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A Universal Basic Income: It’s Happening in Europe & East Africa… But Will it Work Here?

Quietly, across the globe, new conversations and actions have started up around the idea of a universal basic income. While much attention was paid to Swiss voters turning down a motion to create a basic income in their country, Finland is in the process of starting up an experiment with the system this fall. Iceland is starting talks about doing the same in the coming year.

In Sweden, talk of following suit is still active,  but ostensibly on hold as some of its biggest private employers shift to a six hour work day first. In Great Britain, Labour and Tories are again battling over this latest of big issues, with one side saying it’s an answer to rising inequality, along with social welfare costs, while the other writes off the idea as nothing but an unaffordable pipe dream.

So where’d this UBI concept come from? It turns out the ideas behind a Universal Basic Income have been around for centuries. The Spanish-born, Dutch-based scholar Juan Luis Vives, known as the father of modern psychology, wrote in 1526 that, “Even those who have dissipated their fortunes in dissolute living—through gaming, harlots, excessive luxury, gluttony and gambling—should be given food, for no one should die of hunger.” In his last treatise, Agrarian Justice, the English-American political theorist Thomas Paine advocated for the US government creating a national fund, “out of which there shall be paid to every person” minimal amounts at the age of 21 and 50 (then considered old age).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 that the only way of moving beyond bias and poverty was a “guaranteed annual income.” Two years later, Republican president Richard Nixon delivered a speech proposing a program in which the federal government would, “build a foundation under the income of every American family with dependent children that cannot care for itself.”

It passed the House but failed the Senate.

But then the idea entered reality when a Canadian town tried the idea for three years in the 1970s and found it had its benefits, with none of the shirking of work critics had predicted. And in Alaska around the same time, oil revenues were organized to allow for a state “permanent fund” that handed out annual payments to all state residents—usually about enough to afford winter vacations to warmer climates.

So is any of this possible in the United States, or possibly on a localized level?

No one can argue with the fact that income equality roared to life as one of the key issues of this election cycle. Furthermore, efforts to rethink the ways in which we help the less fortunate in our society, while also providing basic rights like health care and a stable senior life, have also been gaining steam in recent decades, despite recent fears of the national debt and chronic shortfalls economically.

This past June, the New Yorker’s astute economics columnist James Surowiecki tackled the subject with one of his noteworthy common sense pieces:

“One striking thing about guaranteeing a basic income is that it’s always had support both on the left and on the right—albeit for different reasons. These days, among younger thinkers on the left, the UBI is seen as a means to ending poverty, combating rising inequality, and liberating workers from the burden of crappy jobs. For thinkers on the right, the UBI seems like a simpler, and more libertarian, alternative to the thicket of anti-poverty and social-welfare programs.”

More recently, Chris Weller of Business Insider wrote of a new philanthropic effort in East Africa to try out base incomes by noting how, “The goal will be to establish once and for all how people’s lives change when you put money directly into their pocket,” and surmised that, “Basic income within a decade may seem optimistic, but we could be on the verge of a tipping point.”

Wealth inequality rates are soaring ever higher, and the longer it goes on, research suggests, the unhappier people will get. Baby steps may no longer be a satisfactory solution.

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a column entitled “A Basic Income Is Smarter Than A Minimum Wage” that, “The idea is radical and it sounds like money for nothing to many people, but it has more of a libertarian flavor than a Communist one. By guaranteeing basic survival, a government provides a service as necessary as, say, policing the streets or fighting off foreign enemies. At the same time, once this service is provided, the government can get out of trying to regulate the labor market: Its goal of keeping people fed and clothed is already achieved.”

So…what will tip the deal from a European experiment or historical footnote? How about fear of robots, or at least the mechanization which many see threatening as many jobs have been lost through globalization over the coming decades?

Even Charles Hughes of the conservative Cato Institute noted in a piece just last month that the issue needs studying, even while repeating worries that, “If this is an unconditional income that is grafted onto the current framework, it would likely end up being unaffordable without addressing the work disincentives and other problems currently in place.”

Was he, and the ultra right, ready to see a chance for guaranteed incomes for all at some point?

“If it replaces the patchwork of programs with a simplified benefit going directly to people instead of being transmitted through a series of in-kind or specified programs, it could potentially be an improvement over the status quo,” he wrote. “A later generation that grew up with a basic income framework in existence could have significantly different responses in terms of work effort than one that shifted after they were already well into their working lives.”