Conference report: London Futurists’ event: The Case For Universal Basic Income, 14th February 2015

What will be the impact of technological change on society? We are often told that people whose jobs are automated will simply retrain and find work in new occupations, the same way farmers became factory workers following industrialisation. However, will this continue to be true now that the pace of change is much higher than it was in the age of the Industrial Revolution? In an attempt to explore the relationship between technology and the economy and society, the London Futurists invited Barb Jacobson and David Jenkins of Basic Income UK to Birkbeck College on the 14th February to talk about Basic Income.

David explained why Basic Income should be unconditional: to give people the means to live and to flourish, to provide people with the freedom to do what they want to do, to acknowledge the value of unpaid work (which accounts for 25% of GNP), to rein in the state’s bureaucratic reach, to distribute the means of consumption, to strengthen the labour movement so that people can demand a shorter working week, and to disrupt unjust social practices. In order to perform the above functions Basic Income will need to be high. In parallel, other provisions are needed as well: for example, an increase in housing supply.

Barb pointed out that the most important work ( – the work that keeps society going) attracts the least money in the labour market. Basic Income would address this. It is not a new idea: Thomas Paine was already advocating it in 1795. Virginia Woolf, who would undoubtedly have been a member of the London Futurists were she alive today, expected Basic Income to be introduced by 2029.

Our current levels of government surveillance and bureaucracy were illustrated by photos of a recent 6 a.m. police raid on a house inhabited by a suspected ‘benefits cheat’. Do we really want a government that spends its resources on spying on its citizens in order to find out if a separated couple has really separated and is not claiming £50 per week too much?

Potential ways to fund Basic Income that were discussed included patents, copyright, dividends, a Tobin tax, and the closure of tax loopholes.

In the question and answer session there was discussion on the implications for industry, and for money as a motivator ( – when people get paid for doing something are they more or less motivated to do it?). Someone worried that no one would do the ‘nasty work’ like sewer cleaning. It was suggested that people would demand better pay for doing this work and therefore it would become more efficient to automate it. There was also discussion on inflation and whether Basic Income would drive consumption of unsustainable resources. Will people buy more goods, or will they buy better quality goods? Research from India suggests the latter. A futurist suggested that we should view Basic Income as an investment because it will pay for itself by reducing the crime rate. It was also pointed out that we already have a Basic Income for the wealthy in the form of quantitative easing.

Someone suggested that first the right to create money should be transferred from corporations to governments; and the suggestion was also made that if politicians never agree to introduce Basic Income then people might introduce it themselves anyway, perhaps through cryptocurrencies.

Futurists are of the opinion that within the next thirty years robots will become smarter than humans. Let’s hope that before we reach that point humans will be smart enough to introduce Basic Income.