What is universal basic income? A beginner’s guide

universal basic income
sframe / 123RF Stock Photo
Next to animojis, The Handmaid’s Tale, and millennial abbreviations like “suh” and “TD” that make us feel terrifyingly old and out of touch, universal basic income is likely one of those things you’ve heard people talk about at some point in 2018.

If you’re too busy/lazy to crack a textbook, however, have no fear: we’re ready to fill you in on the massive economic proposal that’s exciting everyone from certain high-ranking government government officials to Elon Musk to that brooding guy/gal in your life who dresses in black and uses phrases like “late-stage capitalism” and “accelerationist critique” far more than seems healthy.

What’s this “universal basic income” I hear so much about?

Universal basic income is a proposed form of monetary social security that would be made available to every citizen or residence of a particular country. There are five essential characteristics inherent in the idea:

  • It’s a sum of money paid at regular intervals
  • It’s paid in cash money rather than, say, food stamps
  • It’s paid to individuals
  • It’s paid without any means testing
  • It’s paid regardless of how willing (or unwilling) a person is to work.

The exact amount that you’d receive would like vary from country to country, but the figure people keep coming back to in the U.S. is around $10,000 per year. That’s not going to make you rich, but it also means you could meet your basic needs without having to be reliant on work. Not that you’d necessarily have to give that up…

Wait, so you can work as well?

Of course. That’s what we were referring to with the bit about a person’s willingness to work. This isn’t an unemployment benefit, although — should you wish to sit in your apartment and watch every single movie and TV show ever committed to Netflix — you’d be able to do that without starving. If, on the other hand, you were so inclined to work you’d be able to top up the amount of money you receive by adding a paycheck on top of it.

This means that, theoretically, you’d be able to turn down less rewarding jobs that you’d otherwise have to take in order to keep a roof over your head — and perhaps even become a bit more of an entrepreneurial risk-taker, since you’re supported by the safety net of basic income.

Is this a new idea?

Not really. The core ideas behind universal basic income date back centuries. For example, in Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia there’s a discussion of a scheme to “provide everyone with some means of livelihood” since this proves a much more positive way of building society than simply punishing those who steal food to live by sentencing them to death. Others (such as More’s colleague Johannes Ludovicus Vives, mathematician and political activist Antoine Caritat, English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and more) built on the concept over the following centuries; each developing the idea even further.

More recently, the idea of basic income has had a resurgence in popularity as a possible means of addressing the massive wealth inequality in society.

So if it’s about money, why do people keep talking about robots?

Ah, yes, the robots. Never mentioned in Thomas More’s Utopia as a key element of universal basic income, the reason why robots and AI are now regularly part of the conversation is because of the threat that they pose to many people’s employment. The ratio of robots to workers is increasing dramatically around the world, and the cost of implementing those robots grows ever cheaper, while their skills increase.

According to one 2013 study, an estimated 47 percent of current U.S. jobs will be automated in the next 20 years. With mass unemployment looming, universal basic income could be a radical solution.

Well, that settles it for me then. Who could object to such a brilliant scheme?

Unsurprisingly, there are a few objections to this. The big one, naturally, is who would pay for it. The United States alone has around 250 million adults, all of whom would qualify for basic income. If everyone gets a tax free $10,000 (because it’s not really a basic income if the government takes some of it back in the form of tax) that’s $2.5 trillion per year. Proposals that might help cover this include things like slashing military funding, using carbon taxes, sovereign wealth funds, getting tech giants to help pay for it, and more.

Given the scale of this initiative, however, it would take some radical rejigging of the U.S. economy — and that’s before you even start to think about the folks who might drop out of their professions and stop contributing to the national GDP because they no longer need to work 40 hours a week in a job they dislike.

Can’t the 1 percenters pay?

Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. Firstly, $2.5 trillion a year is a lot more than even the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg have hidden under their mattresses. There are plenty of other questions it raises, too.

For example, would employers use it a subsidy to lower wages for certain oversubscribed jobs? Would it simply make products and services more expensive, in the same way that dual income households caused a rise in property prices? Would this be used as a replacement for all other welfare programs, and could this hurt instead of help people? It’s an intriguing idea in theory, but there’s a whole lot of small print that would have to be worked out — even if it was affordable.

Has anyone actually tried this idea?

A few key studies have been done. One 2012 study carried out in the Republic of Ireland worked out that basic income could be affordable if people were taxed 45 percent of their income. This would lead to overall income increases for the vast majority of people. If you’re talking about actual practical attempts at implementing this, there have been a number of pilot schemes around the world.

In Ontario, three communities have been selected for one such scheme, which will be trialled over the next three years. As part of the trial, 4,000 individuals between ages 18 to 64 will receive a minimum income of that meet certain criteria, and provide them with a minimum income despite their employment status of CA$16,989 ($13,685) or CA $24,027 ($19,361), minus 50 percent of their earnings from work. No-one has yet tried to roll this out on a grand scale, though.

Watch this space.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Halfbikes, VR for all your senses, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our favorites, with all the features you want.
Smart Home

What you need to know before buying a new washer and dryer

Washers and dryers are big, expensive appliances that you'll want to last for decades. Our buying guide will help you sift through all the options and find the best machines for you.

Our favorite smart thermostats let you stay warm without burning money

The right thermostat can do more than just adjust the temperature of your home, it can also learn about you and help you save money. Check out our picks for the best smart thermostats on the market right now.
Emerging Tech

Drown out noisy neighbors and rest easy with these white noise machines

Some people are more sensitive to sound during sleep than others. Luckily, there are a number of white noise machines on the market to mask the noise. Here are our five of our current favorites.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and others that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

How emotion-tracking A.I. will change computing as we know it

Affectiva is just one of the startups working to create emotion-tracking A.I. that can work out how you're feeling. Here's why this could change the face of computing as we know it.
Emerging Tech

Watch a pack of SpotMini robot dogs perform a terrifying feat of strength

Boston Dynamics' SpotMini robotic dog is now going around in packs, and the results are somewhat concerning. Check out the video to see what kind of shenanigans 10 of them got up to recently ...
Emerging Tech

Notre Dame fire: How drones and a robot called Colossus helped limit the damage

The fire that devastated the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday shocked many around the world. In a bid to prevent even worse damage to the structure, Paris firefighters opted to deploy drones and a robot called Colossus.
Emerging Tech

New gunfire-detection system alerts police of shooters in seconds, not minutes

The Safe Zone Gunfire Detector is a fast gunfire-detection system that could help avert potential tragedies in public places like schools, malls, or anywhere a mass shooting might occur.
Emerging Tech

NASA chooses a special spot for its next crewed moon landing

Following the U.S. government's announcement last month of a desire to see American astronauts set foot on the moon again in the next five years, NASA has revealed a location on the lunar surface where it would most like to land.
Emerging Tech

Adidas has created a running shoe that’s made to be remade

Adidas has unveiled the Futurecraft Loop running shoe that it claims is the first performance footwear to be 100% recyclable. The shoe is the latest green initiative by the sportswear company and will go on sale in 2021.
Emerging Tech

Yale scientists restore cellular activity in a pig’s brain hours after its death

In what some may view as a porcine version of Frankenstein, Yale University scientists have restored circulation and cellular activity in a pig’s brain four hours after its death. The study is likely to be used to study brain function
Emerging Tech

Russia’s robot news anchor gives human TV presenters hope

Human news anchors anxious about robots taking their jobs will be feeling reassured this week after the appearance on Russian TV of a news-reading android that clearly needs a bit of work.