Basic income: The social safety net we don't want to do without

By John Rondina

Part Two

If we hadn’t innovated in the past with respect to our social policy, we would have no Canada Pension Plan. We would have no Employment Insurance. We would have no Guaranteed Income Supplement. These safety nets of our present were unaffordable in our past according to their critics at the time.

Often, what we say is unaffordable is because of a current favouritism to one or multiple sectors of the economy. When we revaluate distribution of income, what seemed impossible or unaffordable begins to look like one giant step forward for humankind.

Every brilliant new idea is frightening at first. Like when the first horse saw the first locomotive. And how could we do without trains now?

A horse, a horse, a kingdom for a horse: why we need our social safety nets 

We would have had a dramatically more devastating financial crisis if we had not had these and other social safety nets that acted to maintain an economy that you and I are all part of. Since we say past is prologue, we had better learn from our past. The future becomes the present quickly.

Einstein taught us that time is relative. Where will the next Einstein come from?

During the great depression, unemployment was more than 25 per cent in Canada. In some cities, it was 50 percent. Without our safety nets, things would have been worse. We’re still facing the after effects. Today, some studies show that the rise of the machines will eliminate more than 50 per cent of our jobs. Imagine a crisis born out of a crisis we still haven’t dealt with.

When we talk about not having enough money now, what will we talk about then, when we have less money than now, and more unemployment, a smaller middle class, and, worst of all, a much bigger precariat?

We need to do the right thing now.

Design different 

Years ago a commercial presented us a machine, and that commercial asked us to ‘think different’ about a machine (and conceptually, about ourselves). Now, that we have designed machines to soon think differently, so differently that they are learning to think not only as fast as us but even faster, it’s also time for us to think about the design of a better society.

And then, to design it.

That’s exactly what the basic income movement is working toward.

It’s really up to us whether the rise of the machines is a revolution in human existence for the better or for the worse. If there was one thing we learned about the ‘iron horse’, it was that this new ‘horse’ didn’t wait for the future. The future was already there, and it would not be shod by a blacksmith. It would run on steel wheels and rails and carry cargo and human beings. It still does.

Rutger Bregman, in a recent CBC interview, said:

“They [mainstream media and government] ignored the idea. It all happened on a local level … If you look at progress in history or equal rights for men and women or the civil rights movement or the arrival of democracy, progress always starts on the periphery and then moves to the centre … you’re always at the beginning regarded as unreasonable, unrealistic and your ideas are regarded as unaffordable… Every milestone in civilization starts that way …”

Recently, the IMF has said this about basic income:

“We have implicitly assumed so far that income from capital remains highly unequally distributed. But the increase in overall output per person implies that everyone could be better off if income from capital is redistributed. The advantages of a basic income financed by capital taxation become obvious.”

In the future, unless we are designing a society for the betterment of machines, we have to think about what driverless machines are for. If the machines that drive us will soon be driverless, then we should work hard to design into the outcome of their increased productivity the ability to carry our society.

That is a machine worthy of invention. That is innovation.

Driven to design the betterment of the human being

In the end, as always, it will be our minds that make our world a better place for every man, woman and child. That’s why we are driven to design the machines in the first place, not for the betterment of the machines, but for the betterment of the human beings.

To do less will lead us to social, moral and economic bankruptcy.

With every decision we make, we improve or degrade our future in a way that will have great effect. We will determine our future, whether we design a solution like a basic income guarantee, or we let the status quo put us out to pasture. If we are to spend a new future out to pasture, let it be by our own design, where we have focused on re-framing our worth while benefiting the many. Let’s harness all our human creativity to create a better world because soon the machines will work and think and dream of sheep.