Solving the Politics of Universal Basic Income | Owen Poindexter | TEDxUnionCity
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Solving the Politics of Universal Basic Income | Owen Poindexter | TEDxUnionCity


Translator: Michele Gianella
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs It was a cloudy afternoon;
I was stuck in traffic when I happened to hear a radio program about the international
aid organization “Give Directly.” Now, at the time Give Directly
was very controversial because unlike other aid organizations
they don’t provide medicine, or school supplies,
or sports equipment, or cows. They give people money. And what happens when you give people money
that they can spend on anything at all? We’ll get to that soon. So at the time I was commuting home, and I was the new version
of a typical American worker. I worked in an office in California
with about half of my company, and the other half worked overseas. I was a contract worker – though arguably, given the nature of my labor
I could have been a full employee. I also had a side hustle
as a freelance writer. We’ve gone from an economy
where you were expected to probably just have one job
for your entire career to one where you might
have 10 jobs before you’re 35, often several at the same time. And that’s not the only thing
that’s changed for the American worker. Here’s national GDP, a rough but a functional measurement
of the size of our economy, 1953 to 2017. And as you can see,
it goes up and up and up. Now, what does that mean
for the American worker? Well, here’s the first
30 years of that graph alongside real median family wages. And those too went up and up and up. The rising tide lifted all boats. But, if you came of working age
in the mid 80s or later, it’s been a very different story for you. Real median wages rose more slowly,
had longer periods of decline, and the correlation between American success
and American worker success largely broke down. What happened? Well, there’s a tangle
of interrelated factors. Globalization, for one,
meant that American workers were no longer competing
with just each other but [with] the rest of the world. Automation meant that companies can now get
more labor out of less human input. And contract work went from a small sliver of the economy
to an increasingly prominent sector. And those jobs tend to be temporary
and without benefits. Meanwhile, there is a concerted effort
to reduce the power of organized labor, which has been quite successful. Today, half of American families cannot afford
an unexpected expense of just $400. It used to be that the rising tide
lifted all boats. Now the tide is rising, and that’s great
if you can afford a boat. But everyone else is struggling
just to stay above water. Now, what brought me from someone who is aware of these issues
to an activist working for change was learning about automation. Every day, machines
and artificial intelligence are getting smarter, faster,
better, cheaper and more and more able
to replace human labor. And we really don’t know what the economy
is going to look like in five years, let alone 10 or 20. And that got me thinking seriously
about universal basic income. Universal basic income, or UBI,
is the idea of cash dividends to every single person
in a city, state, or country, unconditionally and at regular intervals. It’s like social security for everyone. And the more I looked into it, the more I saw that UBI is much more
than a response to automation. It’s a level of financial security at a time that is increasingly
tumultuous, economically. It’s a simple, stigma-free benefit program where many of our benefit programs
have complicated application processes that are often time-consuming
for the applicants and humiliating as well. And finally, it’s a way
to invest and value every single person in our society. But that’s a lot of high-minded rhetoric. Let’s get back to the question
we started with: what happens when you give people money
that they can spend on anything at all? Well, fortunately,
we don’t have to wonder. There’s a wealth of evidence
on this very topic from basic income trials in the US,
Canada, Mexico, India, Kenya and many other places, as well as corroborating data
from related US economic programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit,
the Child Tax Credit, and the Alaska Permanent Fund. To summarize quite a lot of research
on basic income and cash transfers, when you provide people
a modest amount of unconditional cash that they can use on whatever they like, some things go up, some things go down,
and a few things stay the same. Okay, what goes up? Preventative health care. Newborn birth weights. Healthy diets. School attendance. Student performance. High school completion rates. College enrollment. Entrepreneurship. Economic activity. Household savings. Long-term earning power. All that happens
with just a little bit of cash. Okay, what goes down? Food insecurity. High interest debt. Seasonal illnesses. Emergency room visits,
both for physical and mental issues. And domestic violence. And lastly, here’s what stays the same: Inflation. Alcohol and drug use. Employment rates. Workforce participation. And let me linger here an extra moment because these are some
of the most common objections people have when they first hear
about the idea of basic income. Will inflation rise, mitigating the actual benefits
of the program? Well, no, they don’t. As long as you have a robust market,
where people have multiple places where they can get groceries
and other goods and services, you see no inflationary effect. And that makes sense, because while the basic income might be transformative
on an individual level, the actual dollar amount
is dwarfed by other macroeconomic forces, such as people’s salaries
and other government programs. Do people drink the money away,
do they spend it on drugs? The research here
is unequivocal: no, they do not. Some studies show no increase at all
in alcohol and other temptation goods, and the rest show an actual decrease. And lastly, do people quit their jobs? No, they do not. And again this makes sense because even the most aggressive
basic income proposals and trials give people 1000 dollars
a month per person. And that will bring you
about up to the poverty line: most people want to live
above the poverty line, and they value the income from their jobs
and perhaps the work itself. And so I got very excited
about the idea of basic income, and I joined a burgeoning
basic income community in my area. And what I realize is that the reason you see so many powerful
changes in such diverse areas of life is that a basic income addresses
the root problem of poverty directly. We are paying so much
for the symptoms of poverty. The Journal Social Work Research estimates that the maladies and difficulties
associated with child poverty cost our economy
one trillion dollars every year. We could end child poverty
for 72 billion dollars, just by giving people money. And so, stories about
basic income in the media have gone from occasional to monthly
to now almost daily, and the movement had real strong momentum until you got to the actual people
who can make it happen, tomorrow if they really wanted to. And those are our elected officials, our politicians. Now, like most people, a politician is not going to do something
that could cost them their job. And basic income, it’s just
unnecessary controversy to a politician. And like one state representative
explained to me, sure, this sounds like a great idea, once you explain the concepts and the data
and the research and the philosophy. But politicians hate explaining:
to them, explaining is losing. And what I’d realized
is that there’s only one way that I can make a politician
unafraid to talk about basic income, and that was to become one. So I ran for office. California Assembly, to be specific. And through my candidacy, I introduced thousands of people
to the idea of basic income, started hundreds of conversations, and even got a few of my opponents
to publicly support basic income, including one who will be
on the ballot this November, after making it through the primary. After every candidate forum I did, people thanked me for bringing
this issue into the conversation. And young people especially see this as an important and necessary
part of the political conversation going forward. And I wasn’t alone: the 2018 cycle saw basic income
candidates across the country, the California Democratic Party
adopted it into their party platform. And there will be basic income trials
in Stockton, California, next year, as well as two US states
in a separate study. Leaders from both sides of the aisle
and people around the world are starting to see
the merits in this idea. Some people see it as the most effective,
efficient way to fight poverty. Others come at it
from a racial justice angle, because our anti-poverty programs have historically divided people
along racial lines. Environmentalists
are joining the movement as well, because a carbon dividend in which we’d put a price
on carbon extraction, and distribute the revenue evenly, could be one of the most effective ways
to fight climate change. Some people are very excited by a program in which almost every dollar spent on it
would go toward helping people. Because there would be no need
for means testing or other bureaucracy. Some people feel that there should be
some form of compensation for the 1.2 billion hours
Americans do every single week in uncompensated domestic labor. And finally, some people recognize that it’s very difficult to be an entrepreneur
or even pursue a higher degree without some level of financial security. And that we undoubtedly have brilliant potential scientists,
artists, entrepreneurs, inventors who are just working
low-wage jobs right now, because they have
no financial security whatsoever. However you get there, we need your voice and your support
in this conversation, and you need to make yourselves heard. And some of you ought to run for office. Now, when I was running, I would sometimes end
my speeches with the line, “This is an idea whose time has come.” But the thing is, ideas don’t just
float in by themselves on a cloud. They’re carried by people. They’re fought for, argued for,
debated, defined, negotiated. Basic income won’t happen
because it’s a good idea. It will happen because the people
who see how transformative it is stand up and make it happen. So instead I’ll end like this: don’t wait for an idea
whose time has come. Rise up and fight for it. Thank you.

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