The Activist Historian: Rutger Bregman
It all started when I saw one night historian Rutger Bregman’s Ted talk called Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash. And boy, was I blown away. I thought that it was one of the best Ted talks I’ve ever seen. What Bregman was proposing, a Universal Basic Income or UBI was intriguing, and seemed to be backed up by evidence, and was notable for mentioning the Mincome Experiment in Dauphin, Canada in the 1970s.
I researched him some more, and learned that Bregman earned notoriety when he said in the Davos World Economic Forum that everyone should be talking about tax avoidance and the rich not giving their fair share. In his own words, “…taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit… ”
His unaired interview with Fox conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson also became viral when he agitated the host enough for the latter to swear at him. You can see the unaired interview in Bregman’s Facebook page.
I also found out that he had written a book called Utopia for Realists. I bought the book, and it was so riveting that I read it in less than two days. It was like reading an activist Malcolm Gladwell, replete with fascinating anecdotes and data/evidence-based stories. The book actually discussed three topics: Universal Basic Income, 15-Hour Workweek, and Open Borders (advocating for passport/visa-less employment in another country, as opposed to the prevailing practice now which started during World War I to keep spies out). In this interview with Trevor Noah, Bregman talks more about the 15-Hour workweek, aside from his book and Basic Income. He also mentions the bullshit jobs that millions of people find meaningless.
UBI in Utopia for Realists
In the book Utopia for Realists, I learned that UBI or a fixed income to be received monthly by everyone — without any conditions — to meet his basic needs (this 10-minute Youtube video by our dear friends from Kurzgezagt explains the concept well), was proposed in some form by Thomas More in his book Utopia, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, the conservative economist Milton Friedman, and was even almost passed by the U.S. Congress during the time of President Nixon, if not for the objection of the Democrats in the Senate who said that the amount was not enough.
The story about how Pres. Nixon was also persuaded to amend the bill because his adviser Martin Anderson showed him a six-page report about the Speenhamland system in England at the end of the 18th century and the start of 19th century. The report was based on sociologist Karl Polanyi‘s classic book The Great Transformation, in which Polanyi described the system as a failure. The report made Nixon amend the bill which eventually led to its demise. The twist was that, later on, historians found out that Polanyi had based his assessment on erroneous and falsified data. Such stories left you wondering about the roads not taken in the history of humanity.
One important assertion by Bregman is how the poor make poor decisions because of the scarcity mentality. When one is pressed for time, money, etc., his or her ability to make wise decisions diminishes. For example, a study by behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir of sugarcane workers in India who harvested their crops only half of the year, showed that their IQ diminished by 14 points before harvest time.
On the other hand, when an individual is given a regular income so he can meet his basic needs, his overall well-being improves. The Mincome experiment of Dauphin, Canada from 1973-1977 proved this. But it wasn’t until 2009, when Dr. Evelyn Forget a professor at the University of Manitoba, finally found the 2,000 boxes of records of the experiment, that it was shown that it was a resounding success. As Bregman narrated in his Ted talk, the residents of Dauphin didn’t stop working except for the mothers who took care of family members, the number of children going to school increased, hospitalization decreased, and mental health improved. In other words, the basic income gave the recipients the freedom to choose, and what we learned is that people, even the poor, know what’s best for them. The Huffington Post wonderfully narrates the story of Dauphin, Canada in the article A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty And Nearly Everyone Forgot About It.
UBI Addresses Inequality
Bregman also showed two graphs. One graph showed per capita GDP in the x axis, and index of social problems in the y axis. In this graph, there was no correlation between how wealthy a country collectively is and the amount of social problems it has. But when the x axis was replaced with inequality or the difference in income between the rich and the poor, there was a straight line which clearly showed the link. You can see the graph in this article Population Health: Behavioral and Social Science Insights. In other words, if we help reduce inequality with UBI, the effort would be worth it, as we would be addressing not just poverty, but a host of other societal problems.
The Presidential Candidate: Andrew Yang & UBI
On YouTube, I was also surprised to learn that in the U.S., a Democrat named Andrew Yang is running for president, has UBI as his main platform. He has also written a book called The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future. He is an entrepreneur and the founder of Venture for America, a New York City based non-profit whose mission is “to revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship” by training recent graduates and young professionals to work for startups in emerging cities throughout the United States.
He says that his friends in Silicon Valley all say that in 10 years, a lot of jobs will be lost to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and automation. In particular, the jobs of truck drivers, people in retail, accountants, etc., will be endangered, and will cause social breakdown. He says that Universal Basic Income or what he calls the Freedom Dividend will provide a buffer to absorb the shock of job losses. The great thing is that his message is resonating even with Trump supporters and Republicans — just look at the comments section of his YouTube videos, and you will seldom see a negative comment. It seems that he is uniting the country with his message. It is, as he put it, not about moving Left or Right, but moving Forward.
In his own words, the Democrats have focused too much on other themes such as race and identity politics — nothing wrong with that according to him — but they have forgotten why a lot of people voted for Trump: job insecurity. Like many people, I believe Yang will be the next U.S. president, a man, again in his own words, who is the opposite of Trump: “an Asian who knows Math.” If you’re an American/U.S. Citizen or just someone curious about the details of his policies, Yang’s almost two-hour interview with Joe Rogan is must-watch/listen.
Just Do UBI!
I also came across a Basic Income documentary on Youtube called Free Money produced by the Dutch broadcasting company VPRO which featured, among others, Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income) a crowdfunded basic income raffle started by startup entrepreneur/web developer Michael Bohmeyer who quit his job and opted to receive 1,000 euros monthly from his former company; the story of the economist Guy Standing‘s experiments in Basic Income in India and elsewhere, and the U.S. state of Alaska, which has solved the problem of poverty because of dividends from its oil earnings, called the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. I urge you to watch the documentary from start to finish. It’s both fascinating and inspiring.
The Economist & UBI: Guy Standing
And because of the docu, I learned, as I mentioned, about the work of Guy Standing. Please watch Standing’s TedXKlagenfurt video, and learn how their experiments in India has improved the lives of the poor, and emancipated them, especially the women. It is really must-watch.
I am now reading Guy Standing’s book, Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen. From the initial chapters, it seems that it is more comprehensive in its treatment of Universal Basic Income, including UBI’s long history, how to implement it, etc. For Guy Standing, UBI is a right because everyone must benefit from the commons.
UBI in the Philippines
Because of UBI, I started reviewing the TRAIN Law, how UBI can fit into our current tax schemes, and how we can modify our tax system to accommodate it, and found something appalling, or at the very least disturbing, from JC Punongbayan’s Rappler series of articles about the TRAIN Law. It seems that our lawmakers and our leaders knew that the Train Law would hit the very rich and the very poor. For the very poor or the 4Ps beneficiaries, around 4.1M Filipinos, they allocated an Unconditional Cash Transfer of 200 pesos per family per month on top of what they are already receiving, from the 4Ps without regard for how many children each family has. What can 200 pesos do in this time of high prices? But aside from that, as JC pointed out, the disbursement might be delayed because of bureaucracy.
My point is imagine if we crafted our taxes with the UBI in mind — everyone wouldn’t be left behind. It would be fair to everyone, with each person — even children and dependents — benefiting from the earnings/production of the commons. For now, this is a simplistic summary of what can be done, but I think you are getting my drift of an alternative vision of the future.
Speaking of 4P’s or the Philippine government’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) which started during the Arroyo presidency, it does seem to help the poor according to World Bank, but wouldn’t it be better with UBI, when it’s unconditional? Perhaps we can raise the amount, or remove the conditionalities and the bureaucracy so that the poor will have the freedom to do what’s best for them? Some things to consider. Will also include this in my future research.
As I continued studying UBI, I became more and more convinced that this is one of the main programs that we’re looking for to address the inequality — 21.6% of our kababayans live below the poverty line, as of 2015 according to the World Bank — and thus, reduce the social ills in our country. UBI will reduce criminality, improve our general health, and improve our general well-being.
UBI is also an advocacy which will touch on other advocacies: labor issues; women’s emancipation — they wouldn’t be dependent on their husbands anymore, or they wouldn’t resort to prostitution; ecology/environment, e.g., tax those contributing to climate change, and distribute the revenues to the people; corruption — where are we losing money in our budget process, e.g. the pork barrel and sums? — if we can save the money from the corruption, then we can direct it to UBI.
It had me thinking also of the livelihood programs we put together for the poor. For example, uniform livelihood programs may not fit the skills of all of the recipients. I was reminded of the families of the extrajudicial killing (EJK) victims we are helping. Their financial needs were different. Some stopped their food delivery service. Others were more concerned with the schooling of their children. If we can just give them cash, then they themselves know what to do best with the money. In the near future, I’m thinking of implementing a basic income or at least an unconditional cash transfer for these psychologically and financially devastated families, and see if this is indeed a better way to help them. A footnote, by the way: livelihood and psycho-social support for the children are among the main needs of these families victimized by the government’s brutal war on drugs (in future posts, will also share my learnings about alternative and evidenced-based drug policies that really work).
Speaking of the drugs, I was reminded when reading about the capability of the poor to wisely decide for themselves when given the chance. In the book High Price by neuropharmacologist Dr. Carl Hart, harm reduction advocate, his experiments with drug dependence showed that given the choice between drugs and money, the person would always choose cash. This validates the findings cited in Bregman’s book that as a rule, people do not spend their money on alcohol and drugs. They spend it on their basic needs, and activities or things which will improve their well-being.
Going back to how artificial intelligence will cause unemployment, the book by Kaifu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order which discusses job displacement in China and the U.S. among other things, said we must focus on jobs which will be valuable in the future, like caring jobs, caretaking, nursing, teaching, etc. For UBI advocates like Bregman, Yang, and Standing, we must start replacing indicators like GDP with measurements which measure our general well-being: health, happiness, etc., This is because activities like volunteering, taking care of the elderly and the children, which are extremely valuable to society, are things not measured by the GDP. For Bregman and Yang, GDP is an outdated measurement meant to address the challenges of The Great Depression. A measurement akin to the Happiness Index will be more appropriate,
UBI From My POV
Personally, I can relate to UBI. As an advocate, I have long seen myself with ambivalence. Am fulfilled and happy, but often find myself financially challenged. This has been a problem that me and my fellow Filipino Cultural Creative (FCC) friends have been grappling with. How can we continue our work which we know is of great value to society? I think a Universal Basic Income is an excellent solution. We can work continuously without worrying where our next rent (as I’m worrying now 🙂 ) or food allowance would come from.
A few days ago, our writers group Freelance Writers Guild of the Philippines (FWGP) co-organized with UNI Global Union ASIA & Pacific (UNI Apro) a forum re the opportunities and current challenges facing freelance writers right now. Aimee Morales, the main founder of FWGP, at one point said that it’s hard to organize writers because they are trying to address their basic needs. I said that it was a chicken and egg situation, but if indeed we had a UBI, then that part of the problem of organizing would be taken care of somehow.
UBI & Work
Indeed. in a UBI society, we need to re-think our concept of work. Bregman has touched on this with his chapter on the 15-Hour Workweek. He tells about John Maynard Keynes who in 1930, just at the doorstep of the Great Depression, delivered a brief lecture called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” which predicted a hundred years hence, in 2030, we are going to work less hours because of our collective wealth.
Still researching UBI, I came across an article titled Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture by a US Citizen who lived in Switzerland, and you can see the difference between our way of living which we patterned after the U.S. In Switzerland — and in other European countries, for that matter — rest and vacation are valued so much that you can be flexible with your working hours and still get paid handsomely.
Thus, UBI will make us think of how to redesign our society. Our country today has been drawn to the ideology of authoritarianism and the mishmash appeal of populism. I think what Filipinos are looking for right now is a vision of the future which can inspire them, give them hope. Their pains and frustrations — see my thoughts on an FB post here –have attracted them to populism/authoritarianism/fascism. As expected, many are now disillusioned with Duterte, and the rest will get dismayed — they will find out that Duterte is nothing but the same old trapo, but in wolf’s clothing, and is all about greed in power, manipulating and gaslighting them with fake news, misogyny, and threats of violence.
But in order to bring back to our fold those who are still clinging to what is now an illiberal democracy, we must give them an alternative vision: a rights-based, participative (not just representative) society/system, a new way of working and of appreciating work; a society where the citizens value one another, know how to rest, and take a breath; a society which knows that in order to develop as a nation, we need a happy citizenry — less anxious, well-rested, compassionate, abundance-minded. And I think UBI is one of the major ways to get there.
UBI & The Dream of a Better Society
In the following days, I will post more about how we can achieve this society and implement UBI. Will do more reading and consult economists, etc. and will blog about it. I’m also thinking of starting a non-profit to advocate for UBI.
And it seems that I’m not the one only looking into Basic Income. In an event last week — a talk by Nathan Quimpo of the Rise and Decline of the Left in Southeast Asia — Sen. Risa Hontiveros, when I asked her if she has heard about UBI, said that the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) is about to study it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rene E. Ofreneo Onforio, dean of the U.P. School of Labor and Industrial Relations’ (UP SOLAIR), where we held our FWGP forum, said that he’s aware of UBI and Guy Standing’s work, and Michelle Belino of UNI-Apro said that UBI is one of their advocacies, and their Singaporean colleague and Regional Secretary Christopher Ng regularly gives talks about it.
And just before I posted this, a fellow advocate shared with me this Manila Times article by Malou Tiquia explaing well UBI, and suggesting it is an alternative to the 4P’s.
I have also started evangelizing some of my fellow advocates, and some are inspired, or at the very least, see merit in the idea. Indeed, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already upon us, where we will face a multitude of challenges, and UBI might well be one of the major solutions.
Make the Dream a Reality
The challenge, as articulated by Rutger Bregman, is how to bring this dream/vision into reality. He appeals for a strong will. In Utopia for Realists, he says “a worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.”
He says that radical ideas start at the fringes, but become mainstream, not gradually, but in times of crisis. Moments of crisis for him, are instances of opportunities. He reminds us that the word “crisis” comes from the Greek word which means to “separate” or “sieve.” A crisis then “should be a moment of truth, the juncture at which a fundamental choice is made.” And the only way for us to make a wise choice is when we have long prepared for that crossroads.
Today, we are facing such a moment of truth. What’s happening to our country is a symptom of the systemic ills that we must overhaul. We should muster our collective will, and act deliberately and mindfully. UBI can serve as a catalyst. All we have to do now is educate ourselves, organize, and remain steadfast.
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