Is Universal Income About To Pay Off?

Rarely has ‘slay queen 🔥🔥🔥’ become a caption for a country, but Barbados earns it. First, the nation bumped off Elizabeth II, snipping ties with the British monarchy as it became a republic. Next, it crowned Rihanna a national hero. “May you continue to shine like a diamond,” intoned Prime Minister Mia Mottley last week on the 55th Independence Day, “and bring honour to your nation by your words, by your actions and to do credit wherever you shall go.” Ri-Ri is now The Right Excellent Ri. And in a hattrick of jubilance – the equivalent of a nationwide ‘Dancing In The Streets’ video – Barbados has announced Universal Basic Income for over 200,000 people. 

If you’re new to UBI, here’s the deal: a state-funded programme hands everybody the same amount of cash, every month, whether you’re working or not. It doesn’t care who you are or what you earn. Princes and paupers get a government cheque. There is no means testing. Poverty, in theory, withers in the light of an automated top up, and society is better covering the basics for food and rent.

None of this is radical in principle. Actually, it’s quite dusty. The idea sprung from Thomas More, whose Utopia – probably the first work of speculative fiction in the West – laid out a shaky alternative to Renaissance England. In it, the explorer Raphael recounts a distant island shaped like a crescent moon: “The first vessels that they saw were flat-bottomed, their sails were made of reeds and wicker woven closely together, only some were of leather; but afterwards they found ships made with round keels, and canvas sails, and in all respects like our ships; and the seamen understood both astronomy and navigation.”  Raphael tells More, himself a character, of the Utopians – a race unencumbered by Western progress. They swap homes for town and country to limit crowding and respect the plough. Men and women share jobs. Private property is a myth. Slaves like Utopia so much, they often choose to stay. Moreover, there are no beggars, disturbing the author. “It seems to me that men cannot possibly live well where all things are in common,” he says. “If the hope of gain does not spur him on, won’t he rely on others, and become lazy?”  

Yet in Utopia, everyone works for a living; More makes that clear. His sci-fi government forces labour upon its citizens before paying them. Ultimately, he proposes the idea before hobbling it. This left the task of refinement up to More’s friend, Johannes Ludovicus Vives, who sent a booklet to the Mayor of Bruges in 1526 asking that the poor receive an income for their mere willingness to work. Cash should arrive “before need induces some mad or wicked action, before the face of the needy blushes from shame . . .” Needless to say, his audience shrugged. Yet Vives’ proposal played a large part in England’s Poor Laws and the workhouse movement in which the super fucked amongst us got a roof and a bed and some bread to sleep with.  

In centuries since, thinkers have grappled with the sheer balls of unconditional payment for a whole country. Brits, Francs and Germans chewed it over. Betrand Russel had a pop. The US had a brief affair with UBI in the early 1960s, fretting over a mechanised workforce. Again and again though, More’s question floated above the lectern: Does a man who does not necessarily have to work do it anyway? 

Barbados seems to think so. And this is a big moment for both sides of the political line. The Barbadians are going to comprise the most extensive UBI programme in history. No longer will unconditional care be confined to towns, cities, states or guinea pigs. It is actually happening. 

Already, they have made great strides in social development. Avniash Persuad, special envoy to the prime minister, is right to celebrate Barbados’ equality investments. In his announcement of the scheme, he reminds us that, “Despite all the pressure from international agencies to ‘target’, we hold the line on universality. That’s why we restored free education for all.” Making school compulsory and penniless has paid off. Between 1990 and 1999, Barbados spent roughly 20% of state funds on education. By 1998, a human development report from the United Nations Development Programme emerged with Barbados #1 for health, education and living standards in the Caribbean, and 24th in the world.

This development is ongoing. Although it’s the most prosperous part of its corner of the globe, Barbados still carried a 14% poverty rate in 2007. Three of every 20 children are malnourished. By age 18, a quarter of Barbadian girls have given birth. These are plenty of reasons to narrow the opportunity crevice some more.

As Persaud states, there’s a chance that UBI will bolt onto the existing welfare system – a reverse tax credit, whereby a Barbadian gets their income topped up if they don’t meet a threshold. What this may look like, and how it’ll take effect, remain to be seen. But we can cheer the country for doing something that many, many governments have failed to take seriously. The destitute may hope, if only slightly, for change. Conservatives like to squawk that UBI is a lefty delusion shorn of stats and survival instinct. Barbados might put a small, if sharp, finger on their beaks. Or it might collase. 

To any hawk’s credit, we should doubt Universal Basic Income, because it sounds pricey. And several trials have shown tepid results. Finland made headlines in 2017 with a pilot scheme that seemed simple enough: hand 2,000 people €560 a month for two years, and see what happens. They were already out of work. In the end, enjoying cirteria-free payments, the trial group only spent six more days, on average, employed. Journalist Aria Bendix conceded it was “a major flop”; The Daily Mail crowed that “free money makes people happy!”, a punctuative herp-a-derp stab. 

But look closer, and the Finnish trial was flawed. For starters, 2,000 people don’t tell you much about the varying circumstances of tens of millions of us. It’s a small test group. At first, the experiment was meant to study 10,000 people, with a budget way higher than €22 million. Finland rushed it and the timing was awful, coinciding with a squeeze on benefits for those who were already claiming them – in other words, trial subjects. One woman said she only got about €50 a month extra when accounting for old support. And what about freelancers, part-time mothers, Deliveroo folk? As non-profit CEO Michael Stynes would reflect, “It’s barely a test of basic income. At best, it is a test of a very limited basic income in an extremely specific context for an extremely specific population.” 

You can’t replace money with almost the same amount of money for a limited pool of people who are struggling to find work at all, and call that a result. True UBI doesn’t discriminate. The Finnish example doesn’t tell us anything about the effect on part-timers, creatives and the self-employed, or anyone struggling to re-skill in the shadow of automation. With a cash drip to raise earnings, such workers would have a better chance at avoiding debt, ‘making it’ in their desired field and establishing themselves to the point at which they can pay more tax. We should progress from thinking of Universal Basic Income as a cushion, and more like a spring, for Barbados to be an example for the developed world. 

When governments have embraced unconditional payments in the past, it has usually been for the very poorest. Iran, for instance. Since 2010, Iranians below the poverty line have been given the equivalent of $90 dollars a month. This replaced energy and food subsidies, leading to a massive short-term gain – a cut in impoverishment from 22% to 10.5%. Yet with inflation, the funds failed to rise. That $90 is a whole lot less today. Unconditional help sounds tasty until you realise it’s a plug for your mouth, quieting protest at a fourfold rise for gasoline and ninefold increase on crude oil. 

12,000 kilometres away, the Brazilians have been flexing their UBI muscles and seeing what makes them stronger. Only a few, mind you. The city of Maricá, a Rio suburb, has lumped 52,000 residents into a basic income scheme. They get 130 rais ($64) to spend as they wish, but there’s a catch – they can only spend it within city limits. Rais is a digital currency, unique to Maricá. It has allowed local businesses to weather Covid pretty well, which makes you wonder what other, regular or emergency income programmes can do for a communal sensibility. Will it last, and rise with the cost of living? Fetch your popcorn. 

Regional trials like Maricá – and even Alaska, which cuts a $1,000-2,000 yearly chequeue for hard-up families – show us how proper UBI might be funded. They both use profits from local resources (oil, for now) as a social net. If a place does well in, say, the service sector or green energy, it could reinvest in locals who might contribute their own labour. Regional business might then find pride in spurring each other on. Collectively, businesses could be taxed an amount that changes with the size of the population relative to full-time workers. If there are more people working for companies with a premises there, you pay less. When start-ups launch, they pay even less to compensate for higher rent. We could pursue local growth like this. 

As a British man with more axes to grind than he can afford, I also suggest taxing capital gains the same as income. Why should assets and corporate transactions be any different to dosh from a kitchen? This alone might raise £16 billion a year. Three months ago, the Conservative Party sunk its fangs once more into regular working meat sacks, upping our National Insurance contributions by 8% to pay for social care. If they can do that, surely they can tax their peers/Christmas card list a little higher. Because we are not ‘in this together’. We never were. And I know that splitting £16 billion for everyone in the country gives us £250-ish, but it’s a start. Progressive tax increases, not regressively gouging the working class, could fund some of the top up for a fairer, less punitive social system. 

But let’s return to More’s predicament: do we want to work even if we don’t have to? Safety vs. idleness. Trust vs. fear. Can we trust in restless energy to push us towards a meaningful role in society, not towards a sofa and fish fingers?

Well, it seems so. The 2017 World Happiness Report gave us strong indicators of how people value their existence through work, and what kind of work they tend to prefer. At first, we note that being unemployed correlates with lower wellbeing; respondents were more stressed, depressed and anxious. Simply having a job is better for our mood. And it’s not simply due to money. As the Harvard Business Review explains, “The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary attached to it. A large stream of research has shown that the non-monetary aspects of employment are also key drivers of people’s wellbeing. Social status, social relations, daily structure and goals all exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.” 

This doesn’t suggest that salt of the earth, feel-that-dirt-under-my-fingernail jobs are superior to the office chair. Don’t fall into that romantic trap. The 2017 report is clear that many blue-collar roles, from fishing and forestry to construction, mining and driving a bus, are universally resented. An executive tends to rate their lives a 6 out of 10; for a farmer, it’s a 4.5. 

You don’t need a trowel in your hand to feel useful. Donning the white collar for a tech giant can be as satisfying as pulling weeds from the earth. It just depends on why you’re doing it, what you’re achieving, and how useful you are. 

Corporations have to constantly remind us why they exist. David Graebar’s seminal book, Bullshit Jobs, breaks this down in detail. He estimates around a third of jobs are bullshit: if they vanished, nothing would be worse off. We’ve been conditioned to see work as inherently noble, regardless of the job we’re actually performing. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Automation and A.I, by replacing us, were predicted to give the working man more leisure. But although machines have removed much of the drudgery of physical tasks, very few of us are working less than our parents. We’ve simply invented more jobs. “For some reason,” he writes, “we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafes arguing about politics, and gossiping about their friends’ complex polyamorous love affairs.” 

UBI is a tool to rectify the depressive, merry-go-round experience of being forced into a job you hate for the sake of avoiding shame and hunger pangs. It will provide more time to be selective and try new things. Small projects can play out. Risks are easier to take. There will always be workers for whom work sucks, but it’ll be harder to say you’re backed into a corner – that you’re a casualty of environment – when basic food and living costs aren’t breathing down your neck. Remember, poverty is expensive. Not only for our prisons, schools and shelters. For our souls too. We want to be of use. We enjoy occupation. 

That’s why Barbados should be in our Christmas prayers, although it doesn’t really need to be. For decades, it has shown a patient beneficence towards its countrymen; it has trusted them to see equality as a foundation for being productive, not an excuse for lying in. It could fire holes into generations of conservatives who think safety kills desire. 

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