James Gallagher

on universal basic income

Published on June 2, 2020 in universal basic income

I am going to be honest with you: I know very little about Andrew Yang. I am not writing this essay as an ode to his now-defunct campaign for the U.S. Presidency. Someone else can write that post. Maybe someone has already written that post. It's likely. What got me interested in universal basic income was not a political move, but rather a realization from within.

As I reflect on the current state of our economy, I have but two words I can use to articulate my emotions: it's broken. It really is. I don't understand economics enough to be able to say how our economies are going to recover. Although I do have a good understanding of basic economic principles, which I hope allows me to differentiate this from merely a rambling that my mind wants to put on paper.

Universal basic income is not a new idea, but it is one that I think makes more sense than I previously thought. My first instinct upon hearing about universal basic income was that it was interesting. My friends started to talk about it, and I just sat back and let them discuss it. I didn't have any real opinion, aside from the fact that it was interesting. I didn't think it was interesting because people got money for free, but at the same time I wasn't sure what it was that really appealed to me about the idea.

I now realize the potential of universal basic income in our society.

As I write, a large percentage of the UK workforce is unemployed. More than 40 million Americans are unemployed. There will be people who are now out of the labor market for good, who were already at the end of their careers and who will struggle to find another job. At the same time, there are young people who are just entering the labor market and who have no experience. What are these people going to do?

What are the college students going to do who relied on their part-time job at a local restaurant to pay for their education? Maybe they'll get their job back, but that is not to say that they will feel comfortable doing it. I know that if I had a job at a restaurant, I would be inclined to give it up. I would not want to be in a place that could expose me to this virus, nor put myself in a position where I was at risk of spreading it to others. I would feel a heightened moral duty to be clean, and if I did get the virus, I could never forgive myself knowing that I may have given it to others because I worked in a restaurant environment.

I believe that many of our problems could be solved if we separated employment from sustenance. Instead of living in a world where one must be employed to afford basic goods, those basic goods would be paid for by the government. I would happily live in a more basic house if its rent were paid for by the government. I would happily eat less luxurious food if the government were to pay for it. Why? Because the government would be giving me a great gift: control over my time.

Universal basic income would unlock the time of everyone in the economy. People who have been forced to work unsafe jobs just because they need to sustain themselves would be free to do what they want. (Then pressure would be put on the companies who employed those people to invest in automation, because nobody would want to take those jobs anyway.) People who work stressful jobs in the city would be free to quit and move somewhere cheaper, knowing that they would always have a basic income coming in. They could do what they really love, rather than what they think they need to do to live the life to which they have become accustomed.

There are so many people right now who are unemployed and who are going to suffer for a long time. The UK Government's furlough program is generous, and I think it is going to save a lot of people from economic ruin. At the same time, part of me wonders whether or not the program could be extended. Maybe we could just give everyone in the UK a basic income, say 1000 pounds per month. That would cover every citizen's basic needs, so they wouldn't have to worry about employment.

If a universal basic income were implemented, we wouldn't have to rush to "find our passion." We wouldn't have to rush to think about finding another job just as we lost our old one. We could take our time to explore, and do what we really want to do. What's to say that passion is to be found in employment, anyway.

I would argue that universal basic income could be implemented on the grounds of a moral imperative. If we give people a basic income, many people will quit their jobs. I don't see that as a bad thing. Although many people will quit their jobs just so they can stay at home, many people will quit because they know that there is something better they can do with their lives. Call me an optimist, but I think that many people -- old and young -- would revel in the opportunity to quit what they are working on and do their own thing.

Giving people the economic freedom to explore what they really want to do could result in a massive benefit for society. Many people who are currently writers and who should actually be engineers will be discovered. Many people who are writing music in their basement on nights and weekends will be able to devote all their time to their pursuit, and create beautiful sounds for the rest of us to hear. Indeed, maybe I am an optimist, but I cannot even begin to imagine how many people would use a basic income to explore what they are really passionate about, rather than continue with what they are doing right now because that is their means of sustenance.

There are logistical issues with universal basic income. I'm not sure how it would be distributed. I also have no idea how it could be financed, although I have read some compelling economic accounts which seem to suggest it is possible. I am not debating this idea on its economic merits or practicality -- although that has crossed my mind -- rather on why I think a basic income should exist. A basic income would free us from worrying about sustenance. Just imagine what we could do with all the mental energy we would have freed up. Imagine what art could be created. Imagine how many more people would be free to start a business because they know that the government will cover their living expenses. A compelling idea, indeed.

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