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Dealing with the downsides of universal basic income

(Michael Hrenka) #1

If technological unemployment is a real and serious threat, or if inequality rises even further (which, given any cataclysmic events, it probably will), then a redistributive universal basic income will be pretty much an economic necessity in order to maintain a high functioning economy. As practical necessity, people and politicians will feel forced to adopt it, whether they love or hate it. The conclusion is that we will both get the benefits and problems of universal basic incomes, almost no matter what political debates will rage around them.

So, taken this prospective point of view, what remains is to find a way to deal with the downsides of a UBI. And there will be downsides to a UBI, since even political decision creates losers and winners.

People will waste their time on useless, unproductive, or even harmful activities with a UBI – just as they do today. Whether the waste will be worse or not, remains to be seen. What is likely to happen is that people become terribly creative. They will flood the markets and the world with their creative ideas and outbursts of artistic activity. People will drown in expressions of creativity. And you thought advertisements were bad… :smiley: What will happen as result is that people start blocking out that creativity spam, and use reputation systems to only consume the creative goods of the highest quality and fitness – leaving the huge bulk of the ever greater creative class (the new proletariat) to struggle with getting any attention at all. People will suffer and become nostalgic about the good old days in which you could at least gain a modicum of social recognition by having a job.

To some, living in a UBI-dominated world will feel quite dystopian. Yes, people will be quite free to do what they want, but that just forces them to up the ante and give everything they have to get any recognition. But perhaps that’s what’s actually appropriate for us. Life without deep struggle becomes too comfortable and people seek distraction in drugs and mindless activities. Human psychology is a deep mess, so should we try to change it? Will people feel compelled to adopt their psychology to the new reality of a UBI-dominated world? If yes, how will those adaptations look like?

Anyway, we might solve the problems of poverty and scarcity, but that may only help us to reveal deeper and more serious problems. Let’s rise above that challenge! :astonished:

(Professor J. Moriarty) #2

I don’t think it will be a problem. Humans are naturally competitive. They will play chess, or sports, or paintball, or do math. It will be nice. Some will wirehead and then realise it’s not the best way to be happy.

(Gareth John) #3

I’ve been giving consideration to the subject of UBI and I’m not sure I like where these considerations take me. I’ve spent the majority of my working life supporting ‘vulnerable’ people - for the past decade supporting people with disabilities to source and employ their own carers. Prior to that, I worked with people either homeless or at risk of losing their homes, which mainly meant supporting people with substance misuse issues, prison leavers, repeat offenders and people with a history of violence and other antisocial behaviours.

The vast majority of these were people who do, in fact, already receive UBI of sorts - unemployment and disability benefits. Full disclosure - I myself am in receipt of disability benefits since losing my job last year through ill-health. The question of whether or not I will become employable in the future remains to be seen. Financially, I am relatively comfortable (though I won’t be booking any tropical holidays for a while) but the price I pay for that is being mad as a bag of frogs on a meds regime that could very well bankrupt the NHS.

Michael - it interests me that you begin by stating that we must find a way to deal with the downsides of UBI - people wasting their time on ‘useless, unproductive, or even harmful activities’ - but then almost immediately switch to the likelihood that ‘people will become terribly creative’ and the problems that will thus ensue. Having worked with many of the former, I cannot help but wonder whether UBI will, in fact, change anything. I think it is naive to suppose that with the safety cushion of a UBI we will all suddenly become creatives, knocking out Dostoevsky-esque novels or Picaso-like paintings. For example, sometimes the most creative thing I can do in the morning is get out of bed and crawl to the kitchen for a cup of tea and for a lot of people with disabilities this is their lot. In that sense I fully support the idea of UBI for those truly vulnerable - although as already pointed out, in the UK we do already have that (with all its flaws). The RSA report published in December 2015 ‘Creative Citizen, Creative State: The principled and pragmatic case of a Universal Basic Income’ was notable for the absenteeism of how UBI would work for people with disabilities and when questioned the RSA had to admit that the whole area of disability benefits was a minefield best left alone until we at least have a clearer idea of how UBI would work for the general population. And I can respect that - the current benefits system is a chaotic shambles of fuzzy logic, with so many different micro-benefits that can be added or removed seemingly at will from one’s income that half the time even I’m not sure what it is exactly to which I am entitled, getting, or for how long and on what basis.

The problem lies, as I see it, with the former group within society for whom addiction, aggression and offending are run of the mill. This group contains not only those with these issues, but also those who do not want to work - plain and simple. I think this is a fact that remains largely unacknowledged for what it is, mostly because predominantly Tory rhetoric lumps anyone without a job (regardless of reason) into the well-known trope - benefit scroungers. On the left, the opposite is true, where anyone and everyone unemployed or seemingly unemployable is deserving of the same aid. For the record, I lean centre-left myself, but largely because I do not want to see the truly vulnerable being penalised by the actions of those who have no interest or incentive to become productive members of society.

Speaking of incentive, the RSA report made clear that proposed levels of UBI should be set high enough to meet basic needs but low enough so that it would ‘incentivise’ people to work. But here’s where I have my problem: a large segment of society does not want to work. The lives of those that comprise this segment are either too chaotic or too sedate for them to want to venture out of the door in search of gainful employment. Under the current system, why should they? Basic needs are met and in order to procure the little extras that make life worth living a large proportion will turn to crime - it is, in a sense, their gainful employment.

Let me be clear: people who genuinely cannot work - for whatever reason - should be supported and I would resist any system where they were unfairly pressured to feel otherwise. UBI needs to better be able to foresee what impact supporting these people will have on the wider picture. And in my experience, people with disabilities, for the most part, do tend towards creativity, whether in the arts, volunteering, education etc. But in the years I spent supporting those who spent their time primarily engaging in ‘useless, unproductive and even harmful activities’, it was rare to see creativity exhibited in any personal or societal sense. The cold, hard fact of it is that the majority of this group will simply offend to get whatever fix they need. Magistrates. Prison. Released back into society. Offend. Magistrates… well, you get the idea.

So my problem with negotiating the pitfalls and perils of UBI is actually no different to what we have now - there are those that want to work (whether for recognition, social standing, personal empowerment or cold, hard cash) and those that don’t. And there are those who want to work and who are physically or mentally prevented from doing so, whether by the nature of their own disability or society’s failure to make the necessary adjustments required. In that sense, the future may provide a glimmer of hope in that assistive technologies will undoubtedly continue to be developed that can aid these last to become productive members of society. But if the future will be worth living in, UBI must protect those that remain unable to work, i.e. salaried employment must not become the marker by which everyone is judged.

But what to do about those who choose not only not to work, but also actively to make a choice to act against the society within which they find themselves to satisfy their own wants. Violence, theft, antisocial behaviour; all too often the people I have worked with in the past repeated the same cycle of destructive behaviours in order to get more than simply their needs met. I am not writing here about the criminal justice system of the future as it’s off-topic, but rather how will UBI set about beginning to solve these problems? Is it even possible to do so without falling back on the binary argument that posits that everybody must work or everybody must be supported regardless of their inclination to work? And when they take from others? Is it really fair to give them the same level of financial support that someone with a disability who is doing everything in their power to further themselves and be productive receives?

As you say, human psychology is a deep mess. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I have a lot of questions, and as a result of them I fear that UBI may well reveal deeper and more serious problems. However, as I hope I’ve intimated, the future is now. The problems we experience now will still be there with UBI. Rising above the challenge may require more effort than current proposals for its institution imply.


a universal basic income means nothing less and nothing more than to give people the right to live. unconditionally. ( the german expression is : “unconditional basic income”) the message is: “no matter who you are and what do, we as a community don´t want to threaten your life and don´t want to kill you” because with no income, no human being could survive in our current anthropogenic world. and the message is: “we don´t want to blackmail you to lose your life, your home your health if you don´t work for companies. you should be able to choose, because it is a political decision. when you give your lifetime and energy to a company, you have to reconcile the actions of the company with your conscience.” …and much more. your freedom and free will what to do with your life was never granted, yet. with the UBI it would be a start to change that.

humans have a desperate longing to work. it is completely wrong to say that “a large segment does not want to work”. because everything depends on the difinition of “work”. we are not here on earth to do mindnumbing, heteronomous, stupid, boring and destructive work to make a few people irrationally rich, ( please look after wealthy people, what productive work they do. whether they do work at all and what destructive and criminal impact their actions and belongings/capital and decisions have. it is unfair to point a finger at little and poor criminals while excluding the big criminals of which many are our employers ), but to contribute in a good way for a better life for all.
and that would be my defintion of “productive”: to contribute in a positive way for a better life on earth for all. and that could mean just the opposite than the usual treadmill: not support immoral corporations, not working for them, not buying their products and services. simplify ones life and stop accumulating unnecessary frills and furbelows just to comfort ones soul. helping yourself and helping others without selling something. boycott what is wrong. which normal “gainful work” could offer valuable work and lifetime?

“incentive” is in that context an euphemism of “blackmail”. we need a new cosciousness when we want to become transhuman. and we have to speak out the truth properly.

(Gareth John) #5

Thanks for the response zanthia. I am in complete agreement with what you say, except those parts where I’m not.

Firstly, I am completely behind UBI. Living in the UK, we already have UBI of sorts - it’s called the benefits system. People who can’t ‘work’ for whatever reason are protected, people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own are protected and people who have no desire to work are also protected (albeit grudgingly by society as a whole). The system as it stands is grossly problematic and often unfair (my post focussed on the unfairness of how it treats people with disabilities), I agree, all too often equates ‘incentive’ with blackmail. So no, it is not UBI in that sense.

You say that ‘people have a desperate longing to work.’ I’m afraid that really is naive. I have spent my working life supporting those who do not want to work and the idea that they would in any way wish to contribute in a positive way for a better life on earth for all is certainly not born out by my experience of social care. I agree that the decision to work is, by default, a political act, but that is not why they choose not too. They choose not to because they would rather spend their lives engaging in mindnumbing, heteronomous, stupid, boring and destructive lifestyles and were you to to ask these people (which of course I have had to do as part of my work) whether they would want to ‘support immoral corporations… not buy their products and services… simplify one’s life… and stop accumulating unnecessary frills and furbelows… boycott what is wrong’ they would, frankly laugh in your face and go out to buy the latest mobile phone or widescreen TV. And if their income did not accommodate it, a significant proportion of them would take from other people in order to allow them to do so.

So I would question your utopian ideal, not because I do not subscribe to it myself, but because I think the conversation requires that hard questions be asked. Providing UBI to, for example, people living in a large rundown estate where crime and drugs proliferate (the latter most often the direct cause of the former) is not going to change the way these people behave (and, yes, of course I am generalising here). Being supported by the state has not made them great artists, scholars, or people who wish simply to contribute to society, but people for whom UBI would not make the slightest difference. You are wrong, not all people (by a long shot) want to work, however you define it.

Now I realise I’m coming across as a hard-line conservative here, but I can promise you I am not. I’m just speaking from my experience of working with people who may well be ‘little and poor criminals’ in the grand scheme of things, but who still bring misery and fear to those around them. The criminality of many of the wealthy is, for me, taken for granted, but two wrongs do not make a right. It also was not the point of the post.

We may well need a ‘new consciousness’ when becoming transhuman, but do not think that UBI alone will provide it. I wish that it would. I have had the privilege (and, sadly, not the pay) not to have to work for big corporations, but rather in the social services and charities working with repeat offenders, violent antisocial individuals, the homeless and people with disabilities. As one example, I have had to deal with a benefits system that will provide immediate and unconditional housing to a prison leaver while making it as difficult as possible for people with disabilities to get the necessary adjustments made in order for them to participate fully in society . Which is unfair.

To sum up, there is enough liberalism left in me to desire an unconditional basic income for all. Not for nothing do I identify myself as a technoprogressive. But my fear is that such a system could have the opposite effect to that intended. People who do want to work (however defined), people who do want to benefit society, will still, very often, have to live amongst those that don’t - those who simply want more. And they will continue to be penalised by a system that may not provide the resources needed if they are to make that contribution. UBI for me and for someone with a disability that means they cannot ‘work’ will need to be different, in which case it ceases to be universal. Once that distinction is made we could all too easily fall into the trap of tiers of support for the needy and not so needy, which, here in the UK at least, would not be so very different from what we have now.

Full disclosure: I myself am on disability benefits due to ill-health. I do not need more than I have as I do live (relatively) simply. My future employability is questionable. I do not have answers to my questions and I’m not even sure what those questions are.

I just feel like they do need to be asked and answers sought in order that we can begin to ‘speak out the truth properly.’


yes, but they are many and they don´t have a different model. those people are most useful for corporations who sell the mobile phones and widescreen TVs. so there are great incentives for rich people to preserve the existence of such people, the way they are. for this majority of people tv and advertisements rules, to tell them what they should do, should be, should become and therefore buy. they should feel worthless when they don´t possess the newest mobile phone and whatever. “feeling worthless” is their default setting and they fight against it in the way the advertisement- mems tell them. and they are always short of money. most of them are in debt. how could we change their situation of “feeling worthless” while proving them that they are? that they don´t deserve a good income and (to them) a good life in luxury (like they read and hear so often about the celebrities). maybe i am naive but i believe that people don´t want to be that way. and please now take your same quote from above, and change “mobile phone” and “widescreen TV” into “yacht” and “private jet” and tell me if it fits …[quote=“g3reth, post:5, topic:1119”]
Providing UBI to, for example, people living in a large rundown estate where crime and drugs proliferate (the latter most often the direct cause of the former) is not going to change the way these people behave (and, yes, of course I am generalising here). Being supported by the state has not made them great artists, scholars, or people who wish simply to contribute to society, but people for whom UBI would not make the slightest difference.

yes, but those people are seriously ill. drug addiction is a kind of disability. and here again i don´t believe that people want to be that way. everybody wants to be healthy and live a good and happy life. and if he works against his own true interests, it is just because he feels powerless to change.

true, but as you said " two wrongs do not make a right. ": if the prison leaver is treated as a human and people with disabilities are treated inhuman both are not connected. in one case it is the right thing to do and in the other case it is wrong and violates humans rights. but your comparison implies again conditions to treat people with dignity. ethics and laws have stated the unconditionality of human dignity and that means that people should be enabled to live an approriate good life and not be threatened. no matter what they did.
and to specify my other point with big criminals and little criminals: in that case i see a connection. the big ones created the system and decide over so many people, that they are responsible for much more sorrow and crime as they will be held accountable. and if you follow a path of a drug dealer for example, from the little to the big, at the end you will find someone extremely rich with the best reputation one could imagine and probably he gives much to charity for the very people who “work” for him at the other end of the chain in miserable conditions.

(Gareth John) #7

Don’t get me wrong zanthia… I agree with you in principle and favour UBI over current systems. It is (or should be) the way forward. But to suppose that it will replace the current system where the poor are commodified by the wealthy is simply not going to change. You’re absolutely right that one could replace mobiles and TVs into yachts and private jets, but that in no way alters the fact that this state of affairs will continue long after UBI is installed. Heads of large corporations/politicians/organised crime are unlikely to join the rest of us in surviving on UBI. And people will continue to lust after what they still will be unable to afford. My fear is that UBI will backfire for those with disabilities, in that they may end up worse off under the system. Who knows? I’ve yet to see how exactly UBI will work to replace the current benefits system for those most vulnerable. Believe it or not, I’m actually an optimist, but I do feel that the introduction of UBI may well, to quote Radivis, ‘solve the problems of poverty and scarcity, but that may only help us to reveal deeper and more serious problems.’ People will continue to want what they cannot have and those that can have will continue to amass even more for as long as they can. And there’s every reason to suppose that this state of affairs could continue for a very long time.

(Michael Hrenka) #8

I want to revisit the topic once again. I’ve just watched this talk by Yanis Varoufakis about the necessity of basic income:

If we start with the insight that a basic income in an inevitable necessity for the future, then what’s the point of all those basic income experiments and studies? Well, the point is not if basic income should be introduced, but when and how. If introducing a basic income looks like it will provide great benefits to a state, politicians might be much more eager to introduce it sooner. If it rather looks like a last resort system, then politicians will be reluctant to introduce it, unless they have no other realistic choice (in the worst case: “introduce this, or get hanged”).

Introducing an eventually necessary system like basic income later could be a good idea for states, if other states introduce it early and make critical mistakes, from which the rest of the world can learn. But perhaps that’s the wrong perspective to take. Each state is unique, and will face unique and characteristic challenges caused by the introduction of universal basic income. Learning from other states might not be possible in each case. The sooner you learn to deal with an inevitable change, the better. It means that you will get past the nasty years of frantic adaptation sooner than others, which will be very beneficial in the end.

So, if we accept that line of reasoning, it’s clear that a basic income should be introduced as soon as possible. Particularly, if basic income is a system that’s necessary already, although most don’t realize that it’s necessary to introduce it. The question that remains is how to introduce a basic income. And it’s not like we actually have much choice in that matter either, because as Yanis Varoufakis has said: The US and Europe can’t be effectively governed. What does that mean? It effectively means you can’t introduce any kind of new policy in a way that won’t be distorted beyond recognition though processes of lobbying and compromise making. In all likelihood the basic income that will be established in those places will be a system that is so ugly that everyone will be unhappy with it. But since the introduction of a basic income is a necessity, that doesn’t even matter, because the alternative of not introducing it, would be even worse. The realistic answer to how a basic income will be introduced is: Somehow, in a very ugly way.



(João Luz) #10

It seems that the Swiss overwhelmingly rejected their Basic Income proposal. I was kind of expecting this, considering the political makeup of the country, but it’s a shame. Such a huge opportunity wasted!

(Michael Hrenka) #11

I assume part of that is due to the relatively large amounts of money that were mentioned by the proponents. Approval might have been higher with more moderate and realistic numbers. And, I’d prefer to view the bright side of the result. At least a quarter of the population was in favour for the Basic Income proposal. We only need to double the number of supporters once, and then we’ve won. :slight_smile:

The referendum has been quite a premiere. It certainly won’t be the last of its kind. And it would have been actually quite surprising if the basic income movement would have won such a big victory on the first try. Rome wasn’t built in one day. Let’s keep looking to the (better) future.