On its own, giving “free money” is a terrible idea. But universal basic income can work if it’s part of a greater plan.
In my last column, “How Trump Can Save American Democracy,” I wrote of the importance of finding creative, forward-looking solutions to the unemployment problem in America, specifically of rural Middle America, that has been most affected by economic decline and deindustrialization. I stressed that this is paramount to directing the course of American society towards positive change and calming the currents of nativism that have been arising. I suggested that if Trump is to succeed in fulfilling the unattended needs of his core constituency, he must not rely on bringing back industry or trying to create new jobs where robots and machinery have been replacing working hands. Rather, I recommended a focus on education and personal development that would train those who have dropped out of the current job market, to lead the way into the creation of a new reality.
The same day the column was published, The Economic Security Project (ESP)—a coalition of over 100 technologists, investors, and activists—announced that it is committing $10 million over the next two years to explore how a “universal basic income” (UBI) could ensure economic opportunity for all in the US. In the face of automation, globalization, and financialization changing the nature of work, they believe that we are now urgently required to take bold steps to guarantee economic opportunity for all. With populist uprisings that are sweeping the Western world, many other people across the political spectrum are now considering UBI as such a step, which basically means giving everyone a guaranteed minimum payment as a means to, theoretically, reduce poverty and improve health and education.
It is very clear to me why people who understand the future of technology and how it will influence the work force and the economy, are deeply concerned and seeking breakthrough, out-of-the-box measures to ensure everyone is taken care of. They are absolutely right that we are at the brink of devastation, with growing worldwide unemployment and social upheaval leading directly to further escalation of tensions and eventually to war. However, the concept of giving away money for free is not the way to achieve balance. On the contrary, it is a mistake that will cost American society heavily if implemented on its own.
Free Money is Debilitating
Human beings and human societies need to continuously develop in order to thrive. We are naturally inclined to be in a state of constantly striving for increasingly greater goals and achievements. A person who is not committed to a purpose in life, who has nothing to live or die for, becomes numb. There is nothing worse than giving something to someone before they actually want for it, as it blocks their very will to act in pursuit of their desired outcomes.
We are pleasure seeking creatures. We all want to enjoy things on different levels: food, sex, family, money, recognition and knowledge; but each of us yearns for these different fulfillments to different extents. Most people have the basic desire for food, and also sex, though to a slightly lesser extent. Even fewer people are interested in having a family. The higher you go up this pyramid of desires, the fewer people you will find seeking to fulfill them. So if you take away the thirst for money, there will be droves of people out there who won’t have much to motivate them to develop themselves. Not knowing what to do with their time will make them miserable and drive them crazy. This can actually increase drug intake and violent mayhem.
UBI Is a Good Idea Only if We Induce Development
As many are beginning to sense, universal basic income WILL be necessary as machines take over more and more jobs. Only a few days ago, “Amazon revealed its latest plan to automate American workers out of existence” with its futuristic machine controlled grocery store. According to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, the use of robots and other manufacturing efficiencies were responsible for 88 percent of the 7 million factory jobs the US has lost since peak employment in 1979. With all of this evidence piling up, it’s difficult to ignore the future consequences. Elon Musk, the iconic Silicon Valley futurist, predicts “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income or something like that, due to automation.”
But people should also be able to strive for what they are passionate about. They just shouldn’t have to work in order to pay for shelter, food, clothing, and so on; these things will be provided for. But that doesn’t mean people will be idle. Musk foresees that UBI will give people time to do other things, more complex things, and more interesting things. Others believe that without the uncertainty about being able to pay for rent and other basic necessities, people will be unmotivated to advance themselves, nor will they spend their free time productively. Research has corroborated these latter notions.
So how can the benefits of giving free money be maintained, while also making sure that people will use the money to actually better themselves, rather than buy alcohol and drugs, for example? We need to create alternative motivation that will keep people busy and developing. As I wrote in my previous column, replacing external monetary motivation with time filling educational activity and training, can actually turn this otherwise frightening change, into a blessing.
A New Deal
To effectively deal with unemployment, we need to help people spend their time constructively by creating programs that will enrich and develop them as human beings, upon which receiving basic income will be contingent. These programs should occupy people’s days with courses of their choice, helping them expand their education. They should be given tools to better themselves: personal skills, relationship and marital skills, psychology and parenting – everything one needs in order to live their life well. Today, we don’t educate people. We only give them knowledge. There is no one that leaves high school knowing how to educate their children, or how to treat a woman or a man. People don’t know enough about the world, about life. You are basically just taught to read and write, forced to learn things you will hardly remember, and then thrown out into the world. This must be corrected.
Another important aspect to having people attend public courses is that we are social creatures, and without being intermingled with others as we are at our jobs, we will lose our ability to relate to one another. On top of that, the American society, like many others, has become increasingly fragmented and torn by political and racial divides. And so, creating places for people not just to meet but also truly connect, through cooperation and cohesiveness enhancing workshops and seminars, is imperative. This can lead to gradual healing of the societal fabric. As a final result of this enrichment, people should be encouraged to reach out to society and give back, expressing themselves creatively while doing so. Just as we now have mediators, lawyers and police officers whose jobs are to prevent and treat conflict, people should be paid to spread their acquired connection skills onwards, creating further social transformation.
Along with the many positive effects of such a social-educational process, improving relations also has great economic benefits that could relieve the cost of UBI. With less stressful home and social environments- crime rates, violence and substance abuse will diminish, enabling states and municipalities to spend much less on policing and social services. The alleviation of loneliness and depression can greatly improve health and save the healthcare system billions of dollars. A general increase in mutual care and consideration can save a lot of the wasted resources we spend every day in efforts to regulate, enforce and organize our societies.
The Agenda of Happiness
Last but not least, when people spend their days connecting to others, expanding their skills and knowledge and serving society, they will become much happier. This should be the purpose of making any changes in our society. Alleviating poverty is part of the deal, but meaning and happiness are no less important. A new Landmark study found that most human misery can be blamed on failed relationships and health rather than money problems and poverty, and that eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% compared to just 5% if policymakers focused on eliminating poverty. It’s time for the race for increasingly unachievable wealth to be replaced with a much more feasible and healthy race for happiness.
This is what our societies need. After all, if we look at the way Western society has become, we can see that working so many hours has not made us happier; it’s been very taxing on families and children who hardly see their parents. We have become addicted to cell phones and the fake life on social media, while loneliness, depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. In short, we have created our life so that few actually enjoy it. We will have to change this because our societies are disintegrating. Instead of working ten hours a day only to see our children for a few moments before bedtime, we will finally be able to truly take care of them and organize our environment so that it will suit our personal and family goals. Let the printers and robots take care of necessities, while human beings get busy improving our relationships and our lives.
Featured in The Jerusalem Post