International Basic Income Week

Monday 19th September to Sunday 25th September is International Basic Income Week. A universal basic income (UBI) can perhaps best be described as a social dividend for the modern world, generated by all the work that has been done by previous generations to build the technology and infrastructure and develop the society we live in today.

The basic tenets of the unconditional/universal basic income are that everyone is entitled to receive this dividend on an individual basis. UBI is independent of marital status or household configuration. As a human right, UBI does not depend on any preconditions, such as an obligation to look for paid employment or to be involved in community service. Nor is it means tested. Everyone gets it whether they are in paid work or not. And the amount should provide for a decent standard of living. It should prevent poverty and provide the opportunity to participate in society and to live in dignity.

New Zealand has traditionally been a big believer in universal benefits. We had a universal family benefit from 1946 until the mid 1980s. The universal family benefit dramatically improved the lives of women and children during this time. When it was implemented it was, for many women, the only money they had control of. And we have effectively had a universal basic income for over 65yr olds since the removal of a compulsory retirement age, though we call it national superannuation.

There are many compelling reasons for providing a universal basic income to people of all ages. One of the most pressing is that technological advances mean we face a future where there will simply not be paid employment for everyone. In fact, there may not be paid employment for many people at all. And much of the work that will be available will be sporadic and part time.

In May of this year, Adidas revealed its new prototype robot driven Speedfactory in Ansbach, Southern Germany. Adidas will start selling its first sports shoes manufactured by robots in this factory in 2017. Uber announced recently it expects to have a fleet of driverless cars operating in Pittsburgh within a month.

Technology itself is not the enemy. Robots can perform many tasks that humans are unable to perform, are dangerous and hazardous to human health, or at the very least monotonous and soul destroying. Technology can make life better for both people and the planet. At issue is how many people get to share of the benefits of new technology.

In the Adidas/Uber model only the shareholders, management, and a small group of elite workers will benefit. Many of us will be left without sufficient income to live on and no means of generating a better income. This does not bode well for the future.

A way will need to be found for technology to work for everyone, for the common good. Wealth will need to be distributed amongst all of the people, regardless of the amount of paid work they do.

A UBI recognizes that everyone makes a contribution to our community, not just those lucky enough to have such well-paid jobs they don’t need any state assistance – yet!

It would come at a cost, but would be offset by considerable savings. For example, the entire Work and Income Department could be disbanded. Though it is important that the UBI is not seen as the sum total of government assistance: people with additional support needs, for example because of a disability, or lack of access to affordable housing, will still require extra assistance.

Extra jobs could be created as people in paid work realize they don’t need to work 40 or more hours a week to make ends meet, and can instead spend some time at home raising their family, looking after their elderly parents, studying, writing that novel, or doing volunteer work.

There would also be advantages for employers who can only afford to employ casual or part-time workers. There would potentially be a bigger pool of people who are happy to accept this sort of work, because UBI tops up their income to an acceptable level and leaves them free to pursue other interests between paid jobs.

Universal Basic Income is still a radical idea for many, but it is affordable with the savings in other government spending and a bit of rejigging of our tax system. The goals of International Basic Income Week are to introduce the concept widely and to stimulate discussion about the UBI as a positive solution to the problems of joblessness and inequality.