Roderick Benns, publisher of Leaders and Legacies, recently interviewed Scott Santens, one of the leading American voices for basic income policy. The New Orleans-based writer is an advocate of basic income for all people and he serves as moderator of the BasicIncome community on Reddit.
Benns: The very notion of a basic income guarantee frightens a lot of people, particularly in western societies like Canada and the U.S. Thinking of employers, how can they be convinced that basic income policy is a good idea? Won’t they be worried about finding people willing to work?
Santens: It’s kind of interesting isn’t it, that the asking of such a question directly implies that employers don’t actually pay workers sufficiently for them to work voluntarily. We all know that’s the case, but we ignore it. The rate employers currently pay for the jobs people don’t want to do is artificially low. It’s low because people have to choose between no money at all, and at least some money. That’s coercion. It’s an imbalance of bargaining power. It’s also a market distortion. Employers have no incentive to pay sufficient wages, so people accept insufficient wages and consider themselves lucky they don’t have to live hungry in a box in an alley somewhere.
Because people are willing to accept such low wages to the point they will be the working poor, the government steps in with further market distorting regulations like the minimum wage. But then this wage fixing also affects jobs that people would actually be happy to accept less than the minimum wage in, because that job provides meaning. Perhaps it’s an exciting start-up. Perhaps it’s something requiring few hours. But unfortunately the business can’t afford the mandated wage, thanks to the other employers that refused to pay sufficient wages.
With that said, employers can be convinced basic income is a good idea for a few powerful reasons:
One: A nationally-mandated minimum wage would become optional. Employers that would have to raise their wages because those jobs have so little demand may not be so happy about this, but employers with jobs that have great demand may be, because they could stop giving raises thanks to a basic income indexed to rise with at least the annual rate of inflation, but even better, productivity. Basically, the labour market would be transformed into an actual market, where crap jobs are recognized with good pay, and great jobs are recognized as being intrinsically, not extrinsically motivated.
Two: Flexibility in hiring and firing should be very interesting to employers. Denmark is considered the best country in the world for business because of its “Flexicurity” system where there is essentially both flexibility and security. The easier the government makes it for people to move from job to job, the easier it can be to fire unwanted labour in favour of wanted labour. Flexicurity has nothing on Unconditional Basic Income. With basic income, there are no forms to fill out. There’s no application process. There’s no gaps in coverage. There’s no getting the wrong amount. Everyone always has basic income. All of this means businesses can be allowed far more flexibility in their staffing decisions, and would thus be far more competitive against inflexible competitors.
Three: The biggest reason of all for businesses to support basic income is about as simple as it gets — customers. More people with more money means more customers with more spending power. Got a business selling furniture? You want people to have basic income. Got a business selling music? You want people with basic income. Got a business selling vacations? You want people to have basic incomes. You get the point. Basic income should sound like ‘cha-ching’ to any owner of a business whose business isn’t built on the economic suffering of others, e.g. payday loan lenders and private prisons.
Benns: Automation is taking away many jobs, but there are vast swaths of jobs that still need filling, such as those in the service sectors. How will they be able to afford to attract people if BI is in place?
Santens: Again, it is up to the employer to offer wages to humans sufficient for humans to noncoercively accept those wages thanks to the actual ability to say no to them. If because of this, the hourly wage of human labour for a job rises from $7 to $20, and the effective cost for a machine to do that job instead is $10, then it now makes far more economic sense to hand that labour over to the process of automation. And this is really the result we all should want because it means on one hand that more people are now free to do meaningful work, and on the other hand it means employees who will work 24 hours a day 7 days a week, who will never strike and who no longer require any benefits of any kind. Machines are the perfect employees. Let’s welcome them so we can move on to bigger and better things, like being human.
Benns: Since this is such a huge shift in thinking, we can assume it won’t happen overnight. What are some first practical steps we can take as a society to implement basic income?
Santens: The biggest barrier to basic income happening tomorrow is that however more frequently it is being mentioned all over the world, across all forms of media, it has not yet reached the point of being known by anything close to even half the population. Everyone knows what minimum wage is. Everyone knows what tax cuts are. Not even close to everyone knows what universal basic income is. So the first practical step is to talk about it. Help get the idea out there. Share article after article. Use sites like this one and basicincome.org and reddit.com/r/basicincome as your resources. Start conversation after conversation. Ask people, “What would you do if enough money showed up in your bank account every month for you to never worry about meeting your basic needs?” Get people thinking how this would impact their lives. If you’re an organization, publicly express your support for the idea, just as in Canada the Canadian Medical Association and Food Banks Canada have. Another practical step is to connect with others who also feel the idea is important. Connect online and also in person. Join a local group. Start one if there isn’t one. Organize a Basic Income Create-A-Thon. Additionally, call your local political representatives on the phone, and tell them you support it. If they have no idea what it is, explain it to them. The more they hear about it, the more they will feel it’s in their best interests to start talking about it themselves. These are all very practical steps. Go for it. The movement needs you.
Benns: Why is the concept of a basic income guarantee so important at this point in our societal development?
Santens: We’re living in a paradox of absurdity, where we’ve created truly incredible levels of technology, growing at exponential rates, and yet we’re not using it to propel our civilization forward. Technology has from the moment the first tool was ever created, been intended to reduce human labour and enable us to do so much more than we ever would without it. And yet here we are working 47 hours a week instead of 40, and working nine hours a day at the office despite not actually working for four of them. We’re encouraging people to work in jobs they hate instead of doing work they love. We’ve increased the risks of failure, putting a counterproductive brake on innovation. We’re increasing inequality, hampering our economies. We’re reducing bargaining power by decreasing the ability to say no. And we’re replacing human workers with technologies that don’t buy anything. None of this makes any sense if our goal is for technology to work for us instead of against us. So let’s do that instead. Let’s leverage technology to free us. Enough fear. Enough poverty. Enough bureaucracy. Enough crap jobs. Enough wasted human potential. Enough is enough. It’s time to remove the brakes and let this civilization fly.