Do we Need a Universal Basic Income?


At a recent London Futurists event, Barb Jacobson and David Jenkins of Basic Income UK argued the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to help protect all levels of society in the face of economic uncertainty and the risk of sustained technological unemployment as automation potentially eliminates many jobs. They highlighted that technological progress means a fundamental shift is occurring the amount of work actually required across society. For example a single farmer today can produce enough to feed 120 people compared to just 3 people 100 years ago. In 1982 the US steel industry required over 300,000 people to produce over 75 million tonnes of steel. By 2002, just 74,000 were required to produce 100 million tonnes.

They presented evidence that far from reducing the desire to work, UBI actually provides a boost to the economy, communities and individuals when the impact is viewed holistically:

Manitoba, Canada ran a UBI 'Minicome' experiment for five years where only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less - with working hours falling by only 1% for men, 3% for married women and 5% for unmarried women. In parallel hospital visits fell 8.5%, with a reduction in workplace injuries, emergency room visits for domestic abuse and car accidents, psychiatric hospitalisation and mental-illness related consultations.

In Namibia's 2 year UBI pilot study, crime rates fell by 42%, stock theft by 43% and other theft by 20%. At the same time significant improvements were achieved in rates of child malnutrition and school attendance while overall community income grew significantly over what was being generated through grants.

Jacobson and Jenkins suggest that the proposed level of BI would be around £11,000 (US$17,000) for Canada, £12,000 (US$18,500) for the UK, £14,200 (US$22,000) for Germany and £19.500 (US$30,000) for Switzerland. Their calculations suggest that a basic income for the UK would cost around £600 (US$920) Billion annually. This compares to an estimate of £850 (US$1300) Billion for the 2008 UK bank bailout. The cost they argue could be funded through a combination of increases in corporation tax, land tax, Value Added Tax (VAT) on luxury good and a 'Tobin Tax' on all spot conversions of one currency into another.

There was an energetic debate on the desirability and feasibility of UBI and whether it could be implemented without adhering to an underlying set of potentially socialist principles. There was also discussion of what the alternatives might be if we accept that something would need to be done if the face of massive and continuing technological displacement of jobs. The debate over UBI is only likely to increase as countries around the world struggle to adjust to a new a rapidly changing industrial landscape where less labour is required to deliver the goods and services we rely on. 

Rohit Talwar


Rohit Talwar is a UK based global futurist, strategist, innovator and change agent.

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