By @SimonCocking review of Give People Money: The Simple Idea to Solve Inequality and Revolutionise our Lives, by Annie Lowrey, WH Allen (UK), Crown (US)
Surely just giving people money couldn’t work. Or could it?
Imagine if every month the government deposited £1000 in your bank account, with no strings attached and nothing expected in return. It sounds crazy, but universal basic income (UBI) has become one of the most influential policy ideas of our time, backed by thinkers on both the left and the right. The founder of Facebook, Obama’s chief economist, governments from Canada to Finland are all seriously debating some form of UBI.
In this sparkling and provocative book, economics writer Annie Lowrey looks at the global UBI movement. She travels to Kenya to see how UBI is lifting the poorest people on earth out of destitution, and India to see how inefficient government programs are failing the poor. She visits South Korea to interrogate UBI’s intellectual pedigree, and Silicon Valley to meet the tech titans financing UBI pilots in the face of advanced artificial intelligence and little need for human labour. She also examines at the challenges the movement faces: contradictory aims, uncomfortable costs, and most powerfully, the entrenched belief that no one should get something for nothing.
The UBI movement is not just an economic policy — it also calls into question our deepest intuitions about what we owe each other and what activities we should reward and value as a society.
This is a super interesting topic. Lowrey ably describes what it is, what it could be, variations that have been tried, in Kenya, as well as in EU countries and even small areas of the US too. On one hand UBI seems an insanely expensive concept, and Lowrey outlines just how many trillion it would cost to do it in the US. While on one hand you imagine this then makes the whole idea completely unaffordable, Lowrey then documents just how much it costs to run the whole social support structure that currently exists across many, many government agencies. She also makes the compelling point, via military veteran testimonies and other recipients (and non-recipients) of the current welfare system that it treats people in a dehumanised and inefficient way. This observation would also be true for European social welfare provisioning too, which are incredibly ineffective, inefficient and often unfair too.
Naturally just giving people money for free also raises all the questions, what if they spent it all on drugs, sex, gaming, food? The surprising (? or not?) results are actually that extremely poor people are often the best judges of how and where to spend money they receive. And that, actually, very few squandered their money, afterall they had so little of it, why would they do so? Lowrey recognises the UBI still seems like an insanely impossible program to chose to implement, but, like Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy, it might just be the least bad option we have going forwards.
An interesting, timely, and thought provoking book.