“Universal Basic Income is a great idea. Let’s just send everyone a check,” Michelle grabs another scone and takes a big bite for a woman with a petite mouth. With scone eliminated, she hisses, “what about personal responsibility, taking care of yourself instead of relying on big government?”
Conversation with friends on issues you agree on are easy peasy, but unsatisfying to the thinking mind. Let’s say we all agree about the importance of immunization for children. “It’s hard to believe,” Eve tells Annie, who’s nodding her head in agreement, “with what we know today… that parents could be so irresponsible.” This leads to stories we heard on the news, the measles epidemic in the Northwest created by “irresponsible parents” deciding against immunizations. And like putting our foot into a well-worn shoe, we slip into righteous recitals, judging, here-say, and they-say.
This year, Beth, a Montana friend, and I initiated a nonfiction book club. We wanted to explore topics, engage in an energetic back and forth with women willing to penetrate the issues below the surface of what we think we know. Something that would require us to probe our “true know,” a bit like true north. We invited women we trusted put learning ahead of being right. We began with the Hidden Life of Trees that quotes from about 60 different scientific publications. It was a fitting first book on a topic we had little knowledge of and through reading and discussion give it roots. While some struggled reading about trees described as humanoids, and others questioned the robustness of the studies, we listened to one another. We gave ourselves two months to read the second book, Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind. During that time, I received texts like, “I’m learning that I know very little,” or “how did I not know…” Zoe, texted, “Oh well. These books will make me hopeless at small talk.” Yes, there were a couple of “they say” and “I’ve heard,” but for the most part we analyzed and evaluated the evidence and questioned logical fallacies.
The last two years have provided learning opportunities on a wide range of topics, climate change, gun control, what constitutes a national emergency, to name a few. It’s our chance to question the views we hold dear. Saying I’m a Republican or a Democrat is not enough. We want to communicate and understand the core and heart behind the self-declaration. What do I mean when I say I’m a Progressive, a Constitutionalist, Independent, or a Socialist? It’s not gratifying to take a position, one inherited from family or friends, and repeat it. Michelle might say regurgitating other people’s views is like a UBI, a handout. Someone else is doing the work for us.
On the topic of UBI, Tim sees heads, and I see tails. Tim sees it as an economic issue solved within our budget. Growing up in a system where taxes supported the church, health care for all, and free education, I see Universal Basic Income as a human rights issue. (Iceland has no army. It provides support to nations in need via food, money, and people. Atlas.com rates it as the fourth most generous country by the number of people.)
People have a visceral reaction to the mere suggestion of a Universal Basic Income. Lefties insist it’s the government’s role to look out for its people, to boost the good times and bumper the bad times. The mere mention of UBI sends some, not all, right-leaners’ blood pressure through the congressional ceilings. Milton Friedman, conservative economist, was a big proponent (died in 2006).
The UBI tree of facts, where historical data lives, grows, and decays, is a starting point to gain a point of view. The following are just a few limbs to see things as they were, not as we thought they were.
In 1795, after a series of bad harvests (Speenhamland, England), the rising cost of grain and the increasing population worried the gentry. They feared the crisis would tempt the peasants to revolt as the French did in 1789. Remember Napoleon Bonaparte who came in uprooting centuries-old institutions? To appease workmen and farmhands’ rumblings, the magistrates decided to amend the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law. Toss the masses a few crumbs. Enough to reach a subsistence level. Supporters said it saved families from starvation. Critics held it encouraged couples to have more children, qualifying them for more money. In any case, this new economic plan took hold and blazed across England.
Our Founding Father, British born, Thomas Paine (crossed the sea in 1774), was one of the early people to propose a version of what the Brits were doing. He called it Universal Basic Income. Paine suggested that every person in society should be entitled to cash payments allowing them subsistence living conditions. But the payments would be so minimal that it wouldn’t discourage the poorest recipients from finding work. The amount should be enough for a couple to “buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land.” More than that, get a job beyond your farming life.
In 1969, Richard Nixon worked on a plan for American families without earned income. Families were to receive, on average, $1,600 ($11,300 in today’s money per dollartime.com) each year and food stamps. With this amount of money the family was unlikely to have a weight problem, but they wouldn’t starve either. Republicans and Democrats voted it down. As I write this, Democrats are proposing an increase in Social Security in support of seniors living in poverty to bring their monthly income to 125% of the subsistence income level.
Finland launched a program, sending money (about $700 a month) to 2,000 unemployed people between 25 and 58. It’s not a true UBI system because this amount does not provide enough for food and shelter. The program ends this year (2019). So it failed? From Mika Simanainen, (a researcher at Kela, the Finnish government agency behind the trial): “It seems that there is some misinformation spreading in international media about the Finnish basic income experiment.” Readers and journalists were interpreting the end of the program as a failure. The facts are, this was a trial run that’s ending as scheduled. The Finnish government will wait for the results, understand if giving monthly payments to unemployed people changes their employment prospects, before taking the next step.
Annie Lowrey, a economic journalist and author (2018) of Give People Money, How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, offers a well-researched account of people struggling all over the world. She doesn’t claim to fully understand what works. But if our goal is making sure people don’t starve or freeze to death, we know without a shadow of a doubt what does not work.