Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Environmentalist's Case Against Basic Income

At a recent talk that I was giving about my second book, Our Second Chance, I was sharing my supportive views on the concept of Basic Incomes.  Afterwards, I was reviewing the valuable comments in the Chat room, and found this gem:

"Futurist Douglas Rushkoff had espoused UBI (Universal Basic Income) in two of his books, but has since retracted his endorsement of the idea as he had come to realize that UBI without a deeper paradigm shift will only amount to increasing the rate of extraction, exploitation and consumption of earth's resources.  This is Douglas Rushkoff describing his rationale for no longer supporting the concept of UBI here."

The first 10:30 of the linked podcast is a monologue in which Rushkoff outlines his serious reservations with a Basic Income scheme - namely that it merely amplifies the population's role as consumers. Giving money to the people at the bottom will not create economic justice, he says, since that money will simply pay for increased consumption, thereby (a) continuing to line the pockets of the upper echelon capitalists, and (b) making our resource extraction and environmental degradation even worse.

Knowing that Rushkoff, a well-respected author, was changing his tune on Basic Income, led me to give his new position very careful consideration.  It is indeed a worrying proposition.  We all know that any attempt to raise the overall standard of living for a large number of people will entail a greater consumption of planetary resources - at least in the short-term.  Does that mean we are doomed to choose between widespread social inequity versus resource destruction?

Changing the Rules

Let me first say that I am very much in agreement with his fundamental objective.  In the podcast, he phrased the big picture in this way:

"It's not too late for us to start companies, cooperatives, commons where we all, everyone, owns a stake in the thing.  And then we can change our role in the economy from mere consumers to stakeholders; our role in society from consumers to citizens; and our role with each other from competitors to partners.  Now, the only substantive change we can make to our economic operating system is to distribute ownership, control, and governance of the real world to the people who live in it."

Well said!  I also agree that reinforcing the consumer tendencies of those close to or below the poverty line in our society actually channels that money to those at the top - seemingly defeating the purpose.

However, my Zoom audience member qualified Rushkoff's position more than the podcast does:  A UBI without a deeper paradigm shift, is problematic.  Well of course it is!  But a Basic Income is the best first step to achieving that paradigm shift!

I propose that, as living creatures, we are all consumers, citizens, and stakeholders (investors).  Those are the three value personae that I work from in my books (with a nod to Robert Reich).  We cannot eliminate the Consumer persona - all living creatures must consume.  A Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) model simply says that consumption needed for survival should be free - a basic human right, based on the abundance that we now enjoy.

I confess that I don't know all of Rushkoff's reasons for turning his back on Basic Incomes, but here are my reactions to what he said in his ten-and-a-half-minute monologue:

1.  A Grand Destination with no Road Map

The proposal that he makes for a new world, with distributed ownership, control, and governance is a wonderful ideal, but that change cannot be wished or even legislated into being.  There must first be a fundamental shift in our value systems and economic models.  The real change must (most likely) come from the bottom up - from the vast swath of consumers - and to do that, you have to first release them from slavery.

(I use the term "slavery" advisedly.  Our current economic model says that, for the overwhelming majority of people, we need income and a job in order to meet our basic survival needs.  Take our job away and we are homeless, hungry, and - if the social safety nets are overwhelmed - dead.  The choice of "to work or to die" is essentially slavery.)

Basic Income is the most fundamental shift in our economic model that currently has a chance of actually being enacted,  The U.S. was two Senate votes shy of a basic income model 50 years ago.  It currently has broad support across the entire political spectrum.  The CoViD-19 pandemic did wonders for showing the general public how the basic principle might work.  A Basic Income is the best first step on the road map to the changes Rushkoff seeks.

2.  The Asset Alternative

I like the idea he mentions of giving people assets instead of income.  Unfortunately, it's not very clear what he means by "assets".  It seems impractical (and demeaning) to give people food instead of the money to buy food.  If you give them other assets, and don't change the paradigm of "money equals survival", those assets will soon be sold and you will be worse off than before.  Again, I agree with the principle of a lot more common wealth.  I don't think land or natural resources should be ownable.  But just giving away assets (if one could even do that), without rethinking the nature of ownership, does not solve the problem.

3.  Beyond the Poverty Line

Contrary to what Rushkoff says in his monologue (and contrary to common belief), UBI is not just a way to take poverty off the table.  A Basic Income alters the way everyone thinks about the future.  It impacts the non-wage-earner in an abusive relationship, the worker replaced by automation, the entrepreneur, the career-changer, the lifetime volunteer, and the new Art graduate (the one that he says usually has to go straight into a job because they can't afford a studio).  People can take risks, get better jobs, and invest in their future because their basic survival is not on the line.  Basic Income is a psychological gamechanger.  And that's what his operating system change calls for - a psychological gamechanger.  It can't happen with anything less.

4.  Follow the Money

I think he oversimplifies the flow of money when he says that the poor consumers will simply give their Basic Income cheque over to the capitalists.  I see the Basic Income scenario as including four major differences from the status quo:

(A)  We already hand out billions in social assistance.  A GBI merely gives that money out without all of the cumbersome application, eligibility, and ongoing oversight costs.  A lot of the money that would be going to those at the bottom of the pyramid is already being doled out.

(B)  In order for governments to afford these programs, they have to stop giving out the other billions of dollars in subsidies and incentives at the top.  They also have to revise tax laws and enforcement to reduce the wealth being stashed away at the highest echelons.  There are counterbalancing factors.  So even if the money eventually goes back to the 1%, it is doing people good on the way, instead of going straight into a corporate profit account.

(C)  The big picture when you level the playing field for the lower and middle classes is that entrepreneurship is increased.  Populations can afford to support local business, and finally have the option of choosing quality over the cheapest survival option.  Many shop at Walmart because that's all they can afford and they measure value by number.  A GBI has the potential to alter how we view money - as a tool rather than a survival imperative.  That paradigm shift will necessarily impact the monolithic corporations more than anything else.

(D)  Rushkoff portrays Basic Income as a very simple circle of money going from the government to the poor and then straight to the corporations.  This suggests that the status quo is preferable because when people can't afford to eat or put a roof over their heads... well, at least the billionaires aren't taking that money.  That is a pretty sad justification.  And if it's true, then where does that same money go now?  Do the governments keep it?  No, it participates in a different cycle, which is...

5. The Economic Growth Conundrum

The richest people in society profit from economic growth.  Economic growth is needed largely to create jobs and income so that we can have economic growth.  It is a vicious circle where those at the top reap the greatest benefit.  We have been told that jobs are good because everyone needs one in order to perpetuate and expand consumption.

We also know that when more money moves around (as would be the case with a GBI), you get serious economic growth - and thus, more of what is damaging the planet.  And yet, I believe that such a cycle is fundamentally different.  When millions of people don't need a job just to survive, they can choose more meaningful occupations.  We don't need to create bullshit jobs just to keep people busy and paid so that they can eat.  A GBI allows people to reconsider what is important to them, and returns consumption to a simple survival imperative instead of an economic one.  It makes it possible for an environmentally sustainable cycle to emerge.

In summary, I think Douglas Rushkoff is correct that a Basic Income, on its own, is not going to solve our flawed economic model.  Yet, I don't think that solution should ever stop there.  A GBI is merely the first game-changing step in a massive paradigm shift about how we value people and what is important to us as a species and as a society.  Yes, the digital behemoths have to be broken up and we have to re-write the myth of commercial corporations.  Yes, we need to reduce our role as consumer, and increase our stakeholder and citizen values.  And yes, we need to revisit asset ownership, control, and governance.

I am convinced that the best and most likely path to making all of that a reality is to change how we think about money and survival, and the most practical, realistic, and currently relevant way of doing that is with a Basic Income.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Andrew for your well articulated response to my comment first made weeks ago at your book talk. You have articulated a lot of excellent logic on the matter.

    While I maintain some skepticism of UBI perhaps due to my (amature) study of Complex Adaptive Systems ( and Living Systems, this is no reason not to work on the potential for human justice and liberation in terms of ensuring that the basic needs of all people are met within the actual limits of Earth's abundance (though in strictly financial terms could be problematic if only predicated on current non-UBI socio-economic dynamics --suggesting "complexity" happening).

    There are potential side effects of UBI including unpredictable issues such as economic inflation and cost of living increases, though I can also begin to see, thanks to you, that this could just as easily go in ANY direction (perhaps even strange ones yet not necessarily toward something "bad" for the growing number of us "on the crowded margins").. yet I agree, we should not devolve to a kind of hoplessness or paralysis either.

    Yet as Einstein said in many different ways about not solving problems with the same mind that caused it, we must shake the dissonance that it may be the reductionist/mechanistic "solutioneering" approach itself that has left us with exponentially more problems. Although so difficult to step away from problem solving and instead to work on potential, health, vitality, viability and in support of capacity to evolve "indirectly".

    "Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back." Piet Hein

    "We shall have to evolve
    problem-solvers galore —
    since each problem they solve
    creates ten problems more" ~Piet Hein

    Regard your saying ".. (GBI) model simply says that consumption needed for survival should be free - a basic human right, based on the abundance that we now enjoy".. This begs the question for me: Is there any precedent for 'free' anything? (even our closest star, the sun has to pay a cost so that we may live). I don't need to get hung up on that fact, however "The abundance we now enjoy" (or some do) of our globalized economy has been largely predicated on not sharing it with the poorest who are doing the majority of the production labor (in those BS jobs as you say).

    Yet, (as you have been making an excellent case for), could something like UBI be a kind of acupuncture point to precipitate an economic maturation of human culture on earth (with mass abandonment of those BS jobs for a start)? .. But then might UBI lose all viability? Or might UBI just then become unnecessary, having already catalyzed the (seemingly or surely needed) paradigm shift?

    Economist Hazel Henderson's famous model showed us how the financial economic machinations of the world are just a parasitic icing on the 3 layer cake of the real economies. UBI sounds sweet, or is it just another layer of icing on the cake? Or, could it be that a widespread application of UBI will help us realize that if we just scrape all the icing to the side of the plate we can actually enjoy the real economic cake.

    I acknowledge that I am being jocular here, though I mean it in a collegial kind of way. I really appreciate your passion and enjoy to engage in active understanding together with folks who are working toward human AND planetary potential. High regards to you Andrew.


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