in the state of Sikkim.
Experiments in developing countries and regions where basic income is still not well known may still be politically necessary. In Western countries, though, activist energy on more experiments rather than policy action seems ill-placed since UBI has already entered mainstream discussion in the West.
Experiments have already shown us cash transfers make people happier, healthier, and free them to pursue what they are interested in. The myths about basic income have been consistently undermined, particularly the idea that it would decrease work in any meaningful way. More experiments will keep telling us that giving people cash is generally good in most of the ways we measure positive outcomes.
How many times do we need an experiment to tell us cash transfers do not make people “lazy”?
Those who will not be convinced by the existing and upcoming experimental results will not be convinced by yet another experiment. The reaction to Finland’s experiment is evidence that unpersuadable opponents will latch onto even neutral effects on employment to prove basic income is a “failure.”
To truly put UBI to the test in America and Europe, actual policies that incorporate significant elements of basic income should be pushed. Cory Booker’s baby bonds is a start. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit that incorporates students and caregivers would instantly help millions. Political campaigns such as Andrew Yang’s are also important to bring the debate to a mainstream audience.
That is not to say pilot programs with the intent of expansion are not helpful. These provide valuable information to governments on how to implement basic income. Pilot programs with the primary intent of yet more research on “laziness” are the issue.
However, as the experimental wave of basic income begins to sunset, activists must look toward the next wave, which should focus on concrete policy steps that realize the spirit of basic income.
For these reasons, I see more experiments as an inefficient use of activist energy in the West. Worse, pushing experiments focused on gathering more data trades off with more useful discussions of how to bring elements of UBI to reality in the near-term.