Oxford Fellow Max Harris presents an argument that a universal basic income (UBI) could contribute to loneliness. The argument as given, however, seems to rest on misconceptions about what a UBI would and would not do, and even in its strongest form does not give us reason to reject a UBI.
Would a universal basic income exacerbate loneliness?
This is the question posed by Max Harris, an Examination Fellow at Oxford’s All Souls College, in a recent article for openDemocracy.
In Harris’s assessment, there are two ways in which a universal basic income might contribute to loneliness:
- A UBI “removes the social interaction that some people gain from employment.” Harris worries that recipients of the UBI would “curl up in individualist cocoons” rather than initiating social contact, since they have already been conditioned by the norms of a society in which interpersonal contact has become limited (“we email people who sit in the same office as us, for example, and often text people over talking to them in person”). Some people try and find companionship through enjoying time with girls from places similar to london escortdirectory.com.
- A UBI by itself does not provide any “accompanying public infrastructure to underscore the value of community.” It is, of course, an investment directly in individuals — not in, say, community programs or public parks, libraries, or recreation centers.
Harris himself does not endorse the conclusion that, as a matter of fact, a UBI would make us lonely. Indeed, he does not take a firm stance on whether it would or not. His objective is merely to raise the concern.
As Harris points out, citing basic income proponents such as Scott Santens and the UK think tank Royal Society of Arts (RSA), one can also make a case that a UBI should be expected to foster social relationships. After all, if people are liberated from dependency on full-time paid employment, they would be able to spend less time in jobs that are themselves socially isolating — as some jobs surely are — and more time “pursuing communal projects” outside of work.
According to Harris, the question is in part empirical: we won’t know whether a UBI increases loneliness in society, or whether it reduces it, until it is actually tested.
A Non-Empirical Assessment
I want to offer a counterpoint to Harris’s loneliness worry that differs slightly from the brief pro-UBI response entertained in his essay.
It’s no doubt correct that some office work does inhibit individuals from engaging in community projects (a point that Harris attributes to Santens) — or, for that matter, prevent individuals from spending time with friends and family — but it’s a bit beside the point to argue about whether jobs facilitate valuable social interaction or whether, more often, they just get in the way. Presumably, there are jobs of each type. The key point here is that a UBI would provide options: with a UBI, a worker can choose to say at a job, or a worker can choose to quit (perhaps for the sake of engaging in some communal project).
Contra Harris, I believe that we don’t need an empirical study to demonstrate the flaws in the argument that “a universal basic income would make us lonely.” The argument, as he presents it, is a non-starter.
Look again at his two major concerns: (1) a UBI removes the social interaction gained at a job, and (2) a UBI offers no infrastructure to replace this lost interaction.
Credit: The Open University via flickr
The first of these premises is plainly false, and it doesn’t take a pilot study to see why: receiving a basic income does not prevent an individual from also continuing in paid employment. Thus, there is no sense in which a UBI “removes” the social interaction gained at a job; it does not even remove the job!
Indeed, one oft-touted benefit of basic income is that, because a UBI is not means-tested, it is not a disincentive to work (in contrast to most existing systems of welfare, in which benefits vanish if a receipt receives a job or earns income above a certain amount). Despite loose talk in the media about “paying people to do nothing” and “giving people money not to work,” receipt of a basic income is not conditional on quitting work (obviously); quite the contrary.
We might assume that people are able to recognize whether their jobs provide a valuable source of social interaction and connections — and that, if this is so, they will retain their jobs even if UBI came to be. (I will, though, revisit this assumption shortly.)
To be sure, UBI is often discussed in parallel to forecasts of mass unemployment (e.g., especially, due to automation). In the scenarios envisioned, many workers will lose their jobs — but, of course, this job-loss is not due to UBI. A UBI, insofar as it’s in the picture, is there to offset one of the worst effects of joblessness: loss of income. By itself, it is not meant — and should not be expected — to replace all aspects of the lost jobs. A UBI “merely” ensures that displaced workers won’t have to worry about paying for food or rent, thereby providing a foundation that allows us to focus on concerns at higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy — such as how and where to find social interaction.
This leads to the second concern raised by Harris: a UBI does not provide alternative infrastructure for social interaction. Here, I think that we should accept Harris’s claim, but we should question its relevance.
It’s true that a UBI does not by itself provide schools, parks, or community programs; it also does not cure for cancer or end warfare. It would be patently absurd, however, to oppose UBI on the ground that it does not achieve the latter goals. A UBI might accomplish a lot, but it is not a panacea; no advocates take it for one.
Credit: Valerie Shane via flickr
We can even grant that the development and enrichment of the commons is a goal that we ought to pursue in conjunction with a basic income.
Guy Standing, for example, incorporates a call to protect and revive the “physical, social, and information commons” as part of his Precariat Charter (immediately after his proposals for basic income and sovereign wealth funds, as it happens).
And Harris himself describes the RSA’s idea for a “public contribution contract” to be introduced alongside of a basic income, by which individuals express commitment to contribute to their communities.
As an argument against basic income, Harris’s loneliness worry holds no water. At most, it is an exhortation to UBI proponents not to forget about parallel programs, such as the construction and enhancement of public spaces, that could foster social interaction and community well-being.
A Concession and Response
Credit: NoirKitsuné via flickr
I do, though, want to offer an important caveat. Above, I suggested that individuals can recognize when the social interaction fostered by a job is beneficial to them, and that they will act accordingly. But, in fact, I think it’s quite probable that there are some individuals who — were they to receive a basic income — would leave their jobs and cocoon themselves in their homes, even if doing so would not be in their overall best interest. A guaranteed income could indeed be the catalyst that drives some individuals into a voluntary, but potentially harmful, life of isolation.
What sorts of individuals? There might be some who would intentionally avoid social interaction as a consequence of mental illness, such as social anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, others might quit their jobs to pursue passions that just happen to be solitary (whether writing, painting, computer-programming, or what have you). After all, one major talking-point in favor of basic income — and one with which I wholeheartedly agree — is that the policy would allow individuals to quit their jobs to pursue their passions. The loneliness worry might well arise, however, when a naturally introverted person engages herself in an inherently solitary pursuit; even if avoiding social interaction is not her goal, it might be her natural inclination — an inclination that would be unthwarted if paid employment is not necessary to make a living.
Against Harris, perhaps, I believe that the loneliness worry would be greatest for those people who don’t avidly desire social interaction — for they are the least inclined to be proactive in ensuring that they receive a healthy dose. (Harris states, “While some individuals might enjoy this time on their own, others might feel isolated by this lack of social contact,” which suggests that he forecasts that those who crave social contact will be the hardest hit.)
Would this problem arise under a UBI? If so, how big of a problem would it be? These, I think, are indeed empirical matters.
But a better question for our purposes is this: if there is a risk of the type of self-induced loneliness that I’ve described above, would this be a reason not to favor a UBI?
And here I think that the we can, with some confidence, answer no.
Consider an analogy. Presumably, there are people in industrialized nations who currently receive very little physical activity, and who would receive more physical exercise were it not for the mechanization of labor. (Perhaps, say, they’d work in the field instead of sitting at a desk.) Such individuals could hit the gym after work, or ride a bike to the office instead of driving a car, or jog in the morning, or so on; however, because exercise is not required to make an income, many opt out, despite acknowledging that they’d be healthier if they moved around a bit more.
Nonetheless, it would be inappropriate to attempt to impede progress (e.g., by banning mechanized agriculture) simply because some percentage of the population is disinclined to exercise unless their life and livelihood depends on it. Such a reactionary policy would be not only unfair to society as a whole but also condescending and paternalistic to those it endeavors to help. A better approach might be to make other options for physical activity more accessible (e.g., say, installing bike lanes, funding parks and community recreation centers, or sponsoring free fitness classes).
Likewise, the possibility that a UBI would lead some to reduce their amount of social contact — even if this possibility is likely — is not a good reason to deprive society of the myriad benefits that would be bought about by a UBI. That said, there is likely little harm in preparing for this contingency by thinking of ways of encourage social contact in a world with less work (or, perhaps more accurately, less mandatory paid employment), such as by expanding and protecting commons areas.
Max Harris, “Will the Universal Basic Income make us lonely?” openDemocracy, May 25, 2016.
Feature Image via Chris de Nice (flickr)
Thanks to Dave Clegg for reviewing a draft of this article.
Thanks to my supporters on Patreon.
Author: Robin Ketelaars
The Swiss referendum for an unconditional basic income ended on June 5 with 23 percent voting yes. The organizers had expected 20%, so in many ways this was still a positive outcome.
With a turnout of only 47 percent, the result demonstrates that 53 percent of the population are indifferent about the basic income.
Opponents managed to bring forth negative stereotypes about the basic income. Enough money was available to manufacture billboards bearing the prejudices about the basic income concept. Mostly the opposition focused on the amount of money a basic income would cost, while basic income proponents had to raise awareness on their own.
WAY TOO HIGH
Abroad, there are plenty of opponents who believe they have sufficient knowledge to comment on the basic income. Thus, according to some, the amount proposed in Switzerland is too high: SFR 2500. This seems high when it is directly converted into euros (€2,250) or dollars ($2,577), however there is more to it. The proposed amount is based on the standard of living of the Swiss, but that is rarely discussed.
The cost of living in Switzerland is 68.87% higher than in the Netherlands , so 2500 SFR is about the equivalent of 1480 euros, which is an appropriate amount for the Netherlands. 
For Europe the amount comes to 60% of the median income poverty threshold 
Big Mac in:
- the Netherlands € 3.71
- Germany € 3.86
- Basel € 6.44 
A simple ticket for a ride will cost public transport in:
- Paris € 1.80 / trip
- Hamburg € 1.50 / trip
- Rome € 1.50 / trip
- Amsterdam € 0.89 + € 0.154 / km
- New York $ 2.65 / Trip
- Basel € 3.10 / 1 ZONE / 1 hour
- Zurich € 2.60 / 1 ZONE / 1 hour 
 Basel https://www.bvb.ch/en/tickets-fares/standard-fares/single-tickets
New York https://web.mta.info/metrocard/mcgtreng.htm#payper
By Karl Widerquist, co-chair BIEN, and Louise Haagh, co-chair BIEN
BIEN has made great strides in the last few years. Two years ago, our main goals were to charter BIEN as a legally recognized non-profit organization, to organize the 2016 Congress in Seoul Korea, and to expand Basic Income News. We succeeded in all three. The Seoul Congress will be our first in Asia, and it will bring together hundreds of Basic Income supporters from around the world. Official non-profit status will be completed if and when it is ratified at the 2016 Congress. This status will allow us to raise and spend money more easily in the coming term.
Our biggest success of the last two years has been Basic Income News (along with its accompanying email NewsFlash). Basic Income News has grown both in how much news it reports and how many people it reaches. Before the creation of Basic Income News, BIEN produced one NewsFlash (with perhaps twenty news stories) every two or three months, most of them excerpted from elsewhere. Today BIEN’s all-volunteer news team produces an average of two or three news stories every day, most of them original. Thanks mostly to Basic Income News, BIEN’s website has grown from 60 unique visits per day in June of 2013 to 1,365 unique visits per day in May of 2016. Some articles have reached more than 45,000 people. NewsFlash subscriptions have more than doubled in the last ten months, from 2,100 subscribers in August 2015 to 4,300 subscribers by June 2015.
Basic Income Earth Network’s Logo
BIEN’s growth has coincided with an enormous growth in the Basic Income movement around the world. New groups are forming. People are taking action. And people in power are taking notice. Government-funded pilot projects are going to take place in at least two countries and possibly several more over the next few years.
Major international institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Economic Commission for Latin America of the UN, have funded research, conferences and reports that endorse basic income and seek to connect it with other contemporary progressive movements and ideas. BIEN representatives have been instrumental in these developments, which is evidence of the influence BIEN is having in official organizations. An important objective for the coming term is to continue and extend these efforts to engage with these organizations, and we currently have activities and plans in the works to do so.
With BIEN’s Congress and General Assembly approaching, now is a good time for BIEN to set some goals for what it can do to strengthen the movement in the following year. This article proposes some priorities for the coming year—our “vision” for BIEN if you will. We speak for ourselves, but we hope others will agree.
We begin with one thing that BIEN should not do. It mustnot to dictate a grand strategy to the worldwide movement for Basic Income. The movement has gotten as far as it has by different people in different places attempting very different strategies. Some have worked better than others, but they have all made their contribution, and the combined result has been enormous growth in the political prominence of Basic Income. Any effort to force that diverse movement to follow one central script would be arrogant and divisive.
BIEN’s charter calls on us to serve that movement, “as a link between individuals and groups committed to, or interested in, basic income … to stimulate and disseminate research and to foster informed public discussion.” BIEN. How can BIEN serve that movement better?
We suggest two board objectives: our news service (Basic Income News) and our efforts to improve our outreach and networking with Basic Income groups and sympathetic individuals. In pursuit of these two broad objectives, we suggest the following priorities:
- Expand Basic Income News.
- Start holding yearly congresses.
- Improve BIEN’s outreach to affiliates and nonaffiliated organizations.
- Set up the website to take online donations and determine a crowdfunding strategy.
- Improve BIEN’s website including an effort to create a depository of research and expertise
- Increase BIEN’s presence on social media.
- Attempt to obtain representation on international bodies
- Create better democratic institutions within BIEN
This is an ambitious agenda for next year (and the coming years). This op-ed is the third in serious arguing for this vision. Louise Haagh and I argued in two previous op-eds for yearly Congresses, and for the importance of these taskforces (and others our supports might create) in improving our outreach and networking.
With those goals of BIEN already discussed, this article makes a special case for expanding Basic Income News—the only website in the world specializing solely in news about Basic Income. This service provides a badly needed source of just-the-facts reporting on Basic Income by well-informed writers. This kind of news reporting is something that we do well. It is something that no one else is doing. It is something that few other groups could do or are likely to do. Basic Income News provides an important way for BIEN to inform and to the influence debate over Basic Income. Basic Income News provides a mouthpiece for BIEN’s members and affiliates by reporting and publicizing their activities. Basic Income News provides information that our affiliates and other groups need to work together to build the movement.
In this way, Basic Income News supports BIEN’s other certain objective: outreach and networking with other groups and individuals interested in Basic Income. BIEN is able to do the other things it does because it reaches out to people daily on the web and monthly by email.
Basic Income News is BIEN’s principle strength. We need to build on this strength.
Basic Income News has done all this on a budget of less than $100 a month for webhosting and emails services. It has no paid labor. Everything Basic Income News does, it does with an all-volunteer workforce, and is unlikely to move to a paid labor force anytime soon. We have too many other things that we need to do with the money we raise before we can start paying our volunteers.
So, what do we do to expand? We suggest, four things.
First, BIEN’s Executive Committee (EC) has agreed to dedicate four of its members to Basic Income News as their specified task for the coming term. (Every EC member commits to work several hours per month on a specified task.) Dedicating four EC members to the news reflects its high priority, but it is not out of line with BIEN’s other priorities. The list of EC functions for next year provides for two Co-Chairs, two Co-Secretaries, and four people working together on outreach and communication.
The four news editors share the joint responsibility of keeping Basic Income News up-to-date, ensuring that it has regular features, trains volunteers, and so on. With oversight from the whole EC, they divide those functions among themselves as they think best. Typically one member acts as lead editor, taking overall responsibility for the news service. One takes on the role of “features editor,” recruiting guests to write reviews, Op-Ed, interviews, and so on. One or more trains new volunteers. We need several EC members to take charge of these very different roles.
Second, Basic Income News needs to recruit more volunteers. Although we publish a lot of stories, many more stories go unreported because we don’t have enough writers to cover them. Very often we are asked, “why didn’t Basic Income News cover this…” and the answer is almost always the same: “We wanted to, but we didn’t have enough volunteers.” This is our principle limitation. We need to have one scheduled reporter online every day of the week, every week of the year, so that we can cover news stories as they come in. We also need reporters to clear out our backlog of story ideas on our website. We also need to find reporters who are fluent in German, French, Spanish, and other languages to improve our reporting from non-English sources and perhaps to translate some of our content into other languages. We need copyeditors to review the work of our reporters. Maintaining and improving quality is a constant struggle in any all-volunteer organization. All of these things require us to recruit a lot more volunteers.
Third, Karl Widerquist has made the following motion to the General Assembly: “BIEN encourages all affiliates to provide at least one person to work with Basic Income News to report on their news and the news from their region.” We make this request to improve our reporting of each affiliate’s activities, to improve our reporting of local events around the world—especially those in non-English-speaking countries. The relationship between Basic Income News and its affiliates should be a two-way street. We should not only gather news from our affiliates, but we should also provide a platform for them to publicize their activities and to discuss their concerns with a worldwide audience. If at least one person from each network learns to use Basic Income News’s system, they can directly use it to broadcast their events and concerns. We can also offer to our affiliates using our news stories in their newsletters and on their websites, if that is a help to them.
Fourth, Basic Income News has to increase—not only its hard news reporting—but also its opinions, reviews, analysis, interviews, audio, video, and so on. One strength of Basic Income News is a clear separation between just-the-facts news reporting and opinions. With this separation, people in and out of the movement can learn how the movement for Basic Income is progressing without being distracted by propaganda or by uninformed reporting. The “Features” side of Basic Income News has been minimal, publishing perhaps one feature per week. Yet, there is no limit to how many features we can publish. In this effort, Basic Income News has appointed a features editor who is in charge of contacting our affiliates, other organizations, and individuals to contribute occasional features.
None of this means that BIEN should promote Basic Income News to the exclusion of everything else we do, but we have to have priorities, and Basic Income News should be our top priority or very close to it. We have done a lot, but we can do a lot more, and we can do it better.
In sum, over the coming years, we see BIEN improving its efforts to serve as a link between individuals and groups that support Basic Income by having yearly congresses, raising funds, creating a web depository of research, increasing our social media presence, working more closely with our affiliates and other Basic Income groups, creating ties with appropriate institutions, and by creating a larger and more professional news service that will provide news about Basic Income and a mouthpiece for Basic Income supporters around the world.
-Karl Widerquist, co-chair BIEN (Karl@Widerquist.com)
-Louise Haagh, co-chair BIEN (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BIEN Congress 2016
The basic income movement is picking up momentum at an enormous rate, but even with past and present trials, many are still looking for further evidence of what would happen if a guaranteed income were provided over the long-term.
So we’re planning to run what will likely be the largest long-term pilot of a basic income ever, and we have got some of the world’s leading economists on board to perform a rigorous evaluation.
You can learn more and join the pilot here.
For years, GiveDirectly has been providing short-term cash transfers to the extreme poor and seeing positive results — people do not stop working or drink it away, they invest in bettering their lives. If this basic income pilot shows similarly positive results, it could open the door to governments around the world beginning to adopt policies like basic income.
But we need to move fast — the debate over basic income is happening now and people are shooting down the idea based on speculation. If we are going to provide evidence in time to effect this debate, we need to launch the pilot this year. We will guarantee thousands of individuals living in extreme poverty in East Africa a basic income for over ten years, but we will have results on impact — do people invest more, seek more education, become more creative? — within a year or two.
But to launch this year all of us need to chip in a small amount — we can make it happen for less than the price of a cup of coffee per day:
Learn more about our project and, for just $1 per day, support the basic income of one person in poverty.
At best, we will break through the impasse of the basic income debate with evidence that shapes our economic futures; and at worst, we will provide life-changing aid to some of the poorest people on the planet.
We are teaming up with leading researcher Abhijit Banerjee from MIT and have calculated that we can run and study this pilot for $30 million, and we are willing to match the first $10 million donated. If just 5,000 people commit $1/day by this summer, we can make it happen.
Join us: for just $1 per day, support the basic income of one person in poverty.
This is the moment to launch this potentially historic pilot. Be a part and join now.
At the home of Caroline Awino Odhiambo in Koga village on 22 October 2014. With the cash transfer from Give Directly, Caroline bought a cow, a sewing machine, put metal sheets on her roof, and paid school fees for two children in primary school. Caroline and her family in front of their house
At the home of Beatrice Achieng in Nduru Upper village. She used the cash transfer from Give Directly to dig a 30-foot borehole that now supplies her family with fresh water. She also build the foundation for a new house on her compound. Beatrice fetches water at the borehole.
At the home of recipient Rispa Atieno Okoyo in Koga village on 22 October 2014. Rispa used the cash to build this goat pen, she bought 2 cows, and planted maize and beans. Rispa with her children in front of their house.
At the home of recipient Gabriel Otieno Awoche in Koga village on 22 October 2014. Gabriel built a house and chicken coop with the cash. He also bought woodworking tools for his furniture workshop. Gabriel with his wife Lucy Adhiambo and their daughter Charlotte, 3. They also have another daughter, Mariam, age 1 1/2.
Karl Widerquist, Co-Chair BIEN <Karl@Widerquist.com>
Louise Haagh, Co-Chair, BIEN <email@example.com>
As co-chairs of BIEN, we would like to invite members and prospective members of BIEN, to join the leadership of BIEN. Getting involved is easy. There are two ways to go it:
- Run for an elected position at BIEN’s next General Assembly at the 2016 BIEN Congress in Seoul (July 9, 2016)
- Volunteer to work on one of BIEN’s volunteer taskforces.
BIEN currently has 9 elected positions, 8 members of Executive Committee (EC) and the chair of the International Board. There is a proposal to expand that number to 11. The duties of the potential 11 elected members are described at the links below:
The BIEN EC
The International Board:
In the past, BIEN’s elections have usually not been very competitive. There have been few nominations. Most candidates have run unopposed. We think that BIEN has outgrown that phase of its existence, but we will explain a little about how that happened. When BIEN began there was no Basic Income movement. The group was small. It didn’t have to make many controversial decisions. It needed people to volunteer to do things. The difficult was not in deciding who got the positions, but finding someone willing to do the things BIEN needed to do. So, the outgoing EC has always recruited people to run to sure that there is at least one candidate who is willing and able to do each job. Again this year, the outgoing EC has recruited people to run next time, but we also want to open it but and make sure that every BIEN member (and everybody willing to become a BIEN member knows that they are invited to run for a leadership position.
As BIEN and the Basic Income movement have grown, we need more people to take an active part in running the organization. So, we are doing two things: First, we invite everyone to make nominations. We hope for a lot of them and for good, healthy, competitive elections. Second, we have proposed some changes in BIEN’s statutes to create a more open, inviting election process in future years.
We stress that the EC is an executive committee, not a legislative committee. By this, we mean that the role of the EC is to do the day-to-day work need to maintain and expand BIEN and further its goals. Although the EC does make policy for BIEN in between General Assembly (GA) meetings, its primary role is work.
If you are elected to the EC you commit to attending monthly EC meetings over the internet and to put in approximately 10 hours per month of work for your assigned specialized task. If BIEN has funds available, it might as you to travel to represent BIEN at an event or to attend a meeting.
Getting involved in the leadership of BIEN is easy for anyone who wants to contribute to the work of BIEN. Often, when more people are interested in joining the EC than there are spaces on the committee, the EC invites the additional candidates to join as informal non-voting members of the committing. Volunteer members of the EC share the duties with official members and participate in EC discussions even if they do not officially vote. Many of them later become full members of the committee.
In addition to these positions, BIEN has unlimited opportunities to get involved as a volunteer. Volunteers work with BIEN on some agreed task, but do not attend meetings of the EC. Volunteering is a good way to get involved with BIEN. Many people do so for a year or years before they run for an elected position. Please see our call for volunteers to see how you might get involved.
If you would like to run for one of the positions on the EC, here is now you do it:
- Join BIEN, if you haven’t already. See the instructions for becoming a member.
- Nominate yourself or get another member of BIEN to nominate you by emailing the Secretary. Get another member to email the Secretary of BIEN to second your nomination. (You can also nominate yourself in person at the BIEN Congress.)
- Send the secretary a paragraph about yourself and why you would like to join the committee. This is not a requirement, but it will help your chances of getting elected.
- You do not have to be present at the General Assembly in Seoul to run for a leadership position in BIEN, or to nominate someone, or to second someone’s nomination, but you do have to be present to vote.
If you would like to see who has been nominated for these positions so far, they are listed here with links to their bios. We will continue to update this list as more nominations come in.
Karl Widerquist, Co-Chair BIEN <Karl@Widerquist.com>
Louise Haagh, Co-Chair, BIEN <firstname.lastname@example.org>
If we are indeed approaching a jobless future, then our institutions of education must accommodate: schooling must be rethought to prepare people to live fulfilling and productive lives outside of paid employment. Even if they have one of the highest paying us jobs.
This is the real lesson to take away from a recent blog post by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in which he imagines the role of education in a future society — or a not-so-future society — in which machines have assumed most of the jobs, and a universal basic income provides a modicum of security to keep displaced workers off the streets.
Tucker imagines the techno-utopian vision of the future made popular by the basic income advocates of Silicon Valley (he cites Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Matt Krisloff, along with Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger) and raises what is, to be sure, an important question: “What should those of us in the education community make of all this?”
It is worth quoting Tucker’s own reply at length, as it falls widely off the mark — and, in doing so, reveals a need for basic income proponents to be clearer, and more emphatic, about the role that education could play in a future society with fewer jobs and no need to work for living:
Consider what the educator might have to do if this vision of automated life comes to pass. We would be sorting students into two bins, one bin for the few masters of the universe who get the great jobs, create the future and amass enough money to make sure that it is their children who succeed them and not the children of the others who are not as fortunate as they to be in the driver’s seat when the ball got rolling. And then there will be the bin for the others, who really do not need all those wonderful skills that the masters of the universe need, because they will not need to earn a living and will not have an opportunity to gain the dignity that comes with paid work.
And how will we decide which bin to put each child into? We could do it on “merit,” but, given the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the master class, we might just as well tell them that their children will automatically be assigned to an education designed to prepare them for the jobs their parents have.
In limning this dystopian vision, it seems that Tucker continues to cling to the very presupposition that must be rejected — that the main role of education is to prepare students for careers in paid employment.
Instead, in a society with mass automation and universal basic income, educational institutions could and should foster (gasp) learning, rather than merely existing to provide students with the credentials necessary to receive a job. Schools could return to a greater emphasis on the liberal arts — engendering students’ thirst for knowledge for its own sake — and even the arts proper. More classes could introduce service learning components, encouraging students to take an avid interest in helping to improve their communities. And, yes, schools could continue to include substantial components in STEM: many students display a nascent interest in designing new inventions, learning about modern technologies, or writing their own computer code, for instance, that emerges long before they begin to worry about what job they would need to afford a nice house in the suburbs. A school that fails to motivate students to acquire and produce knowledge, except insofar as they come to believe it necessary to obtain a well-paying job, is a school that has failed in its most fundamental purpose. However, in order to implement these changes, schools may have to hire the services of specialised Education Solicitors for a much smoother legal process.
And we can, of course, cast aside the nonsense about sorting students into bins: all students deserve education in the sciences, humanities, and arts — all students deserve a chance to make valuable contributions to culture, society, and their local communities — irrespective of their eventual job prospects, all the more so when students will be liberated to pursue a multitude of projects beyond the confines of paid employment.
If Tucker’s point is that such education would be economically useless and so fall by the wayside, he misses the central point that, in such a society, economic concerns will no longer hold such sway over our lives.
Basic income advocates have not been silent on the topic of education — and, where they have addressed the matter, their words resonate with the points I have raised above.
For example, consider the views of two of the idea’s most prominent advocates: the economist Guy Standing, Professor at SOAS, University of London, and cofounder of Basic Income Earth Network; and the young Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman, whose book Utopia for Realists has done much to popularize the idea in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
In his two important and influential books on the precariat, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and The Precariat Charter, Standing stresses the need to return “Enlightenment values” to education:
The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.
Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed into the margins. (The Precariat, p. 68)
Education is supposed to provide a road to wisdom and to stimulate curiosity, ethical values and creativity. Instead, as the number put through education grow globally, for more and more people it is just about preparing them for jobs and competing for jobs. Education is a public good. That is under threat. Enlightenment values at the heart of education must be revived, giving more scope for health non-conformism and the learning of ethics, empathy and morality. (The Precariat Charter, p. 293)
In a similar vein, Bregman devotes a section of Utopia for Realists to criticizing contemporary debates about education for invariably revolving around the question “Which knowledge and skills do today’s students need to get hired in tomorrow’s job market – the market of 2030?” This, he says, “is precisely the wrong question”:
In point of fact, we should be posing a different question altogether: Which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030? Then, instead of anticipating and adapting, we’d be focusing on steering and creating. Instead of wondering what we need to do to make a living, in this or that bullshit job, we could ponder how we want to make a living. (p. 136)
In laying the groundwork for a “utopia” with a basic income and 15-hour work week, Bregman sees the institution of education as existing to prepare students “not only for the job market but, more fundamentally, for life.” (p. 137)
There is a need for proponents of universal basic income to be more vocal in expressing such visions — or demands — for reforming the education system.
For one, a new vision for education can be wielded to address one deplorably common concern raised in criticisms of universal basic income — that, without a job, individuals would find their lives meaningless and valueless. Indeed, elsewhere in the same blog, Tucker states:
If the people rebelling now feel that they have been cast aside, just wait until they are told that their services are no longer needed and government will take care of them with a handout. As I see it, the most devastating aspect of the condition of many people now out of work is the damage to their self-respect, their image of themselves as contributors to their family and their community, the kind of self-respect that comes from the dignity conferred by work that is valued by the community.
Perhaps the very problem here is that our educational institutions have not adequately prepared workers to lead lives as valuable and productive citizens outside of the bounds of a job.
Marc Tucker, “Paying People Not to Work,” Education Week, June 4, 2016.
Thanks for Genevieve Shanahan for reviewing a draft of this article.
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