Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2021/ Against Universal Basic Income

Against Universal Basic Income

I have been sitting on this entry for a long time, and as I start it I am still not confident it will see the light of day. I distinctly remember wanting to blog about Basic Income in 2016 when the Wynne government was planning its basic income pilot study, and in 2018 when Doug Ford cancelled the pilot after promising he would let it run its course. I am pretty sure I had strong feelings about universal basic income much earlier than that, but I procrastinated in voicing those objections, and now I have missed my window. Many others have expressed similar concerns to mine, in well-written and well-justified ways. Maybe you should consume those refutations so you don't have to read mine:

  1. Against Universal Basic Income
    1. What is Universal Basic Income?
      1. Why Have Basic Income?
      2. Right vs Left Definitions
      3. What does "Universal" mean?
      4. What does "Basic" mean?
        1. One Size Does Not Fit All
        2. What Happens to Screwups?
    2. I Would Not Work
    3. Basic Income is Unreliable
      1. Basic Income is Expensive
    4. Rent and Inflation
      1. Move away!
      2. Other inflation
    5. Citizens and Underclasses
    6. Silicon Valley and Giving Up on People
    7. Will Basic Income Be Good for People?
      1. Money Helps
      2. Being Idle (Often) Hurts
      3. Social Isolation Hurts
      4. Being the Object of Charity Hurts
      5. Feeling Useless Hurts
    8. Research
      1. What Are We Measuring?
      2. Pilot Programs Are Misleading
      3. The Finnish Results Have Been Underwhelming
      4. California Results Have Been Okay
      5. Doug Ford vs Science
    9. We Almost Have Basic Income
    10. Tentative Conclusions and Final Thoughts
    11. Other Resources
  2. Sidebar!

What is Universal Basic Income?

The idea behind a "basic income" is that people receive enough money for basic survival, with no strings attached. Unlike the Ontario Disability Support program (ODSP) you do not need to be disabled. Unlike Ontario Works or Employment Insurance you do not have to claim you are looking for work. You are simply entitled to receive money from the government.

Basic income can be targeted or "universal". A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one where where everybody gets a basic income regardless of whether they are "deserving" or not. The tech dreamers and libertarians all talk about universal basic income, but (to my knowledge) no implementation has actually been universal.

One prompt for me to write this entry now was a survey from Vox Pop labs on COVID-19 opinions. There were several questions in the survey that compared basic income to CERB, the $2000/month benefit the government handed out to those who lost work. The survey tried to convince us that since CERB was awesome, basic income would be too. But of course CERB was also not universal. I did not qualify for it and I did not collect it -- I was making less than $2000/month until August, but I had not actually lost income. Even if it had been universal, the CERB being awesome does not mean UBI would be.

Why Have Basic Income?

The appeal of basic income is that all citizens in a jurisdiction will benefit from the collective wealth of society. We do not like the idea of people going hungry or homeless in rich countries, so rich countries will provide enough money that everybody can subsist.

This definition is full of landmines, but it gets at the core idea.

Another characterization (which I believe was advocated by Andrew Yang) is to think of basic income as a dividend owed to every citizen based on the wealth of the country. This characterises basic income less like charity and more like an entitlement. However, this definition is also full of landmines.

Proponents of basic income argue that this will free people to do many useful things. Some people (housewives, parents, children of the elderly) would be able to stay home and do important (otherwise unpaid!) caregiving work. People who want to upgrade their skills and find better employment would be able to do so. People stuck in dead-end work would be able to leave their jobs, which might incentivize those workplaces to improve. I think many of these hopes are misplaced, but they motivate proponents nonetheless.

Right vs Left Definitions

Basic income is supposedly the policy position that spans the entire political spectrum. Libertarians like Milton Friedman famously support it in the form of a "negative income tax". And of course people on the left love handing out taxpayer money to people for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately nobody is talking about the same thing. Libertarians hate social programs and the perverse incentives that result. They hate the bureaucracy required to do means-testing and to weed out fraud. They love the idea of scrapping all the expensive government programs and using the money for a basic income instead -- a simple, flat payment that does not require much bureaucracy at all.

Left wingers, on the other hand, conceive of basic income as a supplemental program. They want to keep all of the inefficient and expensive government programs that exist, and want to layer a basic income on top of that so that nobody falls through the cracks.

These conceptions of basic income are diametrically opposed, with predictable consequences. We talk as if basic income is popular across the political spectrum, but no implementation will make the entire political spectrum happy.

What does "Universal" mean?

The idea of universal basic income is appealing because it gets rid of means-testing. Means-testing is inefficient, and people work hard to game the tests. Welfare is broken because (to a large degree) getting off welfare comes with risks that leave you in a worse position than you started, so people stay poor.

But universality is expensive. It means you are giving a lot of money to people who don't really need it.

Therefore, most of the basic income programs I know of are not universal and are not trying to be. Rather, they are targeted towards the poor. When this is the case, basic income becomes welfare under a different name, and suffers from many of the same vulnerabilities. In particular, expensive and inefficient means-testing returns, so most of the savings you were anticipating by implementing basic income disappear.

In addition, no universal basic income program is actually universal. At best it will apply to residents. At worst it will apply to citizens, which causes even more problems that I will discuss below.

What does "Basic" mean?

Here's a thorny issue: what costs should be covered by a basic income?

Basic income proponents tend to dance around this issue by speaking of dollar amounts, not needs. Andrew Yang wants to give each US Citizen $1000 USD per month. The CERB gave Canadians $2000 CAD per month. Why were these the correct amounts? Underlying these amounts is a conception of what basket of goods somebody should be able to get for that money, and I do not think you get to dance around the issue so easily. What happens when the costs of basic living increase? What happens when things that were formerly considered luxuries become necessities (such as the Internet)? If you do not have a plan for this then naming an arbitrary dollar amount will become increasingly inadequate as costs change.

Those to the right tend to want to pay for as little as possible. They will tend to put the threshold closer to the top of my list. Left wingers might go further than the list I have provided. Some extremists might classify a tent and a sleeping bag as adequate housing under basic income, but many others would not. Who is right? By what criteria?

There are some fundamental questions here, which I think will be answered differently by those on the right vs the left:

The answers to these questions determine what kinds of expenses basic income is intended to support, if any at all.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Say you figure out what level of support we should offer via basic income. You are still in trouble, because that support does not cost the same between different people and it does not cost the same everywhere in the country. If you assign a single value, either that income is going to be extraordinarily high or a bunch of people will be left out.

For example, say we determine that basic income should cover the cost of nutritious food for all recipients. What dollar value should we assign to that?

Consider people who live in the Northern territories, where fresh fruits and vegetables cost an order of magnitude more than they do where I live. Should we all receive sufficient money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the North? If not, we now have to distinguish between people who live in the North and people who do not, and we are back to means-testing.

Consider people who have significant food allergies, and thus has to buy more expensive food to stay alive. Should we all receive sufficient money to cover that more expensive food? That expensive food is basic for people who have special dietary needs, but not for me (yet, knock on wood).

Consider people who are deeply religious and abide by the food restrictions of their religions. Say those food restrictions make food more expensive than a basic diet for a nonreligious person. Should we all receive sufficient money to pay for expensive religious foods, or should we discriminate against certain people based on their religious beliefs?

This is where the libertarian pipe dream of "abolish all social programs and replace it with a fixed basic income" falls apart. Sure, you can get rid of all those social programs, but you will end up recreating them if your goal is to give all people on basic income enough income to meet their needs. Once you have recreated those distinctions, then people will be able to cheat to get higher levels of basic income support, and then we have to put in place fraud detection. (And if somebody is convicted of fraud, then what? They lose the basic income that everybody is supposedly entitled to?)

If instead you decide to give a fixed income based upon what a thirtysomething healthy Silicon Valley techbro could live on, then you are giving up on the idea that basic income should be enough to live on.

This argument comes up a lot in the disability community, but it is widely applicable. A "one size fits all" basic income is not really a basic income any more. It is a handout that might cover some expenses for some people, and will leave other people in poverty.

What Happens to Screwups?

Basic income advocates point to glowing results from the tiny number of pilot programs that have been run. "See?" they say, "People spent their basic income on basic expenses, not on drugs and booze!" That is great, and very encouraging, but if the claim is that "nobody will squander their basic income money ever" do I have news for you. People who are addicted to substances will remain addicted to substances, and if you hand them a wad of cash each month then some of that money will go to substances.

Here is a contentious statement that is true: poor people are not angels. Lots of us make poor decisions that get us in trouble. Some of us (maybe including me) will spend our basic income money in unwise ways, and then not have enough for our actual needs. Then what? Are we supposed to lose our housing and end up on the street? Are we supposed to go hungry because we have basic income and there are no more food banks or soup kitchens? Or are you going to give us more money so we can cover our basic needs, in which case we are incentivized to spend our wad of cash poorly again next month?

The easy way out is to say that basic income is only for responsible people, and that the poor can stay poor. If we really had libertarian basic income then I could easily forsee this, but it does not actually solve poverty for the most vulnerable. It is still good for caregivers and students, maybe, but you will still have people sleeping on the street, which (in my view) defeats the purpose.

Another way out is to tell people that if they screw up they don't get a wad of cash any more, but that direct payments go to their landlord and grocery store and other essential services, and they get to spend whatever is left over on substances. That's fine, but you have just undone one of the virtues of basic income (that people can spend it the way they see best) and you have re-introduced layers of soul-destroying bureaucracy.

I Would Not Work

This may come across as the pettiest objection to UBI, but I feel it illustrates a bunch of its deficiencies.

Simply put: if basic income was high enough that I could afford necessities (housing, food, utilities, some replacement clothing, bike expenses, and medical bills), and if I could depend upon basic income funding those expenses for the rest of my life, then I would probably never work for money again.

The UBI advocates might cheer at this. They might argue that I would spend my days productively. Well, I have not worked since last December. What have I produced?

Other than that, I have been self-indulgent: sleeping too much, riding my bike too much, reading a few books, and wasting enormous hours on the Internet. I have not improved my skills. I have not helped others, even though others could have used my help. I have done nothing to justify my existence, and certainly nothing to justify the Canadian taxpayer spending tens of thousands of dollars on me each year.

Have I been happy? Nope. These past few months have been pretty difficult. I am in very bad shape.

Don't get me wrong: I am not a great worker. I am messed up in the head and may never be able to have a full-time job again. I highly doubt I could last very long in the tech scene. But I do not feel that I am (yet) a complete write off. I have some skills and I could probably put those skills to help benefit some organization. If I had a reliable UBI, though, I wouldn't. Is that okay?

In order for UBI to work, somebody has to pay (enormous) taxes, which means somebody has to earn money. I am able to earn money, but for the moment I am not desperate enough to try. How many other people are like me, as opposed to being the kinds of self-motivated people UBI advocates always highlight?

Basic Income is Unreliable

There is a great big caveat in my assertion above. I said that "if I could depend upon basic income funding those expenses for the rest of my life" then I would go on basic income and never work again. That is a great big if, and so far it has not held up to scrutiny.

This unreliability is a huge problem. They Ontario pilot debacle illustrates this: some people planned for three years of income, signing up for additional schooling. Then that three year guarantee went away and they were left scrambling.

If somebody is on basic income and not working, then they are much worse off when basic income ends. Not only do they lose the income, but they now have a big gap in their resume to explain away.

I do not think the brevity of basic income lifespans are any accident, and I do not believe any basic income program will sustain itself over the long term:

The real problem is that we secretly want programs for the poor to be punitive and humiliating. This impulse undermines every program we set up to "offer a hand up, not a hand out". The cruelty is the point.

Consider the Ford government's welfare reforms: Instead of being taxed at 50% after a recipient earned an additional $200 per month, recipients are allowed to earn $300 per month, with a clawback of 75% for every dollar earned above that. Think about that: a 75% tax rate for every dollar earned by the poorest people in the province. Now tell me that the cruelty is not the point. Clearly the government does not think the Laffer Curve applies to the poor.

This same kind of cruelty permeates every social assistance program we put together. Even the Wynne basic income program had a clawback of 50%.

If we somehow came up with a basic income program that was not cruel, it would be scuttled as soon as the opposition got into power. Basic income advocates seem to think that Canadians would treasure basic income the way we treasure medicare, but medicare benefits the middle class and basic income does not.

Basic Income is Expensive

Another incentive to scuttle basic income is the cost. Despite the Ontario pilot having a price tag of $150 million over three years, the Ford government dreamed up a $17 billion/year price tag to fund the project if it was rolled out (and then conflated the numbers, making it sound as if the pilot would cost that much). $17 billion to run the program may be an exaggeration, but it is not much of one.

The cost of the federal CERB was estimated to be $77 billion in October 2020. To put that in context, the estimated expenditures of the 2018-2019 Federal Budget was $346 billion. (I chose 2018-2019 because it was the last pre-COVID budget. Expenditures for 2019-2020 were 373.5 billion. ) The CERB alone will have cost the government 22% of the 2018 federal budget, and it was not universal!

More than anything else, this is ammunition for governments looking to save money. In the wake of COVID, that will be every government. Don't expect the government to take on these kinds of financial obligations as it tries to climb out of the deficit it dug, but do expect a lot of other "expensive" social programs to get slashed too.

Rent and Inflation

I do not believe that UBI will help poor people get less poor. I believe that it will mostly make landlords rich, and leave poor people as poor as they were before (or maybe poorer). I could possibly endorse a poverty alleviation strategy that helps poor people; I oppose any strategy that mostly makes landlords rich at the expense of the poor.

There are a bunch of factors here. First, let's consider Ontario Works. For a single person, there is a basic needs allowance of $337 per month, and a shelter allowance of $384 per month. If somebody miraculously found a place for less than $384 per month, the surplus gets clawed back. This means that you will never find housing for Ontario Works recipients that costs less than $384. These days you cannot find anything for $384, but even when rents were more reasonable 10 years ago you would never find anything cheaper than the housing allowance of the time. Why? Because landlords knew full well that any resident would be receiving that much money for housing.

It is the same for basic income. If landlords know that universal basic income was universal, they could assume any potential resident has that amount of money coming in each month, and they could (and would!) charge as much of that as the market can bear. Maybe that would not be the full amount, but in "hot" markets like Waterloo Region or the GTA it would certainly be.

The problem gets worse, because we are in a housing crisis. Airbnb means vultures snap up housing that otherwise might be affordable for short-term rentals. Some of those vultures lost their feathers because of COVID-19, and I could not be happier. Suffer, vultures. I hope Airbnb dies a horrible death, but it is not dead yet and vultures are still buying up cheap housing stock.

Even if you end short-term rentals, you still have a housing crisis, because housing is treated as a relatively safe investment vehicle, backed by governments that don't want mass homelessness. Interest rates are so low that investors are having troubles getting good returns on other investments, so they throw their money into real estate. That allows them to collect rents and to make money via capital gains. Investors don't care about whether housing is affordable; they care whether they are maximizing their profits, and if renting half an apartment building at exorbitant rents is more profitable than having a full apartment building of affordable rents, then you leave half the building empty.

But housing is not only an investment vehicle; it is also a necessary good for people to survive. That is why the government gets involved, funding all kinds of sprawly incentives to create more housing.

For some reason, federal and provincial governments have gotten out of the business of building affordable housing directly, even though they happily incentivize and subsidize luxury condos and sprawling suburbs. Those incentives create housing in the private market, which investors happily snap up, only to turn around and charge exorbitant rents.

Enter basic income. Now the government is going to ensure everybody gets a good chunk of money each month for housing, and somehow this is not going to get snapped up by landlords? How does that happen? The usual answer is "rent control", but although rent controls are great for people who already have housing and never move, they are bad in all kinds of other ways (including building maintainence and keeping the housing supply small).

I don't think there is a good answer here, and if you cannot solve the affordable housing problem I do not think you can solve the basic income one.

Move away!

Fine. Forget about the GTA and Waterloo Region. Why don't you take your basic income and move someplace cheaper? This might work in some cases, if the vacancy rates are sufficiently low that landlords cannot charge as much as they would like to. Of course, by moving you are destroying all your support networks, so you had better hope that basic income covers enough so you can shop at actual grocery stores (and not eat at the soup kitchen) and can handle personal crises by yourself instead of relying on your friends.

Having done some research, I do not think there are many "someplace cheapers" -- at least not in Southern Ontario. Any housing accessible by 400-series highways are being snapped up by investors, which means housing prices are skyrocketing. Investors who overpay for properties need to then jack up the rents to cover their mortgages. I am seriously considering moving out of KW when I can no longer afford rent, but it is not clear that I have anyplace to go.

Other inflation

Other aspects of inflation will rear their ugly heads too, I expect. Will basic income rates be tied to inflation? Welfare and disability rates are not, and they have become more and more inadequate over the years. On the other hand, the Guaranteed Income Supplement is indexed to the Consumer Price Index, so maybe the answer to this question depends on whether we think of basic income more like welfare or more like old age security. Personally, I am skeptical that we will even think of old age security the way we think of old age security -- by the time my generation hits retirement age I expect benefits will get a lot stingier, even if we have not hit The Calamity by that point.

Citizens and Underclasses

Of all my criticisms, this might be the one that makes me most angry.

It is not always visible, but people who live in Canada fall into some pretty distinct classes:

There may be other classes of residents in Canada, but this is enough to illustrate the point.

Canada depends upon temporary foreign workers heavily. I am most familiar with farm workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), but there are many other categories. Canadian farmers often complain that "no Canadians want to do" the jobs they offer, so the government arranges to import workers from the global South (often Jamaica and Mexico) to do these jobs. These people are deliberately separated from their families so they will be lower flight risks. They are largely tied to their employer, in the sense that if their employer fires them they are deported to their home country. There are supposedly standards that employers are supposed to maintain for these workers, but when corners get cut then the workers have few opportunities for redress. As a result these standards get broken -- a lot. It is against the rules for workers to have their passports confiscated, but it happens all the time, especially with nannies. Canada doesn't care. It is happy to have brown people be exploited to grow our food and raise our kids.

That is not the worst thing. The worst thing is that despite doing the dirty, necessary work that "Canadians don't want to do", many temporary foreign workers (in particular, those in the SAWP program) have no path to citizenship in Canada. In 2017 the Canadian government promised to look into paths to permanent residency, and it 2019 it looks as if they announced a program that would allow year-round agricultural workers, but this specifically does not apply to the SAWP program. Canada still wants foreign workers to grow our "local" food (and boy howdy did farmers freak out when it looked as if they were not going to get their seasonal workers) but it is not willing to treat those workers a valuable enough to be Canadian.

What this does is create an underclass, where citizens and permanent residents get one set of living standards, and foreign workers get another. It reminds me a lot of practices in Middle-Eastern petro states like Kuwait and the UAE, which also import lots of foreign workers to do the work while citizens live coddled lives. I am wholeheartedly against Canada being a two-tier (or multi-tier) caste system.

This, of course, is where UBI comes in to make everything worse. Already Canadian citizens and permanent residents cost the Canadian government a lot of money, in terms of healthcare and other entitlements. It is cheaper to import foreign labour that will happily work for mimimum wage to do your work for you. Now we want to introduce an incredibly expensive entitlement for all Canadian citizens? What kind of pressures will this put on the government to make sure as few residents enjoy full citizenship as possible? Currently there is not much difference between being a Canadian citizen and a permanent resident, but I expect that could change when it comes to UBI.

Canada will always be happy to poach highly-skilled talent from other countries (even if that talent "just happens" to have problems getting credentials recognised and so works as cleaners and taxi drivers) but it has a long history of being choosy. Under a basic income entitlement, I expect Canada will be choosier.

UBI proponents sometimes argue that UBI will make paid work better, because instead of working at bad jobs people will opt for UBI instead, and this will improve wages and working conditions at those bad jobs. Canada's experience with temporary worker programs in general and the SAWP program in particular show this to be a lie. Employers do not improve working conditions for Canadians when jobs are terrible; they just import foreign workers and claim "no Canadian wants to do the work".

I do not want to put all the blame on farmers here, although they deserve scrutiny. If you look at the pressures farmers are under it is difficult to see how many of them would be able to afford better working conditions for their workers. That is not going to happen so long as the rest of us demand cheap food. Maybe there are some agricultural sectors (namely those with supply management) that could cough up better working conditions and wages, but those growing commodities really cannot.

Silicon Valley and Giving Up on People

Silicon Valley techbros love UBI because it means that they can continue building technologies that replace humans with robots (automomous cars, question answering, machine translation) and still not feel guilty for people sleeping in the street. All you have to do is pay all those people money!

There are a lot of troubling aspects to this narrative. The reason the techbros want to give everybody money is because -- to the techbros -- there will be people who are rendered useless in the future economy, whose skills are superseded by those of robots. It effectively gives up on these people, and I have a lot of problems with that. Note that there is nuance here: lots of techbros (and economists) feel that because past technological revolutions have never made humanity unemployable the ones we are building now won't either. Some techbros use the "do more interesting work" argument, telling us that by getting rid of the repetitive boring work everybody will move on to more exciting things, as if people are interchangeable cogs. (Hence coding camps.) Of course, not every factory worker turns out to be good at programming, so you have to do something with the bad programmers if you want them to live. Others argue that although these people will be pushed out of the paid economy, they will be able to do the important unpaid work in society, such as caregiving.

I do not believe the "do more interesting work" thesis at all. There are things that robots are still bad at -- namely, doing a variety of physical tasks in the real world. But if you want to see an example of that more interesting work, look at Amazon warehouses, where human drones are responsible for packing boxes at an inhuman rate, because getting humans to pack those boxes is currently more efficient than getting robots to do all the packing themselves. (Robots now move the goods around to the packers, which I guess means those irritating humans don't need to do as much running around and so can pack faster.) These jobs literally treat humans as disposable cogs -- anybody whose packing rate falls below the acceptable threshold is fired and replaced with somebody else.

Or how about the rideshare drivers? That "interesting work" involves following the whims of an opaque algorithm on a platform that will happily fire you if you don't get a 5 star rating on a majority of your rides. This is more interesting work?

As for caretaking and other unpaid work: some people will do those things, but why should they not be paid for that labour in the real economy? What is broken about our market system that we understand that there is important work to be done, but cannot find a better way to value and pay for that work than UBI. I am not saying that UBI is the worst way to pay people who are saddled with caregiving duties, but it illustrates that there is a real problem with market economies here: we are giving up on the idea that people should be paid for doing useful work, and removing the market incentives that supposedly drive excellence. If I do my childrearing poorly or well, I will get the same UBI. But if I am a successful techbro programmer I can expect to get paid much more than a mediocre one. Isn't that interesting? We get capitalism for the techbros, and communism for the caretakers.

I am upset that techbros are allowed to keep building technology that makes people's lives worse, and then absolving their guilt by pointing to a universal basic income to pay all the "useless" people (barely) enough to live. There ought to be some accountability for the future we are building here, and there decidedly is not.

The most infuriating thing is that the techbros are libertarians and do whatever they can to avoid paying taxes. They headquarter their companies in tax havens. They lobby governments to reduce their tax burdens in the interest of "staying competitive". Then they point to UBI as a solution? Who are they expecting to pay for this incredibly expensive program? Not them, apparently -- even though they are the ones benefiting from all these economic efficiencies.

Will Basic Income Be Good for People?

Let's say that we could somehow afford basic income, that it somehow would pay for people's housing, food, and basic bills without landlords/inflation taking it all, and that it was somehow reliable. Would it be a good idea? Would people be better or worse off receiving money with no strings attached?

Money Helps

I have not lived with serious deprivation, but I have come close enough to say that money matters. Having a buffer is the difference between being comfortable and living under constant stress. For people who are one bounced check away from losing their housing, having a reliable source of income that pays the bills is a gamechanger. Having money is much, much better than having no money.

Having said that, my previous criticism still applies. If you give people lump sums of money not all of those people will spend that money wisely, and those who are the most hardcore poor are also more likely to make poor decisions with their basic income. These people will continue to live under the stress of poverty, and might in fact benefit more with more "supportive" (read: nanny-state) interventions.

Being Idle (Often) Hurts

As I mentioned in the introduction, UBI advocates often argue that receiving a stable income will free people up to do the work that is valuable but undervalued (elder care, childrearing, volunteering) or do work that is good for personal development (upgrading credentials).

I think there is a segment of the population that would use basic income in this way. I think there is another segment of the population (including me!) who would not.

Think back to your pandemic experience. Everybody freaked out during March and April of 2020, but then for most of us things settled down into a routine. While life certainly stayed busy for some (especially parents juggling childcare with virtual schooling with working from home), many of us found ourselves with our expenses mostly covered and a lot of free time on our hands. How did we spend that time?

I feel that some people took the most of their involuntary break. They volunteered, sewed masks, baked sourdough bread, upgraded their skills, learned new languages, went on shopping trips for frail relatives and neighbours, and basically were shining examples of the kind of person whom UBI advocates trumpet.

Others of us struggled with idleness and boredom, doomscrolling through social media hoping for dopamine hits.

I guess the assumption is that all of this boredom was due to the pandemic, and in a post-pandemic world giving people money will be sufficient to keep them happy and productive. People will naturally find interesting things to do, many of which will be socially useful. I think this assumption is significantly wrong. I do not know the split between people who are self-motivated enough to thrive without designated responsibilities vs those that don't, but I have known enough people on welfare and disability to know that not everybody gets involved with productive activity even if they have the opportunity. In my time at the cult I met lots of people who did volunteer, and those people mostly found volunteering a really helpful way to structure their time and feel useful. But I also met people who did not volunteer and did not do much of anything else either, and for the most part these people did not appear happy.

I am not saying that work makes people happy. I am saying that for many people idleness makes people unhappy, and getting out of that idleness can be tough. But UBI does not attach any strings to the money it provides, so what is the motivation for people to improve their mental well-being by keeping occupied? I am not seeing it, just as I do not see any societal requirements that we eat well or exercise. Some people eat well and exercise because it makes them feel better and because it is in their long term interests, and some people don't.

This argument is not about people being productive to society. If somebody is deeply fulfilled by binging Netflix while on UBI, then maybe that is okay. But in my experience, being idle is a great way to fall into depression. It is something I personally need to monitor carefully when I am unemployed.

If I was not lazy then I would try to find real evidence for my assertion that some people do poorly when not given structured activities to keep them busy. Some places to look for numbers might be:

I am fairly convinced that offering UBI with no associated structured activities will be bad for a good fraction of the population, but I could be wrong.

Social Isolation Hurts

I am not sure I even need to explain this one to those who have gone through COVID lockdowns, but it is pretty apparent that most people (even introverts!) suffer when they are completely socially isolated. Under UBI there is no obligation to participate in society, so there will be some people who stay at home and never interact with others.

If the basic income rates are barely above survival levels then this will be more acute, because socializing with other people often costs money (ask me how I know this).

I do not know this to be true, but I will write it out loud anyway: I firmly believe that people need relationships and community to do well. Very few people can live happily as hermits. But we do not do a good job of structuring existing social supports (disability, old age security) to encourage people to build up community and relationships. So a lot of people stay isolated at home, and then we talk about creating Minister of Loneliness cabinet positions.

Being the Object of Charity Hurts

I consider myself to be a poor person, and I have some fairly embarrassing poor-person habits. But you know one thing that I dislike? Being given charity. I get really angry when somebody wants to give me things because I look or act poor. Is this because I am selfless and don't want whatever is being handed out? Of course not. It is because charity feels humiliating.

If I was being given UBI because the techbros have given up on me and think I am incapable of contributing to employed society, then I personally would not feel good about that. I would not feel that it is my entitlement as a member of society, or as compensation for being collateral damage in making the economy more efficient. I would probably feel pretty useless. Maybe that is my own hangup, but I do not think it is my hangup alone.

So why don't people who get socially-acceptable forms of basic income (Employment Insurance, Old Age Security) feel that kind of stigma? The usual argument people use to justify their benefits is: "I worked hard and paid my taxes into the system, and now I am collecting my due." On the other hand, socially-stigmatized forms of basic income like welfare and disability payments are set up to humiliate people. When you are on those programs, the authorities can look into your bank accounts and inspect your assets to make sure you are not a cheater who is secretly working to better your life.

Basic income advocates say that UBI is much better than welfare or disability because it will not be associated with the same kind of stigma. Do we really think this? If basic income programs are targeted (as all of the pilots have been) then I am pretty sure they will be stigmatized, because we will put efforts into "reducing fraud". If basic income really is universal maybe you avoid this, but even then I could forsee stigma for those who collect UBI and are not benefitting society in some other way. Such people could easily be characterized as parasites, which is not good for them.

In fairness, some people who would otherwise qualify for targeted basic income already feel like parasites. They depend upon friends and family to get by, and many of them would be relieved if they could support themselves, even if it was via a government handout. I am sympathetic to this argument, but I do not think it is a slam dunk.

Feeling Useless Hurts

It is one thing when techbros give up on you as being useless to society. It is quite another thing to feel useless in society yourself, and it is much worse.

Here is another thing that I have observed in myself and others: keeping occupied is not enough. If I am unemployed but keeping busy with self-indulgent pasttimes like cycling and reading (and blogging?) then I am better off than if I am idle, but my activities still feel self-indulgent and I feel bad. But if I am helping somebody else in some concrete way, I feel much better. I was ridiculously grateful to Angie at Fertile Grounds for taking a chance and letting me help out on her farm last year. Honestly, I do not know that I enjoyed myself that much -- I felt slow and inadequate most of the time, and it felt really bad when I screwed up simple things -- but going out and pulling weeds for a few hours a week helped my well-being a lot more than going on another bike ride would have been. The idea that I was helping produce food on a farm meant an enormous amount to me. I have had similar feeling while volunteering for other causes.

One thing I have noticed about poor people -- even homeless people -- is that many of them love domestic animals. Many people will refuse to go to shelters when those shelters do not accept pets. Some pets (namely big scary dogs) are good protection when living on the street, but it goes deeper than that. Pets are loyal and are capable of the unconditional love many poor people have never experienced from other humans, but it goes deeper than that too. Pets are a responsibility. They are beings who depend upon you for their well being, and I speculate that this feeling of being needed is really important to people on whom the rest of society has given up. Not everybody likes pets and not everybody wants them, but it is telling how many people who are desperately poor will go to great lengths to keep their pets well.

That feeling of being needed may be an delusion. As a nihilist I am not sure any of us are needed for anything. But if it a delusion it is a valuable one, because the feeling of being needed is what keeps a lot of people going. Speaking personally, it is much more difficult to get by day to day when I feel it is irrelevant whether I exist or not.

Once again, the structure of UBI is problematic here. If you are getting a basic income with no strings attached, there is no incentive to be useful to somebody else. Furthermore, there is no structure that make it easy to be useful to others. Simply giving people chunks of money is not going to solve that problem of self-worth, and could easily harm it.


One of the reasons we are still fighting over basic income is because we do not have good data either supporting or refuting it. We have the Mincome study and a few trials underway. I have some things to say about those, and about the Wynne/Ford debacle.

What Are We Measuring?

This gets back to the question of "What is basic income for?" In the (few) results I have seen, it seems as if the researchers cherry pick a few good outcomes and trumpet them as great wins. That makes me suspicious.

It seems to me that we should know what we are trying to accomplish with a basic income program:

Any of these could be the target of a study. Which outcomes are most important, and how do we measure them?

Pilot Programs Are Misleading

In general, we try to measure the success or failure of basic income programs via randomized trials: we pick a targeted group of people for the intervention, and compare how they do to a control group. This might be the best we can do, but it has a lot of problems.

Firstly, it gives money to one group but leaves the control group alone. There is an effect (which I am having trouble finding the name of, but which is similar to the placebo effect) where recipients of an intervention will tend to do better than that of a control group with no intervention because the intervention itself is a form of attention. In addition the participants might deliberately use the money wisely because they know they are in a study, and do not want to appear irresponsible.

Secondly, these are small targeted groups of people receiving funds, so we will not see rent effects or other inflationary effects if they exist.

Thirdly, these trials are time limited, which mean the participants know they will have to go back to their base income levels, and therefore need to plan for some kind of income when the pilot ends. If people were in the workforce before, they will then need to take care not to fall out of the workforce afterwards. Thus, these trials are not appropriate for demonstrating long-term effects.

The Finnish Results Have Been Underwhelming

The Finns conducted a basic income trial between 2017 and 2018. This was targeted. The results weren't fantastic: the income supplement did not improve employment outcomes much, although subjective feelings of well-being were better in the group that received the extra money than in a control group.

California Results Have Been Okay

In Stockton, California, there was another experiment called SEED, which recruited 125 people to receive an extra $500 per month and 100 people as a control group. It does not look as if members of the control group were 1-1 matched with those in the intervention group. The study trumpets improved employment outcomes for those in the intervention group (from 28% employed full time to 40%) but the control group also saw some employment improvements (from 32% to 37%).

Doug Ford vs Science

When the Doug Ford government broke its promise to complete the Ontario basic income pilot, I was furious. Even though I sense that the Ford government has gotten more pragmatic and less ideological than those early days, I am still furious with the Ford betrayal on this file. They cancelled the pilot on ideological grounds saying the project was "clearly not the answer for Ontario families". They said this despite not having completed the pilot, nor having analysed the data. That is profoundly anti-science, and it makes me so mad.

As should be clear by now, I have great reservations about basic income, and about the randomized trials we use to try and evaluate it. But the Ford government's foolish actions just fuels speculation that basic income works.

Wow. I cannot believe I am still so angry about this cancellation, but I really am.

We Almost Have Basic Income

There are a number of programs that are similar to basic income.

I think we may lose the rich benefits of old age security. The millennials will wage war on the boomers, and the boomers will be busy living long active retirements that will drain pension funds significantly.

It is worth asking whether basic income for seniors has had the same negative effects I predict of UBI. I think many of the social effects (isolation, idleness, feeling worthless) apply. Rent may be less of a factor because many old people own their own home. I think there has been some push around underclasses because Canada really does not want to sponsor aging parents if it can avoid it. I think many of my criticisms of UBI come from (a) universality and (b) UBI supposedly helping the poor.

Disability payments are perpetually under threat, and there are always incentives to make sure people don't get on disability, and to keep the benefits low.

I do not know much about the child benefits, but I expect they will stick around for a while so long as middle-class people like them.

The CERB is completely unsustainable. It cannot possibly last.

Tentative Conclusions and Final Thoughts

A lot of things have come up for me as I was putting this screed together.

Other Resources

Here are some other resources I have looked at, but did not link elsewhere: