A UBI is an ethos as much as it is a technocratic policy proposal. It contains within it the principles of universality, unconditionality, inclusion, and simplicity, and it insists that every person is deserving of participation in the economy, freedom of choice, and a life without deprivation. Our governments can and should choose to provide those things.
Surely just giving people money couldn’t work. Or could it?
Imagine if every month the government deposited £1000 in your bank account, with no strings attached and nothing expected in return. It sounds crazy, but Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become one of the most influential policy ideas of our time, backed by thinkers on both the left and the right. The founder of Facebook, Obama’s chief economist, governments from Canada to Finland are all seriously debating some form of UBI.
In this sparkling and provocative book, economics writer Annie Lowrey looks at the global UBI movement. She travels to Kenya to see how UBI is lifting the poorest people on earth out of destitution, India to see how inefficient government programs are failing the poor, South Korea to interrogate UBI’s intellectual pedigree, and Silicon Valley to meet the tech titans financing UBI pilots in expectation of a world with advanced artificial intelligence and little need for human labour. She also examines the challenges the movement faces: contradictory aims, uncomfortable costs, and most powerfully, the entrenched belief that no one should get something for nothing.
The UBI movement is not just an economic policy, it also calls into question our deepest intuitions about what we owe each other and what activities we should reward and value as a society.
Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy. She is a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. She is a former writer for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, and Slate, among other publications.
Wages for Breathing
ONE OPPRESSIVELY HOT and Muggy day in July, I stood at a military installation at the top of a mountain called Dorasan, overlooking the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea. The central building was painted in camouflage and emblazoned with the hopeful phrase “End of Separation, Beginning of Unification.” On one side was a large, open observation deck with a number of telescopes aimed toward the Kaesong industrial area, a special pocket between the two countries where, up until recently, communist workers from the North would come and toil for capitalist companies from the South, earning $90 million in wages a year. A small gift shop sold soju liquor made by Northern workers and chocolate-covered soybeans grown in the demilitarized zone itself. (Don’t like them? Mail them back for a refund, the package said.)
On the other side was a theater whose seats faced not a movie screen but windows looking out toward North Korea. In front, there was a labeled diorama. Here is a flag. Here is a factory. Here is a juche-inspiring statue of Kim ll Sung. See it there? Can you make out his face, his hands? Chinese tourists pointed between the diorama and the landscape, viewed through the summer haze.
Across the four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, the North Koreans were blasting propaganda music so loudly that I could hear not just the tunes but the words. I asked my tour guide, Soo-jin, what the song said. “The usual,” she responded. “Stuff about how South Koreans are the tools of the Americans and the North Koreans will come to liberate us from our capitalist slavery.” Looking at the denuded landscape before us, this bit of pomposity seemed impossibly sad, as did the incomplete tunnel from North to South scratched out beneath us, as did the little Potemkin village the North Koreans had set up in sight of the observation deck. It was supposedly home to two hundred families, who Pyongyang insisted were working a collective farm, using a child care center, schools, a hospital. Yet Seoul had determined that nobody had ever lived there, and the buildings were empty shells. Comrades would come turn the lights on and off to give the impression of activity. The North Koreans called it “peace village”; Soo-jin called it “propaganda village.”
A few members of the group I was traveling with, including myself, teared up at the stark difference between what was in front of us and what was behind. There is perhaps no place on earth that better represents the profound life-and-death power of our choices when it comes to government policy. Less than a lifetime ago, the two countries were one, their people a polity, their economies a single fabric. But the Cold War’s ideological and political rivalry between capitalism and communism had ripped them apart, dividing families and scarring both nations. Soo-jin talked openly about the separation of North Korea from the South as “our national tragedy.”
The Republic of Korea, the South, rocketed from third-world to first-world status, becoming one of only a handful of countries to do so in the postwar era. In 1960, about fifteen years after the division of the peninsula, its people were about as wealthy as those in the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. In 2016, they were closer income-wise to those in Japan, its former colonial occupier, and a brutal one. Citigroup now expects South Korea to be among the most prosperous countries on earth by 2040, richer even than the United States by some measures.
Yet the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North, has faltered and failed, particularly since the 1990s. It is a famine-scarred pariah state dominated by governmental graft and military buildup. Rare is it for a country to suffer such a miserable growth pattern without also suffering from the curse of natural disasters or the horrors of war. As of a few years ago, an estimated 40 percent of the population was living in extreme poverty,‘ more than double the share of people in Sudan. Were war to befall the country, that proportion would inevitably rise.
Even from the remove of the observation deck, enveloped in steam, hemmed in by barbed wire, patrolled by passive young men with assault rifles, the difference was obvious. You could see it. I could see it. The South Korean side of the border was lush with forest and riven with well built highways. Everywhere, there were power lines, trains, docks, high-rise buildings. An hour south sat Seoul, as cosmopolitan and culturally rich a city as Paris, with far better infrastructure than New York or Los Angeles. But the North Korean side of the border was stripped of trees. People had perhaps cut them down for firewood and basic building supplies, Soo-jin told me. The roads were empty and plain, the buildings low and smalI. So were the people: North Koreans are now measurably shorter than their South Korean relatives, in part due to the stunting effects of malnutrition.
South Korea and North Korea demonstrated, so powerfully demonstrated, that what we often think of as economic circumstance is largely a product of policy. The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be. There is always a counterfactual. Perhaps that counterfactual is not as stark as it is at the demilitarized zone. But it is always there.
Imagine that a check showed up in your mailbox or your bank account every month.
The money would be enough to live on, but just barely. It might cover a room in a shared apartment, food, and bus fare. It would save you from destitution if you had just gotten out of prison, needed to leave an abusive partner, or could not find work. But it would not be enough to live particularly well on. Let’s say that you could do anything you wanted with the money. It would come with no strings attached. You could use it to pay your bills. You could use it to go to college, or save it up for a down payment on a house. You could spend it on cigarettes and booze, or finance a life spent playing Candy Crush in your mom’s basement and noodling around on the Internet. Or you could use it to quit your job and make art, devote yourself to charitable works, or care for a sick child. Let’s also say that you did not have to do anything to get the money. It would just show up every month, month after month, for as long as you lived. You would not have to be a specific age, have a child, own a home, or maintain a clean criminal record to get it. You just would, as would every other person in your community.
This simple, radical, and elegant proposal is called a universal basic income, or UBI. It is universal, in the sense that every resident of a given community or country receives it. It is basic, in that it is just enough to live on and not more. And it is income.
The idea is a very old one, with its roots in Tudor England and the writings of Thomas Paine, a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has washed ashore again and again over the last half millennium, often coming in with the tides of economic revolution. In the past few years, with the middle class being squeezed, trust in government eroding, technological change hastening, the economy getting Uberized, and a growing body of research on the power of cash as an antipoverty measure being produced, it has vaulted to a surprising prominence, even pitching from airy hypothetical to near-reality in some places. Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton, the Black Lives Matter movement, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, these are just a few of the policy proposal’s flirts, converts, and supporters. UBI pilots are starting or ongoing in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada, and Kenya, with India contemplating one as well. Some politicians are trying to get it adopted in California, and it has already been the subject of a Swiss referendum, where its reception exceeded activists’ expectations despite its defeat.
Why undertake such a drastic policy change, one that would fundamentally alter the social contract, the safety net, and the nature of work? UBI’s strange bedfellows put forward a dizzying kaleidoscope of arguments, drawing on everything from feminist theory to environmental policy to political philosophy to studies of work incentives to sociological work on racism.
Perhaps the most prominent argument for a UBI has to do with technological unemployment, the prospect that robots will soon take all of our jobs. Economists at Oxford University estimate that about half of American jobs, including millions and millions of white-collar ones, are susceptible to imminent elimination due to technological advances. Analysts are warning that Armageddon is coming for truck drivers, warehouse box packers, pharmacists, accountants, legal assistants, cashiers, translators, medical diagnosticians, stockbrokers, home appraisers, I could go on.
In a world with far less demand for human work, a UBI would be necessary to keep the masses afloat, the argument goes. “I’m not saying I know the future, and that this is exactly what’s going to happen,” Andy Stern, the former president of the two-million member Service Employees International Union and a UBI booster, told me. But if “a tsunami is coming, maybe someone should figure out if we have some storm shutters around.”
A second common line of reasoning is less speculative, more rooted in the problems of the present rather than the problems of tomorrow. It emphasizes UBl’s promise at ameliorating the yawning inequality and grating wage stagnation that the United States and other high-income countries are already facing. The middle class is shrinking. Economic growth is aiding the brokerage accounts of the rich but not the wallets of the working classes. A UBl would act as a straightforward income support for families outside of the top 20 percent, its proponents argue. It would also radically improve the bargaining power of workers, forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits, and improve conditions to retain their talent. Why take a crummy job for $7.25 an hour when you have a guaranteed $1,000 a month to fall back on? “In a time of immense wealth, no one should live in poverty, nor should the middle class be consigned to a future of permanent stagnation or anxiety,” argues the Economic Security Project, a new UBI think tank and advocacy group.
In addition, a UBI could be a powerful tool to eliminate deprivation, both around the world and in the United States. About 41 million Americans were living below the poverty line as of 2016. A $1,000-a-month grant would push many of them above it, and would ensure that no abusive partner, bout of sickness, natural disaster, or sudden job loss means destitution in the richest civilization that the planet has ever known. This case is yet stronger in lower income countries. Numerous governments have started providing cash transfers, if not universal and unconditional ones, to reduce their poverty rates, and some policymakers and political parties, pleased with the results, are toying with providing a true UBI. In Kenya, a U.S.-based charity called GiveDirectly is sending thousands of adults about $20 a month for more than a decade to demonstrate how a UBl could end deprivation, cheaply and at scale. “We could end extreme poverty right now, if we wanted to,” Michael Faye, GiveDirectly’s cofounder, told me.
A UBI would end poverty not just effectively, but also efficiently, some of its libertarian-leaning boosters argue. Replacing the current American welfare state with a UBI would eliminate huge swaths of the government’s bureaucracy and reduce state interference in its citizens’ lives: Hello UBI, good-bye to the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration, a whole lot of state and local offices, and much of the Department of Agriculture. “Just giving people money is a very natural solution,” says Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of center think tank. “It’s a way of cutting the Gordian knot. You don’t need to be drafting ever more sophisticated solutions to our problems.”
Protecting against a robot apocalypse, providing workers with bargaining power, jump-starting the middle class, ending poverty, and reducing the complexity of government: It sounds pretty good, right? But a UBI means that the government would send every citizen a check every month, eternally and regardless of circumstance. That inevitably raises any number of questions about fairness, government spending, and the nature of work.
When I first heard the idea, I worried about UBl’s impact on jobs. A $1,000 check arriving every month might spur millions of workers to drop out of the labor force, leaving the United States relying on a smaller and smaller pool of workers for taxable income to be distributed to a bigger and bigger pool of people not participating in paid labor. This seems a particularly prevalent concern given how many men have dropped out of the labor force of late, pushed by stagnant wages and pulled, perhaps, by the low-cost marvels of gaming and streaming. With a UBI, the country would lose the ingenuity and productivity of a large share of its greatest asset: its people. More than that, a UBI implemented to fight technological unemployment might mean giving up on American workers, paying them off rather than figuring out how to integrate them into a vibrant, techfueled economy. Economists of all political persuasions have voiced similar concerns.
And a UBI would do all of this at extraordinary expense. Let’s say that we wanted to give every American $1,000 a month in cash. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests that this policy would cost roughly $3.9 trillion a year. Adding that kind of spending on top of everything else the government already funds would mean that total federal outlays would more than double, arguably requiring taxes to double as well. That might slow the economy down, and cause rich families and big corporations to flee offshore. Even if the government replaced Social Security and many of its other antipoverty programs with a UBI, its spending would still have to increase by a number in the hundreds of billions, each and every year.
Stepping back even further: Is a UBI really the best use of scarce resources? Does it make any sense to bump up taxes in order to give people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates $1,000 a month, along with all those working-class families, retirees, children, unemployed individuals, and so on? Would it not be more efficient to tax rich people and direct money to poor people through means-testing, as programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, already do? Even in the socialist Nordic countries, state support is generally contingent on circumstance. Plus, many lower-income and middle-income families already receive far more than $1,000 a month per person from the government, in the United States and in other countries. If a UBI wiped out programs like food stamps and housing vouchers, is there any guarantee that a basic income would be more fair and effective than the current system?
There are more philosophical objections to a UBI too. In no country or community on earth do individuals automatically get a pension as a birthright, with the exception of some princes, princesses, and residents of petrostates like Alaska. Why should we give people money with no strings attached? Why not ask for community service in return, or require that people at least try to work? Isn’t America predicated on the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, not on coasting by on a handout?
As a reporter covering the economy and economic policy in Washington, I heard all of these arguments for and objections against, watching as an obscure, never before tried idea became a global phenomenon. Not once in my career had I seen a bit of social-policy arcana go viral. Search interest in UBI more than doubled between 2011 and 2016, according to Google data.“ UBl barely got any mention in news stories as of the mid 2000s, but since then the growth has been exponential. It came up in books, at conferences, in meetings with politicians, in discussions with progressives and libertarians, around the dinner table.
I covered it as it happened. I wrote about that failed Swiss referendum, and about a Canadian basic income experiment that has provided evidence for the contemporary debate. I talked with Silicon Valley investors terrified by the prospect of a jobless future and rode in a driverless car, wondering how long it would be before artificial intelligence started to threaten my job. I chatted with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle about the failing middle class and whether the country needed a new, big redistributive policy to strengthen it. I had beers with European intellectuals enthralled with the idea. I talked with Hill aides convinced that a UBI would be a part of a 2020 presidential platform. I spoke with advocates certain that in a decade, millions of people around the world would have a monthly check to fall back on, or else would make up a miserable new precariat. I heard from philosophers convinced that our understanding of work, our social contract, and the underpinnings of our economy were about to undergo an epochal transformation.
The more I learned about UBI, the more obsessed I became with it, because it raised such interesting questions about our economy and our politics. Could libertarians in the United States really want the same thing as Indian economists as the Black Lives Matter protesters as Silicon Valley tech pooh-bahs? Could one policy be right for both Kenyan villagers living on 60 cents a day and the citizens of Switzerland’s richest canton? Was UBI a magic bullet, or a policy hammer in search of a nail? My questions were also philosophical. Should we compensate uncompensated care workers? Why do we tolerate child poverty, given how rich the United States is? Is our safety net racist? What would a robot jobs apocalypse actually look like?
I set out to write this book less to describe a burgeoning international policy movement or to advocate for an idea, than to answer those questions for myself. The research for it brought me to villages in remote Kenya, to a wedding held amid monsoon rains in one of the poorest states in India, to homeless shelters, to senators’ offices. I interviewed economists, politicians, subsistence farmers, and philosophers. I traveled to a UBI conference in Korea to meet many of the idea’s leading proponents and deepest thinkers, and stood with them at the DMZ contemplating the terrifying, heartening, and profound effects of our policy choices.
What I came to believe is this:
A UBI is an ethos as much as it is a technocratic policy proposal. It contains within it the principles of universality, unconditionality, inclusion, and simplicity, and it insists that every person is deserving of participation in the economy, freedom of choice, and a life without deprivation. Our governments can and should choose to provide those things, whether through a $1,000-a-month stipend or not.
This book has three parts. First, we’ll look at the issues surrounding UBI and work, then UBI and poverty, and finally UBI and social inclusion. At the end, we’ll explore the promise, potential, and design of universal cash programs. I hope that you will come to see, as I have, that there is much to be gained from contemplating this complicated, transformative, and mind-bending policy.
The Ghost Trucks
THE NORTH AMERICAN International auto show is a gleaming, roaring affair. Once a year, in bleakest January, carmakers head to the Motor City to show off their newest models, technologies, and concept vehicles to industry figures, the press, and the public. Each automaker takes its corner of the dark, carpeted cavern of the Cobo Center and turns it into something resembling a game-show set: spotlights, catwalks, light displays, scantily clad women, and vehicle after vehicle, many rotating on giant lazy Susans. I spent hours at a recent show, ducking in and out of new models and talking with auto executives and sales representatives. I sat in an SUV as sleek as a shark, the buttons and gears and dials on its dash-board replaced with a virtual cockpit straight out of science fiction. A race car so aerodynamic and low that I had to crouch to get in it. And driverless car after driverless car after driverless car.
The displays ranged in degrees of technological spectacle from the cool to the oh-my-word. One massive Ford truck, for instance, offered a souped-up cruise control that would brake for pedestrians and take over stop-and-go driving in heavy traffic. “No need to keep ramming the pedals yourself,” a representative said as l gripped the oversize steering wheel.
Across the floor sat a Volkswagen concept car that looked like a hippie caravan for aliens. The minibus had no door latches, just sensors. There was a plug instead of a gas tank. On fully autonomous driving mode, the dash swallowed the steering wheel. A variety of lasers, sensors, radar, and cameras would then pilot the vehicle, and the driver and front-seat passenger could swing their seats around to the back, turning the bus into a snug, space-age living room. “The car of the future!” proclaimed Klaus Bischoff, the company’s head of design.
It was a phrase that I heard again and again in Detroit. We are developing the cars of the future. The cars of the future are coming. The cars of the future are here. The auto market, I came to understand, is rapidly moving from automated to autonomous to driverless. Many cars already offer numerous features to assist with driving, including fancy cruise controls, backup warnings, lanekeeping technology, emergency braking, automatic parking, and so on. Add in enough of those options, along with some advanced sensors and thousands of lines of code, and you end up with an autonomous car that can pilot itself from origin to destination. Soon enough, cars, trucks, and taxis might be able to do so without a driver in the vehicle at all.
This technology has gone from zero to sixty, forgive me, in only a decade and a half. Back in 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense and better known as DARPA, announced a “grand challenge,” an invitation for teams to build autonomous vehicles and race one another on a 142-mile desert course from Barstow, California, to Primm, Nevada. The winner would take home a cool million. At the marquee event, none of the competitors made it through the course, or anywhere close. But the promise of prize money and the publicity around the event spurred a wave of investment and innovation. “That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, offroad racers, backyard mechanics, inventors, and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem,” said Lt. Col. Scott Wadle of DARPA. “The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.”
As these systems become more reliable, safer, and cheaper, and as government regulations and the insurance markets come to accommodate them, mere mortals will get to experience them. At the auto show, I watched John Krafcik, the chief executive of Waymo, Google’s self-driving spin-off, show off a fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan. “Our latest innovations have brought us closer to scaling our technology to potentially millions of people every day,” he said, describing how the cost of the threedimensional light-detection radar that helps guide the car has fallen 90 percent from its original $75,000 price tag in just a few years. BMW and Ford, among others, have announced that their autonomous offerings will go to market soon. “The amount of technology in cars has been growing exponentially,” said Sandy Lobenstein, a Toyota executive, speaking in Detroit‘s “The vehicle as we know it is transforming into a means of getting around that futurists have dreamed about for a long time.” Taxis without a taxi driver, trucks without a truck driver, cars you can tell where to go and then take a nap in: they are coming to our roads, and threatening millions and millions of jobs as they do.
Give People Money. How a Universal Basic Income would end poverty, revolutionise work, and remake the world
by Annie Lowrey
get it at Amazon.com