The poor and the elderly seem to be viewed as two of the world’s greatest economic problems to be solved. Enter Rutger Bregman, a man with a logical plan.
The problem with the world at the moment, I think, is that we are ageist. We don’t listen to what children have to say and people over the age of 75 are dealt with like they are cute and cuddly, not wise and with it. My daughter, who is 31 but looks 25, often gets a condescending pat on the head instead of being treated like the mature business owner (mother, partner, friend, networker) she is. It is an issue that must confront my sixth visionary as well, because Rutger Bregman does not present like a sage. He seems much younger than the 29 years of age he actually is, and is not helped by the fact that he dresses like a bookish nerd who doesn’t get out much. And yet, his big idea has the capacity to change everything in our world. It is arguably the easiest way to eliminate poverty, lower criminality, homelessness, infant mortality and mental health issues. It can do all that, because it revalues the two things that are at the core of our societies: work and money. I have written about this before, but Bregman has made himself the poster boy and advocate of it, and his book Utopia for realists – And how we get there is now its bible, so he deserves credit for pushing it centre stage again.
I am, of course, talking about the universal basic income (UBI): the idea that everybody, young and old, rich and poor, gets an amount of money that covers minimum living expenses. Enough for food, shelter and education. That money is given with no strings attached, and although people can work as much as they want, to earn some more money on top of it, Bregman recommends a 15-hour working week for most of us. So: free money for everyone (as his book was called in Bregman’s native Dutch), and much more free time to do whatever we want. Surely this man is not a visionary, but a nutter, right?
In order to make up our minds, it is helpful to look at the genesis of the idea. The first one to come up with it was Thomas Paine, the American political philosopher who wrote about it in 1797. He called it the “citizen’s dividend” and to contemporaries like Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte it made absolute sense. Napoleon said that he thought that “man is entitled by birthright to a share of the Earth’s produce sufficient to fill the needs of his existence”, but was thrown out of office before he could implement it. Like a lot of ideas, it waxed and waned, until it was picked up again in the 1960s by economist Milton Keynes, the champion of capitalism and free markets. Interestingly enough, though, it was also a key plan in a book called Where do we go from here: chaos or community?, written at about the same time by a man who could not have been more different: Martin Luther King. In 1968, liberalist economist John Kenneth Galbraith even headed a group of 1,200 economists, writing a letter to the American Congress calling for the introduction of a form of UBI, and, as Rutger Bregman reminds us, it was conservative President Richard Nixon who came closest to implementing it for an entire country. Nixon thought about UBI was “the ultimate marriage of conservative and progressive politics” and viewed it as his chance to make history by winning the war on poverty. Although trials in four big American cities had been favourable and almost everybody – from most of the churches to the newspapers and the unions – thought it was a great plan, it was ultimately defeated in the Senate…by Democrats, who only opposed it because they considered the amount (the equivalent of US $10,000 for a family of four) too low.
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So the basic income is not really a socialist pipedream. Although it is important, Bregman says, that the Left adopts it as something it can be in favour of, instead of only whingeing about what it is against. For the Right it is great too, seeing that it is “the logical consequence of capitalism”. According to Bregman, capitalism has given us enormous improvements in life-expectancy, health, wealth, education and freedom. If you look back in history, “everything there was worse. In 1820, 84% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Now it is under 10%. The amount of war deaths has gone down by 90% since 1946, and the murder rate is 40 times lower than it was at the start of the century. Somebody from the Middle Ages would think we live in Utopia already.” The only thing we need to do now is finish the experiment, says Bregman, by repurposing some of the money capitalism has made us. Life is about choices and for the money we spend now on the military, buying out the banks, subsidising big corporations and administering a social security system that doesn’t work, we could bring in the UBI and solve a lot of problems.
To Bregman, this is how his plan would work: everybody would get about AUD $20,000 a year. No strings attached. At the same time, the working week would be brought back to 15 hours. If people want to work, they can, but if they are happy with the amount of money they’ve got, they don’t have to. During trials in countries like Finland, Scotland, Switzerland, Holland, Canada, Kenya and India it turned out that almost nobody takes the UBI as a reason to sit on the couch all day. As Bregman says, we know that we want to make something of our lives, that we’ve got ambitions. It is only other people who we suspect of being lazy, television-watching drug heads, who will take advantage of the goodness of the state. Lucky then, that the reason for introducing the UBI is not some soft Good Samaritan kind of paternalistic help. It makes economic sense, in more ways than one. First of all, poverty is expensive, and costs an average of 3-5% of GDP. It is also a cost that never gets any smaller, because poverty is a trap. Once you are in it, it is very difficult to get out. Poor people are also a disproportionate burden on the coffers in other ways: their health is worse, they have more needs in terms of housing, they are more often homeless, in jail and suffer from mental health problems. On the other side of the ledger are the people who might be richer, but also work too hard. They are stressed out, and that also has consequences. We know, Bregman writes, that accidents like Chernobyl and the loss of the Challenger can be blamed on over-tired and overworked managers. And then we are not even talking about doctors making mistakes after a 48-hour shift.
He answers with a question: “So you want to stick with the status quo? And how has that been working out?” Democracy, equal rights, the abolition of slavery… What is normal now, was a fantasy once.
The fact that some people are not working enough and some work all the time, is also bad for equality in societies. And inequality leads to anger, depression and societal upheaval (see Brexit, Trump). Generationally there are issues, for instance. The younger generation has to do it all: work, raise children, make money, build their networks. The older generation would like to do more, but is often thrown out of the system, for no other reason than their biological age. There are also issues with gender inequality and participation in childcare. All of this leads to problems between people that are completely unnecessary, if only we would be able to share the burden a little more. Another consequence of the UBI would be that people with horrible jobs would have much more bargaining power and would get paid more than people who love doing their job. Doesn’t that sound spacey: a cleaner who goes home with more than the professor? And yet, why not? The professor is having fun, the cleaner is not. So compensating the cleaner for the lack of job satisfaction (and allowing him, because of the UBI, to do it only part-time) sounds actually fairly reasonable.
This way, the UBI also acts as a re-distributor of power, which is never a bad thing. In fact, it would be an instrument of empowerment across the board. Instead of being forced into work that we either hate or think is useless (and in the UK, 37% of workers is convinced their jobs are “bullshit”) we would have the greatest freedom of all: to decide what we want to do with our lives. It would also put poverty in a different light, as something that is not a lack of character, but simply a lack of money. That would remove the stigma and give millions of people their dignity back. And that is exactly what is happening within pilots all over the world, including difficult world areas like Africa and Latin America. In Kenya, for example, it is an organisation called Give Directly that supervises the experiment, and research has shown that success is almost overwhelming.
Of course, utopian ideas like this always have their critics. Bregman deals with them all the time. As a true visionary, he has got a few interesting responses to them, though. First of all, he answers with a question: “So you want to stick with the status quo? And how has that been working out?” Utopian ideas, Bregman says, have always been there. Funnily enough, most of them have come true as well. Take democracy, equal rights for men and women, the abolition of slavery. All of them were seen as pipedreams once, but are now common sense. This teaches the basic lesson of history again: that things can be different. When you are in the middle of something, you always think that this is the only way it can be, that it is the natural way of things. But what is normal now, was a fantasy once. So dreaming is not a silly, but a smart way to fill your time. And as the French writer Victor Hugo once said: “Stronger than a thousand armies is an idea whose time has come.” It is Rutger Bregman’s favourite saying, which makes him my visionary of the week. Go Rutger!