Social Experiments 101: A Short Primer for UBI Observers

Social Experiments 101: A Short Primer for UBI Observers

In principle, I’m a UBI supporter and have been for about 20 years. I qualify my support by saying “in principle” in order to signal that I recognize there are questions surrounding how such a plan would work in practice. At least some of them will need some pretty clear answers before we should take the plunge and implement the plan. And it may be that if we can’t answer some key questions, such as how to finance a UBI in a way that wouldn’t make currently low-income people worse off, we shouldn’t implement a UBI at all. As someone who supports UBI and who’s read most of Widerquist’s book, I’m worried about some of the commentary I’ve seen on the recently released findings from Finland’s basic income experiment.

For the full article, please visit the USBIG Blog.

UBI’s Impact on Work Culture: Not a Question for the Experimenters

UBI’s Impact on Work Culture: Not a Question for the Experimenters

My interest in basic income stemmed from the conjecture that such a policy could help to ignite a progression away from the culture of total work. However, there are many open empirical questions regarding the exact way in which a basic income would (or would not) influence work-related attitudes and behaviors.

One might hope that current and planned experiments will shed some light on this topic. My claim in this article is that this is not likely to be the case: the impact of basic income on work-related attitudes and behaviors is not readily amenable to experimentation.

 

1. Fixing the Viewpoint: Opposition to the Culture of Work

When I began casually following the basic income movement in 2015, and when I began volunteering for Basic Income News in November of that year, I was tentatively attracted to the policy as a means to subsidize lifestyles like downshifting and what I’d come to call anti-careerism – the rejection of idea that one’s life course should be structured and defined by a career path.

At that time, I was unaware of the movement’s budding interest in experimentation. I did not realize that the center-right federal government of Finland was about to declare its intention to fund an experimental trial of basic income, or that the provincial government of Ontario was also preparing to design and implement a trial of guaranteed minimum income.

I did not foresee the global surge of interest in experiments and pilot studies that would happen soon after the commencement of my volunteership. But happen it did, and thus, as a writer for Basic Income News, I was committed to expend considerable effort covering the current basic income implementation trials. Moreover, as a “just the facts” news reporter, it was my duty to report on them without allowing my own personal misgivings to show through (although I did have occasion to leak my skepticism in the Op-Ed section). As a result, I was often mistaken for someone with a genuine and favorable interest in basic income experiments.

Through it all, my main interest in basic income remained the conjecture that the policy might act as a subsidy for downshifting, anti-careerism, and working without pay, and thereby help to displace society’s overvaluing of selling labor for money. While such an “anti-work” approach to basic income is highly controversial, I will assume this perspective throughout the present article. (Those who do not share it may either accept it for the sake of argument or stop reading.)

Such an approach to basic income rests on untested empirical conjectures. In fact, however, many questions remain open. Would individuals living in a society with basic income come to hold different views about the role and importance of jobs? Would they fail to view an occupation or career as integral to self-identity? Would they deny that a high salary or professional advancement is essential for personal success? Would they ascribe greater value to self-development and social contributions that occur outside of paid work? Would they tend to prioritize activities that are rewarding in themselves over activities that contribute to professionalization and employability? To what extent would basic income actually enable people to lead lives without full-time or continuous jobs? It is sufficient to empower individuals to work fewer hours? (Probably not.) Would it permit some to withdraw from the labor market completely?

Some proponents take for granted that basic income would usher in a society in which the pursuit of passions is more important than paid work. Such optimistic predictions, however, must be moderated against the reality that the culture of work is deeply entrenched. When critics contend that it’s premature to “give up” on the goal of full employment, the normative assumptions behind their rhetoric should not be ignored: secure full-time jobs and careers remain central to the identity and self-worth of many who have them, and central to the goals and aspirations of many who don’t. Even more unsettlingly (in my view), many supporters enthusiastically maintain that basic income would not result in lower rates of employment–and might even increase work effort (as is the hypothesis behind Finland’s experiment, which is designed primarily to assess whether unemployed individuals would be more likely to accept work if their benefits were made unconditional). Some argue that it would act as a stimulus to business and grow the economy, never pausing to question the ethos of paid work and productivity.

We simply don’t know the long-term effects of basic income on work-related attitudes and behaviors. Given the myriad of unanswered empirical questions, one might guess that I would have been heartened to witness the unexpected onslaught of experiments that occurred during my volunteership with Basic Income News. But I was not: unfortunately, it is unlikely that the present wave of experiments will yield insight into the empirical concerns that interest me and others who approach basic income from the “anti-work” perspective.

 

2. Five Limitations of Experiments

I believe it’s possible that basic income could precipitate a mass transformation of work-related behavior and attitudes but, if so, it most likely occur through long-term, society-wide processes. Experiments, in contrast, are necessarily (1) limited in duration and (2) restricted to a subset of the population (rather than “universal”).

And experiments have other shortcomings. For instance, they must be (3) designed to prevent subjects from being financially worse off as a result of participation, whereas any “real-world” UBI would almost certainly be introduced in tandem with a funding mechanism that causes some individuals to be net payees. Finally, as existing experiments have been designed, the target populations (4) consist of low-income individuals, the unemployed, and/or welfare recipients, and (5) consist mainly of adults who have already been acculturated into the present society and its ethos of work and consumption.

 

2.1 Experiments are limited in duration.

Most of the current BI-related experiments are two or three years in length. In the United States, the non-profit YC Research plans to launch an experiment in which some participants receive cash transfers for five years. The only projects of longer duration are taking place in developing nations: GiveDirectly is providing a 12-year basic income to 40 villages in its major experiment in Kenya, and the Brazilian non-profit organization ReCivitas has introduced a “lifetime basic income” in the village Quatinga Velho (note that the latter is not an “experiment” in the scientific sense). Even if longer term experiments were affordable, the pressure to obtain results would generally militate against them.

The short-term nature of experiments poses at least two major shortcomings vis-à-vis our present interests:

First, the payments’ limited duration disincentivizes financially risky behavior, such as abandoning a job or career. We should expect that few individuals would choose to make radical changes to their work and life if they are guaranteed unconditional cash payments for only two or three years. A two- or three-year gap in employment might jeopardize not only one’s ability to return to one’s former job or career path but also one’s general future prospects in the labor market.

Secondly, let’s assume that some participants do radically alter their workforce participation despite the short-term nature of the experiment (e.g. they might use the money to help provide financial security during the process of downshifting from a lucrative full-time job, with the confidence that the experiment’s timeframe is long enough to permit them to settle into stable part-time employment or freelance work). Under a society-wide and permanent basic income, such “first movers” might inspire others also to seek alternatives to the norm of full-time permanent employment, initiating a sort of ripple effect whereby downshifting and other such alternative lifestyles gain in practice and acceptance. A two- or three-year experiment, however, is unlikely to be long enough to observe these more slowly accruing effects on social attitudes toward work.

Stated otherwise: a basic income might enable some individuals to voluntarily accept less money pay through work, reduce their time in the labor market, or even cease employment entirely (especially in the many non-USA nations in which benefits such as healthcare are not dependent on full-time employment). It might, for example, liberate those who had already been keen to adopt such a lifestyle (say, downshifting) but were restrained by, and only by, the lack of a stable financial safety net. Meanwhile, however, other would-be downshifters might remain hesitant. The latter group might include, for instance, those who have been held back by not only financial anxiety but also fear of social marginalization. Over time, however, an increased prevalence and visibility of downshifting could increase the lifestyle’s social acceptability, thereby reducing its stigmatization and rendering more attractive to more people (which would further increase its visibility and social acceptance, and so on).

Of course, this is purely speculative. Even if a basic income were to bring about increase in the number and visibility of downshifters (which itself is uncertain), this might lead not to social acceptance but to angry complaints about “parasitism” and further stigmatization. But the point is just that experiments are unlikely to reveal which outcome would transpire.

Indeed, moreover, some of the effects basic income on social attitudes toward work might develop over generations. Perhaps children and teens would develop less material-driven aspirations if they were to grow up in a society in which basic material security is taken for granted; perhaps they would place less weight on monetary considerations when choosing work or other projects and pursuits. Perhaps they would not internalize the moral imperative that one must “earn a living” through paid labor. Perhaps it would merely seem intuitive to them to conceptualize work and income as independent. Perhaps, in turn, they would conceive of the value of work in terms other than income, such as the good it brings to the world and the satisfaction it provides to the worker. Views that are counternormative in our own society might come naturally to those raised in world with universal basic income…

But we certainly can’t be confident about any of that, and experiments will not help.

 

2.2 Experiments are not “universal” in scope.

As I have written elsewhere, a bigger question than “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” is “What would you do if everyone’s income were taken care of?” What a financially self-sufficient individual would choose to do in a society of full-time workers is not necessarily identical to what that same financially self-sufficient individual would choose to do in a society in which everyone could afford to live without a job.

Experiments require a control group. This effectively prevents an experimental test of a truly universal basic income. Now, to be sure, some experiments do aim to include universality in their design. In GiveDirectly’s experiment, for example, the experimental units are not individual people but entire villages. In this major study, the treatment groups are each composed of communities in which all individuals are receiving unconditional cash transfers. An earlier experiment in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh also implemented a basic income in several villages, using similar villages as controls. There is even precedent in the developed world: the much-discussed “Mincome” experiment, a negative income tax experiment conducted in Manitoba in the 1970s, used the town of Dauphin as a saturation site; every resident of Dauphin was unconditionally guaranteed a minimum income from 1974 to 1979, when the experiment was terminated.

No current experiment in the developed world, however, includes the use of a saturation site (even though Hugh Segal, the adviser to the Ontario pilot study, initially recommended it). In Finland, the experimental group consists of a random sample of 2,000 individuals who had previously been receiving federal unemployment benefits. Similarly, in the Dutch municipal experiments, participants have been randomly selected from current welfare beneficiaries residing in the respective cities, and Barcelona’s experiment involves a stratified sample of welfare recipients within one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In Ontario, experimental groups will be randomly selected from self-selected applicants, where eligible applicants are restricted to low-income individuals from three specific regions of the province. And YC Research has designed its experiment as a randomized controlled trial with a target population of low-income young adults in two regions of the US. (See this summary for more information on the design of the experiments.)

A consequence of these design decisions is that all of the above experiments will fail to capture social multiplier effects. For an example of social multiplier effects in the context of minimum income experiments, consider one of the most striking results from Dauphin: an increase in high school graduation rates. Last year, I attended a talk by Evelyn Forget, the scholar responsible for the analysis of the experiment, wherein she described survey data that revealed that the decisions of Dauphin teens to remain in school were due not only to the financial security of their individual families but also to the fact that their peers were able to stay in school as well.

We should expect that work-related behavior could also be susceptible to social multiplier effects. Like teenagers’ decisions to stay in school, adults’ decisions to withdraw from full-time employment might depend not only on their personal financial status but also on the actions of their peers. An individual with a personal source of passive income might be financially able to quit her job, and even desire to do so, but nonetheless choose to remain employed if – and because – her friends and coworkers stay in their jobs. She might, for example, believe that she would become socially isolated if she were to opt out of work while her peers remained in full-time employment. She might think about her lack of friends available before 5 pm on weekdays, or she might feel pressure to continue to earn enough money to continue to engage in costly dining, entertainment, and other activities with friends who remain lucratively employed. She might fear a lack of sympathy or understanding, even ostracism, if she were to become the only person within her peer group to abandon traditional employment.

Furthermore, as discussed above, the potential impact of basic income is not limited to the liberation of those who already desire to downshift; another possibility is that, through social multiplier effects, a basic income could generate this desire in those who had not previously considered the option. Our attitudes and aspirations are also influenced not only by our private circumstances but also by our observations of others’ choices lifestyles, and by our perception of what is socially acceptable. Some who now lack any interest in downshifting might develop one in the face of social or structural changes that legitimate or popularize the lifestyle.

Even experiments with saturation sites would be insufficient to permit us to assess all of these potential effects; the social, cultural, and economic forces that impinge on work-related attitudes and behavior vastly exceed the local scale.

 

2.3 Experiments exclude net contributors.

A “real world” basic income would almost certainly be introduced in conjunction with tax increases to help to finance the program, which would likely include higher income taxes on top earners. But researchers cannot ethically introduce manipulations that leave some subjects worse off as a result of the experiment. Consequently, tax increases cannot be part of experimental trials. This limits the ability to test how the full policy package would affect work-related behaviors. Even those that have studied taxes and come from financial education backgrounds such as through Northeastern University wouldn’t be able to test how different experiments could affect society and financial systems.

For one, it’s not basic income per se but redistribution – reduction of inequality – that carries the greater potential to curb the demand for positional goods. As mentioned above, a worker might hesitate to downshift if the maintenance of social relationships requires engagement in costly dining, drinking, entertainment, or luxury holidays. In a society with high inequality, a mere basic income might do little to reduce the demand for positional goods, limiting the temptation to downshift or opt out of paid work to live on a subsistence income. Many might continue to feel the need to wear nice clothing, drive a new car, and live in an affluent neighborhood to be taken seriously in society, and thus might continue to prefer greater earnings to greater leisure, despite the possibilities opened by the introduction of a basic income. Conversely, the less that one perceives one’s social status to depend on spending and consumption, the more one might be inclined to trade higher earnings for more leisure time. Policies that mitigate financial inequality, such as progressive taxes on wealth and income, help to address this barrier to downshifting.

Additionally, policies that stymie the ability to become “filthy rich” might discourage those who would otherwise be inclined to choose jobs and careers based primarily on their prospects for financial gain. Sufficiently high income taxes could reduce the role of monetary incentives in selecting work. Limitations on wealth acquisition might push some would-be profiteers to instead seek work that they could find non-monetarily rewarding.

Such effects could enhance the ability of a “basic income plus tax reform” package to transform work-related attitudes and behavior; however, they are bound to be missed in experiments.

 

2.4 Existing experiments are restricted to low-income populations.

So far, we have focused on limitations that are destined to afflict all basic income experiments, merely in virtue of the nature of experiments. Let’s now turn to a contingent design decision that constrains all current experiments in developed nations: in each experiment, as mentioned above, the target population contains only individuals who are low-income and/or receiving social assistance or unemployment benefits or other benefits or with incomes falling below a certain level.

To be fair, none of the existing experiments have been inspired by questions like “Can basic income provide a subsidy for downshifting?” or “Would basic income promote the acceptance and desirability of lifestyles outside of full-time employment?” On the contrary, most are motivated by the desire to determine whether unconditional cash transfers would be more effective than existing programs in addressing poverty or unemployment. In this light, these choices of target populations seem reasonable. But these choices make the experiments less congenial to the questions of those who are interested in the ability of basic income to facilitate a reduction in paid work.

A test of a policy’s potential to foster downshifting only makes sense if experimental subjects are drawn from a population of people who have the potential to downshift, and “downshifting” typically implies a reasonably well-paying position from which one shifts down. Thus, for an experiment to address our key interests, the target population should encompass individuals who are currently employed in relatively well-paying jobs. An experiment limited to the unemployed will tell us little about a policy’s ability to promote voluntary reduction of working hours. An experiment limited to the poor will tell us little about a policy’s ability to promote voluntary reduction of earnings and consumption.

The inclusion of “successful” workers among test subject is also important with respect to the question of whether basic income would reduce the stigma associated with the receipt of public benefits or, more precisely, voluntary “benefit scrounging” (which is, in essence, just a pejorative term for what I’ve been politely describing as “using a basic income to subsidize downshifting”). Quite likely, the “scrounging stigma” is too strong to disappear during the course of a short-term experiment in any case. If a basic income were to play a role in reducing the stigma, however, it would almost certainly not be by allowing poor and unemployed individuals to live upon government subsidies while they voluntarily opt out of the search for full-time jobs. Unfortunately, such an outcome (however desirable) seems much more likely to feed existing stigmas and stereotypes than to combat them.

In contrast, basic income might have a greater and more favorable cultural impact if it subsidized downshifting among individuals in relatively well-paying jobs and promising career paths – among those, that is, who embody conventional images of success. Society accords respect and admiration to those in lucrative careers, which makes such individuals uniquely well-positioned to attract curiosity, perhaps even sympathy, if they were to spurn the life of traditional employment and choose to rely upon government monies to meet their basic expenses (which is not to say that they would not also elicit the scorn or many others). Admittedly, the idea that basic income could lessen the stigma of “benefits scrounging” is far-fetched. The point at hand, however, is simply that existing experiments are not designed in a way that can adequately illuminate how far-fetched.

 

2.5 Experimental subjects have already “come of age” in the culture of work.

Each of the existing experiments is focused on effects on adults who have already been acculturated into the dominant work ethic. It is possible, however, that some of the social and cultural effects about basic income would result from its influence on younger generations. Perhaps teenagers would internalize different attitudes toward work if they were to come of age under an unconditional guarantee of financial security – not necessarily taking for granted that a core defining features of “adulting” is to find employment at a full-time job in order to earn a living. Perhaps young adults would formulate different personal goals and ideals of success if they did not face an immediate need to earn money through a job.

In a past feature article for Basic Income News, I speculated that entering adulthood with a work-independent college stipend – which shared some commonalities to a five-year “basic income” – could have played a large role in solidifying my own rejection of the ethic of (paid) work. For example, by allowing me to continue to dedicate myself to schoolwork without worrying about paid work, it might have helped to “prevent me from unlearning” that the fact that an activity is unpaid does not imply that the activity is not worthwhile, rewarding, or hard work – or that it’s not the best use of one’s time.

To some extent, this is just to repeat the point that experiments are too limited in duration to capture multi-generational effects of a policy. In principle, though, one could design a short-term study to test the effects of a guaranteed income on a cohort of young adults at critical transitional phases, such as leaving home for college or leaving college for “the real world” (i.e., usually, either a job or the search for one). But existing experiments are not this.

 

3. Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, then, I expect the current wave of experiments to shed little light on the question of whether, or to what extent, basic income would promote a cultural shift towards a decreased valuation of paid work. Any apparent evidence that basic income would not have such an effect (e.g. a lack of observed change in workforce participation or self-reported attitudes toward work) could be explained as an artifact of the limitations of experimental design.

Arguably, however, the biggest problem with experiments is not that they most likely won’t show considerable reduction in workforce participation (and yet for reasons that are inconclusive) but that many of the policy’s own proponents don’t want them to. When committed supporters of basic income demand more experiments, as often happens these days, they aren’t doing so because they want to decide for themselves whether to endorse the policy; they already have. The hope, generally, is that experiments would produce results that allay the fears of skeptical policymakers, such as the commonplace “fear” that basic income would cause a decrease in workforce participation. As many supporters are fond of pointing out, previous experiments have not shown a marked decrease in workforce participation, or have shown a decrease only within population segments where reducing work hours is socially acceptable (e.g. school-age teenagers or mothers of young children). This attitude toward basic income experiments only recapitulates society’s overvaluation of paid work.

The policymakers who assess experiments for “failure” or “success” will do so relative to the norms and values of the status quo. Political speeches and media reports are likely to portray any observed decrease in labor force participation as evidence of the failure of the policy, as happened when a negative income tax was tested in several cities in the United States in the late 1960s and 70s. My impression, based on two years of intense work in the basic income movement, is that many supporters realize this but call for experiments nonetheless, believing that the trials will in fact yield outcomes that are “successful” relative to the norms and values of the status quo.

Hence, in addition to being unlikely to produce interesting or useful results, basic income experiments may also threaten to reinforce these norms and values in the minds of advocates and other readers. And, from the standpoint as critic of the culture of work, this is not only unhelpful but dangerous.

 


Photo: banned :: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments CC BY-NC 2.0

The Netherlands: All that’s left is the action. Where do we stand with the experiments?

The Netherlands: All that’s left is the action. Where do we stand with the experiments?

The permission to start the social assistance experiments depends on the political will of politicians at the national level. Despite obstructions, several municipalities are determined to continue with the experiments for the sake of that part of the population that is suffering under the current social welfare regime.

It’s time for new forms of social security, says Sjir Hoeijmakers in a presentation held during the annual meeting of the Dutch branch of BIEN on May 7, 2017. He begins his lecture by stressing that he prefers to speak of ‘experiments in the context of the Participation Act’, instead of ‘basic income experiments’, because they don’t fulfill BIEN’s definition of an unconditional basic income. More on the subject can be found in this thoroughly composed article. However, to smooth the conversation, he cautions that he would probably fall back in the habit of talking about ‘basic income experiments’.

According to Hoeijmakers, an econometrist who crowdfunded his own income for two years in order to support municipalities who want to study alternative forms of social assistance in scientific research projects, we need a system that is based on trust, freedom and income security. A basic income can do that. However, nobody knows the short or long term consequences of the implementation of such an income, because it has never done before. Hence, we need to do experiments, investigate as many aspects as possible and launch a broad debate.

Background

The ideas for the experiments were mainly born out of discontent with the Participation Act. Under this law, introduced in 2015, the municipal executives are obliged to stimulate welfare recipients to look for a job and to accept paid work, as well as to provide social benefit payments to its inhabitants who need such arrangements.

The implementation of this law at the local level requires a complicated set of rules, obligations and restrictions. In order to ensure a welfare recipient’s integration into the workforce and to prevent fraud, the local bureaucracy has to develop many regulations regarding, e.g., the imposition of fines and payment reductions, the appropriate use of disciplinary punishment or the application of rebates for people who live together.

A newly introduced measure is the so-called ‘compensation’ (Dutch: ‘tegenprestatie’). A welfare recipient has the obligation to do something in return for the payments. This can be voluntary work, but one can also be forced to ‘gain work experience’ in a commercial enterprise. The obligation can go as far as requiring unpaid work for six months. Some organizations who have stood up against this policy have already called it ‘forced labor’. The kind of ‘compensation’ is to be decided by the civil servant of the municipality, who is in charge of the implementation of the Participation Act. This practice is highly susceptible to arbitrariness and is therefore very unpopular among recipients.

Because of the complexity and far-reaching consequences of the law, the local government has to allocate a lot of money and manpower for control and enforcement. In the meanwhile, the social welfare system has lost its function as social safety net by the dreadful accumulation of inspection, monitoring and sanctions. Additionally, as a result of the continuing exerted pressure, beneficiaries accept less instead of more paid or voluntary work leading to alarming levels of impoverishment among this group. At the same time Dutch trend watchers predict that in ten years less than thirty percent of the population will be engaged in full-time paid work. The rest will earn money with ‘loose jobs’.

A normative framework

For these reasons, municipalities have begun to design experiments within the existing social assistance scheme. In the Netherlands income distribution and taxes (except municipal taxes) are regulated at the national level. Municipalities are not allowed to implement income policy. However, it’s the local government that is responsible for the provision of social assistance.

After a long period of lobbying by the municipalities, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment has finally released its general administrative regulation (Dutch: Algemene Maatregel van Bestuur / AMvB). This sets out the exact standards for the implementation of a law. The social assistance projects must be tested to the AMvB. A city council can apply for an experiment based on this document by requesting an exception to the law, for example, to temporarily suspend reintegration requirements or to allow people to earn an extra income on top of the benefit payments. The municipality is required to carry out the experiment according to the terms of the document. The framework causes many problems, because the AMvB only allows for exceptions to the law in individual cases and not when it comes to groups.

sjir-hoeijmakers

Sjir Hoeijmakers

Unfortunately, the AMvB has become the subject of political controversy, as Hoeijmakers notices. That’s why additional stipulations have been added to the experiments and compromises have to be made. For instance, the projects must be now carried out in a relatively short time, and people who make too little effort to get work can be excluded from the experiments, which makes the whole project a bit weird. As Hoeijmakers explains, all these irritating requirements make it very difficult to set up a good scientific and ambitious project. At all political levels, there are often a few people who support or sabotage the idea. Yet, city councilors and researchers are determined to overcome the obstructions and are actively seeking smart, legal solutions to bypass the Participation Act.

In the previous cabinet consisting of VVD and PvdA, it was very difficult to reach agreement over the AMvB. A majority in the Second Chamber (or House of Representatives) was in favor of the proposed experiments, but the government was not. Especially the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy; Dutch: Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), a conservative-liberal political party in the Netherlands, had many objections to experiments that could emancipate welfare in the long run by introducing a basic income. Members of the PvdA (Labour Party (Dutch: Partij van de Arbeid, the social-democratic party) at the local level are usually in favor of experiments in contrast to members of the cabinet. In the last months, several municipalities have stopped the preparations because of all the difficulties. In an ideal world, Hoeijmakers comments, you would expect that the national government plays a stimulating role, ensures proper tuning of the experiments and good scientific coordination. This is not the case. Municipalities also lacked financial support from the government, despite of all the rhetoric about decentralization and being open to experiments.

Hoeijmakers explains that 45 municipalities are considering experiments with social assistance policy:

  • Seven have submitted an application, among which the four forerunners Wageningen, Tilburg, Groningen who submitted their proposal in April. Utrecht wanted to start the experiment on May 1st, but the trial is postponed because the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) has still questions about the design. A few days after the presentation all seven municipalities received a response from the ministry with further questions and instructions about the experiments they had proposed. Tilburg’s responsible alderman (Christian Democratic Appeal / CDA) reacted furiously: “It is a bold from the blue! But we will continue with or without the blessing of the Secretary of State.”
  • Eight municipal governments are considering an application.
  • Thirty are considering alternatives. As exemplified by the experiment in Terneuzen, a small town that wanted to give a basic income of 933 euros with no strings attached to twenty benefit recipients to test how it works. However, after a news break on national television, the State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment (PvdA) quickly torpedoed the plan. Here’s the clip (in Dutch) of the news item. There is also much hassle around an article in the AMvB indicating that the municipality is obliged to have a regulation regarding the ‘compensation’ and how it should be implemented. Multiple municipalities, for instance Amsterdam, don’t execute this directive perfectly, and that can be a reason for the Ministry to reject the application. A few days ago, the NRC, a daily paper mostly read by the establishment, came up with an article titled ‘Municipalities no longer listen to Klijnsma’ [the State Secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment; PvdA], written in boldfaced headlines. In the article Amsterdam’s alderman for Work, Income and Participation, Arjan Vliegenthart (SP, Socialist Party) expresses his anger: “We are not going to wait for Klijnsma’s approval. We are going to start our own pilot projects.”

Hoeijmakers expects that the number of municipalities who actually will start an experiment will be around 10, although there is room for 25.

Political Outlook

Hopefully the new cabinet will become more positive about social assistance experiments. The Dutch general election of 2017 was held on Wednesday, 15 March 2017. Several small parties who were in favor of a basic income (a.o.Piratenpartij / Pirate Party, Basisinkomen Partij / Basic Income Party, Vrijzinnige Partij (VP, Liberal Party; leader: Norbert Klein) did not win a seat or lost its only seat (VP). On the other hand, GroenLinks (GreenLeft), D66 (Democrats 66), Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD / Party for the Animals) who are strongly supportive of pilot projects, all three won considerably: 10, 7 and 3 seats respectively. The PvdA lost substantially (29 seats). The new Members of the House of Representatives were installed on 23 March 2017. At least four parties are required to form a coalition with a majority (76 seats). At this moment VVD, CDA, D66 and GreenLeft have failed to build a new coalition.

According to Alexander de Roo, chairman of the Dutch branch of BIEN and co-founder of BIEN, the ratio between the left and the right in the Second Chamber is approximately 60 to 81 seats, assuming that a basic income is more popular among voters of left-wing parties than among parties at the right-wing. But this is not necessarily true. He proposes to cooperate with D66, GL and the PvdD in an effort to keep basic income on the political agenda.

Hoeijmakers emphasizes that it’s important to create a broad political support base. So, how can you introduce the basic income into the liberal tradition? Much depends on the framing of the message, stresses Hoeijmakers. He is convinced that a right-wing public is also susceptible to good arguments, at least for doing experiments, when you explain what is in it for them. For instance, what can a basic income mean for entrepreneurs, or for the complexity and bureaucracy of a government? It is very useful to show successful experiments done in other countries. The spin-off of these reports cannot be overestimated. They are very stimulating. Looking forward, it is inconceivable that we do not start experimenting with alternatives for the current social security system, we have to learn, tell stories. It will bring us to the day when people will say: Of course we want a basic income, of course we want to know the effects of its introduction! “I always advise the municipal authorities to continue with their basic income projects. Just do what you can do,” says Hoeijmakers. In conclusion, he points to Rutger Bregman, who stated in his Tedtalk (Vancouver, April 2017), “We already have the means, the research, and the need for basic income. All that’s left is the action.” According to Business Insider, “He [Bregman] got a standing ovation“ for the talk. Watch the video here.

Rules are tools. But it is impossible to rule out the human experience.”
Credit: Benno Baksteen, retired pilot of KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines)

Credit Pictures CC Fidgit the Time Bandit and Hans Lindeijer

Thanks to Ad Planken and Kate McFarland for reviewing this article

Current Basic Income Experiments (and those so called): An Overview

Current Basic Income Experiments (and those so called): An Overview

Note: Please see this article for a more current update (Oct 15)

The (Second) Year of the Pilot

Status of Basic Income (and Related) Experiments in May 2017

Last Updated: May 15, 2017

 

BIEN cofounder Guy Standing, a basic income pilot veteran and now frequent consultant, dubbed 2016 “the year of the pilot in response to the burgeoning interest in experimentation with basic income in various countries throughout the world. In 2017, some of these pilot studies were launched, some have been delayed, and other plans have remained dormant. Some have turned out to resemble a full-fledged basic income to a lesser degree than first anticipated.

This page summarizes the current state of this year’s existing, planned, and previously announced basic income pilot experiments (as of May 2017).

 

A. UPDATES ON SEVEN STUDIES

Following are summaries of the present status (as of mid-May 2017) of seven pilot studies of basic income–or, better put, seven alleged or reported pilot studies of basic income–that have received international publicity within the past year, including projects in Finland, Kenya, the Netherlands, Ontario, Scotland, Uganda, and the United States.

First, though, an important caveat: although each project listed below has been described as a “basic income pilot” or “basic income experiment” in media reports, few manifest every characteristic of a basic income, defined by BIEN as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”

Granted, any social policy experiment is by its nature limited in certain ways, making it something of a vacuous criticism to say that a basic income experiment fails to test a “genuine” basic income. While a basic income is lifelong, experiments are necessarily bounded in duration. While a basic income is universal, experiments typically require that a portion of the population not receive the benefit in order to provide a control or reference group. (Even saturation studies, in which every member of a community is eligible for the program, remain limited in that the basic income does not extend to other communities in the same general geopolitical region.)

That said, some of the most highly-publicized experiments and pilot programs diverge from a basic income in ways that are significant even after accounting for inherent constraints due to the nature of experimentation. For example, the target population might not be universal. (As described below, this is the case in the experiment currently running in Finland, as well as those planned in Ontario and several Dutch municipalities and, likely, the experiment under development by Y Combinator.) Additionally, the benefits disbursed to the treatment groups in some of the experiments–such as, most notably, those planned in Ontario and the Netherlands–diverge from some of the key attributes of a basic income, such as by being household-based or reduced with earned income. (As mentioned below, the treatment conditions in the Dutch experiments will even retain a degree of job-conditionality.)

I touch upon additional caveats at the end of this article.

1. Finland’s “Perustulokokeilu” (Basic Income Experiment)

Status: Launched on January 1, 2017.

“Rainbow over the Baltic” CC BY-NC 2.0 Mariano Mantel

The national government of Finland has enacted a two-year experiment to investigate the effects of a basic income on labor market participation, designed and directed by Kela (Finland’s Social Insurance Institution). The experimental group consists of 2,000 persons, who were randomly selected from a pool of individuals between the ages of 25 and 58 who were receiving unemployment benefits from Kela in November 2016 (about 175,000 individuals nationwide). Participation in the basic income program was mandatory for those selected.

The 2,000 participants are receiving unconditional payments of €560 (about 590 USD) per month. Unlike Finland’s current programs of unemployment assistance, the pilot program imposes no requirement that recipients demonstrate that they are seeking employment or accept jobs offered to them, and those who do obtain work will continue to receive the full €560. (Thus, while the sample is clearly not representative of all Finns, the individual cash transfers do match the definition of basic income, although not a fully livable one.)

The experiment was officially launched on January 1, 2017–with the first payouts distributed on January 9–and will continue through December 31, 2018.

The research group at Kela will compare outcomes in the experimental group to a control group, consisting of all persons in the original target population who were not selected to participate. As mentioned above, the analysis will focus on labor market participation, including differences in employment rates between the treatment and control groups. Research director Olli Kangas has stated in recent lectures that Kela will also monitor expenditure on medication, health care usage, and income variation.

To avoid observer effects, Kela is conducting no interviews or questionnaires during the course of the experiment, and will publish no results prior to its conclusion at the end of 2018 (despite recent rumors driven by exaggerated claims stemming from a single anecdote voluntarily produced by one experimental participant).

Kangas has recommended expansion of the experiment in future years (e.g. to test different models and broaden the target population); at the time of this writing, however, the government has not acted upon this recommendation.

Official website: https://www.kela.fi/web/en/basic-income-experiment-2017-2018.

2. GiveDirectly’s Kenyan Basic Income Experiment

Status: Pilot launched in one village in October 2016; full experiment (200 villages) intended to launch in fall 2017.

GiveDirectly, a US-based charitable organization, has initiated a project in which it will eventually provide unconditional cash transfers to the residents of 200 villages in rural Kenya (about 26,000 people in total).

An initial pilot study commenced in one village in October 2016, in which all 95 residents now receive monthly unconditional cash payments of about 23 USD (€21) per month, amounting to roughly half of the average income in rural Kenya. Payments will continue in this village for 12 years. At the time of this writing, only this initial “test village” is receiving a basic income. GiveDirectly’s current objective is to launch its full experiment in September 2017.

Rural Kenya, CC BY-NC 2.0 ViktorDobai

In the full study, 300 villages will be randomly assigned to one of four groups: three treatment groups, in which all residents receive some form of unconditional cash transfer, and a control group of villages in which no cash transfers are given to any residents.

In the first treatment group, which will include 40 villages, residents will receive cash payments of about 23 USD every month for 12 years (as in the initial test village). In the second, containing 80 villages, residents will receive monthly cash payments of the same amount, but only for two years. In the third, also containing 80 villages, residents will receive a lump-sum payment equal in amount to the two-year basic income. (Note that, ignoring their time-boundedness, the schemes implemented in the first two treatment groups do meet BIEN’s definition of ‘basic income’.)

As GiveDirectly explains on its website, “Comparing the first and second groups of villages will shed light on how important the guarantee of future transfers is for outcomes today (e.g. taking a risk like starting a business). The comparison between the second and third groups will let us understand how breaking up a given amount of money affects its impact.”

The organization also indicates that it will investigate outcomes including “economic status (income, assets, standard of living), time use (work, education, leisure, community involvement), risk-taking (migrating, starting businesses), gender relations (especially female empowerment), [and] aspirations and outlook on life.”

GiveDirectly is making much of its data public as it collects it (e.g. responses to the first survey of participants in its initial pilot); this practice, however, pertains only to the pilot village, which is not itself to be included in the full experiment. The organization expects to publish its first experimental results after one or two years.

Official website: www.givedirectly.org/basic-income.

3. Ontario’s Guaranteed Minimum Income (“Basic Income”) Pilot

Status: Pilot studies scheduled to commence in two regions in spring 2017, and in a third region in autumn 2017.

Lindsay, Ontario, CC BY 2.0 RichardBH

The government of the Canadian province of Ontario is preparing a three-year pilot study of a guaranteed minimum income (commonly called in a ‘basic income’ in Canada), which will take place in three locations: the Hamilton, Brantford, and Brant County region (launching in late spring 2017); Thunder Bay and surrounding area (launching in late spring 2017); and the city of Lindsay (launching in autumn 2017).

A total of 4,000 potential participants will be randomly selected from a pool of low-income adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years who have lived in one of the three test locations for at least one year. Participation is voluntary, and those who do agree to participate in the experiment may exit at any time during the study.

Study participants will receive a minimum annual income of 16,989 CAD (€11,340) for single individuals and 24,027 CAD (€16,038) per year for couples. That is, individuals and couples with no external income would receive this amount of money. For participants who to earn additional income, the amount of the benefit will be reduced by the amount of 50% of earned income (entailing that, for example, single individuals will stop receiving any payment if their income rises above 48,054 CAD per year). Individuals with disabilities will receive an additional amount of up to 500 CAD (€334) per month.

The benefit is not contingent on work or looking for work. However, because the amount of the benefit depends on income and household composition, and because eligibility for the study is limited to low-income individuals, the program to be tested in Ontario is not a basic income in BIEN’s sense. (As mentioned above, the term ‘basic income’ is often used in Canada to refer to guaranteed minimum income programs, in contrast to the definition adopted by BIEN and common in Europe. The Ontario government is not being sloppy or dishonest in titling the program ‘Basic Income Pilot’; mere dialectical differences explain the ambiguity.)

According to the Government of Ontario website, the experiment will measure outcomes in a variety of areas, including food security, stress and anxiety, mental health, health and healthcare usage, housing stability, education and training, and employment and labor market participation. A third-party research group will evaluate data collected during the pilot.

Results of the pilot will be reported to the public in 2020.

Official site for more information: www.ontario.ca/page/ontario-basic-income-pilot.

4. Municipal Social Assistance Experiments in the Netherlands

Status (July 2017): Six municipalities approved to proceed with two-year experiments, which will begin in Sep-Oct 2017; applications from Utrecht and Amsterdam currently under review.

In 2016, research teams in several municipalities in the Netherlands developed plans to experiment with unconditional cash transfers to replace the nation’s workfare-oriented program of social assistance. However, their plans encountered resistance from the national government, which imposes constraints upon–and, in effect, prohibits–experimentation with unconditional benefits. (For example, the Dutch Participation Act would require that experimental participants be surveyed after six and twelve months to verify that they have made sufficient efforts to find work, and dropped from the study if they have not–effectively removing the “unconditionality” of the benefit.)

A pilot proposed in Utrecht, which had gained the lion’s share of attention in the English-language news media, has been delayed after the government failed to authorize the experiment as designed by the Utrecht University research team.  

Groningen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Emmanuel Fromm

On July 3, 2017, the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs authorized experiments in the first five municipalities: Groningen, Wageningen, Tilburg, Deventer, and Ten Boer (read more). Groningen and Ten Boer will be working in collaboration.  

A similarly structured experiment in Nijmegen, which is to involve 400 participants, was also approved later in the month.

In contrast the previously rejected design of an experiment for in Utrecht, the designs of the latter experiments were deemed to be in compliance with the requirements of the Participant Act. For example, each includes a treatment group in which participants are subject to workforce-reintegration requirements that are more intensive than current welfare programs.

In each of the experiments, which will run for two years, participants will be randomly selected from a pool of current social assistance beneficiaries (with participation voluntary for those selected), and assigned either to a control group or to one of several treatment groups.

Each experiment has at least three treatment groups, testing the following types of interventions: (1) removing reintegration requirements (e.g. job applications and training programs) on welfare benefits; (2) providing a more intensive form of reintegration service; (3) permitting participants to earn additional income on top of their welfare benefits. Subjects assigned to the third treatment groups will be permitted to retain 50% of additional earned income, up to a maximum of €199 per month, for the duration of the two-year experiment. In contrast, under current policy, welfare recipients are permitted to keep only 25% of additional income, and only for up to six months.

The Groningen / Ten Boer experiment includes a fourth treatment group, in which participants are permitted to choose to join any one of the three preceding groups.

It is not fully accurate to refer to the Dutch municipal experiments as tests of basic income. None includes an experimental condition in which the amount of the benefit is fully independent of either income or household composition (the existing benefits are household-based, which is not to be altered in any of the proposed experiments). Further, none of the proposed experiments includes a treatment that combines a reduction in the withdrawal rate of benefits with a removal of work-related conditions. And, as mentioned above, even those subjects who receive the “unconditional” payments will be subject to removal from the study after six or twelve months if they fail to seek work.

Researchers plan to examine outcomes such as employment (including part-time and temporary employment), education, and health and well being.

5. Eight’s Unconditional Cash Transfer Project in Uganda

Status: Launched on January 1, 2017.

In January 2017, Eight, a charitable organization based in Belgium, began disbursing unconditional cash payments in the Ugandan village of Busibi. All residents of the village, including 56 adults and 88 children, receive monthly cash payments, distributed via mobile phones. Each adult receives 18.25 USD (about €16.70) per month, approximately 30% of the average income of lower-income families in Uganda, and each child receives half of this amount, or 9.13 USD per month. The payments will continue through the end of 2018.

Used by permission of Steven Janssens

Eight is working with anthropologists at Belgium’s University of Ghent to examine outcomes along four main dimensions: girls’ educational achievement, access to health care, entrepreneurship and economic development, and participation in democratic institutions. Researchers will compare data collected during and after the pilot to data that were gathered before its launch. However, no additional village is being studied as a control, limiting the project’s usefulness as an experiment.

That said, Eight’s project has objectives beyond research. It is also the basis of a documentary, the first segments of which have already been release, and cofounder Steven Janssens has emphasized its larger purpose to inform future basic income projects: “From our experiences with this pilot we will learn and adjust where necessary, because in the long term we want to scale-up to more villages as our organization grows.”

Official site for more information: eight.world.

6. Y Combinator’s US-Based Unconditional Cash Transfer Study

Status: Design phase; no known launch date.

Sam Altman, CC BY 2.0 TechCrunch

In early 2016, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Sam Altman decided to pursue a privately-funded basic income experiment, motivated in part by the goal of moving away from a focus on employment effects and examining potential benefits of a basic income more holistically. To this end, he founded a research group at his company Y Combinator to design and implement the project.

In a February 2017 talk at Stanford, research director Elizabeth Rhodes explained that Y Combinator’s pilot is still in the design phase. As currently planned, it will use a stratified sample of 2,000 to 3,000 individuals from two states, between the ages of 21 and 35, with household incomes below the median in their area. At least 1,000 of these study participants will be randomly assigned to the treatment group, in which they will receive 1000 USD (about €915) per month for three years (with a subset receiving the payments for an additional two years). The payments will be given unconditionally and irrespective of income. The remainder of the sample will provide a control group.

The research group is also still in the process of developing metrics to evaluate the experimental results. However, Rhodes has indicated that experimenters are interested in a holistic evaluation of individual-level outcomes such as labor market participation, training and education, time spent with children, physical and psychological health and well-being, risk-taking, financial health, and help given to friends and family. Outcomes related to the children of participants (e.g. grades and test scores) might also be examined.  

Y Combinator’s “pre-pilot” in Oakland, announced in May 2016 to media acclaim, is not itself an experiment; its purpose is merely to help the research team fine-tune its methods and procedures (selection of subjects, disbursement of payments, collection and recording of data, etc.).

7. Scottish Municipal Experiments

Status: Feasibility studies in progress.

Glasgow Bridge, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Colin Campbell

In Glasgow, Scotland, the City Council has partnered with the think tank Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to investigate designs for a basic income pilot. The planning process, while moving forward, is at an early stage in development, with the Council and RSA currently working on a study of the financial, administrative, and constitutional feasibility of the pilot. Workshops on these topics will be held in June and July 2017, and a report is planned for September.  

The Councils of Fife and North Ayrshire have also committed to investigate the possibility of conducting basic income experiments.


B. OMISSIONS AND FURTHER CAVEATS

Avid followers of basic income news (including Basic Income News) might have noticed that some previously announced pilots and experiments have been omitted from the above list.

Oversight, of course, is a possible cause: if a current or planned basic income experiment is missing from this page, please submit it to our Submit a News Lead form.  

In some cases, though, apparently omissions may be intentional. Sometimes “basic income experiments” are announced in the media (1) prematurely, (2) when the experiment is not actually testing a basic income, or (3) when the project is not an experiment:

 

1. Not all previously announced pilot studies have come to fruition. For example, contrary to claims promulgated in news media and social media in recent months, neither the Office of Financial Empowerment of San Francisco, California nor the provincial government of Prince Edward Island, Canada is pursuing a pilot study of basic income at this time (primarily due, in both cases, to failures in attempts to secure funding for the experiments).

India has also occasionally been cited as a location about to launch a new basic income pilot study–or even about to implement a full-blown basic income policy (see the response in Basic Income News to rumors that circulated at the start of the 2017). To be sure, the national government of India has shown considerable interest in universal basic income, devoting an entire chapter to the topic in the 2017 Economic Survey, an annual document prepared by the Ministry of Finance. India is also notable in the basic income community for the success of previous basic income pilot studies. At the time of this writing, however, no firm plans for additional pilot studies (let alone a full-blown policy) have been announced, and any popular media reports of new pilot studies in India remain speculative and premature.

In general, one should be wary when the popular media announce the impending launch of a basic income experiment. Such announcements often frame the prospective studies as far more certain–and farther along in the planning process–than they actual are. Researchers and governmental officials might indicate interest in running an experiment prior to attempting to obtain funds or examining the legality or feasibility of the project, and sometimes such expressions of interest capture the ears of the media. Of course, such tentative interest does not entail that an experiment will ever actually manifest.

 

2. I have raised the second issue–the fact that many so-called “basic income pilots” or “basic income experiments” diverge substantially from tests of a genuine basic income–at the start of this article, and we have already seen examples above (including the Dutch social assistance experiments and the Ontario pilot).

Due to their relative lack of attention in popular media, I have not included reference to other social assistance experiments that have, on occasion, been inaccurately called “basic income experiments” — including those in Barcelona and the Italian town of Livorno. About the latter, a six-month social assistance experiment, BIEN-Italia’s Sandro Gobetti has clarified in Basic Income News, “Among the requirements [for participation in the experiment] was residency in the municipality for at least five years, unemployment status, registration at the employment center and a family income not exceeding €6530 gross per year. In exchange for €500 monthly, the municipality invited successful applicants to perform socially useful work.”

 

3. Finally, note that several non-profit organizations have launched projects that involve the distribution of unconditional cash transfers to individuals, but that are not experiments (although, in some cases, they might still be called “pilots”).

For example, Brazil’s ReCivitas raises money to distribute unconditional cash payments of 40 Brazilian Reais (about €12 or 10 USD) per month to residents of the village of Quatinga Velho, Brazil. In January 2016, the organization announced that the monthly payments would be lifelong, and began distributing the payments to an initial group of 14 individuals. However, the ReCivitas Institute is not gathering data to study the effects of basic income. Project leaders have stated that they are already convinced that basic income is effective, and that their goal is to provide a model and inspiration to other similar initiatives. The initiative might be considered a pilot, insofar as it is intended to provide information about how NGOs have effectively implement a basic income scheme; however, it is not an experiment.     

Lottery programs that award selected individuals their own “basic income” for some length of time, such as Germany’s Mein Grundeinkommen, are also not experiments and should not be classified as such.

Most recently, a newly launched film project in the United States, Bootstraps, has begun raising money for what it calls a “basic income pilot program”. This effort also appears not to be an experiment but, instead, a similar lottery-style program, intended to generate anecdotes, publicity, and awareness of the idea of basic income rather than robustly test its effects.


Reviewed by Tyler Prochazka. Some additional proofreading by Karl Widerquist, May 25, 2017

Cover Image: CC BY-ND 2.0 iT@c

Addressing uncertainty in basic income

Addressing uncertainty in basic income

Written by: Michael A Lewis

As someone interested in basic income (BI), I read a fair amount about the topic. I read pieces by supporters and opponents, as well as those who might be considered more neutral. I’m often struck by the degree of uncertainty concerning implementation of BI.

A popular argument for BI these days is based on concerns about the possibility of mass technological unemployment. Some in the “tech industry” contend that BI will become necessary as automation replaces more and more human laborers in the years to come. This has led to a debate among economists and others regarding whether automation will result in a net loss of jobs (for humans) big enough to warrant the need for something like BI. Both sides of this debate bring evidence to make their cases. But in the end, we simply don’t know for certain if and when automation will lead to a net loss of jobs for us human beings.

Assuming BI might be implemented in a society which would still require a fair amount of human labor power, we’d like to know what impact BI would have on people’s inclination to sell their labor or, more commonly, “work.” A BI could affect labor supply in at least two ways.

One is that people who received an income they didn’t have to work for may be inclined to work less. The second possible effect has to do with how BI would be financed. If it were financed by an increase in income taxes, this could also reduce labor supply. The reason is that a large proportion of many people’s incomes are earnings, meaning that an income tax is largely a wage tax. A higher wage tax has two possible effects on labor supply.

On the one hand, such an increase could cause people to work less because with the higher tax (and all else equal) their take home pay is smaller than it was before, creating an incentive to work less. On the other hand, a smaller take home pay means one would have to work more than before to maintain their standard of living. This would create an incentive for people to work more not less. If BI were implemented, we have no way of knowing which of these effects would dominate the other.

Leaving the labor market (but still related to it), another area of uncertainty has to do with how people would spend their time, assuming they did reduce their labor supply. Opponents of BI worry that people would use their time “unproductively”, while proponents tend to argue that individuals would engage in more care work or pursue “self-actualization” through pursuing education, writing poetry, starting a business, and the like. But if we’re being honest, regardless of which side of the debate we’re on, we must admit that we don’t have much of an idea what the relative proportion of unproductive to productive activities would be, assuming we could even agree on how to categorize activities as unproductive or productive.

A third area of uncertainty is related to personal relations and household composition. BI could have an effect on who lives with whom, who marries whom, who has kids or not (as well as how many to have), etc. As a society, we obviously differ when it comes to our values about such matters, meaning we might differ on the desirability of BI. But we don’t really know for sure how implementation of BI would affect “family life.”

Now I’m not saying we’re completely in the dark when it comes to questions of BI’s effect on labor supply, use of non-wage time, etc. Economists, sociologists, and others can draw on theory to help us think through these matters. And, by this point, there’ve been several experiments/studies (as well as more recent “startup” studies) which offer a lens on what might happen if BI were implemented. But we should be careful not to overestimate how much help we can receive from such experts, as well as the studies that have been (and are being) conducted.

Considering the many BI experiments (as well as proposed ones) around the world, we need to be cautious about what lessons might be learned. The philosopher Nancy Cartwright, well known for her work in the philosophy of science, has a phrase that’s quite relevant to this discussion: “it works somewhere.” Cartwright frequently utters this phrase within the context of discussing randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the so called gold standard of empirical research in the social sciences. Her point is that even if a well-designed RCT shows that a policy works in one context, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work in another one. This is relevant to BI studies because they’re being conducted, or proposed, in a variety of different contexts. So if we find out that something works in India or Finland, that doesn’t mean it’ll work in Japan or the U.S. In the article cited above, Cartwright goes into great detail about why generalizing experimental findings from one context to another can be so difficult. For those interested in what we might learn from BI experiments, I think her work is quite instructive.

When engineers design systems, such as buildings, bridges, etc., they also must face uncertainties. They don’t know for sure what loads the systems will end up having to bear, they don’t know if there will be earthquakes, they don’t know how forceful the winds will be, etc. One of the things engineers do to deal with such uncertainties is include safety factors in their designs.

For example, suppose an engineer is designing a structure and wind, seismic, and other data indicate that it’ll have to bear a load of 1000 kg. Suppose also that the engineer wants a safety factor of five. Then the load which the structure should be able to bear isn’t 1000 kg but 5×1000 = 5000 kg. So a safety factor is a multiple used to increase the strength or robustness of a system beyond that which is thought to be required to account for uncertainty in what’s thought to be required.

Those of us designing policies don’t have the luxury of being able to use simple equations, which include safety factors, the way engineers do. But perhaps we should adopt a similar safety factor mentality. Implementation of BI would be a complicated undertaking, involving a great deal of uncertainty. Perhaps BI supporters should consider how to increase its robustness in response to labor supply reductions, as well as other unanticipated effects. I admit I’m not exactly sure how to do this. But I believe it’s something worth thinking about.

Michael Lewis