Universal Basic Income: Into the age of abundance?

Katie Coughlin

Google executive and AI futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted at the 2018 TED conference that ”In the early 2030s, we’ll have universal basic income in the developed world, and worldwide by the end of the 2030s. You’ll be able to live very well on that.”

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is defined as a regular and unconditional payment to every citizen of a country, regardless of other income. With supporters such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,
UBI is gaining interest for its potential to counter the negative economic effects of job displacement and income disparity from workplace automation.

Current studies predict that anywhere from 20-40% of jobs will be lost to automation. Economist John Maynard Keynes termed this displacement technological unemployment already in 1930. Further troubling is the
unclear outlook for job creation. What do we do when, by an unreachable margin, there are not enough jobs to go around? What would this do to today´s already growing income disparity?

Kurzweil believes that UBI would offer a safety net and flexibility that could optimize the labour force, give better working conditions, reduce inequalities and end extreme financial poverty. He envisions an “age of abundance” where workers could opt to reduce their working hours and devote more time to other interests without sacrificing their basic income.

The concept of UBI is not new and the idea can be traced back to the early 16th century in Thomas More´s Utopia (1516) and Johannes Ludovicus Vives´ On assistance to the poor (1526). In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, Keynes envisioned 100 years into the future that we would reach an age of leisure, a “destination of economic bliss”, in which we would have most of our material needs met and could
enjoy 3-hour workdays and more leisure time. In the 2008 book, Revisiting Keynes, however, economists claim that Keynes failed to account for problems of income distribution and inequality. Perhaps UBI could be the
instrument to smooth out income disparity and open the door for Keynes´ predictions to be realized?

As of yet, there are no successful implementations of UBI, only speculation
and fragmented trials around the world, such as in Finland, the Netherlands, Kenya and Scotland, with various solutions being tested among various population groups. Finland´s trial was recently cut short after just one year with no published results. One economist I spoke with pointed out that only controlled random trials will give an accurate indication of effectiveness. Finnish participants, on the other hand, were drawn from a select pool of unemployed persons.

Variations of UBI could be geographic as in a rural basic income in which only rural area residents would receive a payment. Other suggestions include negative income tax schemes and basic capital grants.

A 2017 European Social Survey (ESS) found wide support for UBI across Europe, particularly with youth. With so much interest, one may wonder who opposes the idea. Some worry that UBI would lessen the motivation to work. Surprisingly, the country with the lowest support for Universal Basic
Income in the ESS study was… can you guess? Norway! This may be due to the already high level of public support available.

Kurzweil contends that the primary concern under UBI would be to ensure life meaning and purpose. Can the freedom of leisure also be destructive to society? Classic dystopian novels such as Brave New World, Anthem and Fahrenheit 451 give imagined glimpses of post-technology states where authoritarian governments have taken control of populations, because individual freedom in a technology age caused too much disruption.

UBI and an age of abundance can sound too good to be true. What would you do if you had a guaranteed income for life? The question evokes interest but also thoughts of lottery winners who go bankrupt. Could we trust people to put guaranteed income to good use? Predicting the future is anyone’s guess, but for today’s youth who are overwhelmed with messages of despair about their future, UBI gives hope.