"Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Rutger Bregman
6:23PM Sep 29, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
universal basic income
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Hi, I'm jack Russel Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode, we're talking with Rector Bregman, about whether universal basic income is too utopian to work. This episode was made possible by a generous donation from Bill shared in of Grand Forks, North Dakota, we thank him for his support and hope that he will inspire others to do the same. You can donate securely at why Radio show.org I'd like everyone to take a moment and consider what it means for a belief to be obvious. We all know what we think it means that there's strong evidence for our opinion that it makes sense within a context and that our belief is correct. Even more. So. The obvious is that which we don't have to question, we take it for granted. But all obvious actually means is that an idea is familiar to us. Nothing more. It may work for us. But it doesn't necessarily work. Well. The problem is that there are a lot of familiar notions that are just wrong, that the sun revolves around the Earth is pretty obvious if we bothered to look up. But we know that it doesn't. That an object is the color we see it as also appears self evident. But a tennis ball is not actually green, it just reflects green light and absorbs the other colors. Another truth that appears obvious to many is that people are poor, because of the choices they made. We'll come back to that in a moment. I make these points, because today's guest is going to challenge ideas that seems so obvious that questioning them may feel like the worst kind of philosophical navel gazing. Most Americans believe, for example, that money earned is nobler than money given by others, he will argue that this is not true. He's also going to challenge the idea that public assistance is only justified if a person is working to not need it anymore. Workfare as this perspective has come to be called, is at the core of virtually every political candidates platform left or right. But there is no reason why we have to support it. Instead, our guest is going to argue for a universal basic income is going to suggest that government should give poor people enough money to live above the poverty line with no requirements, strings attached or expectations. This money is a right. Not a privilege, he might say. And people get it not because we're trying to better our lives or because we pass a drug test. But simply because we're human beings, and we need it. universal basic income, the argument goes, is essential to human dignity, and recognizes that most people are poor because of circumstances, not necessarily because of choices they make. These ideas run counter to the notion that redistribution of wealth is bad, or that one person's money should not be handed out to anyone else by force or fear. It feels anti capitalist and anti American. But it's not. It's just unfamiliar. And that means for many of us, our instinct is going to be to reject it out of hand, not just as impossibly utopian, but it's a violation of our own accomplishments. I want to argue for universal basic income here, I leave that to the guest, I will instead offer one suggestion as to how to listen to today's episode. Don't take the debate personally. Don't imagine that we are talking about your money. And don't think that someone else's welfare take something away from you. We'll address these concerns during the show. The very point of this discussion is to get past what we as individuals require and ask what our neighbors need instead. JOHN F. Kennedy's edict to ask what we can do for our country instead of ourselves is once again, a radical idea. universal basic income is not about gaming the system, it's about all of us living together better. Our guest today is a utopian, he thinks that we can create good societies that meet all of our needs. This is for lack of a better term, an old fashioned position. It feels naive and quaint. But what are we left to do if we abandon the ideas that things can't get better? What is politics for, if not to improve all of our lives? When I ask that you not take the debate Personally, I'm requesting more than just imagining that it is not your money at stake. I'm also suggesting that you'd be open to changing the world as you know it. As perverse as it may sound, I think we all take comfort in the fact that there's more poverty and inequality, not because we like people suffering, although studies do show that there is inherent satisfaction in seeing ourselves as being better off than other people.
We find it comforting because we're used to it. We know how to deal with these problems. We've built our lives around these consequences. If we woke up to a world of peace, equality and serenity, what would we do with our keys Are the past codes for our debit cards? How would we function if we weren't worried about our future blaming others for our lot in life, or simply being told that we're not worthy enough to ask for a helping hand. utopias just don't make sense to us. And that makes them frightening. today's conversation, and our guest will make them less so. In return, I suspect we'll see that once we start helping others, it becomes obvious that we should have been helping them all along. And now our guest Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He's written four books and has twice been nominated for the prestigious European press prize. His book utopia for realist is currently being translated into 22 languages. Recker, thank you for joining us on why.
Thanks for having me, Jack, I'm really looking forward to your conversation.
We've pre recorded the show, so we won't be taking any questions. But if you'd like to send your comments, tweet us at at wire radio show, post a email@example.com slash my radio show or visit our live chat room at my radio show. org. So, record you begin utopia for realists with two great sentences you write. Let's start with a history lesson. In the past, everything was worse. That's a strange way to start a book about the need to make things better. It seems instead like an argument for complacency or self congratulation. Why should we begin the discussion there?
Well, I think it's important to recognize that we already realized many of the utopias that we used to dream about. So if you go back to the Middle Ages, and would ask, you know, the average farmer what the perfect society would would look like, then he or she would probably say, well, perfect society, you know, I wouldn't be hungry anymore. I would have a roof above my head. And, you know, yeah, I wouldn't have to worry about just my basic needs. And and if you know, if you just do a little thought experiment, imagine we would have a time machine, we would be able to get at that farmer, bringing him to our time, show them around in a modern city, like like New York, or Amsterdam, where I live. And you know, that person would be completely astonished. He would say, Well, this is it. I mean, you create it utopia. This is it. I mean, you're richer, you're wealthier, you're healthier than ever before. And it's true. And we don't really get that from the news. But the past two years, or maybe I should say the past 30 years, have been, you know, the best in all of human history, we've made tremendous progress. You know, if you just look at something like extreme poverty, it has declined from 84% in 1820 to less than 10%. Now, hunger has has declined, child mortality has declined by half since 1990. Again, you get don't get that from the news, because the news always focuses on the exceptions, you know, things that go wrong, corruption, crises, terrorism. So, at the end of the day, you know exactly how the world doesn't work if you watch a lot of the news. But it is true. So I thought it was important to start with that acknowledgement, that utopia has become real in the past, so it can do so again.
There's also I think, a human tendency to see the negative rather than the positive the other day, I was laughing, because I was complaining that I was downloading a movie from Netflix, and it was taking two minutes. And you know, when I was 20, right, the idea of having all these movies at my beck and call would be a complete fantasy. And now, right? It doesn't take 15 seconds.
Yeah, sir. But it's, it's not only about technology, I mean, we could also think about social accomplishment. Just think about the end of slavery, or democracy or equal rights for men and women or the rise of the welfare state. All these ideas were completely ludicrous, crazy once, you know, the first person who started said, Well, you know, maybe we should abolish slavery. That person was lost that it was seen as completely unreasonable. We couldn't afford that the economy would crumble, etc, etc. and here we are. Now Now every milestone of civilization it used used to be a utopian fantasy once.
So are you suggesting as some people will hear that, okay, everything is great. We'll stop we've reached utopia. Hmm.
Well, I believe that the big problem of today is, in many cases, not that we don't have a good the big problem of today is that we have no new vision of where to go next. And that's why I actually start the book with a great quote from Oscar Wilde, the the Irish poet, who said at the end of the 19th century, he wrote that utopia is a place that we are always striving for, progresses to realization, realisation of utopia, and that's why, as, as Oscar Wilde said, a map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing up, you know, because every time we arrive at it topia, we need to set sail again, for a new utopia. But the thing is that I believe, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we've pretty much stopped doing that. And what we see now around the globe is that people are actually yearning for the past, you could call this a retro topia,
you know that this was one of the moments in reading the book that really just took me out of the book and made me just stop and really have an emotional reaction. You You said, as you said, just now that the real crisis is that we can't come up with anything better. This reminds me William James, in a very famous essay called the moral equivalent of war, he says that, you know, people who can't imagine that the world will someday be at peace suffer from a lack of imagination. So I wonder if you talk a little bit about what it means to not be able to imagine a better world because of course, I think people think they do, right. Oh, world peace. You know, everyone has enough money. But I think you're actually claiming something deeper, that there's something lacking in this vision, what's lacking?
Well, you know, I was born in 1988. So that was one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And people of my generation grew up in the 90s. And, and, you know, after fall off the Twin Towers, and really, you know, became politically conscious, after the financial crash, we were basically taught that the age of grand narratives was over, you know, that we shouldn't Dream Big anymore. Because the 20 century has showed us that these dreams, these utopian fantasies are incredibly dangerous. I mean, just look at faces and look at communism, look at all those dangerous ideological figures from Lenin to Stalin. And you know, that, you know, utopian thinking is not something you should do. And that was, you know, that's what they taught me, at least at university. But then came 911, then came the financial crash. And it was suddenly obvious that we, we can't stick to the status quo. And I started to have this nagging sense that we had lost something that we had thrown away the child with with the bathwater. If it's really true, that progress is about the realization of utopias, then we need to dream much bigger than just thinking about what the next iPhone is going to look like. Because that's, that's the weird thing. When when we talk about progress these days, we mainly talk about innovation, and we mean technology. And we hope that technology will solve all our problems. We can't really imagine anymore a radically different way of living. It's sir, sort of seems as if we have forgotten that. And there's nothing natural about the way we structured our society and economy right now. I mean, all these things we are used to nation states, borders, poverty, you name it. It's all fairly. Yeah, recent. And it doesn't have to be this way we can we can change it if we want to.
In a second, I want to ask you about the nature of utopias, and why we're so frightened by them and your sort of alternative vision. But the other thing that you said early on in the book was you mentioned that we've been working harder and harder since the 1980s. And yet we're richer than we've ever been before. And this, again, is one of those things that spoke to my own personal experience. Not that this matters to anybody, but I'm a Chester Fritz distinguished professor at the University of North Dakota, I'm the highest rank that you can get. And I'm, I won this teaching award. And yet I find myself the last few years, just with my nose to the grindstone working harder and harder, and it's unclear when I'm working for and so this summer, stuff has been hard at the University of North Dakota. And this summer, I really retreated. And I jogged all the time. And I started taking yoga and I worked less, and I felt healthier and better. And yet, this notion that I had to attend to my health felt countercultural, like I was sort of violating my responsibility as a professor, is this is this a common experience that if we're not working, if we're not contributing to the productivity of something, that somehow we're not fulfilling our responsibility?
Well, it's interesting that if you look at what so many of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century believed, what they, many of them basically said that we will be working less and less and less. I mean, there's this famous essay, written by john Maynard Keynes, the British economist. He published it in 1930. And he argued that while he basically made two predictions First, the first prediction was, we're going to get a lot richer about four to eight times as rich in 2030. He believed, and I mean, he was right about that we already more than five times richer than we were back then. The other prediction he made is that well, if we just keep on doing what we've been doing since 1850, which is trade, a little bit of our increased prosperity, a little bit of our economic growth for a little bit of extra leisure time. Well, then the workweek will keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking and in 2030, we'll have a working week of About 15 hours. Now, the thing is that that may seem crazy to you, like, Keynes, whatever. He was a weird socialist economist. But But almost everyone believe this, you know, or up until the 17th. Almost all the economists, sociologists, philosophers, they all believe that that the workweek would shrink and shrink and shrink. I mean, I think ASIMO for example, the great science fiction writer, he argued that the greatest challenge of the future was going to be boredom. And he believed that the biggest profession of the future would be the psychologists because they would have to treat all those people who are suffering from the symptoms of boredom. Well, I mean, he was right that psychologists, indeed, today, they are one of the biggest professions, but they're not treating the symptoms of boredom, you know, they're, they're treating the symptoms of depression, and people are completely burned out because they work way too hard. And so, around 1980, in all the Western world, we started working more and more and more, it's one of the big questions of our time, like, like, what happened back then.
When I visit, when I visit Vienna, which is one of my favorite places to be, I lived there for a while, if lots of friends there, I always tell them, Americans don't understand leisure, we think we must be working out, right? We're supposed to be doing something and this idea of sitting in a cafe, and just talking, or just sitting there and looking, this is another thing, right? Because of phones, we've lost the ability to stare into space, right? We have to look at our screens, we can't just be there. And, and I, it's interesting to hear that that's a Western phenomenon, rather than just an American phenomenon. Because of course, I think you're right, and I was, I'm a little older than you. And I remember 1988. And I remember that shift. And I, I tried to figure out what my life would look like or what everyone's life would look like, if we work less. And, again, this is a lack of imagination, what would I do with a 15 Hour Workweek? There is a sort of a school of thought, the Varian capitalism, and and the Protestant work ethic kind of notion that well, if you're not working, you're not a valuable human being.
Yeah, it's interesting here is that if we compare countries, you know, in an international perspective, it's actually the countries with the longest working weeks, like Japan, Turkey, and yes, the US where people watch the most amount of television. So it's pretty interesting. You know, if you've been working so hard, and sending emails to people you don't really care about all day or writing reports, no one reads, then yeah, you're completely burnt out at the end of the day, and the only thing you can do is watch Netflix, gilmoregirls, whatever, you know, to at least have a little bit of happiness, in your date, in countries is much shorter working weeks, we see that they have much more social capital, that they devote more time to volunteers work, and more time for the kid for the kids and the elderly, etc, etc. So my argument is that we, if we work less, do less paperwork, we can actually do more, do more really valuable, often unpaid work.
And we're gonna come back to that in the second half, because that involves your criticism of GDP of gross domestic product and what it doesn't show. But I want to go back to this idea that we're being utopian we're being you know, we have our heads in the clouds. When people think of utopian you alluded to this earlier, when people think of utopias, they think of fascism, they think of rigorous rules, there was there was an episode of of the second generation of Star Trek where they people lived in a perfect world. But when one of the kids threw a ball on the grass and and stepped on a lawn that he wasn't supposed to they were going to kill him for breaking the rule. Right? This is our vision of utopia. You call this the blueprint model, and you actually offer a different approach. So So what's wrong with the way we think about utopias now? And why is there what's the other model?
I would argue that that are that there are two forms of utopian thinking. And yes, the first one is the one we're all familiar with. It has a long, deep history, and, you know, found find his most terrifying expression probably in communism of faces. And this is, this is the utopia, the blueprint utopia, that has this, this perfect vision of society that has to be implemented as soon as possible. And if you don't agree with it, well, that's your problem. And and we'll use a lot of violence to to get you into shape, right. But I just think there's another form of utopian thinking as well. And there are so many great examples of that in history, you know, As I just said, the end of slavery democracy, this, this also started with utopian thinkers who believed in a completely different kind of society. And they were at that point in history at the fringes of the debate, you know, not in the center, think about the fairest first women who argued in favor of the women's right to vote, you know, were they the group with the most money that they have the most power? Well, obviously not. But they did have a great idea. I think you can also see it in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, you know, as I always like to say, he didn't say, I have a nightmare, he had a dream. So he was a utopian thinker as well. But he was also very practical, you know, he had a had a, at a smart, practical strategy of what he wants to do tomorrow. And I think it combined can combine those two things, you know, you can be pragmatist and utopian thinker at the same time. So hence the title utopia for realists.
So there's two aspects of this kind of utopian thinking. The first is, we're not talking about reforming everything and building rules, we're talking about a serious problem and being optimistic and committed to the idea that we can fix it, right. And then the second step is that we accept the fact that progress is incremental, that we get better and better and better over time, and you have something in common with a guest we had a few seasons ago, Steven Pinker, who also argued for the the point that the world is a lot better than it was. And both you and he and other folks have really called back this idea of progress, that we have to really accept progress in the larger sense of the term that it isn't just improve technology. But progress is not an old fashioned way of thinking about things, it is part of this utopian vision, that can be a very small, focused change with Rand consequences.
Well, I mean, if you want to travel a long distance, you got to take a lot of small steps. I wouldn't say that I'm an optimist, though. And I'm not a pessimist, either. I would say that I'm a possible list. So optimism for me, it suggests that we can just sit back and relax, step into roller coaster and enjoy the ride. You know, that is some something that people from Silicon Valley often seem to suggest, you know, technology is going to fix your problems, don't worry. I don't think that's true at all, you know, I'm a possibility. I believe that things can be different, radically different. But you know, there's absolutely no guarantee that things will turn out. Alright, you know, you have to get up and fight for the changes you want to see in the world.
Do you think that I'm trying to figure out how to ask this question. Do you think that folks of your generation have a more or less will to change the world? Do you think that that, that this is cyclical? Because there's a lot of criticism of millennials in particular, and you offer some of them in the book. But if you go back to Plato, if you go back to Sanskrit texts, everyone's complaining about the younger generation, they know, they're lazy, right? This is wonderful passage in Warren Piece about this? Um, is it? Is it? Is it just sick? I mean, is this just how older people look at younger people? Or is there something particular about your generation, that we are now at a moment where we can start having these conversations?
Well, maybe we shouldn't talk about generations, but we should just talk about the type guys. And obviously, my generation grew up in a certain kind of site, guys, you know, when when certain ideas were popular, and other ideas were not popular. And what I believe, is that in the past, just very recently, like in the past two, three years, for the first time, I really have the sense that the Zeitgeist is changing. And there's a beautiful essay that was written a few months ago by David graver, an anthropologist, he's actually one of my one of my favorite thinkers these days. And the title of the essay is despair, fatigue, it's simply we are fed up with the spare, you know, we've had enough of it it's just it's it's almost going out of fashion. You know, it's it's fashionable to have some hope, once again, you know, to believe in, in new ideas and to be become a little bit more radical. Look at look at what happened in the UK with the with the Labour Party. So for years and years, people on the left and in the labour Labour Party said, well, you shouldn't become too radical, because then you'll lose elections, you know, you got to be reasonable. You got to be realistic, you got to stay in the center. And if you become too radical while you lose votes, you know, you'll never you'll never get into government. Now, what happened is that the Labour Party became radical, and suddenly it It won the most votes since 1946. So all this time what was really happening is that that The problem was all the same, not that labor was not radical enough or too radical, it was not radical enough. So I think that is that is what you see happening these days. And it's going in both directions. And that is what's both hopeful and completely terrifying about it. I mean, the election outcome in UK was quite hopeful If you ask me, but I can't say that for the US.
I think you're not alone. When we come back from the break, we will dive right into the universal basic income and ask whether this is even a plausible idea. You're listening to jack Russell once again and Rutger Bregman on why philosophical discussion with everyday life, and we'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we're talking with Rutger Bregman, about universal basic income and utopias and what is possible and what isn't. And I was thinking, during the break about this other conversation I've been having at home with my wife, I mentioned a few minutes ago that I've been trying to step back from work and be healthier. And so my wife and I went on this trip to the north shore of Lake Superior for those people who are in the Midwest, that'll be familiar, but it's a wonderful resort area, but but with hiking and mountains in so far as the Midwest as mountains, and, and we ended up spending a fair amount of money for three nights. And then I took a renewed interest in camping. And we've been buying some equipment to camp. And it's expensive. And my wife is concerned that we're spending too much money. And I said to her, first of all, no matter how much we buy, it's going to be less than what we spent for three days. But we are spending the money to have basically free vacations for the next five years until the equipment runs out. This influx of money gives us freedom to live cheaper in the future. And this influx of money gives us the flexibility to do something at one time that we couldn't do if we had to space it out over a long period of time. And so retro, I tell the story because this notion of having money at once. And that flexibility of a large influx, this is the centerpiece of the idea of universal basic income right, then that there is stuff that we can do with a chunk of money that we can't do with small pieces laid out over time. Is that correct?
Yeah. And like you said, it's also an investment. So it might cost money up front. But there's an extraordinary amount of evidence that, for example, eradicating poverty is an investment that pays for itself in the long run. Because you get lower health care costs, you get lower crime rates, kids perform better in school, you know, people pay more taxes, they get better jobs, etc, etc, etc.
So let's let's start then from the definition, as we philosophers, like, tell us what universal basic income is, and how does it work?
Well, well, I always like to start with the idea of a guaranteed basic income that is really, to my mind, the umbrella concept. And the idea of a guaranteed basic income is to give everyone in a certain society myself, and we've talked about the nation state, a minimum income. So there's simply no way you can get beneath or under the poverty line anymore. What's very important is that it's completely unconditional. As you know, nowadays, we have a welfare welfare system that does some things for the poor sometimes, but it's absolutely not unconditional, you know, there are more and more conditions attached to getting welfare these days. So it's it's unconditional, its individual. And there's one form of the basic income guarantee, which is also universal. And that would mean that everyone would get it. Whether you're rich or poor, employed or unemployed. Doesn't matter at all.
So everyone gets $15,000 on April 2, something like that. I guess I'm confused. What do you mean by everyone gets it in this first model of General income.
While there were a big Basic Income experiments, for example, in the 70s. In the United States, this is a pretty fascinating episode in American history that is almost completely forgotten that nowadays, and these were not experiments with the universal basic income, but with what we call a negative income tax, which is a form of basic income, it will mean that your income is stuffed up as soon as you fall below the poverty line. Now, I must say that technically, this is pretty much the same as universal basic income. Because if you, if you if everyone would receive a basic income, you know, many of them would also have to pay more taxes to fund the basic income. So about even happened that you know, you get a basic income, but have to pay the same amount in additional taxes. So nothing will really change. What I believe is really essential to basic income in any case, is that it provides a floor in the incandescent distribution, that is what most important what is most important about it. So the uncondition ality is more important than the than the universality in my mind.
So if if someone finds themselves in a circumstance, let's say the poverty level is $20,000 a year for a couple, I would hope it's more than that. But um, but let's say the pilot is just for math sake, $20,000. If you find yourself earning less than $20,000, the government's gonna make up the difference. If you find yourself without a job, then and you have no income, the government is going to give you $20,000. But if you're making $100,000, you're well above that floor. So you won't get anything but the taxes you pay pays for the 20,000 or the $500 that other people get.
Exactly, exactly. So alive without poverty would become a right instead of a privilege. And as I said, this almost happened in the United States, there is no country that came as close to having this kind of basic income as the US. Richard Nixon, of all people almost implemented it. He got his his proposal for this basic income through Congress twice. And ironically, it was killed by the left by the Democrats, because they wanted a higher basic income. This
part of the book made me want to throw the book up against the wall, because you argue it wasn't the republicans that kill this. It was the Democrats.
No, no, it's I mean, as I said, it's an completely forgotten episode of American history. At the end of the 60s, almost everyone believed that some form of basic income was going to be implemented. You know, john Kenneth Galbraith, the famous leftist economist, he was in favor of it. But Milton Friedman, the neoliberal economist, thought it was a good idea as well. So what Richard Nixon said is, all right, well, if everyone believes in this, Sure, let's do it. If there's only like, it's just pure coincidence that it didn't happen, there's no big reason. You know, the idea was finally killed in 1978, when new results from a Seattle Basic Income experiment came in, and the results were really, really positive. So health care costs went down. As I said, kids did better in school. No, people didn't work any less. So it was it was a quite positive experiment. But the only problem was that the researchers found out that the divorce rate had gone up by 50%. So at that point, only conservative set, look, we call it basic income, you know, this will make women much too independent. We can't have this, it was only 10 years later that researchers found out that a statistical mistake had been made. So in reality, the divorce rate did not go up at all.
And this is actually a pattern that you point out in history, that people who that the studies or the experiments with universal basic income, often look at the outset. Like they don't work. But it turns out that people falsify the data can you talk about? And here's here's a British town, I don't know how to say, Spain, Holland, can you talk about this town in England and what they did and what we thought happened and what actually happened?
Well, this is probably the oldest Basic Income experiment that ever happened at the beginning of the 19th century. It started in Spain, a place in England, in England, and it was it was developed because the British they were they were sort of afraid that the French Revolution would arrive at their shores. So they developed this sort of basic income like system. Now, what happened is that in an 1834 report was published about this system, the spin on that system, and it was a very damning report. You know, it was the first time that government really, you know, devoted a lot of resources and energy to do a proper study of, of, of a certain policy that it had enacted. And it showed that the basic income was just a complete disaster, you know, that the poor turned out to be become very lazy didn't work anymore. Marriage edges were broken, etc, etc. And this this had a very, very long legacy, even in the legacy, the shadow has been umland stretched all the way to to Richard richard nixon actually who sort of changed his mind about basic income. And and this is one of the important reasons why it didn't come to pass in the US in the 1970s, like 150 years later, you know, it was only around the same time that historians discovered that this report about the supposed failings of the speedom land system was a complete fabrication, you know, that the researchers had just invented most of the statistics, that they have made up a lot of interviews, that didn't really happen, and that they pretty much base their judgment of the system on what some local religious people were saying. So it's, it's it's bizarre history full of crazy ironies.
So in a few minutes, we'll get to the the philosophical concerns and elaborations. But there is, of course, a practical one that that all of my listeners are thinking now, which is simply, this is too expensive. Sure, we could give everyone this $20,000. But then we go broke, it would be unaffordable, it's just unrealistic on the economic sense. Could you talk a little bit about maybe, Uganda or other places that show and your argument for the fact that actually and this is what's as a pragmatist, this is very, very intriguing, that actually universal basic income is cheaper than letting people be poor?
Yeah. What I think we really cannot afford is poverty. You know, poverty is just incredibly expensive. There are there's one study from the US that shows it's about $500 billion each year, and that I'm just talking about child poverty is extraordinary waste of human potential. And if you just look at the the amount of money, you need to completely eradicate poverty to get everyone in the US above the poverty line, it's about 175, maybe $200 billion. So the cost of child poverty 500 billion eradicating poverty, 200 billion, it's actually cheaper, you know, the math isn't very difficult here. Why don't we do it, then? Well, it's not there's there's not an economical or technical reason for it. It's just ideology, it's ideology that is holding us back. We have this completely mistaken view, that the poor are irresponsible, that they're lazy that they would waste the money. While we've got a mountain of scientific evidence that proves time and time again, that most people want to make something of their lives, most people are quite creative, and we just have to give them the means to get up and do something.
This this notion of ideology of, of political attitude, affecting negatively economics, this This goes back, in fact, to the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith shows fairly persuasively that it was much more expensive to have slaves than to hire me. And yet people claimed that well, you know, the South is built on slavery because it's cheap labor you cite the person that Smith is actually reading against Bernard Mandeville, where he says that the key to an economy is to have workers that basically have slave labor, that are slave labor wages, and that that over and over again. In fact, the good thing to do is actually the cheaper thing to do.
Yeah, this is this is also something that actually a a conservative politician from Utah I found out a few years ago. So when you looked at the numbers of the cost of homelessness, he found out that it is cheaper just to give the homeless a free apartment and to let them live on the streets. You know, a homeless person is really expensive if you if you let them live on on the streets, you know, think of police costs, judicial costs, health care costs, etc, etc. Might be 5050 K a year 60. And it's just cheaper to to give people the means to be to be creative and to contribute to the common good. It's it's not something we should just do because we pity the poor or pity down the homeless. We should also do it because it's good for our own wallets.
This anticipates one of my questions which is is universal basic income is this is this idea. Is it a form of charity? Are we giving people things you know, a charity the word that comes from Caritas the Latin for Christian loan and it's it's it's interesting because it's I've talked about this before on the show, it's opposite the Hebrew word to DACA which is the equivalent which means actually justice, right? Are we doing this for out of love for another person? Is this something we are giving them that is our own out of the kindness of our heart? Are we doing this for a different reason? Is it is it is it justice? Is it is it something
I think it's different. I think it is a right you know, a right just because You have a heartbeat, that should be enough just because you are a human being you're alive, that should be enough to get you a basic income. There's a very different philosophy of distribution or redistribution behind basic income. So what we are used to is the social democratic idea of social solidarity. Solidarity basically means that, you know, we agree that if you become sick, I'll help you, because you'll do the same for me if I get sick, right? That is the horizontal sort of solidarity, the philosophy behind basic income is very different. What what bit advocates of basic income say is, look, look at all the the wealth we have amassed, you know, look at all the institutions or the technologies, look at all the buildings, look at, you know, we are richer than ever, and most of it is just a gift from the past, you know, when you really think about how much of my wealth is my own accomplishment, it's probably less than 1%, right? We were just really, really lucky to be born in the right country, at the beginning of the 21st century, you know, there are some estimates that show that it's about 60% of your income is the country you get born into 10% is gender 10% is an ethnicity, then there are your genes, etc, etc. So, most most of our wealth is just a gift from the past. And Basic Income acknowledges that it says, Let's give everyone a dividend of progress, let's give them a share of that gift from the past. That would only be just because we can now afford to afford to we are Richard and ever so we can afford to give everyone that floor that platform to stand on.
So part of the argument against those who would say, Well, this is my money, and you can't take it and give it to someone else that that's unjust. It's theft. taxation is then this this libertarian argument, what you're suggesting is, and it's interesting to hear the statistics that use the 60%, the 10% to 10%, etc. You say no, it's not yours. Most of it is ours. It's a it's it's the community, the generations, the history has created it. You've adjusted it a little bit. And because the history is created it now we can take it to the other people who are subject to the same history.
Yeah, absolutely. And let's, let's also think for a while about the word redistribution. I mean, the word redistribution assumes that there is a first distribution that is somehow the natural distribution. I think that's a complete fallacy. If you look, for example, the financial sector, the distribution that happens there is is not natural at all, you know, there are there are a lot of laws and institutional and historical reasons why bankers can earn so much money. So that is a form of redistribution as well. And these days, it's probably even bigger than the than the redistribution that we are talking about in the form of welfare or whatever. So pretty much everything is redistribution. I mean, we're all talking about how do we share that gift from the past? And how, you know, who gets what. And, and that will always be a discussion that will that will have to talk about in a democratic way. But that's not really happening these days. Is it?
So, okay, so let's go through some of the other concerns. There was the libertarian one, but then then there's the aren't the homeless going to take all the money and drink themselves to death? Right? Aren't they going to overdose on heroin? Aren't aren't all these these drug addicts around the street? Because of their own decisions? Aren't they going to take this as a bonus? And it's not going to help them? It's actually going to hurt them in the long run? Yeah. How do you respond to that?
Well, it's an empirical question, right? I mean, you can just test it and see what happens. I mean, we can talk for hours and hours about what your vision of human nature is, and what mine is. And some people say, well, human beings are intrinsically lazy and corrupt. And I think that most people are actually quite creative. And most people are pretty nice. Well, we can argue for hours about that. Well, we can also just look at the evidence. And that's why I in the book, I go over experiments from from Canada, us, Mexico, Brazil, India, South Africa, lots of other places where they've actually tried this. And, well, I I've never found one single experiment that shows that the majority of the poor or the homeless waste of money if you if you give it to them unconditionally, actually, there's one study in done in Liberia where $200, which is a lot of money there was giving to like petty criminals and drug addicts, and even those guys didn't waste the money. So So at the end of their research paper, the economists, right, right, like, if even they don't waste it, who will?
You have this great moment we're talking about 13 homeless people who in England who are given I forget But it was 1000 pounds and 3000 pounds. Yeah, 3000 pounds and that their their desire. And the The only thing that they were asked is what do you need? And their answers were a dictionary a hearing aid, that in fact, what did you say that that that what they were very thrifty that in the end they ended up spending that, what 800 pounds, 300 pounds,
something like that. Yeah, and one of them even to gardening classes. But most fascinating me I mean, a year after the experiment, seven out of 13 of the men had a roof above their head and two more had applied for housing. So when they did the, the looked at the numbers, they found out that the whole experiment had cost 50,000 pounds, including the wages of the workers. And they had actually saved money by a factor of at least seven. So even the economist like not a very left wing magazine, right. Even the economist wrote at that point, the best way to spend money on the homeless might be just to give it to them.
Okay, so now here's here's, here's the next question. And, and your response to this in the book is, I have to say, so philosopher spectacular, is really compelling. Aren't the poor, dumb? Don't they make bad decisions? Isn't isn't poverty and riches a way of distinguishing between who's smart and who's stupid? And who makes good decisions? And who makes bad decisions? Doesn't poverty make you stupid?
Hmm. I think we first have to acknowledge, and this is probably uncomfortable for many people on the left. But we first have to acknowledge that indeed, it is true that the poor make many, many poor decisions. So you know, they they they raised our kids less well, they eat unhealthily. They, they they get loans they can't repay, etc. I mean, there's a mountain of evidence that for the poor make many unwise decisions. But we now know from recent scientific breakthroughs, that it's not the poor themselves, it's just the context of poverty in which anyone would make poor decisions. So I can give you a little story about one of the experiments that that showed this. It was an experiment in India a few years ago. And it was an experiment with sugarcane farmers. And these farmers received about 60% of their annual income all at once. So this meant that they were relatively poor one part of the year, and rich the other. Now what the research is that they simply gave an IQ test to these farmers before and after the harvest. And they found out that the difference was 14 IQ points. So living in the context of poverty cost you 14 IQ points. And to give you an idea, that's that's that's comparable to losing a night's sleep, or the effects of alcoholism. It's It's an extraordinary, big effect. And that is happening all the time around the globe. Now, just imagine what what what would happen if we would eradicate poverty. I mean, that would that would get us an explosion of intelligence of suddenly a lot of people who will make much better decisions for them, especially in the long term. I think that is that is sort of the real breakthrough insight here that yes, conservatives are right when they say the poor make many poor decisions. But the left is right when it says, well, but they that's not their fault. It's just the context.
And the reason why they make decisions, you cite a study that calls it mental bandwidth, right? That when you're when you have to think about how to fix your car, and what's for dinner, and how to make sure your kid isn't going to get shot. And where that how you buy aspirin or antibiotics, and how to fix the leak in the roof, and how to how to get to your 60 hour week job. And all of these things, you have so much focus on so many different things. You only have a certain amount of mental when mental bandwidth. And so it's hard to make a good decision than any of us is going to any of us would make a bad decision when we are distracted by so many urgencies.
Exactly, exactly. It's just very hard to focus on the long term, you're only focused on short term problems. And don't get me wrong. I mean, the poor are incredibly good at solving those long term problems. But yeah, that's that's not good. I'm going to help them out in the end.
So one more technical question. And then I want to get back to this sort of discussion of of the poor and how we look at them. As my longtime listeners know that I'm an Adam Smith scholar, and that I've worked quite a bit with him. And I'm tremendously interested in in his what he actually calls universal opulence, which is a minimum of floor that you're talking about. And as a Smith scholar, one of the things that kept going through my head over and over again, is aren't prices going to rise. If everyone had gets this money than isn't everything going to be more expensive, and ultimately, we're all going to be the same way. We're all going to be able to afford the same things that we can afford now. It's just there's more Money changing hands?
Well, it depends on how you finance the basic income. So if you would just print out more money, and then give it to everyone, then sure in the long run, you'll have inflation. And that's going to be a problem. But that's not what I'm looking for. What I'm saying is that we should use Texas to finance the basic income. And I'd like to finance in a way that it will reduce inequality. So if we do it like that, then though there will be not more money changing the same amount of products and services. And while I know, no serious economist that really worries about inflation, then.
So what you're suggesting is that, that the influx of money, the mechanism is going to be simply it addresses that. And it's not a concern.
Well, if you as I said, if you increase the total money supply, then there will be more money chasing the same amount of products and services, and you're going to get inflation, right. But if you do not increase the total money supply, but just take bit money from certain people and give it to other people to provide the floor in the income distribution, then inflation is not going to be a big problem. Now, don't get me wrong, I believe that even the rich will benefit in the long run from a basic income Sure, in my model, they'll have to pay for it first. And I think that's entirely just don't get me wrong. But in the long run, everyone will benefit from a society where there are no poor and a streets where there there are no homeless, because there will be just a lot more creativity, and there will be a lot more entrepreneurial energy, and everyone will benefit from that.
So one of the things you talk about, is this notion that inequality is relative, that part of why we feel the way we feel is not necessarily because we have or don't have things but the way that we relate to other people. How does how does inequality fit into this? We've been talking about an objective floor, right? We've been talking about people who need basic income, get basic income. But we haven't talked about this distinction between Well, if if the person gets $20,000 a year, that doesn't mean that there isn't still Bill Gates, right? Who has more money than basically anybody? So are you concerned with the radical inequalities is are you moving towards a more Marxist notion where everyone is going to have not just equality of opportunity, but equality of result? What? How does the inequality fit into all of this?
Well, let me first say that I'm not a communist, I believe that basic income is, it's just a flaw in the income distribution. And in that sense, you could see it as the crowning achievement of capitalism. I mean, capitalism is all about the ability to take risks, to try something new, to get a new job, move to a different city start a new company, and with a basic income, many more people will be able to take that risk. But I mean, it's also quite important to to recognize that you can't really separate equality of opportunities and equality of outcomes. I mean, your outcomes are often determine your opportunities, and vice versa. And if you look, for example, at social mobility, you know, maybe there are still some people out there who believe in something called the American dream. Well, if you do, then I recommend moving to Denmark or Sweden, because that's, you know, when countries with strong welfare states, there's much more social mobility. I think that's, that's important to, to recognize, I was also absolutely blown away a few years ago by the book, the spirit level, written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and they show you know, page after page graph of the graph, that, you know, inequality is sort of the root of all problems. When you when you think about either teenage pregnancy, pregnancies or crime or people getting to debt or homicides or whatever. It's all correlates with inequality, just societies break down when when when inequality gets too big. And I think that's, that's exactly what we see happening right now in the United States.
And this contributes to this, this ideological, philosophical, even religious attitude about the poor being undeserving. And I want to talk a little about this notion of the deserving poor and how the poor laws in England set up the way that we now think about the poor as being drug addicts. Stupid, irresponsible, lazy, the the roots of again, the Protestant work ethic notion, taco. I wonder if you could elaborate on why we think about the poor, the way we think about the poor now.
Yeah, it goes all the way back to probably the 16th century. Were Queen Elizabeth, you know, in her time the the first poor law was was drafted in, in England, and it made a distinction between the deserving poor, which were, you know, widows or the elderly, or children who didn't have any parents anymore. And the undeserving poor, which were able bodied men who were seen as just too lazy. So that is, that is a very old idea. That is, I think it's actually rooted in another, even older and even more important idea, which goes, I think back all the way to, well, Thomas Hobbes probably and, and you could even say to the the ancient Greeks, and this idea is that humanity is basically corrupt, you know, that civilization is this very thin layer, and that as soon as something happens, you know, a natural disaster or war, then the real selves is that we show our real selves. And that, you know, as soon as we get the opportunity, we become free riders, and we turn out to be lazy and corrupt, etc, etc.
facilities, argues this, in the face of a plague people become animalistic.
Exactly. And I believe that this is specifically a Western vision of human nature. But it has been incredibly influential throughout Western history. And it is, up until this day, I mean, it is one of the reasons that people are skeptical about basic income. Because if you have a negative vision of human nature, well, you're never going to believe in providing people with freedom, you know that you'll assume that they'll just waste it all. And this is, this is probably one of the big debates we should be having these days. It'll it's all about what are we really like?
It also touches on, you have this discussion that I alluded to earlier about gross domestic product, GDP is how we measure the wealth, one of the ways we measure the wealth of societies. And you point out when you think about the real human lives, that GDP doesn't address, a lot of the things that are part of human interaction, charity, bonuses free stuff, when you buy things, you have this great comment about valuing the amount of breast milk in the United States, and and how that doesn't register the GDP. And and you also point out that that something ultra successful like Skype, the free calling app actually lowered the GDP a little bit. Mm hmm. And so all of this, I guess, is, is leading to this notion, and you've hinted at it earlier. And I wish you talked a little bit about more, that our notion of progress and our notion of well being has become entirely economic. Yeah. And that part of what this basic income does is liberate us to be fuller human beings. Yeah.
I mean, if it's true that we are living in a time of crisis, then then I believe we should go back to very, very basic questions. And one of those basic question is, what is progress? Nowadays, many people, and especially many politicians assume that progress is just economic growth and an increase in GDP. But if you look at the history of the concept of GDP, you'll find out that it was invented by a Russian American economist called Simon Kuznets, who when he presented his report about GDP to Congress, he said, Don't ever, ever, ever use this as a measure of progress, because it's not. And if you do then at least substract all military spending, all spending on advertising and a whole financial sector because that doesn't add anything value.
Well, we sort of forgot that right?
I What, what what is really fascinating fascinates, fascinates me these days, as well as another basic question. And that is the question, what is work? I mean, GDP is the sum of all products and services we sell in a certain country to each other, right. And it has a certain definition of work. We define work as doing something in a hierarchical relationship with an employer and you get money for it, and you pay taxes over it. That is what we call work. Well, the problem is, is that according to some recent polls, for example, a recent poll in the UK, found that 37% of all British workers have a job that they think is completely useless, doesn't need to exist. But that's, that's quite a problem, right? Because most people would assume that work is also creating something of value, you know, that making the world a little bit more interesting or beautiful, or, you know, doing something that's actually useful? Well, 37% of British workers think that's not true. Well, I thought that was high until I heard the numbers for my own country, Holland, where it is 40% map. So I think I think this is one of the Big taboos, actually of our time. Politicians from the left to the right, say we need more work, we need more employment, etc, etc. Well, actually, we've we've got a knowledge economy that produces more and more jobs that are with for people with great resumes, who have great salaries. But at the end of the day, all these lawyers, consultants, bankers will admit to you that well, maybe maybe their work is not very important, actually. So, yeah, that really fascinates me.
I'm thinking about the American movie office space. I don't know if you've ever seen it. Now. It is. A it is, I think, an incredibly rich philosophical exploration and scathing critique of exactly what you're talking about, which is most people's see their job as just meaningless. And there's one point where the main character says that he has to fill out these things called TPS reports. And he says, The only reason why I do my job is that I have four managers above me, who will give me a hard time if I don't do it. It's not to contribute anything. It's just to avoid stress. And this, again, leads to that basic question of why we do work and what's motivating us and what's valuable contribution to ourselves to the world. So as we wrap up, I want to ask one more question, which is, the book from a certain perspective is incredibly radical. I told you off the mic, and I'll tell the listeners that that I, I, I asked you on the show on for this topic, I did this topic actually for as a favor for a friend of mine, Joe, who was very interested in universal basic income. And I was very skeptical. And then I read your book. And and I, I'm pretty persuaded. Because as radical as it is, it's a very, very small step by step argument. You don't make grand claims. You don't. I didn't read it with a fine tooth comb, but you don't, you know, oversell certain things. And so the question I have is given the fact that it's this balance between a very radical idea which which may be politically unfeasible right now, and this tightly argued very, very tightly sourced lots of footnotes, a book, How are people reacting to this? Obviously, the book is a success in and of itself. You've gotten all this attention 22, language, translations, etc, etc. but but what's the kind of response to this is, is it? Is it leading a conversation is it is is, is this now on the table? Are people dismissing you as a nutjob? How, how, um, how how, how are people reacting to this argument?
Well, what makes me most most happy is that is that the people who've emailed me are who I've actually met, and who are actually trying to put my ideas into practice right now. So for example, a few months ago, I was in Vancouver, Canada, and I received an email from a woman who had just received half a million in government funding to start the first long term study on giving cash to, to homeless people in her city. And she was inspired by the London story that we just talked about. And that I mean, that's incredibly uplifting. It just shows you that something that I really believe that in the end history is not governed by, by power, or, or even by money, but really by ideas, ideas, can and do change the world. But yeah, then we need those ideas. And, and we we've lacked them for so long now. So I hope that my my book fills a void there.
It's very interesting, as a philosophy professor to think about the role of utopia, and the way that it's not just setting a standard for the future in this blueprint model, but but just a way of looking and saying, how do we fix this? How can we reimagine the world? So this isn't a problem? And I think you're absolutely right, that that a lot of the things that we now take for granted as hobbyists, were ludicrous in the very beginning, women's rights, equal rights, flying to the moon. Right. Nutrition, right, proper nutrition. So I guess I guess the last, I'm not even sure how to frame the last question that I have other than to ask do you think that I'm not sure what or do you? Do you think that all problems are solvable? The obviously you're not a geneticist. You're not a cancer, a cancer researcher. But but is the basic premise of utopian thinking that we have to assume that all problems are solvable?
Well, I don't hope so. Actually. I mean, I Every time we arrive in utopia, we need a new vision of utopia. utopia is a place where you never really get, you know, because you when you arrive, you're not there anymore, because you already should have a new vision of where you want to go. That is that is what Oscar Wilde and at the end of the 19th century, what i what i believe has become a problem is that when we talk about so many words, like progress, or innovation or growth, these words have become shallow in our in our current debates, you know, if you look at the political left, it only knows what it's against these days. It's against austerity against homophobia, against racism, against growth against the establishment against the mainstream media. There was even a book published, I think it was last year by famous New York intellectual and the title of the book was against everything. And the first chapter of that book was against exercise. Well, I'm not saying I'm not against all those things as well. I mean, sure, I'm against exercise, very big political problem, but but you also need to be for something right. And, and, and, and it seems as if, as if all those words who used to be associated with the left, progress, innovation. There's an internal political battle around them, and they've just lost it. So what I try to do in the book time and time again, is to go back to those basic concepts and redefine them. Okay, meritocracy, sure, I'm all in favor of it. meritocracy means giving people what they deserve. Well, why do get bank are such high salaries, if they don't create much of wealth or actually destroy a lot of wealth? Shouldn't they then just earn a negative salary? I mean, that is what meritocracy should look like. Right? I mean, it's not very, very difficult. It's just you just have to go back to basic questions. And that's what we don't do these days.
You, you, you you cite Nixon again, as saying that the greatest leaps in progress have been made by a Tory man, conservative and with liberal policy. Exactly, exactly. I
love that quote. So it's a great use of right wing language to defend progressive ideals, and use patriotic nationalistic language to defend openness and tolerance. Right. That is that is really distressing. So if you want to talk about immigration, you should do what Angela Merkel set did two years ago, what she said is we're shuffling does, which which means in German, it means we can do this. She said it during the height of the refugee crisis. So what you basically said is, look, we're Germany, we're just much better than everyone else, you know, we, we are better than the Dutch, we're better than British, we're better than the French. And we can handle this refugee crisis. We are shuffled us. I mean, that's, that's the kind of thinking that's the kind of language we need, is to frame our ideas and our values in the language of progress.
Well, I found it very compelling, very persuasive. And to all of our listeners, I'll say, it's written beautifully. It's incredibly accessible and, and, and moving emotionally as well as intellectually, and I recommend, there'll be a link to the book, obviously, on the webpage and the other essays and books that you've mentioned today. But I really, I this is a book that I'm gonna be thinking for a very long time. Record. Thank you so much for joining us on why and thank you for thank you for putting something on the table that that really needs to be talked about. I'll
thanks so much for having me.
You've been listening to Rutger Bregman and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life and we'll be back for just a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions in everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein. I was talking with Rutger Bregman about the possibility of utopias and a universal basic income. The idea that the poor shouldn't be poor that as human beings, they have the right to get enough money to be raised above poverty. This runs counter to a lot of capitalist values, supposedly, right? It forces us to ask very basic questions. Do we earn our money? This was a huge issue in the last presidential election. Right? Do We earn our money, or do we have money? That is a product of a huge number of factors, including our own efforts. Once we earn the money, is it ours? Do we have the absolute right to say, what we can do with every single dollar every single penny? The answer, in part is we don't do anything alone. We don't earn money alone. And we don't have absolute right over anything. We don't necessarily even have absolute right over our own bodies. Although that is a huge conversation that I'm not going to get involved in now. We have responsibility towards other people. That's why we are in a community. That's why we have a government. But let's pretend that we do. Let's pretend that it is our money, that it is absolutely ours because we earned it isn't the exchange worth it isn't making less money worth living in a peaceful society, not having other people suffer? Being safer, having a smarter community making more progressive decisions in the sense that life gets better technology gets better education gets better art literature become more interesting, isn't the idea that maybe we'll make a little less money and acceptable prerequisite for a world in which we can enjoy ourselves more. That I think, is the underlining theme that we didn't really get to talk about at all. We're not enjoying ourselves as much as we want to, we're not enjoying ourselves as much as we used to. Americans are depressed, Americans are fatigued. Americans are stressed, Americans are distrustful. It's a cancer in our society, for lack of a better term. The way to solve that problem is to offer a hand to other people, and to trust them, to help them and help ourselves be better people and better communities so that everyone improves, and we can all be happier. A universal basic income is a radical idea. But once you start thinking about it, and once you start reading the research, it's not a ridiculous idea. It's just unfamiliar. You've been listening to Jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussion of everyday life. Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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