Who’s got your back? A case for UBI

Issue 35 - 08 December 2020 (6-min read)

When I was part of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program, we played a trade game to learn how inequality works. Everyone started with 10 beans each and started trading among themselves. After the first round, some people emerged with four times the number of beans they started with while others dusted their hands with sheepish looks on their faces. 💸 💸 💸

The terms of the next trading round were determined by the winners, alliances were forged and debt sought but the result was simple: the rich stayed rich (if not becoming richer), the poor were stuck in an ever-spiralling cycle of poverty. 

This may have been a simplistic description of how inequality happens but one could make some obvious conclusions: the rules of the game were set by those with the most beans, so if you’re unlucky enough to be dealt a bad hand at the beginning, well then, too bad.

Which brings us to the reality of our world today, plagued by - no pun intended - drastic inequality, historic unemployment and existential uncertainty about what the future holds. When the pandemic hit earlier this year, many countries dug deep into their coffers to pay for relief packages and stimulus checks. Even rental payments were pardoned and laws were passed to prevent landlords from evicting tenants. Here in Tahiti 🌺, the homeless people disappeared from the sidewalks as they were provided shelter and food by the government.

Believe it or not, but that’s essentially universal basic income (UBI). Even if some countries dislike using this phrase, there seemed to be unanimous agreement that we needed to give out cash with no strings attached otherwise the world would descend into a deep depression. 

This week in The Global Tiller we take a closer look at UBI. There are several ways in which proponents of this idea describe it: governments can pay a fixed amount of money to each citizen with no strings attached while taking away all other kinds of benefits, or it could pay UBI on top of any existing welfare benefits. Perhaps, this video 🎥 will help you gain a better understanding of how UBI works:

The devil is in the details. For those who are arguing for or against UBI are mostly debating the finer points of which government departments take the fall when funds are redirected to a UBI scheme, or who is entitled to receive these payments and how much. 

We have come a long way from the very idea of 'free money' being utopian. Several studies in various parts of the world have shown that receiving a fixed amount of money each month helped families increase their wealth and wellbeing. 🇨🇦 Canada experimented with basic income 50 years ago and concluded that it led to a significant decline in hospital visits, improvements in mental health, and a lower high school dropout rate. 

Universal basic income helped Kenyans weather COVID-19 🇰🇪. Prior basic income payments helped them undertake risks and start their own businesses, which improved their overall wealth. When the pandemic hit, these Kenyans were still vulnerable to the devastating impact of lockdowns but this was not a failure of basic income as much as a reinforcement of the point that income supplements help people weather unexpected disasters.

Now that the end of the pandemic is within sight, with the United Kingdom 🇬🇧 rolling out general vaccinations today, there will be a strong desire for governments (and push from corporate lobbies) to withdraw all these benefits and return to the "normal". 

It would do the world good if it remembers what mattered when we were all sheltered in place: a steady source of income so we could stay safe at home, and the ability to pay our health bills when, unfortunately, we did catch the virus.

Let us know what basic income schemes were introduced in your community.

Happy reading and stay safe!

Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller


If you’re interested in the ongoing debate around UBI, you may want to check out the following links:

Before we get entangled in abstract concepts of UBI and whether or not it will work, let’s not forget that basic income helps people, like us. Check out activist Jessie Golem’s portraits of people who received basic income in Canada:

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… and now what?

When I was a kid, my father always told me that as long as I do my homework and bring back good grades, he didn’t want me doing summer jobs. "It’s my duty to provide for you," he would say. Now he’s retired from the Navy, receiving his monthly, well-due pension after serving his country for 39 years. 

If you look at it, we both received UBI of some kind. As kids, we could focus on studying because our parents had our back. And when individuals reach a certain age, they can stop worrying about making money.

These situations may seem normal to most of us but, somehow, in between these two ages, getting paid unconditionally stops making sense to many. 

There are a lot of arguments in favour or against UBI, picking on technical elements. But, the question of UBI is more a conversation on values and a vision of humanity. 

On my right (and usually it is the right side of the political spectrum) are those thinking that only incentives can motivate people. They believe people are naturally not inclined to work and need to be pushed into it. While on my left are those thinking that people can be responsible on their own. They know what their duties for the community are and they need no incentives for this.

Underneath all this is the fact that, in 2020, pandemic or not, there are still people who are struggling to survive, even in rich countries. They merely survive in an age when the world hasn’t been richer than it is now. This is the time of Jeff Bezos, whose name speaks for itself about the sheer inequality of our times. But just to give you some perspective: this man’s wealth ($184.4 billion) is greater than my entire country’s GDP ($3.4 billion)!

The year 2020 has been called the 'Great Reset' by the World Economic Forum. All of us have claimed ourselves, or heard in conversations, the need to rethink our lives, our way of living. So, how about we go deep into this reset?

UBI is not a luxury, not even a utopia. It’s a necessity. Several studies have shown that it works and none has shown that it leads to laziness, boredom or economic inflation.

The debate on UBI is about looking at ourselves and asking ourselves what is our understanding of human nature and what are we willing to accept for our fellow humans. 

There will be challenges to implement this system: fiscal, economic and social but isn’t the very etymology of the word "leader" (Leith) first and foremost the ability to pass above and go beyond challenges while letting go of everything that weighs us down in this journey?

Clearly, we have a leadership challenge when talking about UBI. So the question is: which leader will be up for it?

You can also read my previous reflections on a resilient economy in a post-Covid world and imagining a world without money.

Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury

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