A debate has broken out in Taiwan over sending cash to combat the economic downturn related to the global coronavirus pandemic.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) plans to stimulate select areas of the economy using coupon vouchers. The second-largest party, the Nationalist Party (KMT), has pushed for cash instead.
The DPP argued that cash is more likely to be “saved,” while vouchers have a better “stimulative” effect on the economy because they must be spent.
Chiang Wan-an, a member of the KMT, said sending cash is a more realistic way of providing financial security for Taiwanese. Cash can be used on paying education fees, healthy food items, and other essential areas, Chiang said.
Singapore plans to send a one-time payment of $420 USD to all Singaporeans above age 21 on April 14.
Taiwan’s proposed vouchers could be used to reduce the price of certain goods by 25 percent. KMT members argued this would not be convenient for those who do not understand the mobile payment system it would require.
This voucher system would also not help the poor who need to make essential purchases not covered by the vouchers, the KMT said.
Taiwan’s ruling DPP party did not rule out cash, but said that plans to send out cash would be targeted to “disadvantaged groups.”
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.
The third annual UBI Taiwan international summit will be held in Taipei on March 16, 2019. This year’s theme is “Key Trends of the Next Generation,” focusing on technological development as well as growing income inequality and how these trends intersect with basic income.
Asia has progressed rapidly in the global basic income movement, led by India which has shown intense political interest in implementing policies containing aspects of basic income.
Sarath Davala, Basic Income Earth Network’s Vice Chair, will join the conference to discuss these developments and more in his keynote speech “Basic Income is the Foundation of A Caring Society.”
“This is the third consecutive year that UBI Taiwan is organizing a regional Basic Income Conference. UBI Taiwan is perhaps the only national level basic income group that organizes annual conferences. That is a demonstration of a robust movement, the strength of its leadership and their commitment to the idea of basic income,” Davala said.
Ryan Engen, an Economic Officer at the American Institute in Taiwan, America’s unofficial representative entity in Taiwan, will deliver the opening remarks discussing how digital transformations should make global economies consider updates to our social security systems.
Guy Standing, the co-founder of BIEN, Andrew Yang, the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, and Peter Knight, the former World Bank economist, will join via pre-recorded messages.
This year, there will be a focus on bringing in academics and opinion makers from across Taiwan. Professors from Taiwan’s premier universities, National Taiwan University and National Chengchi University, as well as influential Taiwanese media figures, will address the conference.
The Critical Language Scholarship’s (CLS) Alumni Development Fund (ADF) provided a grant to help fund the conference and related events. CLS is a language program under the U.S. State Department.
James Davis, the former Field Research Director for UBI Taiwan and one of the project recipients for the ADF grant, said the conference demonstrates UBI Taiwan’s commitment to pushing this discussion in Asia and around the world.
“UBI Taiwan is here to change everything. We are not content with a society where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, as the wages of the working class fall year after year,” Davis said.
Davala has participated in every conference since it began in 2017.
“I am proud to be a regular participant of these conferences. I wish UBI Taiwan team success for this conference. With their kind of energy and dedication to basic income, I am sure one-day UBI will be a reality in Taiwan,” Davala said.
Brian Anderson, a senior at Western Kentucky University and also a recipient of the ADF grant, said this conference will help create academic connections between Taiwan and the United States.
“The push for UBI deserves international support and my project seeks to promote mutual understanding of shared interests between Taiwanese and American citizens,” Anderson said.
For Davis, society’s “inadequate” support for parents and caregivers as well as the financial difficulties faced by students illustrate the reasons why Taiwan should consider a basic income.
“UBI is the future. And UBI Taiwan is here to deliver,” Davis said.
The full conference information can be found on the UBI Taiwan website and on the Facebook event (Chinese).
Taiwan has seen its first series of referendums since the significant liberalization of its referendum law early this year. The results could have implications for the basic income movement in Taiwan and possibly the Asia Pacific.
There has been discussion among Taiwan’s basic income activists to organize Asia’s first basic income referendum on the island.
In January, the new referendum law came into effect in Taiwan, lowering the threshold for the number of signatures required to get a referendum on the ballot. The law also decreased the voting participation requirement from 50 percent to 25 percent.
Such a change made it realistic for a basic income referendum to make it to the ballot in Taiwan.
During the election last weekend, seven of the ten referendums were passed, the first such national referendums to pass in Taiwan’s history. Long lines waited for hours to vote, as many carefully studied the referendum language.
Most notably, opponents of gay marriage successfully passed three anti-LGBT referendums (two pro-LGBT referendums failed to pass), putting Taiwan’s legislature in a precarious position since its top court mandated that same-sex marriage must be legally recognized by May 2019.
How the referendum results will affect legislative action is unclear, since there is no precedent for legislating referendum results in Taiwan. Additionally, the referendum law does not create clear enforcement mechanisms to compel the legislature to act (except in the case of abolishing laws, which must take place within three days of the referendum result).
Regardless of how legally binding the results actually are, Taiwan’s legislature will feel pressure from the popular results to follow the principles of the referendums.
If Taiwan’s government fails to put the referendum results into law, it could have a chilling effect on future referendum movements and create questions about Taiwan’s democracy. There have already been signals from Taiwan’s presidential office that approved referendums regarding nuclear and coal will not lead to a change in energy strategy.
On the other hand, a robust response from the legislature will mobilize activists to utilize referendums as a key legislative strategy. It is likely that 2020 will see a wave of even more referendums than this year.
If some an income guarantee referendum were to pass, Taiwan’s government would only be compelled to submit a proposal and discuss the policy. There would have to be a significant societal mandate from the referendum to ensure the legislature will act to pass a law.
Polling from Academia Sinica and UBI Taiwan find 40 percent to 47 percent respectively of Taiwanese support basic income. As was seen with the competing gay rights referendums, using referendum as a vehicle to advance basic income can also mobilize opposition groups.
The LGBT referendums invited a wave of international attention. Certainly, a basic income referendum would attract regional and international attention as well.
However, a premature basic income referendum without institutional support and lacking a broad activist movement to defend the idea poses substantial risks. Basic income is still a new idea in Taiwan and Asia in general, and misunderstandings could derail the idea before it has an opportunity to develop in the region.
Anti-LGBT groups outspent the pro-LGBT movement and used misinformation and scare tactics to successfully persuade a large portion of Taiwan that LGBT marriage threatened the next generation of families.
It is without question that a basic income referendum would invite backlash from invested groups, who would probably have more financial resources than the nascent basic income movement in Taiwan.
Would an overwhelming vote in opposition to basic income do more harm than good for the movement in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific?
Certainly, Switzerland’s referendum was incredibly successful in propeling discussion of the idea around the world, even though it failed at the ballot box. However, both civic society and basic income activism are far more mature in Europe than in Taiwan.
A rejected basic income referendum in Taiwan could be portrayed as yet another global failure for UBI, along with the cancelled experiment in Canada, the ending of the Finland pilot, and even the rejection of the original Swiss referendum.
If I had to wager, I would bet that the societal discussion over basic income generated from a Taiwanese referendum will be overall helpful to advancing the movement in the Asia Pacific even if it does fail. This is especially true since backlash from opposition groups is inevitable anyway.
It is essential, though, that the basic income movement in Taiwan and beyond carefully consider its strategy to make UBI a reality.
Sarath Davala is an independent sociologist who, along with Guy Standing, was the architect of a series of UNICEF-backed basic income pilots in Madhya Pradesh, central India. Inspired by the findings of that study, he became the co-founder and coordinator of the India Network for Basic Income.
The Basic Income Asia Pacific 2018 conference held in Taipei this March featured a host of speakers from around the world, including Davala. I got to sit down with Davala at National Taiwan University to talk about his research and the applicability of basic income to Asia. The following transcribed interview has been lightly edited.
Please talk about your research in India, and how it has led to your support for UBI as policy.
Between 2011 and 2013, a women’s trade union called the Self Employed Women’s Association conducted an experiment in Madhya Pradesh. I was heading that research project and Guy Standing was supporting as the main principal researcher. Now that study where we gave unconditional basic income to 6,000 people living in nine villages came out with findings which were startling and surprising. Because at the time people believed – the government said, the bureaucrats always said, and everyone in the middle-class believed – that if you give money to people without any conditions, they will not use it for good purposes but bad purposes, like drinking alcohol and other things. But we found that many positive things have happened in all these villages. Particularly, the most vulnerable in society benefited the most.
That gave us the conviction that UBI is a very good policy. It need not replace everything (to say that only UBI should be there), but when you are designing or redesigning your welfare basket for your nation, you must have this as the foundation, where everybody gets a certain basic amount of money, and on that they build a life. UBI can be a foundation on which the market or the government, can actually build your life. So that is how research comes into policy.
Could you talk about the process in which you made the Madhya Pradesh basic income pilots a reality? How did you gain the support of local government?
We didn’t ask the local government for money, that’s the important thing. We asked a variety of people, but finally UNICEF agreed to give us the money. It was not a small amount of money, almost a million US dollars. That was required because we were giving cash to people.
Everyone is in process of searching for alternatives, even the government, because the existing system is not delivering the welfare properly, effectively. So we said [to the government], “here’s an alternative, please join us, listen to us, once every three months we will come talk to you.” So that, when we finally come out with the findings, the government said “Oh yeah, we know these guys, they’ve been doing this work.”
So that was one reason, we followed up with policymakers. But at the same time, the other reason was we needed local support. Because if you go to a village and say you want to distribute cash, the local politicians and media will be a problem. So we had the friendship of the government, the trade union which was working in the area, and international experts like Guy Standing. With this kind of combination, we have been able to roll out a study.
Did you encounter any challenges in implementing the basic income experiment on the ground?
A variety of challenges. Even in 2010, when somebody told me they have a project like this, asking “would you like to head this project?” I said “What? Giving money to people? Without any conditions? I always suspected you were mad but now it’s confirmed.” I thought it was crazy.
Similarly when you go to the villages, and say “we want to give cash to everybody for one year.” They say, “what kind of crazy fellow you are!” There’s a lot of disbelief, but also lots of suspicion, that “you guys have something else in your mind and you are going to cheat us, you are taking our consent signatures, maybe you will use our signatures to grab our lands.” People were suspicious about our motives. But then it took us a long time to bring everybody inside. There were 10 percent of the people who rejected the process. But then, women from those rich households said, “no, no. We want to be part of it. You are conducting training programmes and opening bank accounts. We don’t have bank accounts.” So they were interested.
In your presentation earlier, you talked about how it’s important to consider Asia’s local context. You have also worked with Guy Standing, who coined the term, an emerging socioeconomic class, the “precariat.” Do you think the concept of “precariat” is applicable to the situation in developing countries, or is the “precariat” more particular to developed societies?
No, no no. The precariat is everywhere. The percentage will change [depending on the economy], but the percentage is increasing. In fact, earlier the precariat was at the bottom, but even if you go to the high end jobs, you realise that the contracts are very fragile. Today you are there, tomorrow you can be given a pink slip: “okay, you are no longer needed.” Of course, the precariat is there in developing countries, but also every other country.
You want to deny that there’s a precariat, it’s up to you. But if you want to see, there is precariat. Who is the precariat? Precariat is that class of people whose basis of livelihood is very precarious. Today it is there, tomorrow it is not. And they can turn anywhere. That’s why Guy Standing says it is the most dangerous class. They can turn into anything, into crime, into drugs.
Speaking of the Asian context, would you say Asia is particularly vulnerable to the coming wave of automation?
Which economies are more vulnerable to automation and which are not? Within India, automation will affect maybe small section of the industrial manufacturing sector and the software industry. But because of the surplus cheap labour available in India, most of the entrepreneurs will bank on cheap labour.
So for India, I do not see the threat of automation, but it is possible in Taiwan. You are going to have your first automated 7-11? If that is profitable, more and more Family Marts, KFCs, McDonalds may switch their outlets. At the end of the day, an entrepreneur is looking at costs. And human beings are so difficult to manage, every entrepreneur will say. I taught human resources courses in a business management school for seven years. Every businessman is trying to get rid of them.
In your presentation, you talked about how the Indian government has been reducing the welfare state and pushing responsibility to the family and the market. In this context, do you think UBI is a way for governments to reject its responsibility as the welfare state to provide more social services?
Absolutely. Every government in the world is under pressure now. They are under pressure in order to pursue economic growth. They think if economic growth is there, everything will be alright. Under those pressures, they want foreign investment to come in, they want multinationals to establish units in their countries. So they want economic activity in their country, so they’re doing a variety of things with other nations, particularly the richer ones. They’re under tremendous pressure.
When those pressures are there, governments are trying to reduce their responsibility to the people. It’s our job as civil society that we have to keep reminding government that “this is your minimum responsibility. If not in that way, then you should do it this way.” We are saying that, in the welfare basket, UBI is a foundation, the primary thing. On top of it, we can put additional various other things. So that should be the new design. We are making a new design of the welfare basket, trying to propose to the government “in all circumstances you must do this. Don’t throw us into the market, and don’t throw us into the family,” because everyone in the family is in a precarious position. We have to force the government to implement basic income, because that gives basic security to everyone.
Any other comments?
I think there is great promise in the group steering the UBI Taiwan movement. I wish everyone in UBI Taiwan great success. To all the readers, please join and strengthen the movement, because we are definitely making history.
Interviewer: Shuhei Omi, Writer for UBI Taiwan