Are we ready for a universal basic income?
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Are we ready for a universal basic income?

FREE money for all! What a lovely idea, right? There are few people on the planet who would turn down some pocket money, gifted you from the state, with absolutely no strings attached.

In its simplest form, that’s what a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is. The idea that the government would provide every adult citizen a flat payment, regardless of their engagement in employment or skill building activities. This would be implemented as a replacement of the more common benefits and welfare programmes we see across the world.

The notion of money for nothing is always going to grab people’s attention. But are we ready for it?

The idea has long been around, written about in science fiction for centuries now, but while it may sound futuristic, there is a growing sense across the world that the time to turn fiction into reality may have come.

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The idea of computers taking our jobs, once the stuff of science fiction, is now a burgeoning reality that governments across the world are increasingly needing to face up to. A recent study from Oxford University predicted 47 percent of the total U.S. labour market is at risk from computerisation and automation.

And that doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The world is changing, and the pace of it is only quickening. Companies and industries are under constant and mounting pressure to innovate or be left behind, and this often involves streamlining and digitisation.


(File) A humanoid robot works side by side with employees in an assembly line at a factory of Glory Ltd., a manufacturer of automatic change dispensers, in Kazo, north of Tokyo, Japan. Source: Reuters/Issei Kato

Think about it: Uber is looking into driverless taxis; Deliveroo could be using drones to deliver your dinner; Amazon has quashed the need for cashiers, shelf stackers, shop managers. Production lines that once took hundreds to operate can now be manned by just a handful of people.

We are not far off a time when a product will land on your doorstep that has barely been touched by the hand of man – manufactured, packaged and delivered by robots.

It’s not a question of if this will happen, it’s a question of when. So, in this environment of growing labour uncertainty, the discussion around UBI is a necessary one.

It has been considered in a number of countries in the past, with trial schemes already running in Finland, Canada and Kenya, among others. But the topic has come to the fore again this week following the release of India’s budget.

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The annual Economic Survey, produced by Arvind Subramanian, dedicated a chapter to the reality of introducing a UBI for the poorest in the country, making the point that it would be more efficient than the plethora of welfare schemes and subsidies that the vast country currently implements.

While finance minister Arun Jaitley decided against including it in this year’s budget, citing India’s lack of political maturity, he did acknowledge that the “idea merits serious discussion.”

Governments in many of the developed countries, due to a higher cost of living, have struggled with the expense of implementing a UBI, with some predicting 30 percent of national GDP to be required. India, however, is slightly different.


India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (C) arrives at Parliament where he presented the federal budget, in New Delhi, India, Febr 1, 2017. Source: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

India currently struggles with a woefully inefficient welfare scheme with public distribution systems that often don’t end up in the hands of those that need it the most. The system is riddled with misallocation, leakages and exclusion of the poor. It is also vulnerable to corruption along the long and convoluted supply chain before it reaches the poor that need it; if it ever does.

The report suggests that 5 percent of GDP currently goes towards these welfare and subsidy schemes but suggests that “considerable gains could be achieved in terms of bureaucratic costs and time by replacing many of these with a UBI.”

It estimates that a UBI in India would entail a cost of 4.2 – 4.9 percent of the GDP, well within current spending, so it could feasibly become reality in the near future.

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It would be drastically more efficient to simply give the poor money and allow them to purchase all of these things on the open market.

By providing a direct transfer of money to those in need, it also enables them to decide for themselves how they spend the money, for who knows what poor people need better than the people themselves? This will reduce surplus in schemes that are not needed, feed the open market and streamline the system, leaving it less vulnerable to corruption and leakages.

There is evidence that this system could also go a long way to realising gender equality in the developing world.

In a report entitled, “Equality and women’s autonomy in the sustainable development agenda” it suggests that UBI could have the effect of increasing women’s freedom by giving them economic independence, reducing the feminisation of poor households, and distributing domestic and care work better, as a basic income would increase women’s bargaining power.

In addition, women would gain not only in economic terms but also in terms of rights and autonomy.

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There are of course concerns connected with the idea, a common one being the fear that society would grind to a halt and everyone would simply stop working entirely. Some people fear it will lead to a planet of people listlessly whiling away their days, contributing nothing to society, and simply taking their free handout.

But I find this unlikely to be the case.

A job provides purpose and is often central to a person’s dignity and self-respect. Just giving them free money would not be enough to make most people give up a hard earned and rewarding career.

And those who are forced into redundancy, or do in fact choose to stop working, will find other avenues to contribute to society in meaningful ways. Many of the most ground-breaking of human achievements have been executed by people with time on their hands to reflect, innovate and create.

People who perform the unpaid labour of taking care of children or elderly family members are currently unrewarded for the important and invaluable work that they do. The UBI would simply provide a means of compensating this type of labour efficiently.

Work is a central part of our society, without a doubt, but we may need to start looking to a future in which that is no longer the case and start to appreciate that human beings have boundless potential outside the realms of a structured workplace.

Are we ready for a universal basic income just yet? Probably not. But we better start getting used to the idea, as it’s only a matter of time before it’s necessary.


** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent