On 29th April 2021 the prestigious Oxford Union Society hosted a panel of students, activists, politicians and scholars to debate the motion ‘This House Would Introduce a Universal Basic Income’.
The debate began with the majority (68%) voting in favour of introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the remaining 32% voting against it. After hearing a total of 8 panelists’ arguments for and against the motion, the majority shifted in the closing poll to a marginal victory for the opposition, with 54% voting against introducing a UBI and 46% voting for it.
The full debate can be watched on the Oxford Union’s YouTube channel here, with a programme of the speakers and summary of their key arguments provided below.
00:33 – Opening up the case for the proposition, Classical Archaeological and Ancient History student Ambika Sehgal drew on anecdotal evidence from victims of flaws in the DWP’s (Department for Work and Pensions) systems, experiences from the Covid-19 pandemic, and accounts of early forms of UBI in Ancient Greek societies to make three arguments for the motion:
To lift people out of poverty and provide a basic standard of living to everybody “without fear or favour”.
To increase the wealth of the entire population by giving everybody the freedom to upskill, reeducate, take on more prosperous jobs, or start their own business.
To prevent the inevitable economic catastrophe that we are approaching as a result of the automation of skilled industries.
10:52 – Rebutting with the opening case for the opposition, Eliza Dean, first year Classics and French student and Member of the Union’s Secretaries Committee, denounced UBI as the solution to our current economic and political struggles, arguing instead for better funding of existing state welfare systems and a return to greater recognition of the value of labour in society.
20:58 – Professor Guy Standing, Professorial Research Associate at SOAS University of London and founding member of BIEN, outlined the fundamental ethical – as opposed to instrumental – rationale for introducing a UBI, arguing that we have an ethical justification to introduce UBI to resolve the unequal distribution of wealth created by rentier capitalism.
Rounding off his argument for the proposition, Professor Standing drew on his extensive experience working on over 50 pilots to outline some of the key findings of research on UBI:
It improves individual mental and physical health.
It reduces people’s stress.
It leads to better school attendance.
It increases work and its productivity, leading people to be more innovative and altruistic in their work because people feel more able to act in such a way.
It helps to reduce debt.
It leads to a greater sense of social solidarity.
36:34Marco Annunziata, former Chief Economist and Head of Business Innovation Strategy at General Electric, invoked suggestions for the necessary rise in taxes, the case to offer the same amount to the rich and poor, and the disincentives to work as evidence that a UBI is both unaffordable, unjust and riddled with unintended consequences.
48:53 Drawing on simulations run by the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) Anthony Painter, Chief Research & Impact Officer, made the economic case for UBI, citing its ability to make up for inadequacies in existing social support systems by offering a hardwired economic platform for all in society.
59:50 Regarding UBI a ‘recurring revenant’ throughout his career, Professor Hilmar Schneider, Director of the Institute of Labour Economics in Bonn, cited the experience of the German pension system and his own research conducting funding and behavioral responses simulation models to argue against the motion. Pointing to the fact that most UBI pilots rely on external funding sources, Professor Schneider argued that the strongest argument against a UBI lies in its unaffordability, as it would ultimately result in more people losing money than gaining money.
01:10:34William Greve, first year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student and Sponsorship Officer at the Oxford Union,consolidated the arguments made by the panelists to round off the underlying economic and liberal arguments for a UBI:
That is the most effective way to counter the wealth inequality and unjust returns to capital observed in the modern economy that leave labour so unjustly rewarded.
That it is reasonable to demand that all individuals in a society be entitled to a share of the total wealth of society a basic level of economic security.
That it would fundamentally change our relationship with employment for the better.
Drawing on Professor Schneider’s earlier remarks on the case against higher income taxes (owing to the fact that the majority of wealth that exists in the modern economy is not received as an income in the traditional sense), William also argued that a wealth tax, not an income tax, is the most just and feasible way to fund UBI.
01:21:30 Rt Hon Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and Former Coordinator for the Labour Party, rounded off the case for the opposition by arguing that those advocating for UBI should remain cautious when their political opponents also support the scheme for radically different outcomes. Noting the many cross-spectrum and cross-ideological arguments for and against the motion, he also pointed to the more ‘mundane and practical’ issues with introducing UBI, such as financial feasibility, its efficacy compared to its alternatives, and what accompanying policies are required to ensure desired outcomes.
Concluding the case against UBI, Rt Hon Cruddas hammered home his argument for the dignity of labour and questioned the role that UBI would play in creating decent work. All but entirely dismissing concerns around automation and the future availability of work, he argued that we should instead be organizing for collective rights, strong unions, income guarantees and above all, dignified labour. He argued that there is a strong case against UBI if you consider that the nature of work thesis is flawed, and that the debate around the future of work is an inherently political one. UBI, he suggested, could transform citizens into ‘passengers of capitalism’, robbing them of meaning and dignity, and leaving them more isolated, vulnerable, angry and humiliated, and society itself less fraternal and solidaristic.
“The justification for [basic income] is ethical, not instrumental,” states Guy Standing at the ShapingHorizons conference at Cambridge University, UK, on September 11, 2019. He goes on to assure his audience that basic income studies have revealed that it may reduce poverty and inequality, but that “the real reasons for wanting to support a basic income is a matter of common justice.” See his full speech.
For Guy Standing it is a clear case: everybody’s wealth and income are mainly due to the achievements and efforts of others, especially our ancestors. It is they who have created what we all enjoy in the form of, for example, public knowledge and social services. If we add natural resources to the list, we are looking at the three most important pillars of what people alive today have at most contributed minimally towards: the commons.
As it is common legal practice around the globe allowing “to receive something for nothing” in the case of private inheritance, Standing suggests extending this idea to the social inheritance of the commons. In contrast to private inheritance, the distribution of commonwealth should not be based on, e.g. family bounds. The entitlement to a share of public wealth should instead be based on the simple requirement to be human. However, instead of sharing our rich commons, they are “privatized and plundered […] in the name of rentier capitalism,” as Standing puts it.
In addition to stating ethical reasons for basic income, Guy Standing also took the chance to stress how the global debate about basic income has changed dramatically over the last few years. With participants from as many as 45 countries the BIEN congress 2019 in Hyderabad, India, at the end of August this year demonstrates the global significance of basic income.
An important report on basic income has been released in the UK, as announced before, and publicly presented at the RSA last Tuesday. In that report, one central idea is to put forward, for the UK social reality: to give every adult citizen a 100 £/week (equivalent to about 460 €/month), unconditionally and without means-testing. According to the Progressive Economic Forum (PEF), this policy can be tested in the UK in five different ways (for an year):
Giving a 100 £/week (116 €/week) to every adult in a randomly selected community, plus 50 £/week (57 €/week) for children and any extra amount to account for disability necessities. The scheme would replace all benefits but the housing benefit.
Giving a 70 £/week (81 €/week) to every adult in a randomly selected community, plus 20 £/week (57 €/week) for children, but keeping child benefits. All other means-tested benefits would remain in place, accounting for the unconditional transfer as income, thus reducing or eliminating the (existing) benefits paid.
A 50 £/week (58 €/week) to every adult in a randomly selected community, plus any existing benefits (not considering the unconditional transfer as income).
A randomly selection of adults (country-wide) on welfare seeing conditionalities removed.
A randomly selection of homeless people given an unconditional cash grant, replacing other (cash or non-cash) benefits.
At the referred presentation, Labour Party’s John McDonnell, the Exchequer Shadow Chancellor, said the Labour Party is not committing to introduce basic income in the UK (if elected), but this report will definitely be instrumental for the party’s next manifesto design.
Not surprisingly, Tories in parliament stand firmly against this policy, branding it as a “handout”, and dismissing it as hugely expensive and unfair to “hardworking taxpayers”. To that, Guy Standing, main author of the referred author, has replied that governments looking forward should “at the very least introduce local pilots to see how effective it could be”. He and RSA Director Anthony Painter have been strong proponents of reducing or eliminating means-testing and conditionality in general, in a welfare system in the UK which has been “expensive to administer and is causing destitution”. Painter summarizes by saying that “basic income-style pilots have been proven to have beneficial effects on health, well-being, and trust, while giving people more freedom to decide for themselves how to manage their lives.”
This week, on May 7th, Guy Standing will be presenting a report prepared at the request of the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell MP. The complete title of the report is “Piloting Basic Income as Common Dividends”.
The event is organized by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and the Progressive Economy Forum (PEF), and will take place at the RSA’s Great Room Auditorium, at 11 am. It will be introduced by RSA’s Director Anthony Painter and PEF’s Chair Patrick Allen, followed by an opening keynote by John McDonnell himself. After that Guy Standing will present the fifty-page report in about thirty minutes, which will then be openly discussed by commentators Ed Miliband, former Labour Party Leader, Margaret Greenwood, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, and Caroline Abrahams, Age UK Director, as well as in a round of questions and answers with the audience.
Although other books and reports have been made public, focused on basic income for the British reality (e.g.: Annie Miller’s “A basic income pocketbook”, Malcolm Torry’s “Why we need a Citizen’s Basic Income”), this was the first time a British politician has specifically asked for a report on basic income. As Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell and the Labour Party had been flirting with the idea, however, since early 2016 (even though McDonnell had been a basic income supporter as far back as 2014).
A nearly-packed auditorium of mostly young Taiwanese arrived on an early Saturday morning to learn about Universal Basic Income and its role in addressing key trends for the next generation.
This is the third year UBI Taiwan held its international summit in Taipei to push discussion of basic income on March 16. This year’s conference focused on the challenges Taiwan and the global economy is facing in the coming decade and what steps could be taken to make basic income a feasible solution.
Dr. Sarath Davala, vice chair of Basic Income Earth Network, was the keynote speaker for the second year in a row. Davala said this year’s attendees were even more enthusiastic.
“UBI Taiwan exudes unique energy and dedication to the idea of basic income. This kind of energy is perhaps rare in the basic income movement. Nowhere in the world, have I seen such critical mass of students collectively excited about basic income,” Davala said.
Dr. Ryan Engen, an economic officer at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the unofficial U.S. embassy in Taiwan, gave the opening speech for the conference. Engen said basic income is “perhaps the most promising policy” to address Taiwan and the world’s economic transformations.
“If you can succeed in what you are trying to do, I actually think it has the potential to be the tipping point that changes the direction for the rest of the world, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Engen said.
In justifying the need to explore basic income, Engen discussed how the return on capital has outstripped income, which has exacerbated global income inequality.
The world is moving toward nationalism as a result of globalization and automation, which requires “creating a new global social contract that leaves nobody behind,” Engen said.
Guy Standing, BIEN’s co-founder, provided a video message for the conference Taiwan. He said Taiwan’s activists should frame basic income primarily in human rights terms, rather than as just an economic policy.
“Basic income is a matter of social justice,” Standing said. “We believe every man, woman, and child has a right to a share of the public wealth of the Commons from the wealth generated over generations, whether it is in Taiwan, China, Britain or anywhere else.”
Standing said while basic income would reduce poverty, this should not be the primary focus of Taiwan’s UBI movement.
“We must constantly stress the ethical basis of the campaign for basic income,” Standing said.
In the final round-table discussion, Ta-Ching Shih, a Taiwanese economic specialist at AIT, said basic income activists in Taiwan must first get attention to the idea and then focus on the policy specifics later.
Peter Knight, a former World Bank economist and a member of Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics, also produced a video message for the conference where he discussed the economic rationale for basic income.
Knight said Taiwan is likely to face high levels of job automation in the coming years, along with Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Taiwan’s coming status as a super-aged society may also induce consideration of whether basic income could help alleviate this issue, he said.
“UBI and progressive taxation to finance it, and the use of advanced labor-saving technologies are the key policies for Taiwan to achieve economic, social, political, and ecological sustainability,” Knight said.
Professor Ku Yun-wen from National Taiwan University’s Social Work Department went through a detailed analysis of Taiwan’s welfare policies and discussed how basic income may fit into the system.
Ku had previously written a report on UBI for Taiwan’s National Development Council, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan policy planning agency.
Professor Fong from National Taiwan University’s Economic’s Department provided insight into some of the relevant economic trends to basic income, such as increasing automation and its potential impact in Taiwan.
The conference was assisted in funding from the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship through the Alumni Development Fund (ADF).
Before Alan Krueger passed away, he discussed the prospects of basic income in Taiwan with James Davis, one of the managers for this ADF project. Krueger was the former chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Krueger agreed Taiwan implementing basic income would likely inspire conversation around the world. However, Krueger said “there is a lot of work to be done.”
Professor Hou-ming Huang, the director of National Chengchi University’s Sociology Department, presented on the economic and philosophical transitions of humanity throughout history.
A journalist from Taiwan’s magazine The Reporter spoke on the misinformation that is often spread in Taiwan and global media regarding basic income.
Despite this misinformation, Davala said he is optimistic about the future of basic income’s development in Taiwan.
“I am sure that the debate in Taiwan will progress beyond conference halls and to the policy corridors,” Davala said.
Engen ended his remarks by noting Taiwan could play a very important role in the global UBI movement.
Taiwan is a “melting pot” of international influence and is at the center of global supply chains, Engen pointed out. Taiwan is also the “most progressive example in all of the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
“UBI happening here in Taiwan is very different than it happening anywhere else because Taiwan is a fully developed market democracy that is a technology epicenter of the world,” Engen said. “If UBI happened here it would send ripple effects around the world.”
In the run-up to the conference, Elyse Mark and Brian Anderson, who were also managers of the ADF project, produced interviews with U.S. scholars. Mark interviewed a legislative director for a councilmember of the District of Columbia council who produced a policy report on implementing minimum income in DC. Anderson interviewed an economist to understand the benefits of basic income across Taiwan and the United States. Davis also worked with Stanford’s Basic Income Lab to understand the context for how research there could help propel basic income frameworks for Taiwan.
BIEN’s 2022 Congress will be held in Brisbane, Australia, from Monday 26th to Wednesday 28th September 2022. This will be a hybrid face to face and online event. The main face-to-face event will take place in Brisbane.
Call for papers: Abstracts (250—300 words) due by Friday 4 February 2022; please click here for more information.
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more