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The Guardian - Basic Income

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Basic income for all: a 500-year-old idea whose time has come? In the echoey theatre of modern political gesture, welfare has recently had one of its periodic stagings.

Basic income for all: a 500-year-old idea whose time has come?

A minister has honed his ideological credentials; columnists have extracted culture war content; tabloid journalists have parroted shamelessly grossed-up figures and patrolled Bondi beach for dole bludgers. Yet for once it was worth cocking an ear. For if the world of employment is facing upheaval, then so is its counterpart of unemployment. And if the future of work is, as many argue, increasingly flexible, casual, various and scarce, it’s arguable that those short of it will steadily face exacerbated economic risk. Basic income isn’t just a nice idea. It's a birthright.

Every student learns about Magna Carta, the ancient scroll that enshrined the rights of barons against the arbitrary authority of England’s monarchs.

Basic income isn’t just a nice idea. It's a birthright

Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland. Scotland looks set to be the first part of the UK to pilot a basic income for every citizen, as councils in Fife and Glasgow investigate trial schemes in 2017.

Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland

The councillor Matt Kerr has been championing the idea through the ornate halls of Glasgow City Chambers, and is frank about the challenges it poses. “Like a lot of people, I was interested in the idea but never completely convinced,” he said. 'Fund it, not run it': big tech's universal basic income project has its skeptics. The Black Panther party began experimenting with “survival programs” in its hometown of Oakland, California, nearly 50 years ago.

'Fund it, not run it': big tech's universal basic income project has its skeptics

Programs like Free Breakfast for Children side-stepped government bureaucracy and directly provided people with food, clothing, healthcare and schooling. Fast forward to 2016, and the wealthy capitalists behind Y Combinator could not be more different than the Marxist-Leninist black revolutionaries. But on 31 May, Silicon Valley’s premier startup incubator announced a project that in some ways recalls the radical experiments of the 1960s and 70s. Y Combinator plans to pilot a universal basic income (UBI) study in Oakland, giving up to 100 individuals “an amount [of money] that is sufficient to meet basic needs” for six months to a year. In theory, a universal basic income is a system whereby the government provides every individual – no matter how rich or poor – with enough income to survive, no strings attached. The Guardian view on a universal income: the high price of free money.

You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose – it has become a political cliche.

The Guardian view on a universal income: the high price of free money

Increasingly, however, in these cash-strapped times, you must campaign in arithmetic, too. Tech billionaires got rich off us. Now they want to feed us the crumbs. Every month, nearly 20% of the country gets a Social Security check.

Tech billionaires got rich off us. Now they want to feed us the crumbs

What if that number were 100%? What if the government gave everyone an income? Unless we think imaginatively, benefits will be consigned to history. The solution to (nearly) everything: working less. Had you asked John Maynard Keynes what the biggest challenge of the 21st century would be, he wouldn’t have had to think twice.

The solution to (nearly) everything: working less

Leisure. In fact, Keynes anticipated that, barring “disastrous mistakes” by policymakers (austerity during an economic crisis, for instance), the western standard of living would multiply to at least four times that of 1930 within a century. By his calculations, in 2030 we’d be working just 15 hours a week. In 2000, countries such as the UK and the US were already five times as wealthy as in 1930.

Is basic income too simplistic to meet housing need? In a world with a universal basic income for all, what would you do about housing costs?

Is basic income too simplistic to meet housing need?

UBI – also known as citizen’s income or negative income tax – is a seductive idea that is now gaining ground, with support spanning the political spectrum from the Green Party to the ideas of the late US economist Milton Friedman. Should we scrap benefits and pay everyone £100 a week whether they work or not? Imagine a Britain where the government pays every adult the basic cost of living.

Should we scrap benefits and pay everyone £100 a week whether they work or not?

Whether rich or poor – or, crucially, whether you’re in paid employment or not – everyone gets the same weekly amount, with no strings attached. The harsh, punitive model of modern “welfare” is a distant memory; passing in and out of employment in the so-called gig economy is now something everyone can afford. The positive consequences extend into the distance: women are newly financially independent and able to exit abusive relationships, public health is noticeably improved, and people are able to devote the time to caring that an ever-ageing society increasingly demands. All the political parties are signed up: just as the welfare state underpinned the 20th century, so this new idea defines the 21st. Welcome to the world of a unconditional basic income, or UBI, otherwise known as citizens’ income or social wage. The Panama Papers prove it: we can afford a universal basic income. We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US.

The Panama Papers prove it: we can afford a universal basic income

Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions. Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. A no-strings basic income? If it works for the royal family, it can work for us all. My first response to the notion of a universal basic income (UBI) was: “Well, really.

That is never going to happen! I mean, it’s completely unaffordable. I mean, it would be political suicide for any progressive party suggesting it.” Dutch city plans to pay all citizens a ‘basic income’, and Greens say it could work in the UK. Should we pay a minimum wage or a living income? Most rich countries now have millions of “working poor” – people whose jobs do not pay enough to keep them above the poverty line, and whose wages therefore have to be subsidised by the state. These subsidies take the form of tax credits. Artists with no safety net: we must be able to afford to take risks. All theatre-makers have to navigate a sector built on unpaid opportunities, low pay and the increasing lottery of arts funding. This combination of high risk and low reward routinely excludes people from poorer backgrounds.

But it also affects mid-career artists too. In my own work with artists in the north-east of England, I’ve known talented, experienced theatre-makers who have stopped making work because they can no longer take the risk of not knowing if they can sustain their families. I’ve seen bright, enthusiastic students and emerging artists walk away from theatre when they realise just how little those artists hailed as success stories actually earn.

Paying everyone a basic income would kill off low-paid menial jobs. You take a large chunk of a country’s tax revenues and pay people a few thousand pounds a year to do nothing. Basic income paid to the poor can transform lives. The idea of providing low-income people with money to reduce poverty and insecurity was, until recently, regarded with scepticism in development circles. But that is changing rapidly. The World Bank and others have been converted to conditional cash transfers (CCT). These provide poor people with cash on condition they send their children to school and for medical treatment. It is extended to other conditions, such as doing designated work or undergoing some treatment, including sterilisation, the idea being to induce people to behave in ways deemed good for them.

Numerous tests have concluded that these conditions work. Would a citizen’s income be better than our benefits system? The Bank of England has been scratching its head for months about the state of the economy. Unemployment is much lower than Threadneedle Street envisaged when Mark Carney unveiled his forward guidance strategy this time last year, but so is the rate at which earnings are increasing. Despite the fact that real incomes are barely growing, the numbers for consumer spending look surprisingly strong. How about a 'citizen's income' instead of benefits? The campaign for a basic income for all argues that the scheme would cost less than our complex benefits system, would remove the stigma from state support and boost productivity.

Communism, welfare state – what's the next big idea?