I was interviewed last month for an article published on May 10 for Raconteur, titled "Virus fallout could usher in the UBI era." The author, Oliver Pickup, asked me a series of questions, and from my answers, a few quotes were selected for the article. Below are all my answers in their entirety.
Briefly, is now the time for universal basic income in America? (And, secondly, elsewhere?)
The best time to introduce UBI was 50 years ago when we first started experimenting with an income guarantee approach. The second best time is right now, and every day that goes by without UBI means more preventable deaths and more unnecessary suffering. UBI is important everywhere, but it is especially important in the US, where before this pandemic even began to overwhelm what we call our safety net, 13 million people living under the poverty line were already getting no assistance whatsoever from the federal government, and where 600,000 Americans have already died in an epidemic of deaths of despair.
Do you think in the near (and distant) future people will come to look upon the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed moment in terms of UBI?
As the saying goes, when crises hit, we look around at the option available. In this case, for the first time in history, UBI is being seen as an available option, and in all likelihood, the first nation to adopt UBI even temporarily, will happen in the weeks ahead. That day will go down in the history books as the day UBI was first introduced in an entire nation. Japan is the closest so far as the first country to introduce a fully universal stimulus payment of around $1,000 to all citizens. If they next decide to make that monthly, it will be the world's first "Emergency UBI."
What does the fallout from coronavirus say, do you think, about the current financial systems in place?
This pandemic is showing that when a crisis hits, the first people to get help are the rich and powerful. Those who thought we may have learned our lesson from the last crisis in 2009, just learned that it doesn't matter if we already know it doesn't work to bail out the top and hope it trickles down. They will do it anyway, over and over again, even if a bailout of the bottom would flow up to the top and bail everyone out in the process as it worked it's way up from the bottom.
Trickle-down economics must die, and companies that have spent years buying back their own stock instead of saving for a rainy day need to go bankrupt. That's what bankruptcy protection is for. Use it, and maybe next time, you'll give a second thought to propping up your stock value artificially in order to fatten already fat bank accounts to pay for a second helicopter pad on someone's megayacht upgrade.
Was there a sense – even before the introduction of COVID-19 – that there needs to be greater, fairer support for those most in need, so that people don't get left behind?
COVID-19 is revealing the weakness of our systems, and the bad sense in their design. Does it make sense for people to lose their health insurance during a pandemic because it's tied to employment instead of citizenship? Of course not.
Does it make sense for tens of millions of people to suddenly lose their entire incomes and be forced to spend week after week trying to qualify for an income assistance program that pays more to the unemployed unessential than to the employed essential? Of course not.
Does it make sense for ten thousand cars to line up at a drive-thru food bank, while stores have plenty of food but fewer people who can buy it, and while farmers have so much food that they're having to throw it away? Of course not.
That 70% of COVID-19 fatalities can be African American in a city like my own city of New Orleans means that the inequality in our society has reached fatal extremes, and that in order to ever achieve any semblance of racial justice, we must first achieve economic justice where no one ever lives in poverty or the fear of it, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disability, or any other reason.
How does it feel to be so involved in the Andrew Yang campaign, and that his ideas around UBI appear to be – somewhat – vindicated?
I've always wanted to get UBI implemented in order to save lives, prevent suffering, and vastly improve everyone's well-being through a vastly improved system oriented around prosperity and human thriving. Right now, all of those things have gone up an order of magnitude in importance. I'm happy to see more people finally taking UBI as seriously as it always should have been, but at the same time, it's hard to celebrate anything, when the stakes are now higher than they've ever been.
How can UBI be achieved on a large scale?
UBI has long been easily achievable on a large scale. The challenge has always been a matter of will, not of economics, regardless of what any very serious person with a very serious degree says. The full costs of poverty cost more than UBI. If inequality were the same now in the US as it was in the 1970s, everyone would be earning $12,000 more right now a year. Between our welfare programs and our tax expenditures, we already provide enough revenue to be considered UBI, except we insist on all sorts of conditions and bureaucracy in order for people to receive it. We already produce so much food we waste half of it, and we already have so many homes, the empty ones outnumber the homeless, and we already have so much productive capacity that there's not enough demand to even utilize it all.
Nothing about UBI is really all that difficult. What's most difficult is our lack of trust in each other, a really weird belief in money as anything but a tool of measurement, and an insistence that people must not be allowed the power to say no, in fear they may say no to those who don't accept no as an answer.
Do you think blockchain-powered UBI is possible? If not now, in the near future?
Blockchain-powered UBI is certainly theoretically possible, especially at a community level, but the big challenge to wide adoption is simply getting enough people to use the currency. It needs to be extremely user-friendly, and it needs to be accepted as widely as Visa and Mastercard.
Leading the way in this space is GoodDollar – what do you think about what that team is doing? (GoodDollar (www.gooddollar.org) is a not-for-profit social innovation initiative – supported by leading global investment platform eToro, among other sponsors – determined to present an experimental framework for delivering global, sustainable, and scalable UBI through new digital asset technologies.)
I like GoodDollar and know the people behind it. I also know of other crypto UBI projects and the people behind them as well. I think there's a lot of innovation possible there and look forward to seeing all the projects develop. I also think that at some point in the future, there's a going to be a lot of UBI-like income all stacking on top of each other, where say in the US, someone could have a national UBI, a state UBI, a local currency city UBI, a cryptocurrency UBI created from multiple streams from multiple platforms, and a global dividend of some kind, perhaps from a global carbon tax or a global share of natural resource ownership.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It's hard to stress how important it is that we adopt UBI, especially in the US where we've already surpassed 10% of our labor force becoming unemployed, and where automation is so capable and so affordable and so immune to COVID-19 that we can expect that millions of jobs are never to return. This belief that we're just going to flip a switch and turn back on the economy is absolutely mistaken. The world just changed and we need to change our systems to reflect these changes, and fast, or else many people are going to die who otherwise would not. We absolutely have to evolve as a civilization, right now, by guaranteeing everyone equal access to the basic resources necessary for life.
We need to trust each other and no longer withhold food in order to force each other to do the bidding of those doing the withholding. Life needs to be seen as an unconditional human right, and that means an unconditional amount of money, sufficient for our most basic needs, as a foundation upon which to build a better future.
That's UBI, and the time to start building that better future is right now.
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