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10 Grand. Just for breathing.

10 Grand. Just for breathing.

John Donvan
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Here’s a nice what-if:

What if a system existed where you were offered $10,000 a year for life, no strings attached? Really, you don’t have to do anything special to get the money – and that includes not having to work for it. Just be alive, and be an American. And an added bonus: nobody’s telling you how to spend it. You can blow it on a vacation, invest in stocks, or pay down your college tuition.

Here’s a bigger what-if:

What if this was an actual government program available to everybody? Seriously, I’m talking a universal $10k per year that leaves out no one: young people, old people, poor, middle class -- they all qualify for the annual $10k, starting at, say, age 21, and then for life. Which means that, at your 80th birthday – if you make it that far -- you’ll have pulled in almost $600,000 from this program. And if you happen to belong to a household shared by four adults, you’ll start every year together with a collective cushion of 40 grand.

It turns out that this strange-seeming animal of an entitlement has been in the talking stages for decades, and it has an agreed upon name: the universal basic income, or UBI. Its proponents have ranged from Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King Jr. And don’t assume it’s crazy pipedream stuff today. Only last year, voters in Switzerland held a referendum on doing it there. And in Canada, the government of Ontario plans to run a pilot UBI program any day now. And, a true measure of the concept’s relevance: we are debating its merits this Wednesday, when we are putting four smart debaters on our New York stage, and taking on this motion:

The Universal Basic Income Is the Safety Net of the Future

And right there in that language, you’re seeing one piece of the argument: that in the not too distant future, a great deal of work as we know it will disappear for us, as it is taken over by artificial intelligence (by the way, see our debate covering that scenario here). Proponents of the UBI say it will be a matter of survival that the government gives everyone a floor to stand on. Some suggest $10,000, while others propose more or less than that.

Opposition to the idea, as you can imagine, is pretty fierce. Where is this amazing amount of money supposed to come from, it is asked. And what happens to the moral fiber of the nation if some people take their $10K and flake off? Is it not a disincentive to work very hard, when the government is there to guarantee a decent portion of support?

Some good questions, I think, which should make for a lively debate. You can read in on this debate, if you visit our research section here.

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