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Unconditional basic income as the motor of a more sustainable economy?

A commentary by Georg Schuermann

A commentary by Georg Schuermann

Can an unconditional basic income be the answer to changes to global employment? It depends on how it’s implemented. A commentary by Georg Schuermann, managing director of the Triodos Bank in Germany.

Creating value is based on human labour in our society. How close this relationship will be in future is difficult to say. Algorithms and robots already perform many tasks that used to require human labour better than any human could and this phenomenon is becoming ever more prevalent. Rapid digitalisation and automation in the workplace is accompanied by fear of loss of employment. Will human labour be needed in future? Can we find employment in some other area or is it already time to introduce a completely different economic system that does not have gainful employment as its primary feature?

This is where an unconditional basic income may play a role. It envisages everyone having a secure basic livelihood without having to work for it. The concept is the subject of increasing debate. In Switzerland a referendum on its introduction failed but gave the discussion new impetus. Finland introduced a test of the idea in early 2017 and Utrecht in Holland is experimenting with the idea. The “My basic income“ initiative that regularly holds a lottery with a prize of a basic income of €1,000.00 for a year is another interesting variant. The idea is receiving increasing support from business.

“I’m sure most people would make good use of an unconditional basic income that gave them more liberty than hitherto and would make productive contributions to society as a whole”

Georg Schuermann

What are we to make of all this? An unconditional basic income mustn’t be a neoliberal sleight-of-hand intended to save social security benefits and replace them with a low basic income. It should not relieve employers of responsibility for their employees. It must not result in any loss of labour rights or increased dumping of wages or salaries. If it did it would be a step back.

Properly implemented, an unconditional basic income could promote positive change in our economic system as it results in human potential currently needed for gainful employment being released. Many critics claim, however, that it would promote laziness. People would simply put their feet up and not be motivated to do anything for themselves. I’m not convinced by such arguments. I’m sure most people would make good use of an unconditional basic income giving them more liberty than hitherto and would make productive contributions to society as a whole.

unconditional basic income

Georg Schuermann is managing director of the Triodos Bank in Germany.

Why do I think so? Because I see proof daily. Triodos Bank clients want to change the world with the money they entrust to us. They want to invest in renewable energy, nursing homes, schools and biological agriculture. In short, to change our society together with us. Our client base is increasing all the time.

Financing of an unconditional basic income is a matter of fierce dispute. Critics say the idea is completely unrealistic. Many studies assume the opposite. An unconditional basic income can be implemented in many ways that have been thoroughly investigated, including by combining social benefits and via taxation. The realisation of the idea seems to me more a political than an economic question.

Many people are unhappy with our current economic system. Its lack of equity is worsening – as, for example, the economist Thomas Piketty has proven. The gap between rich and poor is widening more rapidly than twenty years ago. Conventional banks are part of the problem. Far too much money flows into the financial markets and too little into the real economy. This is one of the reasons people come to us and other sustainable banking institutions.

The will to make changes is there.

The chances of individuals achieving their good intentions are greatly improved by an unconditional basic income. It could lead to an economy making our society much more equitable. One that isn’t solely based on maximising profits but on human, animal and environmental welfare. Many polls show this is just what people want. What’s lacking is large scale implementation. A lot’s going on – but not enough. An unconditional basic income could change this state of affairs. It releases resources. The first evaluation of the experts in Finland and Holland will be extremely interesting. We’ll soon know more.

What do you think of "Unconditional basic income as the motor of a more sustainable economy?"

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Brian Connors 4 years ago

I think it is the way to go but do see it being abused by companies, at least in the UK . Plus it would need a socialist government to even start thinking about it

jayne Murphy 4 years ago

It is the next absolutely necessary evolutionary step in the right direction. I am tired of meeting young people who cannot feed themselves and feel totally useless. It would I believe help create a healthier population. It feels very much like a pipe dream though.

Marion 4 years ago

Absolutely essential as is education in food production, and more people will be able to afford to teach, pass on their skills and volunteer.

Susan Dennis 3 years ago

No opinion yet!

Oriole Parker-Rhodes 3 years ago

I love it, BUT I don’t believe that1000 euros is not sufficient to live on in the UK, even in cheap accommodation, 2nd hand clothes and a simple diet.

Chris Wagland 3 years ago

Brian is right. A socialist government would be needed for it to even be considered and the chance of that happening in the near future is just about zero. Tactical voting in the upcoming election might help but is unlikely to provide the full answer and I can see no prospect of anything but a very right wing Tory government for at least the next five years and probably longer. Nevertheless the basic income is a target well worth striving for and perhaps in time …….

Richard Flynn 3 years ago

I think it would face many of the challenges that the current benefits system is seeing. It would have to go hand-in-hand with a revamped educational system, one that motivated and encouraged people of all backgrounds and capabilities, to make something of themselves. But it’s a really important idea, to make sure that everyone has a basic level of security, from which they can work more easily at finding something useful to do in, and for, the world of which they are a part. It may help solve the growing sense of alienation and disconnection (part of the problem of materiality in our culture).