With an article on medium, Scott Santens, long time Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate, has explored in depth Andrew Yang’s proposal of a Freedom Dividend (FD).
The Freedom Dividend, one of the pillars of Andre Yang’s campaign for the democratic nomination for the 2020 American presidential election, is a $1,000 UBI for every American. Santen’s article discusses in detail the implications the proposal would have if introduced, and defends it against claims that it would end up increasing inequality or destroying the safety net. In Santen’s words, “The freedom dividend would be the single most progressive policy advance ever signed into law in America history”.
In order to clarify how and why the Freedom Dividend would work as a progressive measure to enhance freedom and as an instrument against poverty and inequality, Santens provides answers to two questions regarding its design:
1) Why to provide people with a choice between existing programs and the Freedom Dividend and not let people keep everything?
People would need to voluntarily opt out from some assistance programs, based on low income, whilst other contribution-based programs would continue to exist on top of the FD (health care remaining a separated issue, not connected with the FD). Santens’ article points out that this is done in order to maximize unconditionality and the incentive to work by avoiding welfare traps.
2) Wouldn’t the funding of the FD through a 10% value added tax –as proposed by Andrew Yang- make it a regressive measure, thus disproportionately disadvantaging the poor?
Even though a tax on consumption is usually considered regressive, as those with lower incomes tend to spend more of it in consumption when compared with those having higher incomes, the VAT-UBI design ends up making it a progressive instrument. That is, those on the lower part of the distribution would end up receiving more than what they lose because of the VAT, which would be rebated by the FD. Santens quotes a distributional analysis by The UBI Center, that concludes “that the bottom 10% (of the income distribution) would see their disposable incomes increased by almost 120% while the top 10% would see their disposable incomes reduced by 4%.”
Moreover, Santens says, the FD would strongly reduce poverty with “74% fewer households would have disposable incomes that fall under the federal poverty line” and impact heavily on inequality, causing a drop of 15% in the American Gini index.
UBI would fill the holes in the existing safety net, a “welfare mess” that leaves many people behind, and which design is far too complex, inhumane and not efficient, as Santens explores in depth in his article.
“Is it progressive to not support the greatest reduction of poverty and inequality — and greatest increase in freedom and dignity — ever proposed in American history, because you insist upon preserving paternalistically neoliberal conditionality?”
Back in September 2016, Scott Santens gave an interview, published in Forbes Magazine, which he now reads on this podcast. Near the end of the podcast, Santens says what might summarize his position on the relationship between basic income and work:
If we truly do want a free society, we should care about making a free market for labour, and we should recognize that the work people choose to do voluntarily, is the work people do best.
If Martians did exist, they would know nothing about human endeavours (assuming they had not come to Earth in UFO’s before). They would look at humans from a place of absolute ignorance of what it means to be human, and – let’s assume – with a child-like curiosity for our habits and particularities as a species.
This recording starts with a provocative sentence, “Humans are born here, but without those pieces of paper [money], they seem to not be allowed to live here”. Further on, Santens reaches a conclusion on what money is (according to him): “Money is nothing but book keeping”. He continues to reason on that vein, and infers the corollary that money is trust. That we, as humans, trust in money to give us the opportunity to get what we need, in exchange for giving our contribution to what other people need.
Santens shows that “one of the most alien things of all” is the fact that a lot of the Earth’s vital resources are withheld from many people. But it wasn’t always like that. Once upon a time, the Earth was a free planet, where humans, other animals and plants simply shared the bounty of life and life-supporting conditions of this abundant planet. People gave and received objects and tasks from each other, and felt the social obligation to give back to the community for it. Now, however, and for a long time up to this moment, some people feel entitled to possessions over the Earth’s resources, forcing everybody else to sell their time for the right to live here, in relative comfort.
However, and because humans are animals who adapt and adjust, even to the harshest of environments, most people have gone accustomed to this reality. Poverty has come to be considered normal. Stressful lives have also grown as normal. Competition over resources perceived as scarce has developed into something normal. It seems that this state of things derives from one, and one only, scarce resource, among fellow humans: trust.
According to Santens, this is where the “thinking like a Martian” intersects with the universal basic income (UBI) concept. Because, at a fundamental level, the UBI idea only says: “I trust you”. It says that we, as a community, trust each other to share our life-energy and talents, given the unconditional access to the Earth’s basic resources, necessary for human living. It’s that simple. And it is about so much more than money (a quantified unit of exchange). Scott Santens believes that only free, conscious human beings will actually trust each other to make this happen and, in the process, free millions of other human beings.
Then the question: “how do get from here to there?” (“how do we start trusting each other?”) Santens argues that that is where basic income pilots come to be useful, as experiments in human trust. Data already shows how harmful poverty is, how destabilizing inequality is, and how unproductive our work can be when we’re not choosing to do it (but being forced into it, in order to get an income). “What we lack is will”, he determines. So, experiments can and should be done, as often as it takes, until humans get around to trusting each other on ever increasing scales. Because, at a fundamental level, that is what is at stake. He says: “[basic income is] a civilizing idea”. And it comes along at this moment in human history also as a way to recognize that everything a person gets when he or she is born, is not earned. It is not deserved. It is given to us. From nature and from thousands of human generations before us.
As a make-up Martian, Scott Santens concludes by blowing the question up to the stars: “Are you ever going to trust a species that has never learned to trust itself”?
The speech revolves around the impact of automation on society, acting as a disruptor in the labour market, making many jobs obsolete without creating more and better jobs for humans. This is a trend that goes on since the ‘90s: “Yes, it already happened. It’s not in the future. It’s in the past”.
Technological unemployment is a reality, he says, and it’s observable from the decline in occupation of the US population since 2000, the year in wich human labour peaked. Ephemeralization made a lot of middle-skilled jobs obsolete, creating an occupational vacuum filled by low-skilled jobs, as jobs are automated “from the middle out”. This translated in income stagnation for the middle class, growth in incomes monthly variance and rising income inequality. All factors which ultimately affect the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole, producing a costant sense of insecurity in the population. But, according to Santens, we shouldn’t fear automation:
“We have the opportunity to forever free humanity from drudgery and toil, but as long as people require money to live, and jobs are the primary way of obtaining money, people will fear automation.”
Technologic unemployment ends up hindering productivity itself, because automation of the medium skilled jobs makes workers shift toward the low skilled ones, increasing the offer of low paid work and thus making automation less convenient and postponable.The answer resides in decoupling work from income, through the introduction of an Unconditional Basic Income, a solution which would make income circulate from top to bottom. It would eliminate the necessity to work in order to survive, thus driving very many undesirable jobs out of the labour market and making automation more impellent. With a better distribution of wealth, full automation could be reached, eliminating many unnecessarry and unsatisfactory jobs, and society would be ultimately able to floursih. Scott Santens puts this clearly:
“…how much are we holding civilization back by allowing impoverishment to continue? How much more could we accomplish as a species, if we made the choice, that’s right, THE CHOICE, to abolish poverty and extreme inequality forever, by simply investing in humanity — in each other?”
The 3rd episode of the “In All Seriousness” podcast presented a casual but poignant round table discussion on UBI with Zeitgeist Movement founder Peter Joseph, Rob Dew, and Michael Jordet. Special guests included Larry Cohen, founder of The Economic Security Project and Build the Floor, as well as Scott Santens, an activist and columnist who has been a recipient of a crowd-funded monthly basic income since January 2016.
The group covered a wide range of topics, including the history of basic income as a concept, the ubiquity of automation and its destabilizing effects on the economy, the Left’s rejection of Nixon’s 1969 Family Assistance Plan, the nature of work and what it means to live a meaningful life, the popularity of the Alaska dividend, the effects of poverty on the cognitive development of children, stress and its relationship to political apathy, the role of “The State” in social progress, the blockchain as a game-changing technology, the notion of “the three pillars” (universal healthcare, universal education, basic income) and the “adjacent possible”, the disproportionate benefits of UBI on women and minorities, open-source resource and food management, and the greatest obstacles to the implementation of UBI present today.
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more