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Unconditional Basic Income

I believe we need UBI.

It’s one of the few policy proposals I’ve seen in many years that has the option to make life drastically better and safer for millions of citizens.

You might, like me, have some long term qualms about this. I’ve long seen UBI as maybe more of a short-term “patch” solution (it doesn’t fix all externalites and environmental problems of market economies), but a desperately needed one.

If it also does end up working out long term, that’d be gravy.

What is UBI?

Unconditional Basic Income is money everyone gets. It’s what you need to live, which is the “basic income” part. It’s not tested. Everyone can get it. Which is the “unconditional” part.

That’s also where huge savings can be made for the state finances. There’s a lot of expensive bureaucracy that can be simplified.

Why do we need UBI?

There are a lot of debates and issues and problems that pretty much gets a gordian solution with UBI. Poverty, begging, labor market insecurities, art and copyright, software financing, advertising…

It’s a foundation for a whole new kind of market of ideas that isn’t based on medieval qui-pro-quo market ideas. A world of giving. Comics and apps and music that aren’t dependent on ads and merch.

Academia’s dog-eat-dog backstabbing for tenured positions. Now everyone can think and write. Free to invent new thoughts and tools, unbound by “but what is the business model?” type dream-killing.

Amelia gets it

From one of Amelia Earhart’s speeches:

Obviously, research regarding technological unemployment is as vital today as further refinement or production of labor-saving and comfort-giving devices.

The purpose of tech is to make our lives easier and cozier, but the forces of the quid-pro-quo labor market means that people still need to break their backs or hearts to put food on the table.

Without UBI, at best, we could invent better tools. More efficient shovels and hammers and rakes that let us dig deeper, hammer harder, rake faster. Without UBI, tech would let us get more done in a day, but it would not let us cut into that 40 hour workweek.

With UBI, the cornucopia might finally get within reach. The right to laziness, as Paul Lafargue put it in 1883. The right to dream and work and create and share and give freely without strings.

When do we need UBI?

The time is now.

So many lives have been wrecked by the pandemic and the bailouts (at least where I am, in Sweden) have been haphazard and skewed and geared towards preserving the existing social hierarchy, with more money offered to those who were already making money.


I mentioned in the opening paragraph how I see UBI as a short-term patch while we figure out something better.

Let’s dig into that a little bit more.

Today I got the question about UBI: “Won’t people just become lazy and do nothing?”

Let’s examine three categories of people:

• the down-and-outers • the owner class • the working class


I’m already lazy and I don’t wanna die. I don’t think laziness should have to lead to death.

People who aren’t working should still get food and shelter, and putting humiliating, means-testing hoops in front of such aid is more costly than the benefits.

So the society as a whole benefits from UBI as a more efficient and dignified way to treat down-and-outers.

The owner class

One idea I’ve sometimes heard is that the more painful it is to not have a normal paying job, the more motivated people are, extrinsically.

This benefits the owner class who are eager to see its workers on the brink of starvation so they will fall in line out of desperation. So obviously, among the owner class, UBI is only appealing to the subset of them who is more eager to sell than to employ.

So yes, UBI, to the extent that extrinsic motivators are valid, has some drawbacks for the employer class in this regard. (To be weighed agaisnt the advantages in other sections.)

The worker class

How about for everyone else? Is there really nothing to the argument that there are labor tasks in a society that need to be done and won’t get done without extrinsic motivation? So that even if a UBI appeals to me as an invididual worker, it scares me because society is gonna collapse if people just laze around watching cartoons instead of being nurses and street sweepers?

Yes, actually. That might happen. But the problem is that society is gonna collapse anyway.

Owner concentration, wealth gaps, global warming… we’re seeing ownership of comfort-giving and labor-saving devices (like AI or data centers) becoming incredibly concentrated.

That’s why I always call UBI just a stepping stone or a temporary life raft. We can have food on the table while we figure out a more sustainable way to live. UBI isn’t the permanent solution, but as a stop-gap, it’s a pretty urgent one because we are seeing people’s livelihoods getting all jacked up.

I talk about externalities and exploitation all the time but quick recap: the problem is that when I sell you a gallon of gas, neither of us pays directly (as part of that transaction) for the cost to the Earth that ensues as you burn that gas. This is a glitch (or leak) in market capitalism as a system, that those costs aren’t accounted for. Market capitalism is a bountiful and rich paradise of iPhones and ice cream, but much of that wealth is borrowed from our own future selves as we’re gnawing off our own environment, and much of it is off the back of desperate workers who can’t afford what they’re forced to manufacture.

As we try to deal with these external costs, we might find ourselves in a situation similar to Śrī Laṅkā where farmers had to try to shoulder the move to organic, and couldn’t. Or to the pandemic, where celebrities and hotel owners got paid where down-and-outers weren’t.

UBI can help to tide us over while we sober up and get our priorities in line.

We live in such a rich-gets-richer society with so many feedback loops that keep benefitting those who have benefitted in the past, and those benefits aren’t out of thin air.

Market capitalism has one job—to distribute resources and tasks—and it’s messing that up completely.

Take a look at the jobs around you. Some are about growing plants, turning the plants into food or housing, helping sick people, and so on.

Other jobs are just meta-jobs about owning and selling. Ultimately about shuffling numbers around, but with a very real cost, like a blaring ad campaign or an unnecessary but climate-wrecking product or a mortgage trench scam that left thousands homeless, or gas-burning crypto mining.

Which of these two categories does our exisiting labor market extrinsically motivate the most? The latter. If ad sellers or tech CEOs or gas guzzlers would instead be a li’l bit “lazier” and just chill out with some UBI and chess puzzles, the world might be better off.

The fear is that UBI won’t do a good enough job to motivate tasks that are vital to society. But market capitalism is already doing an absolutely awful job in that regard. Wrecking the Earth puts your name on skyscrapers while mopping a hospital floor gets you on oatmeal and painkillers.