Want a less polarised society? Try a universal basic income | Anthony Painter | TEDxExeter
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Want a less polarised society? Try a universal basic income | Anthony Painter | TEDxExeter

Translator: Michele Gianella
Reviewer: Riaki Poništ So, if there was one word
that you could use to describe current society, what might it be? For me, it’s the word “polarity.” This is the idea that people
are pulling apart in politics and culture in terms of their economic opportunities,
in terms of their identities. And it’s deeply concerning to me.
Why does it matter? So, we’ve been told
that diversity is a good thing, right? People from different backgrounds,
perspectives, different experience coming together to solve common problems. But that’s diversity. Polarity is different. Diversity is when people pull together;
polarity is when people pull apart. And this is one of the big challenges
facing modern society. Why is this? I think there’s lots of reasons, but one stands out for me –
it’s becoming increasingly prevalent – and that’s the spread
of digital connecting technologies. And when connecting technologies spread, they start to distribute power
in different ways. Power, wealth, opportunity – it matters who you are,
your skills, your luck and the geography you’re in,
the place that you live in. And it goes in all sorts
of different ways, and we’ve got to be alert to this. And so what does it look like,
this spread of connecting technologies? Well, people are connected,
which is a good thing. But then power, wealth and capital
start to accumulate. Places benefit, some places: Millions flock to new skyscrapers; headquarters are built;
thousands flock to them. There are a huge accumulation of wealth. But there’s a great swell of insecurity
and precariousness alongside this. And in fact you can see financial crashes
as instability starts to increase, and then the cracks in society
start to become exposed. What happens then? You see the rise of populist movements; people start to challenge the status quo. And then we’re stuck
for answers: what can we do? This is the world of the Internet and spread of global
financial capital, surely. But no, that’s not the world
I’m talking about. It’s the world of the railroads
in nineteenth-century America. And we saw, then, the spread
of connecting technologies, and the enormous impact
they could have on society. Some benefits enormously,
the robber barons, in what was called the Gilded Age, and some suffered
mass insecurity and inequality. It was very similar to the current time: suddenly people
were connected in new ways, but then power was distributed
in new ways as well. And the simple point is this: if we are not alert to what happened then, we may be doomed to replicate
the mistakes of the past. Now, I’m worried
about one thing in particular. I’m worried most particularly
about economic insecurity. What is economic insecurity? It’s when your access to economic opportunity,
income, skills today means you can’t have confidence you can maintain a standard of living
and well-being in the future. And for too many, they can have
too little confidence they can maintain their standard of living
and well-being in the future. And at the Royal Society of Arts, we’ve been looking into this
and what it means. We’ve been looking
at the current state of modern work. We were doing survey work,
but we’re speaking to people too. So take, for example, the young woman who had taken postgraduate
qualifications in pharmaceuticals. She couldn’t get a job
in the pharmaceutical industry so she went into retail, temporarily, or so she thought. But then she started to raise a family,
and she had responsibilities. Her husband had insecure income,
volatile income; it went up and down. Suddenly, she couldn’t use
her qualifications to get into the career she wants;
she became stuck. And too many people have become stuck. She wants to go back and replenish
her qualifications and move on up. But it’s too difficult to do so because the hit on the family finances
would be too great in the short term. This stuckness is a feature
of economic insecurity. We discovered that only
40 percent of people think that they have good
opportunities to progress. She’s precarious. Or think about
the care worker we spoke to. She’s got a secure job;
it’s just low paid. She doesn’t get paid
in between visits to her patients. It’s extraordinarily, mentally,
and physically stressful. She’s had some training, but she’s increasingly
monitored and controlled in the work that she does. By the way, as digital technology spread, the opportunity for monitoring workers
will become far greater. If you work in an Amazon
distribution center, you know exactly what this means. But she can’t move on because actually she doesn’t have
access to any savings to change jobs and take the risk. The welfare state doesn’t support her. If you go to the welfare state today, you have to actually just
get into a job, any job. That’s all it cares about. It doesn’t care whether
it’s the right job or not. This is the reason that increasing numbers
are going to food banks, that there’s increasing
on-street homelessness, and people are increasingly precarious. So, she’s stuck. And we found that 32 percent of people
have access to less than £500 of savings. When you have access
to less than £500 of savings, you can’t say no. You have to take what’s on offer to you. You are just one redundancy
or a washing machine breaking down away from being in a very difficult situation
in terms of debt and credit. But it’s not just the precarious
who are facing challenges. We spoke to a flexi worker, a guy who was setting up
a photography business. You’d think he’d be better off,
but something went wrong. He just started setting up
his photography business, and unfortunately his family
had a bereavement. And he was left in a situation where he had to choose
between his family and his business. No one wants to be in that position;
he had nothing to fall back on. There was no basic foundation
on which he could make decisions. So we’re seeing a spread
of economic insecurity all around. The big risk is that this state will become persistent as digital connecting technologies spread. We know digital connecting technologies can create enormous accumulations
of wealth and power. And just last week, we had Mark Zuckerberg,
the founder of Facebook, appearing before Congress. And he described Facebook
as a series of tools, which sounds pretty benign. But it’s far more than that. It actually is a way of distributing
power and relationships and access to jobs, income, wealth,
in vastly different ways. Increasingly, digital
connecting technologies are becoming tapestry of our lives. They’re woven into our personalities, our personal, economic,
political relationships. So the warning signs are there,
but we know it can be different. How do we know? We know because we’ve taken
this on before. In the Gilded Age that I described
in 19th century America, in the early 20th century, a group of visionary journalists, writers,
activists, trade unionists, politicians started to campaign against it. Visionary presidents started to use
the power of the state to take on economic power, to put resource and income
in the hands of people, to put in fair taxation, and started to reverse the polarity. We need to learn from that today. And the picture of the current world, as we go into a wider spread
of digital technologies, is one of polarity. The wealthiest 10 percent
earn half of the wealth. The bottom have access
to less than £500 of savings. And only 40 percent of people
have good opportunities to progress. This is what a polarized
society looks like. But we know it can be different. This is a time for ideas,
for big ideas and action, and I’m going to share
one idea with you today. One idea is not enough, by the way. But I’m going to share with you the idea
of the universal basic income. Universal basic income
is a really simple concept. It’s giving everyone access
to a small amount of resource so that they have a base level
of security as of right. Everyone gets it, it’s unconditional. It’s universal. So you have that bedrock of security on which yuu make better decisions
to learn, earn, set up a business, care, whatever it may be. Now, will this work? The answer is emphatically yes. How do I know? I know because it’s been tried. It’s been tried in Alaska. They’ve had a basic-income-style payment
for the last 30 years. The critics say, about basic income,
“People get lazy. It won’t work.” No evidence for that in Alaska. People carry on working, but they manage their household
finances better. It’s been tried in India and Kenya. And rather than social collapse, it’s led to a spread
of entrepreneurialism, of civic activity,
of women leaving the home, of greater equality. It’s been tried in North Carolina. The critics said, “Basic income? Well, people
will just sit back, kick back. They’ll drink more, take drugs,
have a good time, whatever.” The evidence? Drug addiction
and alcohol addiction went down. Mental health improved. Health outcomes are improved. Educational outcomes are improved. Wherever it has been tried, it has worked. The same happened when it was tried
in the province of Manitoba in Canada. It’s now being tried in Finland. So we know wherever it has been tried, it has worked. It’s a big step
to a universal basic income, but there’s things that we can do
now to move toward it. At the Royal Society of Arts, we have proposed what we are calling
a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund, which is something
that we can do right now. And the idea here
is that we would give a fund, a 200-billion-pound endowment
from government, borrowing, using the low
interest rates available to us, and with that endowment, we would invest: invest in our economic and social future, and invest in digital, transport,
housing, energy infrastructure. And when those investments
delivered a return, we’d then make payments to people so they could have
two years of basic income to make different decisions
about their lives. So they could invest in their training. They could assume care
and responsibilities. They could try a new business. They could change their work
if they wanted to. This could be an enormous step up,
a helping hand rather than the slap-down that the current welfare state
too often delivers. And how would we replenish
this fund over time? Well, we’d look at those high flyers, and we’d say, “You could make
a bit more of a contribution.” We’d look at some of the digital platforms
and we could, by the way, levy the data that we provide
to those big digital platforms. Some people have called this
a “Facebook Levy.” And we would look for corporates who have had a 20-billion-pound
tax break in the last 10 years to make a contribution as well. Then this fund becomes sustainable. But this is a step that we can make today. Does this sort of fund work? Well, yes. They’ve tried it in Norway. And it’s delivered a return
and invested in public infrastructure, it invested in the social infrastructure,
on the back of it. We can do it here, too. The payments are made from this fund. The basic opportunity dividend
can make all the difference to that retail worker I talked about. It can enable her
to step away for a year or two to replenish her qualifications
and improve her opportunities. To the care worker
who’s at risk of being monitored and is stuck and can’t make
a different decision to change work – even though her job is secure,
she’s not economically secure – she could make a different choice. The flexi worker setting up a new business could have had a better platform
or foundation for his business as he went forward. They wouldn’t have had to choose
between his family and his business. The high flyer, well,
they may have to contribute more. But you know what? That’s a small price to pay for a society that is more
economically and socially stable. These are things that we can do today. We don’t have to accept polarity. We know from history
what happens if we don’t act. We can reverse polarity. We can think of new ways of connecting. We can invest in people in different ways. And there are cities across the world that are volunteering
to have basic income experiment because they know
it can make a difference. There’s some in the UK. North Ayrshire, Fife,
Edinburgh and Glasgow all want to have basic income experiments. The Scottish government
is supporting them and exploring that. In Finland, in Barcelona,
in the Netherlands, in Canada, in Stockton and Oakland
in California, in India, there is a movement behind trying this
because people believe it can be better. We can give people a more secure footing. Greater Exeter could volunteer
to host a basic income pilot here too. That’s a sort of action
you can take to say, “We want to do things differently here.” We can do the things differently. We can look at the past and learn from it. We can act now. Let’s not wait the decades
it took after 19th century to act. Let’s learn from that and let’s do it now. Let’s put more power
back in people’s hands. And let’s cultivate a society, a society where opportunity, creativity, security, freedom are shared. (Applause)


  • FoundMyPebbles

    Opens the door to more sinister and invasive social engineering, it would ruin the middle classes and disempower the lower classes even more, basic slavery

  • Tom Brooks

    UBI will only become logistically viable once our economies go cashless. This could happen in the next 5 years.

  • ChubChub

    How does implementing UBI create more opportunity for people trying to get jobs? You know what has created more jobs and brought over 1 billion people out of poverty in Asia(Including India) alone…. Capitalism. Not UBI or socialism. You want more opportunity and a better job market for your country? Maybe try pulling back regulations and government and allow new business to start and grow without useless bureaucrats impeding the small business owner. Maybe if power was taken away from the government to the point it would be useless for terrible giants like Amazon to lobby and buy politicians, you would see some actual growth.

    UBI worked in Manitoba? Alberta in 2016 (while the provinces economy was in the toilet) GDP per capita was 74,343. Manitoba's was 51,485.

    Living in Ontario I graduated from 2 different college courses only to be able to get a retail job when I got out. I blamed the government, business and everyone else except for myself. The one day I decided enough was enough, picked up, moved and hit the internet streets looking for something better. Over 100 resume's out in 2 weeks, within a month I had a career job paying triple what I was making before. Only when I took responsibility for myself did I ever accomplish anything in my life. THAT is what life is about. Stretching yourself everyday to become more than you were the previous day.

    UBI is a lie.

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