Universal Basic Income (UBI) is meant to provide financial security and address job losses. Africa is one continent where UBI is critical. During the COVID-19 outbreak that has rendered many people jobless, it could have been used to prevent them from sliding into poverty.
Universal Basic Income is unconditional cash transfers to recipients guaranteed by the government. Recipients are entitled to the income regardless they are earning or not. The universal basic income is not taxable and recipients can use it for any of their needs. The government has no obligation to follow up on how the payment is used.
Currently, there is no country with a Universal Basic Income in Africa, but there are schemes that can help transition toward a UBI policy. There have been trials in some countries in Africa, such as Kenya, Uganda and Namibia. The trials that were conducted in the three African countries showed positive results. What benefits can we expect from a universal basic income in Africa?
Eliminate Poverty by Generating Income
By introducing Universal Basic Income in Africa, recipients can improve their financial status from low-income earners to medium-income earners. The recipients will have more disposable income to cater to their needs.
This would have been beneficial at the time when many Africans have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Basic income will help to support families and prevent them from sliding into poverty.
Ease of Access to Education for Children
With the guarantee of basic income, children can access education without having to work to support their parents. The lack of income leads to increased school dropouts and consequently early marriages.
Children drop out of school to help their parents generate additional income through informal employment. When casual jobs are not available, children get married early to seek solace and financial support from their spouses.
Providing basic income would help children stay in school since they do not have to look for employment to support their families. While children are in school, early marriages can be eliminated and help them gain an education and live a dignified life.
Promote Entrepreneurship and Increase Job Opportunities
Through UBI, people will have access to more disposable income. When people have access to disposable income, they can take risks and start businesses.
Starting a business requires some capital and enough funding before it can start generating revenue. Basic income can be directed to startups since the government needs not to follow up on how it is used.
The impact of basic income is that people can take risks and start businesses that will consequently create job opportunities. Companies will also help the economy through corporate taxes and income taxes.
Improve Mental and Physical Health
Basic income helps people lead a better life, improving their physical and mental health. The lack of disposable income to cater for the basic needs leads to stress and depression, pushing people to live in deplorable living conditions. Moreover, the lack of income hinders people from accessing health insurance.
The same way the government provides free health and education, it is also best that African governments invest in UBI for the financial security of their citizens. With disposable incomes, recipients can secure health insurance and live a dignified life.
A study carried out by GiveDirectly Organization in 63 Kenyan villages, provided each adult 0.75 dollars per day. The results of the study showed that recipients had an improvement in consumption and well-being. The recipients increased their investments in livestock and home improvement.
Financial and Social Inclusion
The problem of social inclusion is rampant in Africa. The lack of basic income leads to social marginalization, preventing people from accessing modern services like insurance, bank services and technology, such as access to mobile phones.
UBI would help to alleviate social marginalization by assisting people in accessing modern services.
For instance, the government can remit basic income through banks or mobile transfers. As such, people will open bank accounts and buy mobile phones to receive the money. This way, marginalized people can enjoy modern services.
Reduce Financial Gaps between the Rich and the Poor
One of the ways to fund Universal Basic Income is through taxes. Income taxes can lead to a fair distribution of wealth by taxing high-income earners and reducing wealth gaps. Africa is the leading continent with huge income disparities between the high-income earners and low-income earners.
Low skilled workers barely get incremental increases in their wages, pushing them into adverse poverty with increasing inflation. Through UBI, the government can tax high-income earners and redistribute the proceeds to low-income earners.
Family Cohesiveness and Stability
In many African countries, there is domestic violence due to the inability to cater to family needs and depression. The survivors of domestic violence cannot leave their spouses because they lack a stable income. If the survivors can access basic income, they can leave their spouses and meet their basic needs.
Also, if there is a guaranteed income, depression and stress can be eliminated, reducing domestic violence.
In many African countries such as Kenya, parents give birth to many children for cheap labour and security during their old age. If there is a guarantee of regular income, parents would not need to raise many children to support them when they grow old.
How to Fund the Universal Basic Income in Africa
There are many ways through which African governments can fund Universal Basic Income through taxes and creativity. These are some of the ways to finance the Universal Basic Income in Africa.
Reducing Government Expenditures
Reducing government expenditures can set aside some monies that can be directed to fund basic incomes. African governments can reduce some funding to revenue-generating state corporations. Some of the revenues they generate can be directed to the basic income initiative. Most of the recurrent expenditures for government institutions can be halted.
Higher Taxes for High-Income Earners
Through higher taxes from higher-income earners, governments can generate funds to finance basic income initiatives. It would also help to reduce income disparities between the rich and the poor. For instance, governments can introduce a luxury tax and wealth tax above a fixed net worth.
Increase Corporate Taxes and Reduce Financial Benefits to Leaders
African governments can increase corporate taxes by three percent to generate additional revenue for UBI. Additionally, governments can reduce some benefits for politicians. The monies can be redirected to a basic income to promote recipient welfare.
African governments should invest in basic income for its citizens. Basic income is equally important in a nation like other social amenities such as health and education. It leads to general wellbeing, social cohesion, and productivity. In addition, by affording basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing, citizens live a dignified life. Finally, basic income will promote mental health. Poverty and social injustice can lead to poor mental health and related illnesses.
Vincent Nyoike is a Kenyan research writer with vast writing experience. He is a graduate of the University of Eldoret with a degree in Applied Statistics with Computing. He has also pursued a course in Certified Public Accountant. From his experience in business, he enjoys writing on finance and business topics, with a particular focus on Africa. He also works on SEO projects for private international organisations.
Rampant disparities within the capital/labor share, increased pressure on climatically vulnerable communities and mass international migration due to economic hardship or violence. All that without mentioning the ever-haunting specter of automation-induced unemployment and, finally, the outbreak of a world-reaching pandemic: these are some of the ongoing cataclysmic trends that are making an ever increasing number of academics, policymakers and multilateral organizations revisit the adoption of Universal Basic Income (UBI) models. The idea of furnishing guaranteed, unconditional and universal basic income for people within an assigned geographical locality – and potentially the entire globe – has ebbed and flown from the pages of authors of all walks of the political spectrum for over two centuries. It appears, though, that such an idea is regaining momentum at this point in history, a somewhat unexpected moment, given the worldwide rise of nationalistic and illiberalism worldviews. The ambition of this proposal is not to promote an exhaustive comparative assessment of competing proposals currently taking place – or being aspired at – around the world. Instead, this working paper stands as an introductory effort to be followed by a more robust case study of existing schemes, which should bind them under the theories of Multipolarity. This proposal launches the cornerstone of a debate assessing the concrete costs and political coordination challenges that are likely to arise in a scenario of massive and ideally genuine universal effort to start or scale-up existing UBI initiatives through the deployment of digital financing techniques, including its most disruptive variations such as cryptocurrencies.
Goa Foundation and the Goenchi Mati Movement advocate for a fair mining and intergenerational equity model defining it as commons, which you can read in this article and the other resources. They develop a vision of maintaining the wealth coming from selling inherited minerals to serve the broader community and not just the privileged few. One of their proposals is citizens’ dividend, which, they argue, will “create a strong bond between the citizen and their commons“. According to the calculation mentioned by the Research Director of Goa Foundation, Rahul Basu, every citizen in Goa would receive a commons dividend of thousand rupees a month if the fund were managed according to their proposals. I outline how this proposal may be enhanced by deepening the commons as a philosophy and governance model, which is already incorporated in their blueprint. Instead of focusing on just giving cash transfers, I would ask how the money can create sustainability. This is a big issue in the context of environmental disruption by short-term thinking. Wealth distribution can liberate from the incentives that poverty produces. You have the chance of posing and giving space to these important questions.
The answer may need a long time and a lot of expertise but the results may be not only aligned with but strengthen the basic tenets of intergenerational justice. This reflection is relevant to the broader debate on a UBI, citizen’s dividend, and accountability.
I develop in my writing a broader vision of UBI going beyond just cash transfers. I believe that the reform needs complementing measures to be added to create a real alternative to the current system. As part of this vision, I want to inspire creating organizational structures that will enable people to access high-quality basic services and be an alternative to the monopoly of the current market system which has many disruptive externalities. You can see examples of such an organization of work in my articles.
I propose to focus on building sustainability to maintain the health of the community and yield long term advantages for future generations.
Agriculture and correcting market food supply
It is difficult to free farmers from the vicious cycle of the past mistakes and the short-term planning that living in poverty imposes. Therefore, the best way to use resources is through giving subsidies and knowledge transfer to enable advanced low-tech agricultural methods such as permaculture, wild agriculture, or agro-forestry. The abundance in the food supply, which such a change of direction promises, can benefit various forms of organizing food distribution. This can have both forms of targeting farmers in particular as their practices pollute the environment around them as well as the broader community to enable the poor to produce their food in community gardens. One can think of a hybrid solution such as the one described in the case of a small farmer who invites consumers to participate in food production. Such methods require a long-term commitment and the resources to invest in developing soil but with time they will produce abundance that can be redistributed among citizens. It will also contribute to sustaining the natural resources in the region. With this kind of approach, you not only redistribute wealth (nutritional wealth) but multiply it.
The influences that have destroyed agriculture all over the world are taking a toll on India. A recent initiative by the government wants to foster organic agriculture but the project resembles the commercial, export-oriented type of intervention, which may not benefit the poor directly. How can you protect the soil from land grabbing and the interests of monopolies like fertilizer producers and other branches of the agricultural industry? The answer needs to mobilize various actors, also consumers.
While in India, I talked to a 19-year old woman who studies sociology and has all this critical thinking and discourse pouring out of her. At the same time, she eats at McDonald’s and thinks it is cool. Industrially processed food is particularly dangerous for India due to ineffective recycling and waste management. Cash transfers may add freedom but the one promised by the interests of the multinational companies at the cost of sustainable health and agriculture.
Collective rather than individual approach
While I understand the argument against taxing citizens by transferring real income from the Permanent Fund to the government instead of giving individual dividends, this type of redistribution may also be as short-sighted as the extractive industry is. We can imagine a different approach, which is neither former nor the latter option but something in between. Definitely, the government has shown limits in governing resources, which calls for other than tax solutions. By building up robust structures and practices that will sustain collaboration capacities of the population, you are enabling the population to multiply rather than only consume resources. And this is something that benefits the entire population so the dividend has a universal effect in the long run.
Nowadays, there are many instances of technologies that create abundance, for example, solar energy; think of community solar stove in neighborhoods. Think of all sorts of circular economies that could change the mindset about how resources are used and produced. There is this magic thing about nature that once you work with (and not against) nature, including human nature, you can create abundance.
Instead of atomizing the resources, I propose to give them at collective disposal so that people can make collective investments to share resources: building collective kitchens, gardens, and other commons. Giving money into collective hands as opposed to just individual transfers, which you don’t know how people will end up spending and whether their spending will actually be good for the community and for their health, will produce cumulative results.
The problem with cash transfers is that if you just give money but there is no consciousness, no awareness of how to spend money in a sustainable way then the money will be just spent on things that actually contribute to the damage of the region and the future generations. Cash transfers are intermediated by mentality and culture. Therefore, it is important to build this intermediating fabric in the community. For example, how could you enable creating public spaces where self-organization happens, where connection happens, where people are brought back to responsible and sustainable consumption?
Culture and community
Another building block of creating sustainability is preserving culture and community. It is important to ask what organizations, what projects, what knowledge could preserve the indigenous and original Indian culture to protect it from erosion? The dying out of traditional cultures will lead to spreading addiction and other social dysfunctions. The question is how to prevent Western style of capitalism and cultural and relational poverty from imbuing your region. Investing in protecting the community is a form of creating a commons, which foster public health outside of the pharmacological approach and dependency on extractive industries.
If we look at the intergenerational equity in structural and cultural context, giving out cash transfers appears as delivering the region to the tyranny of near-sighted vision and forgoing a deep social change. Cash may enable and encourage consumption that fits well into the interests of hegemonic actors and ideologies. Before enabling consumption, we need to transform the underpinning culture and underpinning patterns which brought obesity and other health problems in the West.
Rahul Basu’s comment
We wholeheartedly agree that fostering communities is necessary. Our structure has been designed to deal with the serious issues that arise from the misgovernance of mineral extraction. One aspect particularly important for India is the large number of power hierarchies – class, caste & gender being just a few – and which permeate even traditionally self-governing villages. This enables politicians to develop winning coalitions using a divide and conquer strategy. The Citizen’s Dividend is essential to connect people to their mineral inheritance and the equality of the dividend prevents the division of the people.
While it is desirable that this income be pooled in ways that foster communities, we believe that this should be left open to the recipients of the dividend. Indeed, in the SEWA pilot of UBI in India, one group pooled their dividends and jointly took up fish cultivation. If on the other hand, this money is mandated for community creation through the legally recognized legal structures like villages / cities, we will neither have a community nor will we have resolved the misgovernance of the mineral inheritance.
It is undeniable that the new wave of engouement for UBI (universal basic income) that has shaken the US, the EU, India and so many other parts of the globe in the wake of COVID-19 has also reached Brazil. Everywhere, the simple idea of guaranteeing a regular income, duty-free, underwritten by the State, appears to be the way forward to mitigate the still unmeasurable consequences of the appalling disruptions brought about by the pandemic. UBI would swiftly reduce income insecurity, preventing poverty; it could also significantly contribute to accelerate the economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 era by stimulating aggregate demand.
The idea of a UBI was galvanized when governments promptly decided to extend the amount, coverage, and length of different sorts of monetary transfers to confront the gravity of the multiple crises created by the COVID-19 outbreak. Unemployment benefits, job allowances, one-time pay-checks, welfare benefits, or even special forms of credit line have spread out to inject liquidity in the economy. All of a sudden, we have a new opportunity for making the case for UBI.
Brazil was no exception. The comprehensive national social security system created in 1988 that provides free, universal health care (among many other rights) had been made vulnerable by years of underfinancing. But the system continues to be the most effective and democratic institution when it comes to guaranteeing social rights and wellbeing in Brazil. When the COVID crisis hit, the federal government and Congress could have reinforced social assistance, public healthcare, unemployment insurance, and other job allowances — all constitutive dimensions of the Brazilian social protection system. Instead, they united to favor ad hoc measures that, though sounding generous, are inevitably temporary.
The ultraliberal government of President Jair Bolsonaro backed a bill that Congress approved unanimously early April to adopt an “emergency basic income” program that would last the entire state of emergency declared on March 20, 2020. In principle, this program should expire on December 31, 2020, along with the state of emergency. In Brazil, a state of emergency allows extraordinary spending, suppressing the 2016 cap imposed by a constitutional amendment that impeded any real increase in social spending until 2036 regardless of economic growth or rise in tax revenues.
It bears reminding that Brazil is the only country in the world to have passed a law on Basic Income in 2004, hours prior to the adoption of the Bolsa Familia Program. Yet the law remained a dead letter and largely unknown to most Brazilians. To date, it remains unclear why the Workers’ Party started its mandate presenting a bill on UBI, which was approved without encountering any opposition, too soon after paying no heed to it. Today, despite the existence of a UBI Law, activists, progressive parties, and members of Congress chose the easiest way out, bypassing the already existing institutional framework. They chose a transitory and short-term program over existing law. This narrowed sighted strategy further debilitates Brazil’s social security system, because it deepens defunding. It also fails to bring greater comprehension of what a UBI is in the public opinion, thereby further diminishing the chances to make it a true, permanent, and unconditional right.
Today’s “emergency basic income program” provides a three time-payment – now extended to four months – of R$ 600.00, the equivalent of $120 USD per month. It is means-tested. Anyone over 18 years old (threshold waived for single mothers) living with a monthly per capita household income below half a minimum wage (R$ 552.00 / $110 USD) qualifies. The Minister of the Economy estimates that this benefit has reached 54 million people, encompassing the target-population previous recipients of Bolsa Familia, informal and precarious workers, and the unemployed who registered. Let’s not forget that Brazilian monthly median per capita household income, including labor income and all forms of social benefits, like pensions and welfare schemes, corresponds to R$ 862.00, equivalent to $172.00 USD. A monthly stipend of R$ 600.00 is therefore a very significant figure that amounts to 70 percent of the median per capita income and is three times higher than the Bolsa Familia cash transfer. It was the first time that Brazil set the bar so high with regard to compensatory benefits.
It is worth noting that indigenous and traditional black communities who were proportionally the most hardly hit by the pandemic have been denied the right to this temporary benefit, which is very telling about the challenges for universalizing rights in Brazil. The mortality rate among indigenous in the Legal Amazon is 150 percent higher than the national average. The deficiency of the specific care system for native peoples, the invasion of their lands by miners who can take the virus into their territories and communities, and continuous deforestation are pointed out as reasons that can explain such a high mortality rate and lethality. Faced with the threat posed by COVID-19 to indigenous communities, opposition parties passed a law in early July in Congress that provides for a set of 16 emergency measures to protect some 800,000 indigenous people. President Bolsonaro, however, immediately vetoed the most important ones, such as guaranteeing the supply of drinking water, food baskets, hygiene products and specific ICU beds for indigenous people infected with the virus, arguing that the Union could not afford mounting non-essential expenditures. Brazil remains a very unequal society and has not yet reckoned with its colonial structures of racialized discrimination.
The Brazilian Bureau of Census (IBGE) just published the first results regarding the impact of the Emergency Basic Income Program: 38.7 percent of all Brazilian households received the program, with the bottom 40 percent benefitting most. 45 percent of all Brazilians received the temporary emergency workers’ allowance and three-fourths of all monetary transfers benefitted the 50 percent at the bottom of the distribution scale. According to IPEA, this allowance has compensated 45 percent of outstanding earning losses due to the pandemic. It also increased by 2,000 times the average income of the poorest 10 percent. This is good news, especially because the recovery of the economic activity that has been noticed in early July significantly relies on the rebound of household consumption.
There is now strong evidence that providing monetary transfers at large scale and in substantial amounts that make a real difference in people’s lives is a powerful mechanism to boost economic activity, prevent destitution and humiliation, and help people cope with all sorts of hardships.
Did the crisis and the measures adopted increase the support for a true UBI? Are Brazilians really aware of the challenge and motivated to fight for it? In 2013, I carried out a national survey to assess how Brazilian society values social policies. There was a specific question on UBI. Back then, 51 percent disagreed, and one-third agreed with the idea of implementing a UBI. The current estimates are unknown since no survey asking the specific question has yet been re-conducted. But let us keep in mind that the current emergency workers’ allowance is no UBI.
The question is whether or not the evidence aforementioned would suffice to bolster the implementation of a true UBI in Brazil.
During the pandemic, doctors, health workers, and the many who support the universal public health care system (SUS) persevered in order to advance a temporary program, called ICU Beds for All. In Brazil, for every 5 ICU beds fully equipped in the private sector, we have only 1 in public hospitals. The problem is that only 25 percent of all Brazilians have subscribed to private health insurance, whereas 75 percent go public. Given that a significant and growing number of ICU beds were underutilized in the private sector, a campaign was launched to create a pool of ICU beds, coordinated by a public entity, to improve access and sort out the waiting list problem. But no agreement could be reached and today Brazil is second only to the United States, with 1,7 million confirmed cases, and 68,000 fatalities, both figures broadly underestimated given that testing is rather rare in Brazil. It is now obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic was insufficient to unite Brazilians, even when so many lives are lost.
This paradox raises two major concerns:
Is UBI the most urgent need for Brazilians? Will it be possible to couple a universal basic income at a relatively significant amount at least to eradicate abject poverty with other universal social policies that are urgently needed such as public healthcare, good public education, social housing, adequate sanitation? Is this affordable?
To what extent would endorsing UBI strengthen the social security system already threatened by austerity measures derived from the cap on public spending and by attempts of the Bolsonaro government to fully reshape it through tax reform and the merging of different social benefits restricting them to poverty relief programs?
In regards to the first question, what would be the cost of a UBI in Brazil? Of course, the cost depends on the design of the program. To get a rough idea of the cost of a very basic program, let us consider a stipend that would be equivalent to the monthly benefit of Bolsa Familia today, which is R$ 200 per month ($40 USD). This amount should be acceptable by all parties and civil organizations across the political spectrum. The difference lies in the fact that it would apply to individuals (UBI) rather than households (Bolsa Familia Program).
Let us then imagine that when the law was approved in 2004 the Brazilian government decided to implement the program starting with children under 5. Given that it would be impossible to grant a stipend to all Brazilians, the idea is that we would launch a UBI by targeting the children to prevent intergenerational poverty. The new benefit will accompany the beneficiaries throughout their lifetime as an unconditional right. Focusing on children sounds appropriate because the pension system in Brazil provides a satisfactory income security to the elderly: 85 percent of all seniors over 65 receive a public pension, either contributory or non-contributory, whose monthly amount (floor) corresponds to no less than a minimum wage.
By providing a UBI of R$ 200.00 to children under 5 in 2004, today’s number of potential recipients under 20 years old totals 60,7 million people (IBGE, PNAD 2004 & PNADc 2020). This would cost R$ 323 billion, or 10 times the annual spending with the Bolsa Familia Program (R$ 32 billion or, 4.4 percent of GDP in 2019). The good news is that 57 percent of all stipends would go the bottom 40 percent of the distribution. The current Emergency Workers’ Allowance Program amounts to R$ 150 Billion, consequently less than half of the proposed UBI, reaching an almost equal number of recipients.
To grant $40 USD a month to 60 million people in 2019 is three times higher than the federal spending, with the public healthcare system (only R$ 117 billion or 1.64 percent of GDP). Such a program would also surpass by 11 percent of all benefits conveyed by the federal government (including higher education, housing, sanitation, labor, and agrarian initiatives), which accounts for R$ 289 billion (Lavinas 2020).
In 2019, outstanding federal social spending amounted to R$ 1.73 trillion. Paying a basic income of R$ 200.00, therefore at the level of the current anti-poverty Bolsa Familia program, would compromise 27.5 percent of all social spending. That same year federal social spending in kind corresponded to only 4.12 percent.
Monetary transfers remain the bulk of social spending, accounting for 68 percent. Should Brazil continue to expand cash transfers, to the detriment of providing running water, sanitation, housing, equal standards in education and healthcare? The most recent data from IBGE (2018) show that 31.1 million Brazilians (16 percent of the population) have no access to tap-water, whereas 72.4 million (37 percent of the population) lack proper sanitation. Not to mention decades of deep housing shortage affecting millions of poor and low-income families who end up living in slums, which makes them less immune to all sorts of diseases in times of pandemics.
The second question relates to the future of the Brazilian social protection system, which was underfinanced for quite a long time, and now risks being completely dismantled. The Minister of the Economy, an old member of the Chicago Boys who worked for the Pinochet Regime, intends to overhaul social security. He initiated a pension reform in 2019, making it harder for informal workers to get a full pension at retirement.
Now, that same ultraliberal minister proposes the creation of a “Brazil Income Program”, resulting from the merging of a large number of benefits, both contributory and non-contributory. Workers’ rights like job allowances, unemployment benefits, and other benefits alike will all be suppressed and replaced by an anti-poverty program to reach 57 million people, granting a monthly stipend of R$ 232 per month, 15 percent above the average payment of Bolsa Familia. They expect to spend R$ 52 billion per year with this new program, which is less than one percent of the 2019 Brazilian GDP. This means that the coverage against risks and poverty will be shortened and people’s autonomy and wellbeing consequently corroded.
In addition, the government intends to provide a voucher to pay for private daycare for two million children up to three years old, which will increase prices and fees and discriminate based on income. Lessons from Chile are well-known to envision that in Brazil things could be different. A voucher of R$ 250,00 corresponds to 10 percent of what middle-class families pay for private childcare in cities like Rio and São Paulo. The best daycare centers, however, charge double or triple. According to the government, churches could be interested in providing this service, an idea that breaks with the logic of secularism in the provision of public education.
Both concerns point to the ineluctable call for a joint perspective associating basic income and universal public provision to democratize access and opportunities by fully de-commodifying wellbeing. Otherwise, under financialized capitalism, a guaranteed income will just serve as collateral propelling citizenry to take out loans and go indebted in order to meet their financial obligations.
Early July, that same Congress that approved the Emergency Workers’ Allowance Program voted for the full privatization of water supply and sanitation, maybe having in mind that enlarging access to cash to those most affected by the pandemic would also make it easier to expand further a business model grounded in denying basic human rights and ensuring huge profits for pension and mutual funds that today drive investments in infrastructure in developing and emerging countries. After the longest and most severe recession Brazil has faced over a century since 2015 and given the growth projections ahead (-9.1 percent for 2020, according to the IMF), fiscal resources will dry up while competing and clashing issues will fill up antagonisms, stirring tensions. All the care may not be enough in designing social policies if the goal is eventually to forge a truly egalitarian society in the country.
The major differential of a UBI is to de-commodify labor. It is thus equally crucial to de-commodify the social reproduction of labor, by ensuring that education, daycare, healthcare, training, and other basic needs will also be fully de-commodified. Otherwise, UBI will perform as a powerful pro-market mechanism, upholding income-related and highly segmented private provision, mostly through the financial sector, and fueling rather than overcoming discrimination and inequality.
How a World Basic Income can be sort of mostly free.
The economic downturn associated with the coronavirus is causing a humanitarian and economic disaster. Now is the time to push for a World Basic Income (WBI) paid to every human on the planet. It should be high enough to cover the cost of living, at least in the developing world. This payment would not just stave off hunger and extreme poverty, but also work as a general stimulus for the global economy, which faces a potentially catastrophic contraction.
While the greatest benefits of this payment would be felt in the developing world, where the increase in income would be bigger in proportion to their current income, it would also provide important benefits to the developed world.
A WBI would pump demand into the global economy by raising the non-wage incomes of the population as a whole, including workers. This would reshape the global labour market, lessening migration pressures and the severity of cross border wage competition, because workers in and from the developing world, protected from absolute destitution, would be less inclined to work in appalling conditions for miserable wages.
There would also be a dramatic increase in consumer spending power in developing nations, which would increase the number of workers required to meet domestic demand for goods and services, meaning fewer still would be available to work producing exports to the developed world. At the same time the market for exports from the developed world would expand.
This would compound the original effect, and further strengthen the position of workers in the US “rust belt,” and equivalent populations in other developed countries, whose jobs would become harder to send offshore.
WBI would do this without the implementation of tariffs, which might spiral into a trade war, further contracting the global economy. A WBI is a mechanism that can achieve the same goals in terms of protecting developed world jobs and wages, without adding to the contractionary pressures that the global economy faces.
A payment like this is not a new idea, it even has a dedicated NGO, simply called “World Basic Income.” They propose a payment of $30 USD a month. Which they say could be funded using “rents” on global commons like airspace, and “international taxes” such as a carbon tax.
But it is a mistake to assume that we have to first “gather up” the money before we can pay it out.
Since the pandemic began, they are also starting to question this. Having recently pondered whether in “emergency times such as these, borrowing or currency creation could also be used to quickly generate the money needed.”
This is an encouraging sign. But they still seem to be of the view that money creation or borrowing as inherently problematic, if perhaps necessary given the current situation. This is the wrong way of thinking about it. Money creation and deficit spending are not signs of desperation, foolishness, or failure. They are necessary tools for good economic management, in relatively “normal” times as well as emergencies. It is not that, as it is sometimes put, “deficits don’t matter”, it is that deficits are good. The theory behind this is a little complex but it can be summarised as it is here by Cory Doctorow:
Government debts are where our money comes from. Governments spend money into existence: if they “balance their budgets” then they tax all that money back out again. That’s why austerity always leads to economic contraction — governments are taxing away too much money.
There’s one other source of money, of course: bank loans. Banks have governments charters to loan money that they don’t actually have on hand (contrary to what you’ve been taught, banks don’t loan out their deposits).
When there’s not enough government money in circulation, people seek bank loans to fill the gap. Unlike federal debts, bank loans turn a profit for bank investors. The more austerity, the more bank loans, the more profits for the finance sector (at everyone else’s expense).
The empirical case is pretty simple, and arguably even stronger: The US government has run deficits nearly every year since the early 30s. For all its current woes, the US is in a far better economic state now than it was then. In fact, some of the best years, like the “post-war boom,” were immediately preceded by the highest levels of deficit spending (the largest injections of cash into the real economy).
The same is true for most developed economies. Governments always promise budget surpluses, but rarely deliver. And that’s a good thing, because what they practice is better than what they preach.
So when it comes to a universal basic income, even in the “good” times, the best answer to the question: “how will we pay for it?” is that we will not pay for it.
At least not all of it, not directly, and certainly not upfront. If we do pay for it upfront, we suck as much money out of the economy as we pump in.
A “costed” or “revenue neutral” UBI plan would help protect the poorest from the effects of the crisis, but it would stunt the stimulatory effect we are also aiming to achieve. There would still be some stimulatory effects. Transferring income to poorer people leads to a greater portion of that income being spent, so the velocity of money (the overall rate of spending in the economy) increases and with it GDP. But expanding supply and velocity simultaneously, as a fiat-funded UBI could, would work much better.
In essence, we should just get the money the same way we ultimately get all money: We just collectively believe it into existence. This has the advantage that it doesn’t require us to convince or compel anyone to pony up in advance. And it would mean we could pay a higher WBI, starting perhaps at $1.90 USD a day, the UN’s “internationally agreed poverty line” , and then, when the sky doesn’t fall, rising further, perhaps to as much as five or ten dollars a day over the course of several years or a decade.
Of course, no one can predict in advance how people, and therefore the world economy, would really respond to a payment of this level. No one knows what the ideal level for a WBI is. But there’s no reason to think it is zero.
The global charity and advocacy organisation Oxfam does not back a WBI, but does explicitly recommend a kind of fiat money creation, or something very much like it. In a recent media briefing entitled Dignity Not Destitution it lays out suggestions for responding to the hardship caused by the pandemic. The plan includes the allocation of a trillion dollars worth of Special Drawing Rights, which are interest-bearing assets, a bit like treasury bonds, created by the IMF. SDRs are defined in relation to five major global currencies and can be used by nations to pay back debts to the IMF, or traded with each other for liquid currency.
By rapidly increasing the supply of this “paper gold”, as they did following the 2008 financial crisis, the IMF could help nations around the world increase their liquidity, allowing them to spend money to help the needy. This has also been requested by a number of nations and the IMF has said it is “exploring” that option.
Here we see a pattern emerging at the global level which resembles closely that developing at the level of national policy discourse.
Modern Monetary Theory advocates like Stephanie Kelton argue that the US government cannot run out of money any more than a sports arena can run out of points. But they do not support UBI, arguing instead for a Federal Job Guarantee. UBI advocates like Andrew Yang want a UBI but think they need to pay for it pretty much upfront with increased tax revenues.
But a growing cohort of thinkers are beginning to examine what happens when these herecies intersect. UBI advocate Alex Howlett is one of them. He coined the term Consumer Monetary Theory or CMT to distinguish his view from MMT. Another is Geoff Crocker, who talks of “Basic Income and Sovereign Money”. Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, also backs both soft money theory and a UBI, as does Australian heterodox economist Steve Keen.
The four thinkers listed in the bottom right square all have unique perspectives, and among them only Howlett identifies their work with the CMT title. However it seems useful to me as an umbrella term for those who agree with MMT regarding the nature and constraints of government spending, but who promote a Basic Income rather than a Job Guarantee.
It is important to note that both MMT and CMT do think tax policies matter, just not in the ways we are usually told they do. One role they see for taxes that is relevant to this proposal is the idea that taxes demanded by a government in a specific currency help ensure the value and widespread acceptance of that currency, another is the way taxes help manage the build-up of currency and the amount of spending in the economy to prevent inflation.
In conventional thinking, taxes fill a bucket, the “government coffers”, and spending is a hole in that bucket, through which money escapes. In soft currency thinking, spending is the inflow of money, the bucket is a flower-pot — representing the economy — which requires frequent watering. Taxes are the drainage holes, there to stop the soil getting too saturated.
If we were to look clearly at the flowerpot representing the world economy, we would see the soil is bone dry. It is worst at the edges, where the dieback has already started, but the center, where the roots are thickest and thirstiest, is not far behind. The plant is starting to wilt. The good news is that the water is free. It is time to get the hose, attach a spray nozzle, and spray.
The Great Global Monetary Hack
The world lacks a true global reserve. The US dollar is the main currency of global trade, but that role is diminishing, and in any case it is managed by a government and central bank who are only mandated to pay attention to the needs of the global economy as and when these needs affect their domestic goals.
In terms of a truly global, globally managed, reserve, SDRs are the closest thing we’ve got. We cannot use them directly for a WBI, since they can only be held by nation states and other “designated holders”. But these are considered durably credible enough that their value held in 2008, even as the total stock increased roughly 10 fold, from around $20 billion to $200 billion. The additional trillion Oxfam have recommended be created, divided by 8 billion is $125 per person, or 34 cents a day for a year. It is not enough. But we’re getting somewhere.
Since individual human beings cannot hold SDRs, which are, formally, not money. We could issue a new currency, tied to these. A People’s Bancor, in honour of Keynes’s proposed global currency.
The basic framework would be:
The IMF announces it will be holding an auction of SDRs starting in say, three months time, and continuing at regular intervals from then onward, that these auctions will be conducted using the new currency: the People’s Bancor.
The IMF creates digital wallets for the citizens of all participating nations and starts to issue these new digital credits (which may be cryptographically minted) at regular intervals directly to every adult individual on the planet.
Governments exchange national currency to obtain PBs. Either directly or by accepting them as a means of (partially) paying (some) taxes. This would cause businesses, individuals and exchanges to gain confidence in the new currency.
Governments buy SDRs from the IMF with PBs, which are then taken out of circulation.
Poorer nations, especially, could be guaranteed a certain quota at a set price, separate to the portion auctioned in batches.
Another way to validate this currency would be by charging global taxes in it.
A United Nations could create a world tax authority and through it could demand taxes in this new currency. These should be demanded, at least at first, from the national governments themselves, who would thus be compelled to buy PBs using local currency.
So long as the monetary metabolism can be kept active, substantially more can be issued in currency than is collected in taxes.
A carbon tax is, of course, an important idea. And so is a tax on military budgets, if you think about it. This is a great opportunity to go after tax havens and the many billions held there illegitimately?
We must avoid this temptation to fix everything at once, and stay focussed. The number one priority is for these global taxes to validate the currency. And we need it to happen fast. We do not have time for nations to enter into complex multilateral bargains over the rules of such a system. We need something that is equally attractive to all parties.
What I suggest is that, at least at the start, we tax the money itself. At the end of each financial year, the government could be liable for a sum of PBs equal to, for example, 20 percent of the amount received by their population over the previous 12 months.
As it happens, this stands in stark contrast to the position taken by Howlett, who as I mentioned before coined the term Consumer Monetary Theory. He says that “tax revenue is meaningless” and that we should therefore focus on taxing the specific behaviours and phenomena we want to discourage. Since we want economic activity, money is the worst thing to tax. This is a rule I generally agree with, but this is one case (and there are others) where it makes sense to make an exception.
By removing the complications implicit in attaching these initial taxes to anything in particular, we remove reasons for various countries to say no. If we view the government as an extension of the population, which it rightly should be, then all we are asking them to do is accept a dollar, on the basis they will later have to pay back 20 cents.
Imagine a simplified example where a country’s population receives 100 PBs a year in total.
Here’s how that would play out over the next twenty years:
As the graph shows, the national stock of PBs would grow over time as the amount received by the population outpaces the amount the government has paid in global taxes. So long as the rate of taxation is less than 50 percent, this will be the case.
This rate wouldn’t, obviously, be something that we could “set and forget” but would be a policy lever, similar to central bank interest rates, which could be adjusted in response to real world results. If the currency starts to lose value, the rate should be increased, if its value is too high relative to national currencies, it should be decreased.
Such an agreement would be most perfectly championed by the G20, then implemented by the IMF and UN in concert, with the IMF issuing the currency and the UN collecting (and destroying) it.
But any group of nations collectively representing a significant chunk of world product could also create their own version of this through a treaty outside existing global structures. This currency club could grow gracefully, one new member country at a time. Countries should be free to opt out at any time, making joining the obvious choice.
It would have to have a central administrative office, with dedicated staff alongside observers and advisors from member nations working to regularly assess the effectiveness of the current settings, and adjust UBI levels, taxes due, the number and type of SDR sales (assuming IMF cooperation), and so on.
Perhaps the best thing about this plan is the lack of downsides. It is, I contend, counterintuitively plausible that national governments would sign up for such a plan, especially as the economic crisis, likely to be the worst in a century, deepens.
If it does not work, then the currency will be stupidly cheap and the participant governments will easily be able to get enough to cover their obligations.
If it does work, and the value of the currency holds, then their economy is experiencing a sudden inflow of valuable currency, equivalent to a steady and substantial increase in remittances. There would be, inevitably, some cost to the local governments, in that they would either exchange their national currency for PBs, or accept it in taxes (instead of their national currency). But every dollar, pound, yen, rupee or dinar spent in this manner would have many times the stimulatory effect of normal spending, since when you buy one PB, you validate the rest out there in circulation. They could also just just print the money with which to make these transactions, since their own citizens will in most cases accept this as payment.
Governments that do not want to do this, or could not for some reason (a lack of their own currency, for example) could simply introduce a new tax on the wealthy and/or high-income earners, payable in PBs. This would compel these better-off members of society to exchange some of whatever currency they have for PBs. The effect of this transfer would be similarly multiplied as the other PBs in circulation were validated by it. Whether it is stimulatory spending or this tax-driven redistribution, you get much more bang for your buck this way than you would usually.
If it works too well, and the new currency is valued too highly against local currencies, making it difficult for governments to meet their tax obligations without inflating their own currencies, that means we can print and distribute more, until the price of a PB falls (while the value of the basic income increases), or lower these tax obligations.
This plan will not solve every problem, but it would be the biggest economic stimulus, and the greatest step towards ending deprivation, so far in the history of humanity. It is of course optimistic to imagine that our leaders are capable of seeing clearly enough, and acting boldly enough, to set a plan like this in motion. But sometimes a crisis can bring out the best in people, and the economic crisis, which will extend beyond the pandemic, may not give them the option of sticking to conventional responses.