back to article Universal basic income is a great idea, which is also why it won't happen

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) unites a strange mix of people. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things,” Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said in a speech at Harvard University in May. “And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People …

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  1. Pete 2 Silver badge

    fast forward.

    UBI is a great idea in theory. But so is giving everyone everything for free. Forever.

    And it is the "forever" bit that is the problem. All the descriptions of UBI portray it as something that will go on for a year or two .... maybe 5 years, tops.

    But consider 100 years in the future. Where will the UBI come from then? What will the citizens of 2117 be getting. And more importantly, what about the families that have known nothing except getting all their money from the state for as long as any of them can remember - what will they be like?

    Will they have any education (unnecessary when the UBI pays for everything, and expensive). Will they have any skills? If UBI stopped - what would they do. And most important of all: when your entire population is dependent to a greater or lesser extent on government pay-outs, do you still have any form of democratic process? Or is the entire place run by a small elite who can use money to keep the vast majority in subservience: too scared speak out, or do anything wrong in case their UBI gets cut.

    1. Teknogrot

      Re: fast forward.

      All of your hypotheticals apply equally to the current system.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        "All of your hypotheticals apply equally to the current system."

        Not equally. It's certainly possible to find families where nobody has worked for years and where education is ignored if not despised but they're a small minority and, however reluctantly, are supported by the rest. But what would happen if this were extended to the rest?

        1. Teknogrot

          Re: fast forward.

          Why be educated beyond what is necessary to fulfil the requirements of your employment? Do you think the introduction of mandatory basic IT classes in the last few decades was so that the general public can enjoy arguing on the internet and stealing porn like those of us enthusiastic enough to read a tech news site? I'm sure the focus on CV writing and MS Office use is entirely coincidental...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: fast forward.

            Enthusiasm, perhaps? I read that somewhere...

        2. Paul 195

          Re: fast forward.

          ... and yet.. when researchers have gone looking for the "three generations of unemployed" so beloved of tabloid lore, they haven't actually been able to find them.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: fast forward.

            You can find the generations of unemployed in Hawaii. Locals and micronesians teach their children how to sign up for benefits when they graduate high-school.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: fast forward.

          Equally applicable. Not applied equally.

          Education is not despised now nor is it loved by the well-educated. It is pursued at great expense by most solely for the economic advantages it confers or is perceived to confer. With UBI, the rat race is de-pressurized and education becomes more meaningful.

    2. 2+2=5 Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: fast forward.

      But consider 100 years in the future. Where will the UBI come from then? What will the citizens of 2117 be getting. And more importantly, what about the families that have known nothing except getting all their money from the state for as long as any of them can remember - what will they be like?

      It will be just like Star Trek. No one there ever seems to worry about where their money comes from. Except the Ferengi, of course.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: fast forward.

        Without the replicator technology that would actually eliminate scarcity, the more appropriate comparisons would be 1984 and Brave New World.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: fast forward.

          We'll likely never have replicator technology, but with the passage of time we get ever closer. As to the scarcity thing, you are looking at the wrong side of the problem. With regard to life, humanity faces only two seemingly insurmountable problems: mortality and greed.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: fast forward.

        "It will be just like Star Trek. No one there ever seems to worry about where their money comes from"

        They don't have a concept of money on Earth anymore in Star Trek, That's why.

    3. Julz

      Re: fast forward.

      If you just think of UBI as the citizen getting a proportion of the nations GDP for being a good (for some definition of good) citizen, then I think your fears become less stark. I don't see why this would cause democracy to fall or for people to stop wanting to earn more so that they can be more comfortable. Additionally, if you set the UBI at sufficient rate (basically the most of the welfare budget) then you can get rid of most pensions and benefits so you can then remove the biggest and most bureaucratic department of our government, which as the piece suggests, is a very real reason why it would be very difficult to do. Turkeys and Christmas...

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        Additionally, if you set the UBI at sufficient rate (basically the most all of the welfare budget) then you can get rid of most all pensions and benefits so you can then remove the biggest and most bureaucratic department of our government

        FTFY

        I think you underestimate the ability of any bureaucracy to hang on undiminished. Even if you got rid of the entire pension and benefits system you'd probably find they'd need at least 10% more staff to handle UBI.

    4. bombastic bob Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: fast forward.

      summary: without threat of starvation and/or rampant poverty, NOBODY would work hard to get ahead.

      And, don't forget one other likely outcome: when 'minimum income' is handed out by "whomever", expenses will rise to meet it. So you'll be equally poor as before, but with more money. This translates to a rather nasty form of inflation. It's why housing in certain places is RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE, and the wages are often "just high enough" so you can SUBSIST but not get ahead.

      See how it works?

      The only fix is a TRUE free market system. As imperfect as it is, free market has the inherent checks and balances to reward hard work and punish laziness. As for "compassion", let private charities and religious organizations handle that part. When politicians are elected by giving other people's money away to those who vote for them, corruption is guaranteed.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "free market has the inherent checks and balances"

        The issue with the actual "free" market is that many people are busy neutering the "inherent checks and balances" because they will work against them, and they don't like things like competition and the like. And many executive incompetency and laziness is often highly rewarded through golden parachutes.

        In many ways welfare is being use by big business to avoid to pay workers better - they attempt to burden the state and taxpayers (not them, because their money find every way to lonely islands...) with their greed and inefficiencies. They even make more money from it by increasing the debt level, which is another way to transfer even more money from the poor to the rich under the guise of interests paid to buy the same goods/services people should be able to buy directly.

        Yes, we would need to fix the free market first, and make it truly competitive and meritocratic, from the *top* to the bottom....

      2. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        > Without the replicator technology that would actually eliminate scarcity

        It's not replicators that eliminate scarcity, it's having sufficient land mass (read: source of solar radiation made usable to us by plants) per human.

      3. Dave 126 Silver badge

        > The only fix is a TRUE free market system. As imperfect as it is, free market has the inherent checks and balances to reward hard work and punish laziness

        Sorry Bob, but it doesn't just reward hard work. It largely rewards capital. It rewards luck. In addition, some of the rewards it provides are so disproportionate that it results in huge wealth inequality. The only reason that this inequality hasn't resulted in violent uprising in the USA in the 20th century is that technology has resulted in growth - even the lowly workers can afford a car and TV. However, plot the graph: how the hell can growth continue indefinitely when resources (ultimately: land area) are finite?

        1. Commswonk Silver badge

          The only fix is a TRUE free market system. As imperfect as it is, free market has the inherent checks and balances to reward hard work and punish laziness

          Does a "true" free market include the use of tar and feathers* for those who dump on the rest of us?

          If it does then where do I sign up?

          * Or worse...

          1. veti Silver badge

            Spammers. Bloggers who live on ad revenue. Those... people who post reheated political talking points on every forum on the internet, including this one. Ambulance chasers. Reality TV producers. Reality TV "stars". Professional celebrities. Journalists who write about celebrities. Paparazzi. Daytime TV presenters. The Shopping Channel. Advertising salespeople. Telesales drones. Cabinet ministers. A significant percentage of all civil servants.

            All in all, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who turn up every morning to do a solid, professional, arduous, and often unrewarding and unsung, job that only has the effect of making the whole country a shittier place. Think Nathan Barley.

            The "growth of employment" is not something we should be celebrating.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Move forward to the 18th century

            Seriously Commswonk, we have guillotines now.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Humans are very rarely purely resource bound, imagination bound maybe.

          And to bollix up a quote, the "free market" system is necessarily the best, but it is superior to any other option tried or proposed, given human nature as we best understand it. It does reward capital, because capital is valuable, but it is purely political to say it "largely" rewards that way.

          A market, after all, is simply the external expression of internal needs through mutual agreement. And although people will always try to game markets, the strength of a free market system is that it is, generally, significantly resistant to permanent gaming. Markets act as a highly distributed information processing mechanism to satisfy various demands.

          The major issue with those who rail against or complain about a market based solution is that all the alternatives they propose turn out to be worse than what they complain about. Any bureaucratic solution will inevitably be captured by the controllers as that's what humans do. If humans were perfect or even just perfectable, maybe these controls could work, but they aren't and probably never will be.

          1. Teknogrot

            You seem to think that we sprang into existence fully formed with regulation of the market in place.

            Have you considered that you might be talking bollocks?

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            never will be

            If humans were perfect they could effectively regulate a free market system. No different from government administration of enterprise.

            Fact is we have a hybrid and always will. One part governed by (nominally) democratic means, the other part governed by ownership of capital. Which part do you prefer to be ruthlessly efficient? Depends on where you stand, I suppose.

          3. oral_suspension

            If true free markets are necessarily superior, why are all the most successful developed nations mixed economies?

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Checks and balances

          > The only fix is a TRUE free market system. As imperfect as it is, free market has the inherent checks and balances to reward hard work and punish laziness

          What checks and balances? The incentives that reward raping the planet by externalizing such costs and monopolizing labor and consumer markets? TRUE free market system? WTF is that?

        4. CarbonLifeForm

          Land is finite (unless you build up, or move offworld!). But resources and land are not identical. People are a resource too.

          I do understand your point, and it is true that the market rewards efficiency, hard work, luck, preparation, and capital, but the scarcity argument has been deployed many, many times and has yet to work. It just seems Malthusians and neo-Malthusians for example (not saying you are one!) are forever positing a catastrophe whose deadline is fast approaching, yet never seems to come true.

          Look at the famines of the 20th century, and a true lack of food was almost never their cause.

      4. batfink

        Re: fast forward.

        Sorry Bob - your first line is unsupported assertion, so none of the rest of it follows.

        You are making the assumption that nobody would work hard unless faced with starvation. What is this based on? Your own attitude? Based on your thinking, everybody should stop growing businesses, working their way into better-paid positions in organisations, etc etc as soon as they have enough income to keep them from starvation.

        But that doesn't happen, does it?

        So, why would you make the assumption for a UBI?

        Would you work less hard to get ahead if you had a UBI?

        In practice, none of the small-scale trials have shown your theory to be correct. In general, they seem to have had net benefits in terms of economic activity and reduced government healthcare costs. In none of these was any increase in idleness noted.

        In summary: you are opposed to it because of your incorrect (and unsupported) assumptions about "feckless others".

        1. Peter Galbavy

          Re: fast forward.

          It was tried. They were the centrally planned economies that they tried in Eastern Europe, the USSR and others. About the only one left now is Cuba. With no personal incentive to advance there is little advancement.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            WTF?

            Re: fast forward.

            "About the only one left now is Cuba. With no personal incentive to advance there is little advancement."

            So the nation with well educated children and a good health care system show no advancement?

            I think you are confusing base benefits with crippling economic sanctions.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: fast forward.

              You, you actually believe the propaganda about Cuba having a good health care system ? It's like the USSR used to be, the rubes like you were shown the nice hospital with actual clean bedding and quite modern facilities - but that's only used to for this purpose and only the nomenclatura get treated like that. The common herd get dirty rooms with limited drug availability, no running water, and attended by people not trained as doctors. The "well educated" is the same scam, they're only well educated by the fake tests used to show that.

              It's Potemkin villages, all the way down...

            2. JEDIDIAH
              Linux

              Re: fast forward.

              > "About the only one left now is Cuba. With no personal incentive to advance there is little advancement."

              >

              > So the nation with well educated children and a good health care system show no advancement?

              You are peddling a ridiculous fantasy there.

          2. strum Silver badge

            Re: fast forward.

            >It was tried.

            Was it bollocks. UBI has no similiarity to soviet communism. And those societies had disincentives for advancement, because the elite gobbled up any advances (especially if it didn't fit the party's policy).

            1. JEDIDIAH
              Linux

              Re: fast forward.

              Beyond pervasive corruption, the problem with communism is that commerce was a capital crime. If you saw that there was a material deficit and tried to remedy it you were KILLED if the state found out about it. The entire economy was badly mismanaged. Anyone that tried to help fix the situation was treated as an enemy of the state.

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            faulty analogy

            UBI does not eliminate incentives to work for cash. It is not a centrally planned economy.

            Have some coffee. Clear the fog.

      5. tiggity Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        If you look at the numbers quoted, those universal income values are very much just scraping by / not far off poverty numbers, not the type of figures to live a comfortable and enjoyable life of no work.

      6. Paul 195

        Re: fast forward.

        Not true. UBI will stop you from starving or sleeping on the street. It would enable the young to try learning an income as a musician , author or artist (a function which the more generous supplementary/unemployment benefit we used to pay in this country a few decades provided). It wouldn't pay for the latest iPhone or whatever other piece of bling took your fancy. Most people would look for some kind of employment to boost their basic income; but the safety net would mean that employers couldn't just take the piss as they so often do now.

      7. strum Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        >The only fix is a TRUE free market system.

        One fantasy at a time, please.

      8. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: fast forward.

        The only "true free market system" I'm aware of on the planet is Somalia. Doesn't look like the masses are faring very well there.

        1. Steve 114

          Re: fast forward.

          'Somalia' as an example of the ultimate free market? Parachute each of them weekly 'UBI' cash and see how much better they do.

      9. FatGerman

        Re: fast forward.

        "The only fix is a TRUE free market system. As imperfect as it is, free market has the inherent checks and balances to reward hard work and punish laziness."

        A free market system rewards greed and ruthlessness. It punishes those who don't possess those "qualities". In that respect it holds humanity back in the dark ages. The only true way forward is to stop letting money run everything.

        1. JEDIDIAH
          Mushroom

          Re: fast forward.

          That's hilarious. It was the merchant class that got us out of the real dark ages.

          They continue to come up with useful things because there's profit in it.

      10. oral_suspension

        Re: fast forward.

        Which set(s) of rules constitutes "a TRUE free market"?

    5. LDS Silver badge

      "when your entire population is dependent"

      You're right - it's the dream of any politician - have the whole population utterly dependent to the State (which means to politicians) - which also means you eventually got the Big Brother - Freedom is Slavery...

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: fast forward.

      Not really. Almost everyone can get a basic income of various levels at the moment through benefits as long as they jump through sufficient hoops. However if you wish to work then there are certain significant issues which affect your benefits and mean that you need to work a certain sweet spot of hours to make it work.

      the idea with UBI is you can work any extra hours right through to being a CEO of a multi-million currency company and you'll still get the UBI. So even if you worked 2 hours a month it would still be extra income without having to cause issues with the benefits agency that may mean you lose all your benefits. Similarly with voluntary work - you could become a full time volunteer (for genuine charities not as an intern/cheap labour) and get your UBI if you are 'between jobs' and want some more work experience.

      The incentive to work will be that it will be much easier to get some extra money to top up your UBI, you don't have to worry about officialdom and red tape.

      As for families knowing nothing other than getting money from the state - I'm afraid that for some families that is already the case. This trying to stigmatise, it's just a fact that in areas with very high unemployment and very few job prospects and a lack of opportunities to mobilise then this can happen.

      As far as paying for it - This just needs some juggling of the figures. It shouldn't end up costing much more than it does now. The tax bands and rates will change so that for instance someone like me in a normal job doesn't get any benefit for the UBI even though I still get it (heck might even lose a little bit in tax). The benefits cuts as mentioned in the article will also pay for large sum. removing a lot of the bureaucracy (job centres for instance) and other departments (I know the article mentions this but hell, that can be dealt with in the revolution).

      As robots/ai start to take over jobs then company tax, company owners etc pay more tax which covers the UBI of the people they replace.

      I don't think UBI would work if everyone who go it felt 'well off'. However if it is at a level to make sure people keep their head above water and by working even minimal amounts they get a tangible supplement then it could help society as a whole.

      The major issues will be around extra benefits like housing benefit etc and how they are handled as it might end up being used in the same way jobseekers allowance is now and negating some of the pros of UBI.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        "The tax bands and rates will change so that for instance someone like me in a normal job doesn't get any benefit for the UBI even though I still get it (heck might even lose a little bit in tax)."

        If you rely on extra tax on high incomes or large corporations to make it work, take a look around you. If X hours effort expended on rearranging tax affairs brings in more money than if it were expended on earning then that's what will happen and your hoped for taxation to fund it will be elusive. Should you manage to lose the benefits bureaucracy - IMV unlikely - you'll probably just redeploy it trying to collect taxes.

        You might be able to find a new tax base in terms of taxing the output of machines on the basis that these are going to take over employment. Employers will just respond by continuing to employ low paid workers (will there be any justification for a NMW/LW with UBI?) and lock in low productivity still further.

      2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        Re: fast forward.

        "As robots/ai start to take over jobs then company tax, company owners etc pay more tax which covers the UBI of the people they replace."

        Thats whats got to happen - we're never gonna reach "Logans Run" type leisure utopia* if we keep finding ourselves slave like work to do just to justify our existence when the robots are happy to do it all for us . Why have a dog and bark yourself? They can bring this in gradually in 5 stages by knocking days off the working week.

        *hopefully without the Senicide

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: fast forward.

        "company owners etc pay more tax which covers the UBI of the people they replace"

        It sounds good in theory, but look at how well Apple, Google, and the like are doing at the paying taxes bit currently... They can spend far less than the cost of the taxes and generate ways to avoid them. Then add in the corruption of power, and the growth of bureaucracy, and I don't think many people would like the result.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: fast forward.

      > UBI is a great idea in theory. But so is giving everyone everything for free. Forever.

      Nah. The practical problems are:

      (1) an income of £50 or £100 per week is not a useful amount to live off - the main problem being the cost of housing.

      If there are not enough houses to go around for the number of people who want to live in them, the cost of housing will always rise to put it out of reach of the poorest.

      For someone who is single but has no job - they might be able to bunk at a mate's place, but can at least pay for pizza and beer from their UBI.

      For a single parent without a job - they will still be destitute.

      (2) it is meaningless unless it can replace almost all other benefits (including jobseekers allowance, housing benefit etc). If the UBI isn't enough to live on, and you can still claim other benefits to top it up, then UBI doesn't solve any of the problems it claims to - such as high marginal tax rates when you get a job. We are back to square one.

      Apart from the above, I think it can be made to add up more or less:

      - scrap tax free allowances, and charge everyone ~40% tax on every pound they earn (replacing both income tax and NI). By the time they receive their UBI, people in work will be more or less unaffected.

      - stop treating earned and unearned income differently; lump them together

      - scrap child benefit, and pay the child's UBI to the parents

      But if the aim of UBI is to plan for a post-work society where robots generate most of GDP, the amounts being discussed mean that the majority will live in poverty, unless you also build and maintain homes for everyone.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: fast forward.

        @AC .... "For a single parent without a job - they will still be destitute."

        True, but if they can get someone to look after their kids for a few hours (like when they are a school) they would be able to earn something without loosing the benefit. Currently they have no incentive to earn anything as the withdrawal of benefits gives the same result as a 100% marginal tax rate. With UBI, working when they can makes them less destitute.

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