We need UBI because we all need money, power, and trust
Inhumanity reigns so long as we don’t trust each other with the power to choose the directions of our own lives, free of economic coercion
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I've written before about how besides just being a good idea with a lot of evidence-based reasons to support it, unconditional basic income is a human right, because it is.
If you believe it’s immoral to starve someone to death, then you also must believe it’s immoral to withhold food from someone in order to get them to do what you want at the price you want. UBI is a fundamental human right we have yet to recognize as required restitution for taking the Earth, our natural inheritance, and turning it into private property.
But right now, I just want to focus on three things: the obvious immediate need for UBI, and two not so obvious immediate needs for UBI.
The obvious need for UBI was made obvious this year, when our entire world was changed due to the coronavirus. Tens of millions of Americans immediately lost their jobs or saw their incomes reduced, and we got to watch as Congress debated over whether or not to send most of us $1200 - once. Month after month about a third of people haven’t been able to pay their rent or mortgage. People are being evicted all over. We’ve seen photos of thousands of cars in miles-long lines for food banks. We’ve seen mental health plummet and insecurity skyrocket as even those who have kept their jobs worry that theirs could be next.
We all need money. That is a very simple fact of life. We need money to pay our bills. We need money to buy food, water, electricity, clothing, and internet access. We all have the same basic physical survival needs, and yet we tied survival to employment, and so here we are in a time of mass unemployment, and survival is a giant question mark hanging over all our heads.
There should be no debates over survival. We should have already had UBI decades ago. When the pandemic hit, we should have all thought, “Well this is a disaster, but at least I know I’m not going to go hungry or lose my home.” All debate in Congress should have been over how much and how long to temporarily boost our already existing UBI.
Survival is not a topic of debate. Our survival is not something to turn into a partisan argument between Team Blue and Team Red. Our lives have inherent value. Humanity has greater value than the almighty Dow. No human being is worthless and everyone has a right to exist, with no work requirements attached. We do not live to work. We live, and life is work.
There is however a second, huge, not so obvious reason we need UBI right this very moment, and that reason is power.
We all need power. Power is the freedom to say no. Power is control over our own bodies and our own time. Oh, you want me to work more hours now with no extra pay? No. Oh, you want to abuse me because you’re stressed out at work? No. Oh, you want me to risk my life for $8 an hour to make sure someone gets a cheeseburger? No way.
What worries me is how much power everyone just lost. With 10 million more job seekers than jobs, suddenly, there are a lot more yes men. There’s a lot less rocking the boat. There’s a lot more, “Put your head down and stay silent.” There’s a lot more acceptance of wage theft and exploitation and abuse.
This is why UBI is so important. It's not just money. Unconditionality is power. Unconditional access to the resources we need to live is the power to look people in the eyes, and make demands or refuse theirs. We all need that power, and we have to recognize that’s what UBI is and that’s why we don’t already have it.
Finally, the next not so obvious reason we need UBI immediately is trust.
We are living through a crisis of mistrust. We feel our institutions are failing us. We feel we are being constantly lied to. We don’t know what to believe, and so we clutch for whatever we can find to give us some sense of control. We fall for misinformation and disinformation. We fall for conspiracies. We stop voting. We lose faith in the project of self-government, and we lose faith in each other.
Without trust, society unravels. Democracy fails. We can’t do anything big if we don’t trust that doing big things together is actually possible. But our entire society is built on distrust. Everything is built upon proving ourselves to each other first. “What will you do for me?” we ask each other.
We can’t keep doing that. We have to build a foundation of unconditional trust. We have to start off by all trusting each other with access to what we need to live. If we first trust, trust will be returned. If we trust that we all want to contribute to society, then with that trust, we will be more willing to contribute. We’ll be more willing to help each other and work together.
The Finland basic income experiment increased trust, because of course it did. If you are trusted then you are more willing to trust. And if you’re more willing to trust, then there’s less reason to be afraid. There’s less reason to live in fear, and there’s more reason to vote, and to not just vote, but to really engage in the never-ending unpaid process that is democracy.
We need UBI because we all need money, we all need power, and we all need trust. Without these things, I worry about the future of human civilization. With these things, we march toward a better future.
For there is no future of humankind without kind humans, and there is inhumanity so long as we don’t trust each other with the power to choose the directions of our own lives, free of economic coercion.
As the only species on Earth who has to pay to live here, it’s time we cover that inhumane cost.
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Scott, you are certainly looking at UBI from every angle. I loved you 'engineering' take about the need to create a 'failsafe' system that is 'proportionally' controlled. If we treat UBI as income for Welfare and Tax, as the UBI is raised it will automatically reduce welfare benefits, while those with higher incomes will pay more tax. Taking this approach averts the concern that replacing welfare with UBI could make some people worse off. It means we can introduce it without having to change anything else at the start. My preference as you may know is to target a long term change to the tax system, so at a point say 20 years hence, all taxes are replaced by a flat % tax based on your place of residence. In this case, a separate % would apply to all people in the same local government area, and a different rate for all the people in the same state and a common rate for the federal government. Then each legislature could set their own rate to meet their costs. The taxes would apply to every transaction, including the purchase of assets. All businesses would get a rebate of tax upon the sale of their goods and services, so only the end purchaser paid tax. Also, individuals would get a rebate on the resale of assets equal to the less of the tax paid upon the original purchase and the tax rate(s) times the resale proceeds - to avoid double taxation. In this case, there is little incentive for businesses to try to avoid tax as they would not expense any tax they paid, getting it all back as they sell their goods and services out of the tax paid by their customer. As everyone paid the same rates (base on where they live) and as it would be paid on all spending, tax would cease to be a factor in decision-making or in relative wealth. It would simply be the simplest way to keep money circulating through the economy. When combined with a UBI the net effect is the same as progressive tax system with a tax rebate for low income earners.... but much simpler to administer. It would mean everyone gets their incomes tax free. Everyone would have one or more sources of income all paid pre-tax: the UBI plus whatever else they can earn, however and whenever they can earn it. Then everyone would pay tax as they spend. We need to give 20 years to make the change in the tax system to placate vested interests and also to pay those still reliant on the current system when the changeover takes place to compensate them for the loss of their business. As the whole of society benefits by the change, we should not ask those negatively impacted to bear the cost. We can all bear a part of the cost by ensuring those impacted are generously rewarded at the time... this will avoid push-back from vested interests