How basic income can change the way we think about work (and money)
The rise of automation, rampant inequalities and the potential loss of over 40% of jobs by 2030 is making the idea of basic universal income (UBI) more than a fanciful utopia. Beyond fiscal policy and economic debates, at the core of this issue, however, is what we think jobs should be and ultimately our relationship with money. The UBI debate forces us to question our deepest beliefs about what an individual should do to deserve a minimum living standard, what do we consider meaningful work and what society values in terms of "economic activities". While some countries are already starting small trials, others do not want to wait until their government wakes up to do something about it and are starting to create alternative solutions, to experiment with and for the people. [caption id="attachment_4212" align="alignleft" width="150"]
Steven Strehl is a German non-for profit organization that crowdfunds and raffles off unconditional basic incomes of 1.000 euros a month. They have even helped kick-start other similar initiatives around Europe. Steven Strehl is a Platform Engineer and Digital Campaigner at the German NGO. He talked to us about his experience and how UBI could change the way we think about our jobs.
What made you commit full-time to the idea and experimental reality of universal basic income?
Steven Strehl: Funny to start here, that's a question we pose ourselves at Mein Grundeinkommen quite regularly. I realised very quickly that is was a topic very close to my heart. I come from a workers family and after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was practically no work for qualified workers available anymore, so my mum struggled a lot to raise my sister and me. Because money was always an issue, as soon as I could I started to work. Money for me meant to be independent, to be free to do what I dreamt of independently from what my mother could afford. However, soon I realised that 'work' was actually in the way of what I really wanted to do. During school, I did not think much about this, but at some point, I had to take a grant to keep financing my studies, because I wanted to travel, to live abroad... I was so hungry for knowledge that I had to look for it somewhere else.
Universal income is about so many things, it is about power and freedom, it is about deciding for ourselves, it is about family, relations, and so much more.
By the time I was 18 years old I already had debts to pay. I decided I was going to be a computer programmer to earn enough money to be able to pay back my debts. During my second year at university, I was encouraged to apply to a fellowship. In the application process, you had to talk about someone who inspires you. I chose Götz Werner, the founder of a German drugstore chain who was introducing dynamic hierarchical positions across its stores and he was a major supporter of basic income, so that really opened my mind to the idea. I ended up getting the fellowship which meant having money for free for the first time in my life. However, I realised that talking about basic income would not make it happen. We have so many scientific models that say that works, others that say it would not work because is not financially or socially possible, but until we don't actually do it and experiment we won't really know! So I proposed to my fellow colleagues to put all our grants for one month together, finance a basic income and give it away to someone, without any conditions. I contacted Mein Grundeinkommen, I pitched the idea and they liked it. Mein Grundeinkommen happened to have an opening in the team and I joined them two years ago. For me, the most important part of basic income is not the end, when the money arrives. But the enormous amount of questions that we get to ask ourselves and to society. Universal income is about so many things, it is about power and freedom, it is about deciding for ourselves, it is about family, relations, and so much more. That is why I made it my full-time job.
You've already given 132 basic incomes in Germany, what are the most fascinating discoveries? What have people done with those 1000 euros that surprise you?
SS: It is really difficult to just pick one story because so many people with so very different backgrounds have won. That makes the entire experiment really surprising. But I can give one example, the most unexpected one came from a freelance business coach. From the day she started receiving the money, she decided to do something different with her clients, instead of giving a fixed price to her work, she gave the freedom to her clients to decide what they think her work was worth. The most intriguing part was that her clients had a very hard time dealing with this new system and actually asked her to stop and just tell them how much she wanted for her work because they said the uncertainty of the final price was getting in the way of the actual work. I find fascinating that people had such a hard time answering the question of how much someone's work is actually worth to their company. The initial fear was rather that they could just pay her very little.
One of your experimental projects is to offer paid internships without any obligation to work. How have your interns reacted? Have their ideas of what work and money mean changed?
SS: Our unconditional internships are actually basic income experiments. Our interns get paid 1000 euros a month and they have no obligations to do anything. The result? They are the most powerful in the organisation! We have a dynamic hierarchy and they have the freedom to move and work in whichever area they prefer, so they end up being way more powerful than any of us. What this teaches us about basic income is that is all a matter of trust. Do you need to define a framework for people to work so they can be productive or should they get complete freedom to do so? Of course, the answer is not a simple yes or no. As soon as people are not asked to do something specific anymore, of course, is harder because you have to set the frames yourself, but it also means you get to question things. We notice that when our interns stop coming to the office they are saying "Sorry, you're not providing the working environment I want to work in any more”. So we get to dialogue with them because of course, we want them there with us, so this liberty helps us realise we need to improve in a specific area. Something we've had to change for example is the inclusion dynamics within the team. We've worked really hard on making them feel empowered and with the same degree of involvement in everyday decisions, regardless of their title and pay. It has been a shift of culture so everyone feels they can learn from everybody. So bottom line, it is about trust and communication.
Compared to other UBI initiatives, like the one organised by the Finnish government, your project is completely crowd-funded and organised by the people. Given your big success so far, do you think more governments will open to the idea? Is that part of your goals, to eventually influence public policy?
SS: We have nothing to prove and we have no political agenda. That I think is what sets us apart from other initiatives.
Our goal is to spread the word about basic income and to see by the stories if people actually want it. We don't say UBI is the ultimate goal, we're not even sure ourselves, but we think is one of the most positive visions at the moment for society.
It is also one of the few, if not the only one that goes together with automatisation. It questions power, and at the same time, it empowers people to have dialogues with each other. The most rewarding outcome for me, is after going to events to talk about it, when people come to me and say "oh you know, when I came here I was against it, but I see you, and you asked some good questions and that has made it personal for me and I like being asked questions without being pushed to like it, so now I want to try it!”. And that's the key! It is not about having endless arguments about basic income, nobody knows if it will work or if it really is the solution we have imagined, but at least we might give it a try.
There is a lot of debate about the 'universality' of basic income. Not everyone agrees that everyone should get "free money". Why do you think universal is the best approach instead of focusing only on the most disadvantaged ones?
SS: The first thing is that targeting 'poor people', whatever that means would make basic income a marker on society that you do not have enough money, so it is discriminating. The second thing is that you would need an administration to define what poor is and define parameters of poverty. The problem is that poverty can be a very personal feeling, that depends on more things that just net income. Moreover, the model of not having any administration to redistribute the money, but just give 1000 euros to everyone in society is the most cost-efficient and money saving as well.
The two biggest myths around UBI is that it's far too expensive and that it would push people out of the labour force. Even though there is ample evidence to suggest that does not happen, I think we shouldn't focus only on economic metrics but on people's life quality. How do you think we can change that paradigm? Shift the debate?
SS: I think that if there is a demand in societies for basic income or some kind of guarantee for life dignity that paradigm shift will come, regardless of what the economic models now say. Politicians and economist lack ideas for the post-capitalist society we are very close to. We are in the middle of the transition and there are no answers to very basic problems such as very low wages, increasing poverty and rising inequalities. We do not have all the answers, but we believe that when people are informed they are not afraid of it. This may create a more positive ground for politicians to just take the ideas and make them a reality. UBI won't happen from one day to another. A lot of things need to change before, from how we innovate -to what purpose and to what extent- to what we consider valuable work. And most importantly we need to separate our personal identities from our work titles. We need to want to break free and assume our choices beyond money concerns.
How many people end up in careers they do not like just because it provides some financial stability? And why are few financial incentives provided for jobs that really hold our society together and make our lives worth living ?
We need to realise how much society is losing by driving people with the wrong incentives. How many teachers, philosophers, linguists or caregivers have we lost for the sake of making money, for the sake of surviving? I have been lucky in my life so far, but I do not want this to be the default in our society, that you need to be lucky to have a minimum of dignity. This is an enormous paradigm shift and it might take some time, but it will come from the increasing demands of the people for a better life. Whatever that means.