Thoughts on UBI

dug // 03 October 2016


I was having a conversation with Nick Warren (@n_warren) on Twitter and he suggested writing a comment instead

So I did:-) This is the post he wrote and my comment is below.

I’ve been thinking about the best way to overcome inequality for years. There are many, many challenges and I’m not finding compelling plans from the mainstream parties. The one I thought would have most legs would be to focus on the value negotiation. Basically, the 1% need their thinking re-framed so that they perceive very clear value in helping the other 99%. Specifically what could we engineer so that the 1% could see real value in paying national taxes (whether income, inheritance or business) that their position of power makes it so easy to avoid.

I had a theory with no real structure or shape. My one thought was that a lot of very wealthy individuals choose to walk our streets here in the UK and there must be some sort of good reason.

My theory was that if they were just very rich they might look out the window and see something like this

grim wasteland


But they are not just very rich, they also have cultural norms and need a sense of belonging and history and really would much rather look out their window and see this

Cricketers in play

or even this rural idyll

A sheep farm in the Lake District

So my theory was that these people would be willing to pay a ‘set-dressing’ charge to ensure they saw nice things as they rode around their chosen kingdom, waving at commoners and chucking the occasional bag of coins at their feet on their way to services at the cathedral.

Being very smart and very financially savvy they would understand that it’s very expensive to keep all those men playing cricket in all those white uniforms, all those smiling farmers in their fields and carpenters maintaining their marquetry. They would know it takes a lifetime of apprenticeship to properly learn to service their Georgian carpentry and that apprentices don’t happen without guilds and craftsmen and all the above requires education, health services and above all stability.

All of these things are very time-consuming and very expensive to get right so they would understand the need to pay a considerable service charge to ensure all this happiness was visible outside their window. They would understand that the 1% needs to pay for global well-being the way the ordinary citizen pays the BBC license fee so that our values and entertainment can flourish without the need for evil, mind-numbing commercial forces to come into play.

Long story short, my theory was that if we could explain how this works and what the actual value of our community and wider society was, the 1% would be thrilled to finance it in an act of ultimate home-decoration. OK a strange idea I’ll agree but one which I thought must have some legs in some way…

So fast-forward to Rutger Bregman and his “Utopia for Realists”. Finally someone explains very clearly what happens after labour loses value and inequality sets in. He proposes some really bold ideas and does so with loads of citations and references backing up his thinking.

If you haven’t read this you really should:-)

Oh yeah, that comment on Nick’s blog. Here you go…

Hi Nick, thanks for turning Disqus on:-)

As you say, hard to cover complexity in 140 characters!

Having only started thing about the significance of UBI quite recently I was driven to comment by the way you factored-in IA into your assessment of how realistic or indeed beneficial UBI might be. There were two things I wanted to question.

1) The importance of IA.

Clearly, the near-to-medium-term future is going to be very different from today and to assume that we can prepare for it by taking a linear approach to how we handle employment (i.e. simply doing more or less of something we’re already doing) is not going to work. One of the interesting challenges of UBI is that it opens the mind to thinking beyond what got us here.

For the purpose of deciding whether or not it will work, I think it makes more sense just to fast-forward the debate to a point where human labour is completely worthless and where we are almost entirely replaced by IA-powered machines. The period between then and now is just going to be a long, painful, #fail unless we start imagining a very bold, very different future pretty darn soon.

Managing the absurd levels of inequality we have created both globally and within national boundaries means sooner or later making some very stark choices (indirectly, the US presidential election might be an example of such a choice as it exposes the growth of an angry, anxious meta-class without any stability or certainty and receptive to “ugly voices” such as Trump’s). The solution to this sort of problem historically has been for a cataclysm to kill off many millions of humans and destroy (aka reboot) institutions.

Global UBI, combined with opening borders, is a non-destructive form of wealth redistribution. It may well be the only non-destructive option we have looking ahead 10 or 20 years.

2) Do we believe UBI will have the desired effect?

So here I’ll put my hands up and declare myself of big fan of Rutger Bregman and his “Utopia for Realists”. Specifically the way 1/3 of the book is notes and citations. As he builds his argument is building on mountains of history and research. If you haven’t read the book you should, one of it’s most compelling elements is a look at the evidence from UBI trials. If his data is correct then on balance I’m with those that feel we should really go for it:-)

One thing Bregman doesn’t cover in detail in his book is exactly what UBI is, how it will work in detail and who will pay for it.

My understanding of the answer is that UBI will be mostly funded by taxation of the 1% as their only chance of a happy, long-term survival unless the 63 people who own half of the world’s wealth really want to spend the next 50 years self-incarcerated in a solid-gold underground bunker as the world melts down around them instead of dreamily gazing over their stable doors towards the other side of the green valley to where cricketers in whites hit leather with willow as their happy wives in floral dresses share the Pims and cucumber sandwiches.

Essentially, I see UBI as the location rental fee that the 1% will want to pay so they see nice things happening to nice people when they look out their window. The choices are really a) seeing themselves and going slowly insane b) seeing a burning wasteland or c) seeing the rest of us in healthy, happy communities.

Exciting stuff all this:-)