Read the intro to this series here.
Readers familiar with my other writing won’t be surprised that I’m starting with this one; you can read a whole article I wrote about it for Dissent Magazine in 2005. Since that time, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become something talked about in much more mainstream circles than fringe magazines; 120 Canadian CEOs wrote a letter in support of it to Ontario premier Doug Ford in 2018, and the caucus of the centrist Liberal Party of Canada called it their top policy priority in the fall of 2020. The support payments of $500 a week that the ruling Liberals have been making since the start of the pandemic to anyone unemployed or caring for children due to school closures is a limited version of a basic income. Some have called for these payments to become permanent, including the current governor of the Bank of Canada. These payments are like a basic income in that the same amount is paid to individuals at regular intervals through a simple online application process, but it falls short in that they are only given to a select group of people.
A true basic income would be (I’m quoting directly from the Basic Income Earth Network here):
- Periodic—It is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
- Cash payment—It is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
- Individual—It is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
- Universal—It is paid to all, without means test.
- Unconditional—It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.
This one reform is foundational to my paradise on Earth plan. So much of our stress is financial stress, and so much of the unhappiness of our daily lives is caused by work we do not for the love of it, but for the money it pays. What would you do if your basic financial needs were covered? Write poetry? Learn to surf? Volunteer for a worthy cause? Devote yourself fully to raising your children? Take a lower paid job doing work you prefer? Keep working to increase your material wealth? Imagine 7.5 billion humans doing what they are truly called to do, rather than what they are forced, and the explosion of creativity and passion that would unleash. It would mark one of the great revolutions in human history.
Some argue that a lot of people would just play video games or engage in similarly “unproductive” activities. I’m sure a few would, but I think most people want to make some positive contribution with their lives, and a basic income would free them from the job treadmill and allow them to make the contribution they feel they are best suited for. When basic income has been tested in limited settings (like the Mincome project in 1970’s Dauphin, Manitoba), researcher have found that a lot of people choose to go back to school or open small businesses. Work time is affected little, and both physical and mental health outcomes improve. And even those few couch potatoes consuming chips and endless bouts of Minecraft would still be providing demand for, well, chips and video games; they’d be doing their part to keep the economy humming.
Even for those convinced that a basic income is something that would be nice to have, the affordability question looms large. Yet as National Post columnist Andrew Coyne points out in this op-ed, a mere 3% rise in the GST would be enough to provide every Canadian adult with a minimum income of $1,400 a month, basically eliminating poverty. UBI Works, a recently formed research and advocacy group, takes this even further, with a costed proposal to give everyone $500 a month regardless of their income, with a top-up to $2,000 a month for those whose income is below this minimum. They have calculated that this would cost $199 billion a year, and have come up with a list of $874 billion worth of funding proposals from which to choose from to pay for it. They say that it’s possible to “pay for a basic income without raising personal income taxes, without eliminating existing needs-based social programs, and without adding to the national debt.” As points of comparison, $199 billion is equal to 8% of Canada’s GDP, 2% of our total wealth, a quarter of what all levels government currently spend, and is less than the 9% of GDP that the Bank of Canada created in just three months in 2020 to prop up the stock market. If we can spend those sums to keep the stock market strong, surely we can spend that much on the overall health of citizens.
Perhaps the affordability question has always been a red herring. UBI Works believes that their UBI (Universal Basic Income) is not just a necessary intervention to eliminate the dire social consequences of poverty, but is also an incredible economic opportunity to grow the middle class and support a strong economy. They point to the Canada Child Benefit (CCB), introduced in 2016 and paying about $500 a month per child (depending on family income and the age of the children); the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis has calculated that every dollar invested in the CCB creates two dollars of GDP, and 55 cents of it ends up being recouped through taxes. So Canada already has a limited basic income for families, and its trickle-through effects are supporting the overall economy. At the other end of the age spectrum, Canada’s combined Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement programs have moved poverty rates of its seniors from one of the highest in the OECD in the 1970s to one of the lowest today.
Although most basic income studies show no or limited reduction in work hours, perhaps this fear is also a red herring; maybe we should want to work less. Working is still the main way that people earn the money needed to live, and so understandably the whole of society is geared towards finding work for people to do. “Full employment” or a “job guarantee” is the rallying cry of many progressive movements. Yet in a world of increasing automation and productivity, demanding that everyone hold a paying job is becoming increasingly counterproductive. I like the London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber’s theory of “bullshit jobs“: that over half of society (in rich countries) is engaged in work of no real value, which if not performed wouldn’t be missed or would even make the world a better place. And given the mounting ecological crisis and the clear need for us to consume less of the planet’s resources, this pointless economic churn for the sake of providing people with incomes is making this problem that much harder to tackle. It’s time for us to decouple work from income, and just provide people with the income we need, not the work we don’t.