All of the problems Universal Basic Income can solve that have nothing to do with unemployment

Universal Basic Income would arguably solve many 21st century problems.
Universal Basic Income would arguably solve many 21st century problems.
Image: Reuters/ Gary Cameron
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Universal Basic Income isn’t just mankind’s answer to the threat of robots in the workplace. Those who support the transformative economic policy offer widely varying versions of exactly how it would operate, but all involve distributing a standard sum of money to citizens regardless of need. Many argue that this set-up could save the millions who are on track to lose their jobs to machines. But that’s not all.

The idealistic-sounding scheme would also solve many other 21st century problems, according to its supporters, largely because those with basic income would be less dependent on paid work. This, in turn, would give employees higher negotiating power to change the structure of employment.

Dutch reporter Rutger Bregman, whose Netherlands bestseller “Utopia for Realists,” was published in English earlier this week, argues for a form of UBI high enough to eradicate poverty. He believes this would remove our existing need to toil away for the vast majority of our waking hours, hoping to earn enough bonuses or promotions to enjoy a decent standard of living. Instead, we could fulfill the economist John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour working week by the year 2030.

Others are less convinced that there would be such a sharp drop in working hours, but nevertheless believe that UBI would reduce the working week. Currently, most people can’t afford to leave a job without worrying about being destitute, points out Jason Murphy, assistant professor of philosophy at Elms College in Massachusetts, who serves on the US Basic Income Guarantee Network Committee. “Having UBI means more negotiating power all around,” he says in an interview.

As well as increasing leisure time, working less could be a massive step towards reducing the pace of climate change. Bregman points to studies suggesting that working less would half the amount of CO2 (pdf) emitted this century. After all, countries with shorter working weeks have smaller environmental footprints (pdf).

“It’s pretty obvious why,” says Bregman in an interview. “We’re using most of our wealth and increased productivity in the form of more consumption.” We work more to spend more—on travel, cars, trips to the mall, exotic food, and many other products that harm the environment.

Murphy adds that more employees will have the negotiating power to insist on a job closer to their home. “A lot of carbon generation comes from commuting to work,” he says.

There has also been a growing focus on how basic income could be implemented to address gender inequality. Murphy believes that introducing a dependable source of income via UBI “gets to the very heart of women’s economic vulnerability.” He points to a rape shelter in Vancouver that has voiced support for UBI, in part because it would give women the economic freedom to escape abusive relationships.

A monthly stipend and reduced working hours would also give both parents the freedom to commit to domestic chores, while still being able to invest in professional careers. Meanwhile, women carry the burden of emotional labor—the childcare, support, and household work, which largely goes uncompensated. “Of course this unpaid work is valuable and I think UBI is recognition of that,” says Bregman.

There’s also some hope that UBI would allow both our employment and leisure time to become more fulfilling. Currently, millions of people are employed in what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”—work that serves no real purpose, and is simply a way to fill time and provide salaries. One YouGov survey found that 37% of Brits think their jobs are meaningless. But under UBI, Bregman believes we would have the financial freedom to pursue useful and worthwhile work.

And how might we use all the increased leisure that we would enjoy with our greater financial freedom and reduced working hours? Bregman claims that we would no longer be returning from work to sit in front on the TV, exhausted, as we would have the energy to engage in more cultural pursuits. “People in countries with the longest working weeks go to the least theater, read the least books, and watch the most TV,” he adds. For example, those in United States and Japan, with notoriously long working days, spend several hours every day watching TV.

Others are not so certain that we wouldn’t be a little bored. Murphy suggests that we would likely have more cultural and political activities available, simply because there would be more people around the organize them. But he believes some people might well find themselves whiling away their time by watching daytime TV.

“I would gladly trade some bad reality TV for everyone if it means people aren’t worried about being one paycheck away from losing a house,” Murphy adds. “We can solve boredom next.”