If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a big fan of basic income as the best solution to fix the current international ills of modernize capitalism. Whether it is in the form of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), negative income tax (NIT), or Universal Basic Income (UBI), I believe that some form of non-means tested mechanism to distribute minimal income to everyone in society is going to become a must as we enter an increasingly automated world. In this post I will attempt to explore something that I have not yet seen addressed in discussions about basic income, that it could be a huge political blockbuster.
Things change slowly and then all at once.
If there is one great consistency about change in the 21st century, it is that things seem to change almost imperceptibly right up until they become inevitable. Many good examples of this effect can be found in the world of technology such as the rise of the internet, the fall of film-cameras, or the explosive growth of the green energy industry. In all of these cases the exponential nature of technological advances led many to discount major changes that eventually disrupted entire industries. While this effect is best understood in the world of technology I think this kind of change can also be seen in social and political spheres.
Political movements must by necessity start with only a minority of individuals working very hard for very many years to push forward on an issue. For a very long time it can appear that little or no progress is being made, but below the surface opinions and minds are slowly shifting. This slow progression continues in the background, almost imperceptibly until some sort of tipping point is reached and a sudden shift in the public and political sentiment can occur. A good example of this effect would be the momentous shift away from a deep and vitriolic hatred of gays only a few decades ago towards increasing acceptance today.
In addition to the energy provided by a small group of dedicated individuals, flashpoint social or political change also requires the maneuvering room in order for rapid revolutionary change to happen. The room for new ideas to maneuver can be created by a collapse of incumbent ideology, or in the case of the greatest shifts it often comes from a wider, systemic loss of faith in the system. When people become embittered with things as they are they will inevitably start looking to those offering alternative views.
A person without belief is a power vacuum.
I think we are currently stand at time when conditions are set for the next global political movement to take hold. We are seeing clear symptoms of a systemic erosion of faith in the political and economic systems as they stand today.
Economic hardship and unemployment has become endemic across large parts of the developed world. Those who do work find themselves squeezed between longer working hours, higher on the job demands, increasing costs of living, and loss of both job security and benefits.
Times feel tough, and people are starting to ask why they are tough. Did we have some sort of disaster? Are our crops failing, or our industries falling apart? What happened that is making institutions like education and health too expensive to support?
Thomas Piketty, in his recent book provides strong evidence that the economic pathology of the current geopolitical situation may simply be the symptoms of a larger economic disease. When capital out-competes labour, it inevitably leads to increasing wealth disparity and the associated economic problems that we see today. People can see that the economic gains that our collective hard-work creates is going disproportionately into the hands of the wealthy. People can see that the game is rigged against them, and they don’t really want to play any more.
At the same time as economic realities are being thrust upon workers around the world, people are also increasingly detached from mainstream politics. Little real change has happened despite perpetual political promises to deliver such. Political detachment combined with economic hardship is a dangerous mix, and is credited with leading to the rise of extreme political groups like the Golden Dawn in Greece and other far-right parties in the UK and France. The rise of more extremist politics is also apparent in the increasingly polarized and broken political landscape of the United States.
The disengagement of the public from the political sphere is particularly strong for those who are also disproportionately affected by the economic slow-down, the youth. It is an unappreciated fact that there are actually more millenials in the United States than there are baby boomers. Whatever politician figures out how to engage the millenial generation politically is going to run the world.
From my perspective, there seems to be a clear build-up of political tension across the globe. While we can argue about specific economic and political maladies that have led us to this point, I think the simple fact is that people are losing faith in the system as a whole. As people lose faith, governments become more detached and fearful of their citizens, leading more people to lose faith in the system, and thus a vicious cycle of political breakdown is perpetuated.
So how do we stop this?
The answer is surprisingly simple – We need to believe again.
People need to believe that the world will be better for their children than it was for them. This is the magic that drives people to get up in the morning and go to school and work, to put in the long hours of hard work, to make discoveries, to invent new technologies, and improve the world. The economy will flourish only as long as people truly believe they can better their own life, and that of their children.
Without faith in the global economic and political system, we have nothing.
Believe it or not, there just might be one simple medicine which (while it would not solve all of our problems) could go a long way to solving the twin problems of political and economic break down.
There is a long list of reasons that basic income makes for sensible economic policy, which I will not go through here. Suffice it to say that basic income would (1) give workers the leverage to demand more from work, (2) give individuals and innovators the means to do their thing, (3) give corporations more incentive to automate their production, and (4) generally support the consumption economy. (Some worry that such a basic income might lead to less incentive to work, but I say that if you need to use starvation as a threat to get people to work for you, then your business is not profitable enough.)
Perhaps most importantly, basic income would be the solution to restore the faith of the common individual in the current system of global capitalism. By institutionalizing the social contract in the form of a cash dividend for everyone, basic income would finally enshrine the promise that a rich and successful society must first deliver a minimal living standard to everyone.
Serious realistic types might rush to play down the importance of belief in the political system. Who cares whether the rabble believes in what the government and politicians do, as long as it is functional? But these people are completely missing the central truth of the matter here. Belief is the only power in the world that matters. My dollar is only worth what we collectively agree it to be worth, and the same goes for our societies. If we fail to create societies which inspire belief, then we are lost. If we do not find a way fill that vacuum left by eroding belief, then someone else will.
It is time for something that we can believe in, it is time for basic income.