Sunday, November 13, 2016
I attended a national economic conference in New York in 2015, and in one of the presentations, the speaker presented the following claim: human trafficking is not so much a criminal issue as it is an economic vulnerability issue, and therefore the best tool we have to strike at the very root of the problem, is a universal basic income.
This idea of a basic income guarantee — an amount of money given to all without any conditions aside from mostly citizenship (and perhaps age) — is an idea that has been around for centuries and yet only recently is really starting to noticeably catch fire in the minds of the public at large. It is being referred to in such terms as “an idea whose time has come”, “an end to poverty”, and “venture capital for the people.” Fast Company has dubbed it a “bipartisan world changing idea.” The New York Times has even asked, “Why Not Utopia?” in light of growing warnings of structural unemployment due to accelerating technological advancements like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. Outlet after outlet is beginning to seriously discuss this policy once considered outside the Overton Window of political possibility.
So what’s all the fuss? Is basic income really that powerful of an idea?
The short answer is yes, it really is that powerful of an idea. It’s such a powerful idea for the same reason it has even been suggested in a conference full of economists as the best tool for reducing human trafficking. That reason is actually quite simple, but very far reaching. As long as we face starvation and homelessness, we are at the whims of others.
This is the face of economic vulnerability and it lies at the very heart of a great deal of systemic issues. Think for a moment about what difference it would make in your own life, to be guaranteed $1,000 would always appear in your bank account, at the beginning of every month, for the rest of your life, no matter what you did. How would that money change your life? How would it affect the decisions you face every day? How would it affect your relationships with others from your boss to your spouse? How would it affect your choices?
Consider that word: “choice.” What is choice, really? When it comes to any real choice in life, what it all boils down to is the ability to simply say “No.” Without that ability, nothing is truly voluntary. All work isn’t voluntary. All relationships aren’t voluntary. All market exchanges aren’t voluntary. The choices we make that we think are choices aren’t truly voluntary whenever the option to say “No” is off the table. Therein lies the full potential of the idea of a universal basic income and it lays bare the lack of power many of us are under the illusion of having. Having a basic income creates the ability to look someone in the eye who holds more power than you, and firmly say, “No. Not today. Not until things change. These are my terms. Take them or leave them.” More