May 19, 2016

In the 1970s, a small town in Canada tried something radical: families who earned below a certain amount were given money that they could use for anything. Essentially, it was money for nothing.

It was a variant on an idea called “guaranteed basic income”. That concept has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, fueled by techno-utopian dreams of an all-robot workforce.

A handful of countries are even taking steps to make it a reality. The Swiss are voting on it this summer (though it likely won’t pass), Finland is looking into it, as are a lot of other countries.

But skeptics have a lot of questions. Will people still work? Who will benefit the most? Can we afford it?

Evelyn Forget is an economist at the University of Manitoba. She studied the experiment in Canada, known as “mincome,” decades after it ended.

“Most people don’t quit real jobs because they’d rather live very close to the poverty line,” Forget says. “If you’re making $50,000 a year, you don’t quit a $50,000 a year job to live at $20,000 a year.”

But, in poor families, mothers might take a little more time off after a pregnancy and teenage boys might stay in high school rather than drop out and work. At least that's what they found in the Manitoba experiment.

“If you can imagine the differences in opportunities for those people over the subsequent 30 years, you can imagine the different kinds of lives these people would’ve led,” Forget says. “It reduces some of the terrible outcomes that come along with poverty.”

Conservatives and libertarians don’t usually support government handouts. But Matt Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, likes the idea of a basic income. He says it gives poor people more agency than the current “paternalistic” way welfare is distributed.

“If we give people cash, they’re likely to use it in responsible ways,” Zwolinski says. “That assumption, grounded in I think a certain view of human nature… is really fleshed out by the empirical evidence that we have about a variety of cash transfer programs throughout the world.”

And he adds, it slices away chunks of government bureaucracy:

“We spend close to a trillion dollars federally and at the state and local levels in the United States on various programs to combat poverty. And at the federal level alone there are over 120 of these programs. That leads to a lot of complexity and administrative bloat in government.”

Cutting everyone a check for $1,000 a month is, theoretically, an easier program to administer. Though it would be very expensive: nearly 4 trillion dollars in the US.

So, yes, there will be a lot of details to iron out before your income check arrives in the mail.

But, all around the world, discussions are beginning.

Body and Mind, Business, innovation hub, Evelyn Forget

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