Let's design a better society with a basic income guarantee

By John Rondina

Part One

Some critics of basic income argue that people will become lazy should we implement basic income in Ontario or Canada. Is there any logic to such thinking?

Is it logical to use deprivation to keep people in jobs that don’t pay? Do we really expect a growing precariat to believe in society if societal attitudes are to carry a big stick when it comes to poverty? Does the mother, the student, the recently unemployed, the person now working a low wage believe in social justice? What happens when people stop trusting in governments, the stock market and other institutions?

We used to use a whip to drive our horses and our buggies forward. Is that how we want to treat our fellow human beings? By using a big stick?

How well did the big stick of days gone by function when there was no longer a horse pulling a carriage? How well did it function when the horse doing the work was now an ‘iron horse’, and that ‘iron horse’ was born in assembly? Especially, as the human hands of assembly are becoming robot hands. And, as we are learning that one day the robots may even dream.

What if the horses that were replaced by the locomotive were human beings?

When it comes to the creation of policy, even if we have laudable intentions like, ecological sustainability, the development of green technologies, equality and helping people out of poverty, we can’t leave others in a state of precariousness. We have to measure our policy by how many it will lift up. We also need to moderate the detrimental effects of technology.

We have problems …

This year ‘… a parade of CEOs met in secret to examine the sorry state of publicly traded companies’. They included Warren Buffett amongst them, who has said: “The rich have come back strong from the 2008 panic and the middle class haven’t and that effects demand and that effects the economy,” speaking to CNN. “We don’t need to have the extremes of inequality that we have. The people at the bottom end should be doing better. I think it behooves this very rich country to have less inequality than we have.” Buffett’s always been very good at simplifying complex topics.

While Buffet may have been speaking specifically about the U.S., is Canada not a rich country? Wouldn’t less inequality be a laudable goal for Canada as well?

While you may not agree with everything the above group of privileged individuals think, the fact that they think there’s a problem should tell you that there is one. It’s impossible to deny there’s a problem as some later data will show.

Even if you don’t believe the evidence before your eyes or the thousands of advocates for improvement on social policy, the precariat, basic income, etcetera, take a look at how Canadians feel about things and extrapolate that feeling out to how such feelings will affect the economy if you believe the economy will take care of itself. Has it taken care of itself since the financial crisis?

… And we have trust issues

So, we’re not only facing a dilemma brought on by our technology, but one of wealth redistribution, one where people have deep distrust of government, how we raise capital and invest to improve our future. Studies show serious problems:

  • Trust in public institutions has declined especially in the wake of the financial crisis.
  • The decline in the financial sector is especially large.
  • Countries that experienced the largest rise in unemployment saw public confidence in national governments and the finance sector decline ‘particularly dramatically.’

How is this new normal of high unemployment world-wide and economic malaise perpetuating the lack of public confidence in national governments and financial institutions? In an increasingly global world where information is shared quickly, public trust issues in government and organizations are shared at the speed of light, too. This creates a vicious downward spiral for an economy since economies depend on trust in order to function at a near-optimal level for the greatest number of people. When people feel that they’re in a rigged casino, they ask themselves, why should I play fair? In order to gain support for policy shifts, government needs to win trust in order to win support.

In order to do the right thing, you have to be trusted to do the right thing.

Where are the horses now? 

Machines and what they replace are a great analogy for what is going wrong in our society on so many levels.

A hundred years ago, you replaced a horse with an efficient new machine. Today, you replace a human being: one that thinks, feels, creates, and often, has a family. It’s up to the privileged to understand that privilege comes with the responsibility of upholding a trust. That trust is about making things better for as many people as we are able. Privilege involves thinking about the future and constant improvement. This is not simply through the constant improvement of machines. It’s through the constant improvement of society and the social policies that make society just.

The next innovator may be living in the deep end of deprivation 

We don’t only need to retrofit factories for an age of automation. We need to retrofit society. We need to think deeply about how many people are falling into poverty. We need to understand that the next Einstein or Da Vinci may not be sitting amongst the one per cent or even the middle class. He or she may be one of the people who dream and dream from the deep end of deprivation within a society that at the moment is not quite ready for the new prime time.

How much does the loss of one potential Einstein/Da Vinci cost society?

We have to ask ourselves as we watch people lose jobs, policy makers tell us that we are in a ‘new reality’, and robots begin to do things like learn what they couldn’t do before, well, we have to ask ourselves to learn how to do things better than we did before. If the robots are learning to dream of electric sheep then we better learn how to make our own dreams come true.

Paradigms aren’t only about the implementation of technology: paradigms are about implementing the designs that make our world a better place for men, women and children because of what the efficiencies of technology have enabled us to do for one another.

We have spent a lot of our creative energies marketing machines. Today, it’s time to believe in the human being. By glorifying the machines, we’ve forgotten that they were designed to serve us.

We have to do things better by creating more value, by challenging our social policy, and by making sure that if the middle class is shrinking and has shrunk, we are going to do things better. (In Toronto, where I live, 66 per cent of neighbourhoods were middle income in 1970. That number has shrunk to 29 per cent.)

We need to create strategies that will help people grow and think differently so that they are ready for the challenges of the future. Because the future is here.

Right now.