Giving people back time, and a sense of confidence in the future.
The point of a welfare state is to establish a safety net below which nobody should ever be allowed to fall. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to become depressed or anxious, and the more likely you are to become sick in almost every way.
There is a direct relationship between poverty and the number of mood-altering drugs that people take, the antidepressants they take just to get through the day. If we want to really treat these problems, we need to deal with poverty.
Instead of using a net to catch people when they fall, Basic Income raises the floor on which everyone stands.
The world has changed fundamentally. We won’t regain security by going backward, especially as robots and technology render more and more jobs obsolete, but we can go forward, to a basic income for everyone.
There was one more obstacle hanging over my attempts to overcome depression and anxiety, and it seemed larger than anything I had addressed up to now. If you’re going to try to reconnect in the ways I’ve been describing, if you’re going to (say) develop a community, democratize your workplace, or set up groups to explore your intrinsic values, you will need time, and you need confidence.
But we are being constantly drained of both. Most people are working all the time, and they are insecure about the future. They are exhausted, and they feel as if the pressure is being ratcheted up every year. It’s hard to join a big struggle when it feels like a struggle to make it to the end of the day. Asking people to take on more -when they’re already run down, seems almost like a taunt.
But as I researched this book, I learned about an experiment that is designed to give people back time, and a sense of confidence in the future.
In the middle of the 1970s, a group of Canadian government officials chose, apparently at random, a small town called Dauphin in the rural province of Manitoba. It was, they knew, nothing special to look at. The nearest city, Winnipeg, was a four-hour drive away. It lay in the middle of the prairies, and most of the people living there were farmers growing a crop called canola. Its seventeen thousand people worked as hard as they could, but they were still struggling. When the canola crop was good, everyone did well, the local car dealership sold cars, and the bar sold booze. When the canola crop was bad, everyone suffered.
And then one day the people of Dauphin were told they had been chosen to be part of an experiment, due to a bold decision by the country’s Liberal government. For a long time, Canadians had been wondering if the welfare state they had been developing, in fits and starts over the years, was too clunky and inefficient and didn’t cover enough people. The point of a welfare state is to establish a safety net below which nobody should ever be allowed to fall: a baseline of security that would prevent people from becoming poor and prevent anxiety. But it turned out there was still a lot of poverty, and a lot of insecurity, in Canada. Something wasn’t working.
So somebody had what seemed like an almost stupidly simple idea. Up to now, the welfare state had worked by trying to plug gaps, by catching the people who fell below a certain level and nudging them back up. But if insecurity is about not having enough money to live on, they wondered, what would happen if we just gave everyone enough, with no strings attached? What if we simply mailed every single Canadian citizen, young, old, all of them, a check every year that was enough for them to live on? It would be set at a carefully chosen rate. You’d get enough to survive, but not enough to have luxuries. They called it a universal basic income. Instead of using a net to catch people when they fall, they proposed to raise the floor on which everyone stands.
This idea had even been mooted by right-wing politicians like Richard Nixon, but it had never been tried before. So the Canadians decided to do it, in one place. That’s how for several years, the people of Dauphin were given a guarantee: Each of you will be unconditionally given the equivalent of $19,000 US. (in today’s money) by the government. You don’t have to worry. There’s nothing you can do that will take away this basic income. It’s yours by right. And then they stood back to see what would happen.
At that time, over in Toronto, there was a young economics student named Evelyn Forget, and one day, one of her professors told the class about this experiment. She was fascinated. But then, three years into the experiment, power in Canada was transferred to a Conservative government, and the program was abruptly shut down. The guaranteed income vanished. To everyone except the people who got the checks, and one other person, it was quickly forgotten.
Thirty years later, that young economics student, Evelyn, had become a professor at the medical school of the University of Manitoba, and she kept bumping up against some disturbing evidence. It is a well-established fact that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to become depressed or anxious, and the more likely you are to become sick in almost every way. In the United States, if you have an income below $20,000, you are more than twice as likely to become depressed as somebody who makes $70,000 or more. And if you receive a regular income from property you own, you are ten times less likely to develop an anxiety disorder than if you don’t get any income from property. “One of the things I find just astonishing,” she told me, “is the direct relationship between poverty and the number of mood-altering drugs that people take, the antidepressants they take just to get through the day.” If you want to really treat these problems, Evelyn believed, you need to deal with these questions.
And so Evelyn found herself wondering about that old experiment that had taken place decades earlier. What were the results? Did the people who were given that guaranteed income get healthier? What else might have changed in their lives? She began to search for academic studies written back then. She found nothing. So she began to write letters and make calls. She knew that the experiment was being studied carefully at the time, that mountains of data were gathered. That was the whole point: it was a study. Where did it go?
After a lot of detective work, stretching over five years, she finally got an answer. She was told that the data gathered during the experiment was hidden away in the National Archives, on the verge of being thrown in the trash. “I got there, and found most of it in paper. It was actually sitting in boxes,” she told me. “There were eighteen hundred cubic feet. That’s eighteen hundred bankers’ boxes, full of paper.” Nobody had ever added up the results. When the Conservatives came to power, they didn’t want anyone to look further, they believed the experiment was a waste of time and contrary to their moral values.
So Evelyn and a team of researchers began the long task of figuring out what the basic income experiment had actually achieved, all those years before. At the same time, they started to track down the people who had lived through it, to discover the Iong-term effects.
The first thing that struck Evelyn, as she spoke to the people who’d been through the program, was how vividly they remembered it. Everyone had a story about how it had affected their lives. They told her that, primarily, “the money acted as an insurance policy. It just sort of removed the stress of worrying about whether or not you can afford to keep your kids in school for another year, whether or not you could afford to pay for the things that you had to pay for.”
This had been a conservative farming community, and one of the biggest changes was how women saw themselves. Evelyn met with one woman who had taken her check and used it to become the first female in her family to get a postsecondary education. She trained to be a librarian and rose to be one of the most respected people in the community. She showed Evelyn pictures of her two daughters graduating, and she talked about how proud she was she had been able to become a role model for them.
Other people talked about how it lifted their heads above constant insecurity for the first time in their lives. One woman had a disabled husband and six kids, and she made a living by cutting people’s hair in her front room. She explained that the universal income meant for the first time the family had “some cream in the coffee” small things that made life a little better.
These were moving stories, but the hard facts lay in the number crunching. After years of compiling the data, here are some of the key effects Evelyn discovered:
- Students stayed at school longer, and performed better there.
- The number of low-birth-weight babies declined, as more women delayed having children until they were ready.
- Parents with newborn babies stayed at home longer to care for them, and didn’t hurry back to work.
- Overall work hours fell modestly, as people spent more time with their kids, or learning.
But there was one result that struck me as particularly important.
Evelyn went through the medical records of the people taking part, and she found that, as she explained to me, there were “fewer people showing up at their doctor’s office complaining about mood disorders.” Depression and anxiety in the community fell significantly. When it came to severe depression and other mental health disorders that were so bad the patient had to be hospitalized, there was a drop of 9 percent in just three years.
Why was that? “It just removed the stress, or reduced the stress, that people dealt with in their everyday lives,” Evelyn concludes. You knew you’d have a secure income next month, and next year, so you could create a picture of yourself in the future that was stable.
It had another unanticipated effect, she told me. If you know you have enough money to live on securely, no matter what happens, you can turn down a job that treats you badly, or that you find humiliating. “It makes you less of a hostage to the job you have, and some of the jobs that people work just in order to survive are terrible, demeaning jobs,” she says. It gave you “that little bit of power to say, I don’t need to stay here.” That meant that employers had to make work more appealing. And over time, it was poised to reduce inequality in the town, which we would expect to reduce the depression caused by extreme status differences.
For Evelyn, all this tells us something fundamental about the nature of depression. “If it were just a brain disorder,” she told me, “if it was just a physical ailment, you wouldn’t expect to see such a strong correlation with poverty,” and you wouldn’t see such a significant reduction from granting a guaranteed basic income. “Certainly,” she said, “it makes the lives of individuals who receive it more comfortable, which works as an antidepressant.”
As Evelyn looks out over the world today, and how it has changed from the Dauphin of the mid-1970s, she thinks the need for a program like this, across all societies, has only grown. Back then, “people still expected to graduate from high school and to go get a job and work at the same company [or] at least in the same industry until they’d be sixty-five, and then they’d be retired with a nice gold watch and a nice pension.” But “people are struggling to find that kind of stability in labor today, I don’t think those days are ever coming back. We live in a globalized world. The world has changed, fundamentally.” We won’t regain security by going backward, especially as robots and technology render more and more jobs obsolete, but we can go forward, to a basic income for everyone. As Barack Obama suggested in an interview late in his presidency, a universal income may be the best tool we have for recreating security, not with bogus promises to rebuild a lost world, but by doing something distinctively new.
Buried in those dusty boxes of data in the Canadian national archives, Evelyn might have found one of the most important antidepressants for the twenty-first century.
I wanted to understand the implications of this more, and to explore my own concerns and questions about it, so I went to see a brilliant Dutch economic historian named Rutger Bregman. He is the leading European champion of the idea of a universal basic income. We ate burgers and inhaled caffeinated drinks and ended up talking late into the night, discussing the implications of all this. “Time and again,” he said, “we blame a collective problem on the individual. So you’re depressed? You should get a pill. You don’t have a job? Go to a job coach, we’ll teach you how to write a résumé or [to join] LinkedIn. But obviously, that doesn’t go to the root of the problem. Not many people are thinking about what’s actually happened to our labor market, and our society, that these [forms of despair] are popping up everywhere.”
Even middle-class people are living with a chronic “lack of certainty” about what their lives will be like in even a few months’ time, he says. The alternative approach, a guaranteed income, is partly about removing this humiliation and replacing it with security. It has now been tried in many places on a small scale, as he documents in his book Utopia for Realists. There’s always a pattern, he shows. When it’s first proposed, people say, what, just give out money? That will destroy the work ethic. People will just spend it on alcohol and drugs and watching TV. And then the results come in.
For example, in the Great Smoky Mountains, there’s a Native American tribal group of eight thousand people who decided to open a casino. But they did it a little differently. They decided they were going to split the profits equally among everyone in the group, they’d all get a check for (as it turned out) $6,000 a year, rising to $9,000 later. It was, in effect, a universal basic income for everyone. Outsiders told them they were crazy. But when the program was studied in detail by social scientists, it turned out that this guaranteed income triggered one big change. Parents chose to spend a lot more time with their children, and because they were less stressed, they were more able to be present with their kids. The result? Behavioral problems like ADHD and childhood depression fell by 40 percent. I couldn’t find any other instance of a reduction in psychiatric problems in children by that amount in a comparable period of time. They did it by freeing up the space for parents to connect with their kids.
All over the world, from Brazil to India, these experiments keep finding the same result. Rutger told me: “When I ask people, ‘What would you personally do with a basic income?’ about 99 percent of people say, ‘I have dreams, I have ambitions, I’m going to do something ambitious and useful.’” But when he asks them what they think other people would do with a basic income, they say, oh, they’ll become lifeless zombies, they’ll binge-watch Netflix all day.
This program does trigger a big change, he says, but not the one most people imagine. The biggest change, Rutger believes, will be in how people think about work. When Rutger asks people what they actually do at work, and whether they think it is worthwhile, he is amazed by how many people readily volunteer that the work they do is pointless and adds nothing to the world. The key to a guaranteed income, Rutger says, is that it empowers people to say no. For the first time, they will be able to leave jobs that are degrading, or humiliating, or excruciating. Obviously, some boring things will still have to be done. That means those employers will have to offer either better wages, or better working conditions. In one swoop, the worst jobs, the ones that cause the most depression and anxiety, will have to radically improve, to attract workers.
People will be free to create businesses based on things they believe in, to run projects to improve their community, to look after their kids and their elderly relatives. Those are all real work, but much of the time, the market doesn’t reward this kind of work. When people are free to say no, Rutger says, “I think the definition of work would become; to add something of value to make the world a little more interesting, or a bit more beautiful.”
This is, we have to be candid, an expensive proposal, a real guaranteed income would take a big slice of the national wealth of any developed country. At the moment, it’s a distant goal. But every civilizing proposal started off as a utopian dream, from the welfare state, to women’s rights, to gay equality. President Obama said it could happen in the next twenty years. If we start to argue and campaign for it now, as an antidepressant; as a way of dealing with the pervasive stress that is dragging so many of us down, it will, over time, also help us to see one of the factors that are causing all this despair in the first place. It’s a way, Rutger explained to me, of restoring a secure future to people who are losing the ability to see one for themselves; a way of restoring to all of us the breathing space to change our lives, and our culture.
I was conscious, as I thought back over these seven provisional hints at solutions to our depression and anxiety, that they require huge changes, in ourselves, and in our societies. When I felt that way, a niggling voice would come into my head. It said, nothing will ever change. The forms of social change you’re arguing for are just a fantasy. We’re stuck here. Have you watched the news? You think positive changes are a-coming?
When these thoughts came to me, I always thought of one of my closest friends.
In 1993, the journalist Andrew Sullivan was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. Gay men were dying all over the world. There was no treatment in sight. Andrew’s first thought was: I deserve this. I brought it on myself. He had been raised in a Catholic family in a homophobic culture in which, as a child, he thought he was the only gay person in the whole world, because he never saw anyone like him on TV, or on the streets, or in books. He lived in a world where if you were lucky, being gay was a punchline, and if you were unlucky, it got you a punch in the face.
So now he thought, ‘I had it coming. This fatal disease is the punishment I deserve.’
For Andrew, being told he was going to die of AIDS made him think of an image. He had once gone to see a movie and something went wrong with the projector, and the picture went all wrong, it displayed at a weird, unwatchable angle. It stayed like that for a few minutes. His life now, he realized, was like sitting in that cinema, except this picture would never be right again.
Not long after, he left his job as editor of one of the leading magazines in the United States, the New Republic. His closest friend, Patrick, was dying of AlDS, the fate Andrew was now sure awaited him.
So Andrew went to Provincetown, the gay enclave at the tip of Cape Cod in Massachussetts, to die. That summer, in a small house near the beach, he began to write a book. He knew it would be the last thing he ever did, so he decided to write something advocating a crazy, preposterous idea, one so outlandish that nobody had ever written a book about it before. He was going to propose that gay people should be allowed to get married, just like straight people. He thought this would be the only way to free gay people from the self-hatred and shame that had trapped Andrew himself. It’s too late for me, he thought, but maybe it will help the people who come after me.
When the book, Virtually Normal, came out a year later, Patrick died when it had only been in the bookstores for a few days, and Andrew was widely ridiculed for suggesting something so absurd as gay marriage. Andrew was attacked not just by right-wingers, but by many gay left-wingers, who said he was a sellout, a wannabe heterosexual, a freak, for believing in marriage. A group called the Lesbian Avengers turned up to protest at his events with his face in the crosshairs of a gun. Andrew looked out at the crowd and despaired. This mad idea, his last gesture before dying, was clearly going to come to nothing.
When I hear people saying that the changes we need to make in order to deal with depression and anxiety can’t happen, I imagine going back in time, to the summer of 1993, to that beach house in Provincetown, and telling Andrew something:
Okay, Andrew, you’re not going to believe me, but this is what’s going to happen next. Twenty-five years from now, you’ll be alive. I know; it’s amazing; but wait, that’s not the best part. This book you’ve written, it’s going to spark a movement. And this book, it’s going to be quoted in a key Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage equality for gay people. And I’m going to be with you and your future husband the day after you receive a letter from the president of the United States telling you that this fight for gay marriage that you started has succeeded in part because of you. He’s going to light up the White House like the rainbow flag that day. He’s going to invite you to have dinner there, to thank you for what you’ve done. Oh, and by the way, that president? He’s going to be black.
It would have seemed like science fiction. But it happened. It’s not a small thing to overturn two thousand years of gay people being jailed and scorned and beaten and burned. It happened for one reason only. Because enough brave people banded together and demanded it.
Every single person reading this is the beneficiary of big civilizing social changes that seemed impossible when somebody first proposed them. Are you a woman? My grandmothers weren’t even allowed to have their own bank accounts until they were in their forties, by law. Are you a worker? The weekend was mocked as a utopian idea when labor unions first began to fight for it. Are you black, or Asian, or disabled? You don’t need me to fill in this list.
So I told myself: if you hear a thought in your head telling you that we can’t deal with the social causes of depression and anxiety, you should stop and realize that’s a symptom of the depression and anxiety itself.
Yes, the changes we need now are huge. They’re about the size of the revolution in how gay people were treated. But that revolution happened.
There’s a huge fight ahead of us to really deal with these problems. But that’s because it’s a huge crisis. We can deny that, but then we’ll stay trapped in the problem. Andrew taught me: The response to a huge crisis isn’t to go home and weep. It’s to go big. It’s to demand something that seems impossible, and not rest until you’ve achieved it.
Every now and then, Rutger, the leading European campaigner for a universal basic income, will read a news story about somebody who has made a radical career choice. A fifty-year-old man realizes he’s unfulfilled as a manager so he quits, and becomes an opera singer. A forty-five-year-old woman quits Goldman Sachs and goes to work for a charity. “It is always framed as something heroic,” Rutger told me, as we drank our tenth Diet Coke between us. People ask them, in awe: “Are you really going to do what you want to do?” Are you really going to change your life, so you are doing something that fulfills you?
It’s a sign, Rutger says, of how badly off track we’ve gone, that having fulfilling work is seen as a freakish exception, like winning the lottery, instead of how we should all be living. Giving everyone a guaranteed basic income, he says “is actually all about making it so we tell everyone, ‘Of course you’re going to do what you want to do. You’re a human being. You only live once. What would you want to do instead, something you don’t want to do?’”
. . .