Daniel Araya: Scott, everyone seems to be talking about universal basic income as a way to resolve technological unemployment. How do you define basic income? How did you come to embrace the idea of basic income?
Scott Santens: I define basic income as a universal income floor set above the poverty level. It’s essentially a monthly income starting at around $1,000 instead of $0– and it might just help us better play this game we play called globalized capitalism. Imagine if we sat down to play a game of Monopoly and were given nothing with which to start playing? Does that even make any sense? And yet in the real world, that’s exactly what we expect everyone to do – start with nothing. Then we are surprised when so many people are unable to participate in our economy.
“Manna” is a short science-fiction story that describes two potential paths in the years ahead and I was impressed by the story’s theme. I decided that I, for one, would not sit idly by as we keep walking down the present dystopian path. Once I saw basic income as the road that leads to a much better destination, I started absorbing everything I could read about it and could apply to furthering the discussion. That was in 2013 and to this day I continue reading what I can, but also writing to contribute to enlarging the discussion on basic income.
DA: The main argument for universal basic income is that basic income will serve as an income floor for displaced workers and help to rectify growing income inequality. Critics, however, argue that ‘free money’ will only incentivize laziness (despite studies in India and elsewhere that suggest otherwise). How much of this debate is really rooted in cultural assumptions about human nature?
SS: I would say really that the only reason UBI is a debate at all– and not immediately accepted using everything we know from observations we’ve already made– is that deeply-ingrained thinking from centuries of cultural hand-me-down practices has limited us to scarcity economics.
Alan Watts described this decades ago when he said “what we have to find out how to do is to change the psychological attitude to money and to wealth, and furthermore to pleasure, and furthermore to the nature of work,” referring to this as our “formidable problem.”
He wasn’t kidding. It’s a hugely formidable problem to shift people’s thinking from scarcity to abundance by way of scientific reasoning. I mean, what is called “common sense” today may as well be called “common nonsense”. We have got to figure out a way to start accepting what actually is over what we think should be true. What has become reality today is a world that is powered by tools that we label as technology. Human beings are self-driven to do incredible things when empowered to do so. But what feels right to many of us is the idea that the world must be dog-eat-dog and that despite the tools that long ago negated the actual need for human toil, we must toil for our daily bread.
The truth is that humanity is moving beyond toiling for bread. We have machines for that now. We must change our thinking from “toil to survive” to “freedom to live.”
DA: We’re seeing some experiments in basic income in Europe (e.g., Finland and the Netherlands). How likely do you think we will see policies designed around basic income in the United States? Is there an argument for making basic income a component of citizenship or a kind of social investment?
SS: It’s not going to be easy, but I do think we will see basic income in the U.S. within 20 years, especially in some embryonic form. The question is not really if, but when. Will we see it before our economy becomes quickly transformed by technologies like self-driving vehicles and deep learning AI? I don’t know, but my own goal is to move whatever that date is outside of sufficient intervention, to some time before 2025.
I’m of the opinion that basic income is not only an existing right of citizenship (not yet recognized) but that it must be seen to be so in order for UBI to succeed. The problem is that welfare programs are divisive. By treating people differently, by giving help to some and not to others, we divide ourselves artificially. We see that in every comment about “makers and takers”, or “strivers and shirkers”. To get past this, we must do as Alaska does with their dividend, and provide cash equally to all, regardless of income. That’s how we eliminate artificially created divisions. It’s time we acknowledge we’re all in this together, rich or poor, male or female, majority or minority. We all share the same basic needs.
DA: What are the various models that exist for funding basic income? I know, for example, that Milton Friedman has suggested a negative income tax while Alaska already offers a citizen’s dividend. Could you highlight two or three approaches to basic income that you think would be effective for mitigating poverty and unemployment within rich countries?
There are different ways of guaranteeing a basic income floor. It can vary according to income (negative income tax), or taxes (UBI), but I think that only one way avoids dividing the population. I don’t think the Alaska dividend would be as popular as it is today (and as it has been since 1982), if dividends varied according to income level. So I just don’t recommend that approach. I don’t think anything but a universal basic income would be as popular as it needs to be.
The challenge then becomes how best to go about funding it in a way that’s functionally progressive and also popular. This will vary according to country, but in the US I think we could use a collection of methods like a new small value-added tax, a small financial transaction tax for Wall Street, and a carbon tax that grows larger year after year. Combining indirect taxes like this in a way that lowers taxes on wages and salaries (but not on capital gains) for 100% of the population is, in my opinion, a potentially successful way to go, at least in the United States.
DA: My own assumption about universal basic income is that capitalist countries will actually begin to embrace the idea once they realize that basic income could lead to significant market expansion (i.e., as larger numbers of people with a disposable income consuming and potentially saving money). The question, however, is would basic income simply lead to inflation? Alternatively, if more people have a greater capacity to spend then won’t this simply speed climate change and greater environmental degradation?
SS: The thought that basic income might lead to rising prices and even hyperinflation is a very common first response to the idea– which is also why I’ve written a very comprehensive article to address that particular question. Essentially, there are a lot of factors involved in an equation like this, and the result of acknowledging all of these factors is that a fear of inflation is mostly just that – fear. Could some prices go up? Sure, and some probably will, but also some won’t change and others will go down.
The most important thing to keep in mind concerning the particular fear of inflation is that competition will not only still exist with basic income, but likely increase. Entrepreneurs are born when more people have more money and overall risk is reduced. Basic income will be good for business and in this new world of ours where platforms like Uber and Airbnb can quickly and efficiently take on well-entrenched industries, preventing competition in a UBI-turbocharged consumer economy is going to be even more difficult.
DA: Assuming universal basic income becomes foundational to a postindustrial (post labor?) society, does that suggest that we might begin to design and build a different kind of society altogether? What’s the long game for a society that integrates universal basic income?
UBI is at its’ heart, an unconditional access to basic resources. Providing that access will unlock doors that have remained locked for as long as these doors have existed. As one example, we’ve never really made it possible for anyone to engage in free labor. What happens when we do that? Well, that means more creators can stop caring about selling their work or even copyrighting it. More people can choose to give the results of their passion-derived labor away for free, and instead, contribute to the public domain or the creative commons.
Take me for example. I’m a writer at heart. I love to write. I don’t write for the money. I write for my words to be read and enjoyed. The more people who read what I write, the happier I am, and so what I write, I like to give away at no cost. I also use creative commons licensing because I believe the richer the commons, the richer we all are. I’m able to do this because I basically already have a basic income, made possible through my crowdfunding on Patreon. I couldn’t do this if I needed to sell everything I write in order to live. Our present system effectively limits creation and distribution.
Now imagine the reduction of these creative limits applied in other areas, like science and technology. Imagine scientists more able to freely pursue their interests. Imagine more coders able to contribute to the open source world. Imagine parents more able to care for their kids, activists more able to organize, and citizens more able to engage in democracy? All of these things point to a different kind of world that is really only possible through UBI. A world where no one has to prove their right to live anymore through traditional employment.
In a world where work has been transformed from something we must do to something we can do, money itself becomes less important and that’s a different kind of world with profoundly different human outcomes. Scarcity becomes history, as does poverty, and the future becomes one of growing abundance and increasing prosperity.
Is this a world we want? I hope so. It’s certainly got my vote.
Daniel Araya is a researcher and advisor to the government with a special interest in education, technological innovation, and public policy. His newest books include: Augmented Intelligence (2016), and Smart Cities as Democratic Ecologies (2015). He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an alumnus of Singularity University’s graduate program in Silicon Valley. He can be reached here: www.danielaraya.com and here: @danielarayaXY.