Annie Lowrey, Give People Money

Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: The simple idea to solve inequality and revolutionise our lives, W.H. Allen, 2018, 263 pp, 0-753540577-5, pbk, £12.99

Imagine a check showed up in your mailbox or your bank account every month. The money would be enough to live on, but just barely … It would come with no strings attached … (p. 4)

This book is a journalist’s journey of exploration. The introduction, ‘Wages for breathing’, correctly defines a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as an unconditional income for every individual, asks how a UBI of $1,000 per month would affect people’s lives, and recounts the author’s experience of reporting on much of the evolution of the recent UBI debate. Chapter 1 recounts recent technological developments in a broad historical context, worries about the job-destroying potential of artificial intelligence, and recognises that wealthy entrepreneurs are giving time and money to research on Basic Income because they are concerned that job-destroying technological developments might make unsustainable the economic model on which they depend: but it also recognises that we cannot know how technology will evolve, nor how it will affect employment – which leads Lowrey to her discussion in chapter 2 of an evidenced contemporary problem – ‘crummy jobs’ – and to UBI as a means of empowering workers. Chapter 3 finds that UBI would liberate people into a broader definition of work – ‘individuals would be liberated to do what they wanted, whether it was tackling hard work for low pay, starting a business, caring for a child, or doing something artistic’ (p. 70). In chapter 4, Lowrey studies the Kenyan UBI experiment: and in chapter 5 she suggests that current adaptations of existing Indian welfare programmes might lead to a UBI. (She does not seem to know about the important UBI pilot projects that have taken place in India.) Chapters 6 and 7 describe poverty in the USA, and find UBI to be an obvious response. Chapter 8 understands the value of unpaid and poorly paid care work, and particularly of women’s care work, and recognises that UBI would improve women’s social and economic standing. Chapter 9 studies the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, and suggests that UBI would enhance social cohesion, but that it might also exacerbate antipathy towards migrants. Chapter 10 asks how a UBI of $10,000 a year could be financed: by reducing other welfare programmes, creating new money, taxing the wealthy, or implementing new forms of taxation – all of which Lowrey deems feasible. She reports on her attendance at the BIEN congress in Seoul in 2016, and on the way in which the debate continues to expand – ‘The UBI idea has become a UBI movement’ (p. 199): and she ponders a number of alternatives to UBI, and also some objections that need to be addressed. The concluding postscript is a flight with the Star Trek cast on the starship Enterprise.

The book contains a number of inaccuracies – for instance, suggesting that the eighteenth century Speenhamland experiment, the Canadian experiments of the 1970s, and today’s Oregon experiment, are examples of UBI. They are not. But overall the book is accurate. And perhaps a slight problem is that the author has fixed on a particular level of UBI rather than recognising that a UBI of a lower amount could be more feasible to implement and could still be highly effective. There is an index, but no bibliography.

There are now numerous books on Citizen’s Basic Income, and it would appear that every publisher needs one – or rather, every imprint needs one, because this is the same company that published Guy Standing’s Basic Income. But this book is distinctive. It is effective journalism that draws the reader into its persuasive narrative. It should receive a wide readership.