Opinion: Saving the US economy – and society – requires UBI

Policy expert Scott Santens warns that the coronavirus pandemic exposes the fragility of the U.S. health care system, making the massive gap between haves and have-nots obvious for all willing to see. In a March 2020 The Swamp essay, the writer argues that the nation must institute universal basic income to help the economy — and society — survive COVID and future challenges — before it’s too late.

Why UBI? Because UBI is the one policy that positively impacts all aforementioned issues. It’s a curve flattener. It’s a social vaccine that improves health and reduces crime. It’s money that reaches everyone and excludes no one. It’s the ability to buy food in grocery stores and farmers markets instead of relying on whatever overwhelmed food banks have to offer. It’s security in insecure times, and it’s buying power for a consumer-based economy. It’s bargaining power for workers and an unlimited strike fund for unions. It’s how to make automation grow the economy instead of eating it. It’s the future, and the future has arrived.

UBI in normal times is a floor that paychecks add to. These are not normal times, and so where a UBI floor would be around $1,000 per month, an emergency UBI would need to operate as both floor and paycheck. Here’s how different the future looks like if we decide to adopt a temporary emergency UBI of $2,000 per adult and $1,000 per kid: nine out of ten households immediately gain the ability to cover all of their basic monthly bills without any further assistance. This keeps the economy for basic goods and services alive. With incomes being directly provided by the government, businesses could cut their labor costs in order to survive. This would reduce the need to layoff employees, and also prevent many businesses from going out of business, while also better maintaining consumer spending. Effectively, this strategy would be a UBI-Kurzarbeit hybrid.

With universal basic economic security installed into the economy, a whole slew of other effects would ensue. Besides all essential workers having higher incomes than the unemployed, instead of the same or even lower incomes (thanks to the employed and unemployed both receiving UBI), more people could afford to self-quarantine. Combined with stronger immune systems, fewer people would catch and transmit the coronavirus. Fewer people would feel the stress and despair that would lead to their suicides or substance abuse, or the abuse of their partners or children. Fewer partners would take the abuse too. In Kenya, a basic income experiment resulted in the number of women being kicked, dragged, or beaten by their husbands falling by 51 percent.

The likelihood of violent civic unrest would drop. Freed from insecurity, more people would be able to focus on more constructive uses of their time than worrying about surviving, like for example volunteering to help get meals to people, or crafting homemade masks, or working on a new startup to launch post-crisis, or just spending more quality time with their families. In experiment after experiment, UBI has been shown to improve wellbeing and also rates of entrepreneurship.

UBI means an economy that actually restarts. People would actually have money to spend in restaurants that reopen, and that money would become paychecks earned on top of UBI that is then spent elsewhere to enable more businesses to restart, and more paychecks to be distributed. UBI also means that the machines who “take our jobs” pay us all to buy what they’re producing. It makes automation literally work for all of us, especially if the amount that a permanent UBI is set at is indexed to productivity.

Santens speaks on the subject in this video, painting the choice between instituting UBI or not as a literal choice between life and death.


Original illustration above is by Sinnerman

Leave a Reply

Only people in my network can comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: