Should there be a universal basic income?

January 18th, 2018

The accumulation of things

I remember watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard said that Earth society had overcome hunger and want and was “no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things.” In this science fiction future, technological advancement has created a world where everyone has access to the necessities of life. Poverty no longer exists. As in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction stories, many jobs are handled by robots or computers.

What would you do if you didn’t have to work in order to provide the necessities of life? If you have a job, would you continue to do it, or would you do something different? Would you volunteer your time for more worthy causes, or would you spend all your time watching television or surfing the internet? What would you do that would give your life meaning?

These are some of the questions raised by the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). The idea behind the UBI is that every citizen, regardless of employment status, receives a government-sponsored “basic income” to cover the necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing and utilities. Anything they earn on top of the UBI is fine, but the UBI establishes a “floor” that could, in theory, eliminate poverty.

If the idea of a UBI is new to you, you may have some objections to the idea either on principle or practicality. Shouldn’t people have to work, if they are able? How would it be financed? Who would qualify?

Diverse political support

The details of this policy are as diverse as the groups who have proposed it. Some fiscal conservatives like the UBI because they believe it would be more efficient than welfare programs, which parcel out resources like housing subsidies, unemployment assistance, social security and food assistance through a bureaucracy. They also cite the idea that welfare demotivates people to look for work since benefits often end or get reduced if people find employment. A flat benefit that goes to everyone would have less effect on work motivation. Conservative proposals typically focus on reducing welfare and emphasizing social responsibility. After all, the reasoning goes, if someone saves and hustles to earn extra money, under a UBI they have no excuse for not thriving. Their decisions about how to spend or save their money are their own.

Liberal supporters tend to see UBI as a way to reduce poverty, decrease inequality and increase freedom. By establishing a financial floor, every citizen should be able to meet their own basic needs. People would be free to find the work they want to do instead of being locked into lousy work environments or dead-end jobs. Some advocates suggest they might even be more productive if they aren’t struggling with the day-to-day business of making ends meet and can actually do work they feel called to do instead of simply chasing a paycheck.

The other big area of support comes from those who work in technological fields. Many Silicon Valley CEOs and venture capitalists like the idea of UBI because they envision a future where robots and automation have replaced many jobs — even those that we might think are “safe” from automation. Self-driving vehicles threaten to replace drivers and truckers, and self-checkout kiosks are already replacing cashiers in stores and restaurants.

Some supporters see UBI as a way to address the problem of work that doesn’t typically get compensated but nonetheless is important to the functioning of our society. For example, parents (especially mothers) who invest time in educating and raising socially responsible children provide one of the most important services to society, but they don’t get paid for it and are often penalized economically for it. I know one homeless man who spent more than 30 hours a week volunteering at local nonprofits using his skills as a master gardener and knowledge of animals. While the work he did was valuable, no one ever paid him for it.

The Protestant work ethic

There are two big obstacles to UBI, at least in the United States. The first is the pervasive idea that a person’s value to society comes from their productivity. As sociologists Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven point out, “Wage work has become one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion.” Since God cursed Adam by making him toil to produce food from the ground in Genesis 3:17-19, work has been viewed both as a punishment and as a means of redemption. Since “hard work builds character,” harder work (for less pay) builds even more.

Likewise, in this civic religion, the failure to work or to find employment has become associated with shame in our national religion. The poor must be poor because they’re lazy — not because robots have taken their jobs or because they don’t have access to public transportation to get to work. After all, Proverbs 10:4 says, “Laziness brings poverty; hard work makes one rich.”

But advocates of Christian stewardship point out that this is a distortion of the gospel. Robert Dickie III of Crown Financial Ministries says it’s easy for Christians to focus on “what we earn and what we own rather than for whom we work and why we work.” In our culture, we’re often identified and introduced by what we do: doctor, barista, pastor, entrepreneur. I recently witnessed one of the busiest people I know stammer when forced to identify herself by her job. Though she is a homeschooling mother and self-employed artist, the person filling out her information listed her as “unemployed.” How do we introduce ourselves after robots take our jobs?

Financing the UBI

The other obstacle is answering the question, Who pays? Some of the financing for it would come from eliminating current programs. But there’s a vast difference between a barely subsistence level UBI, which punishes the poor for being poor, and a UBI that allows for social mobility, self-improvement and a thriving community. Merely eliminating current welfare programs might only create a UBI that’s a step above the oppressive poorhouses of Victorian England. Some proposals involve a combination of negative income taxes, child benefits and carbon dividends to make up the difference.

Proponents of UBI generally recognize that one of the reasons poverty exists is because the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Those who have money have the ability to lend it or invest it and make more, but those who live on the edge of poverty have to pay more for the basics and get trapped in endless cycles of debt. Therefore, those who profit the most from a fully automated economy would be taxed in order to provide a basic income to those whose jobs are rendered obsolete.

Part of this also requires a mindshift. By giving people “free money,” are we giving them handouts that create dependency, or are we investing in people as our most valuable resource? Rather than assuming the worst about people, that they’ll simply waste their time and money fueling addiction and unproductive behavior, why not ask instead, How would I spend an extra thousand dollars a month?

Justice and mercy

At the heart of the UBI is a question about justice and mercy. If we believe the earth is God’s and we’re simply stewards, then the way we allocate those resources is a moral decision. How do we decide which people are allowed to turn God’s trees into paper or furniture, extract God’s fossil fuels and build computer chips for smartphones and robots out of God’s minerals? Once we’ve used God’s resources (trees, fuel and minerals), what do we do about God’s people who struggle to put food on their tables or educate their children? However we choose to answer those questions, our policies will reflect what we really believe about humanity, our planet, and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

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