Here take some money, it’s yours, no strings attached. What will you do with it?
This is not strictly a hypothetical question. Governments in several countries are toying with the idea of making a fixed payout month after month to its citizens. Universal Basic Income is not a new concept, it has been around for a long long time. Philosophers, free thinkers, economists, political activists and leaders have been writing, talking and debating the issue for centuries. It finds mention in literature - Thomas More’s Utopia, one of the founding fathers of USA - Thomas Paine rooted for a capital grant way back in 1797, famous economist Milton Friedman advocated a negative income tax, french philosopher Francois Huet made a case for it, it was also intertwined in the american civil rights movement of the 1960‘s and in Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings. Scandinavian countries have been actively discussing the possibility for decades, and more recently Finland just announced that it would pay its unemployed citizens a fixed unconditional amount of 560 euros per month.
Finland is not the only one, there are pilot projects being undertaken and analysed in various parts of the globe, India being one of them. UBI goes back a long way but it has recently gained traction given that the social and economic world order seems to be shifting. Towards the end of his presidency, Barack Obama spoke about the need to debate the idea of free money. Though leaders of the silicon valley like Elon Musk have been actively endorsing the concept. Back home it was strongly advocated for the poor in India in the recently released Economic Survey. It seems that corporate CEO’s, social service think tanks, governments and world organisations, everyone is talking about the feasibility of UBI. It is perhaps an idea whose time has come.
There are many reasons for the sudden revival of interest. The implementation of welfare programmes can be long, laborious bureaucratic processes, and in a country like ours, they are often riddled with inefficiencies and leakages. And thus, the idea of transferring money directly into the accounts of the beneficiaries seems to be a simpler and more transparent process.
It is an accepted fact that the rapid pace of technological change, increasing automation and the sharpening of artificial intelligence is going to affect almost all jobs in the years to come. Its not just robots on the shop floor, smart machines are replacing humans, cars don’t need drivers anymore, interpreters, travel agents, surgeons, caregivers are
all going to be redundant.
An analysis at the World Economic Forum suggests a net loss of over five million jobs in 15 leading countries in the next five years. There are several other gloomy forecasts, essentially saying the same thing. A huge number of jobs are going to go. How will the redundant workforce survive? This is also one of the primary drivers of UBI.
Of course there will be challenges - can we afford it? are we ready for it? is it a disincentive to work? and so on and on. The idea as as much about politics as it is about economics. A fixed income - no questions, no conditions, challenges the existing accepted notions on the link between work and income, the idea itself is surrounded by economic uncertainties, no one really knows how it will pan out, and the task of actually being able to do this on a large scale basis is daunting. And yet, practical issues aside, what makes UBI a tantalizingly utopian idea is the fact that it can potentially set us free. It calls for a paradigm shift in social thought and notions of justice. It gives us the chance to climb the slippery slope of Maslow’s pyramid.
For too long we have been struggling at the bottom, trying to put food on our plates. And then we try and secure ourselves, our loved ones and so on. The world is full of men and women doing meaningless jobs - driving trucks, stamping forms, digging holes, making notes. How many times have you heard the phrase - ‘I hate my job’. It is an onerous trek to the top of the pyramid, or you have to be exceptionally lucky. Not many make it.
Perhaps UBI can help change that. It could be one of the most audacious social experiments of the modern age. I come back to my question - If you were guaranteed money, no strings attached. What would you do with it?
My guess is there would be more artists and more scientists, and certainly more happiness. Robots are not stealing our jobs, they will liberate us. We have the amazing ability to do, to think, to create. Perhaps UBI can help give us a better world. It sounds too simple, utopian, and of course it will probably not be this way. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is to keep talking about it. In a few years this might be real. Free money could be yours, what will you do with it?
(The author is a Chartered Accountant and IIM graduate who is in the process of publishing her first book)