HISTORY of UBI: From Hunter-Gatherers to the 21st Century

HISTORY of UBI: From Hunter-Gatherers to the 21st Century

Investopedia published an article in May this year, “The Long, Weird History of Basic Income – And Why It’s Back

In this article, written by David Floyd, the history of support of UBI is described from the period of hunter-gatherer societies and how the networks in those societies took care of people who could not provide themselves with a basic standard of living. The article then describes how agriculture and urbanization made an end to such networks and how problems were not handled well by the institutions that took the place of the original networks, referring to Charles Eastman who described this problem in 1915.

Thomas Paine was one of the famous people who noticed the creation of poverty, caused by cultivation, which did not exist before. He was the first to propose a UBI (Paine called it a “groundrent”) in the late 18th century, as a compensation for the dispossession of the majority of inhabitants of their natural inheritance. Cole first used the term Basic Income in 1953.

From Paine, via Henry George, Huey Long, G.D.H. Cole, Martin Luther King, Mc Govern and Nixon, the current boost of support for UBI in the 21st century is explained as a reaction to poverty and inequality, predominantly used as an argument by proponents on the left political spectrum, and inefficiency of the welfare state, used as an argument on the right wing.

In addition to the political perspective, a distinction between “reformers” and “futurists”, which cross-cuts left and right, is described in further depth.

The group of “reformers” is described as a group of basic income supporters who is mostly concerned with addressing problems in society as it is now, mostly caused by the broken welfare system, such as:

  • “Employment traps” (where people are kept form leaving their job out of fear and bad employers are supported as a result of that)
  • “Unemployment traps” (“earn a dollar from work, lose a dollar in benefits”)
  • “Welfare cliffs” (where the effect tax on additional income even exceeds 100%)
  • Stigma associated with public benefits
  • Bureaucratic inefficiency

The group of “futurists” is described as supporters who see technological unemployment as a main threat in the future and offer basic income as a solution or who see a basic income as a cornerstone of an eventual utopia.

The two main criticisms of a universal basic income are its cost and the expectation that it would reduce or eliminate incentives to work.

This discussion is described with calculations of “The Economist” and views of Bill Gates, Karl Widerquist, Guy Standing, Philippe van Parijs and others. Brief attention is given to Alaska’s “Permanent Fund Dividend” and the outcome of experiments, such as Manitoba and India. Furthermore, the definition of ‘work’ is discussed, the effects of UBI on poverty and even the experiments in Finland, Oakland and Ontario get attention.

Floyd summarizes his article with a question: “Could doing away with poverty, sweeping away patronizing bureaucracy, neutralizing the threat of mass unemployment and increasing the value society places on worthwhile, but unprofitable, pursuits really be as simple as handing everyone cash?” He then uses Confusius’ quote to guide us towards the answer:

“The way out is through the door.”


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Full article at investopedia.com

Photo: Money! by Hans Splinter, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Special thanks to Dave Clegg for reviewing this article


DEBATE: Is a Basic Income Better Than Welfare?

DEBATE: Is a Basic Income Better Than Welfare?

In May this year, Bryan Caplan debated with Karl Widerquist about Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Welfare at PublicSquare.net.

Widerquist is associate professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service at Qatar and vice-chair of Basic Income Earth Network (co-chair at the time of the debate). He sees UBI as a means to completely eliminate poverty and as a compensation for the government’s actions to turn resources into property, which creates groups of people that don’t have access to resources they need to survive. Widerquist predicts UBI will also have an increasing effect on lower level wages, as the payment for work will need to be high enough for a non-starving person to accept the job. In the current system, employers don’t have the incentive to provide good wages, according to Widerquist.

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Caplan is professor of economics at George Mason University. He thinks the idea that everyone should be supported by the government is ridiculous. Whatever charity is given should only be for to the people who need it, and UBI is therefore not a good idea, according to Caplan. Furthermore, it will discourage people from working and is not fair to people that are paying their taxes, he states.


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Photos: Karl Widerquist by BICN/RCRG Basic Income Canada Network, 2014 and Bryan Caplan speaking empathically by Eric Hanneken, 2015, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Special thanks to Dawn Howard for reviewing this article

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

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.


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

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

INDIA: Universal Basic Income Could Replace the System of Subsidies and Benefits at Hardly Any Cost.

INDIA: Universal Basic Income Could Replace the System of Subsidies and Benefits at Hardly Any Cost.

In an interview on March 27th with journalist Govindraj Ethiraj from BOOM, Baijayant “Jay” Panda, a member of Indian Parliament representing the Biju Janata Dal Party, explains his view about the potential benefits of an Indian Universal Basic Income (UBI).

“The 7.1% growth rate India has today does not create the number of jobs it used to ten or twenty years ago,” Panda explains. The global phenomenon of technological development has made UBI a hot topic in economics around the world for the last two or three years.

At the same time, the subsidiary system in India is very inefficient. Based on a planning commission’s study 5 years ago, Panda estimates that out of every rupee spent by the government, only 27 paisa reach the citizen. “That means that 73 paisa goes away in salaries, overhead, and corruption, and leakage. We have only seen tremendous success in for example the use of Aadhaar (an identification system based on biometric and demographic data) and converting the subsidy on LPG cooking gas and instead of giving cylinders, you give cash directly to beneficiaries and get it on the market. You can see the same kind of turn around in kerosene subsidy and other subsidies.”

Panda continues: “The argument that has been put out by many economists around the world, many of Indian origin, is that suppose you came up with something like a thousand rupees per month per citizen, maybe universal, maybe targeted, then you bring them above the basic poverty line and beyond that you focus on all the other aspirational things citizens have, such as getting jobs and education.”

But should this income be universal or targeted to a specific group? There are pros and cons on both sides, Panda argues.


“Why would somebody like you or somebody like me need to have a thousand rupees of basic income given by the government? The argument in favour of a UBI is that we waste too many resources and too much effort trying to target. You have armies of lower level government officials going around in the districts counting who has a house, who has electricity, who has a fan, who has a scooter, trying to decide who deserves a subsidy and who does not. If you make it universal, you save enormous effort. There is also enormous leakage in the system. People like you and I will most likely not take the thousand rupees per month, but those who need it, will take it.”

Panda is open to the idea of targeting as well, though, and states that with technology, like the use of Aadhaar, it is perhaps possible to target much better today then it was ten years ago. “We don’t have to go universal at one go. We should keep on extending the use of technology to target the most leaky, the most corrupt subsidy.” The kerosene subsidy is a perfect candidate for such a pilot, according to Panda.

He compares the Indian situation with the US and Europe and explains why the situation in India is different. “If you look at the US or Europe, they have large social service expenditures, which are relatively efficient. In our case, we have a lot of low hanging fruit of inefficiency so that it is a win-win scenario. A UBI in India can be funded from the savings of the current systems. The fiscal deficit is not going to get worse. In the US and Europe, they have to take something away from the citizens. Here in India we are not taking anything away because whatever subsidies we have, it is mostly being leaked so it is not reaching the citizens anyway.”


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Photo: School children @ India by MrTopper007, CC BY-SA 2.0

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

WORLD: Universal Basic Income Discussed at World Economic Forum

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