Opinion

Paul McNamee: The robots leading us on a bargain hunt

"The big question at heart remains how Universal Basic Income would be funded"

Blame the robots. The idea of a Universal Basic Income has been around for a while – a couple of centuries in one way or another. And every now and then it has taken wings, mostly in Europe. The Swiss had a referendum on in 2016. They voted against it. Finland is currently running a trial.

As the threat of automation taking jobs and many of us wondering how we’re going to make ends meet following the march of the machine has grown, Universal Basic Income has become a more focused talker. Certainly, some of the Silicon Valley billionaires, like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg – the very chaps helping accelerate an automation expansion – have been expressing interest.

The idea is simple. Everybody receives the same level of income from the government. In its idealised form, this is a flat amount, not means tested, not dependent on need. For those on the left it’s a much more equitable means of providing the poorest with a platform to lift themselves up. It breaks the welfare trap. For those on the right, it makes welfare provision simpler and allows those who pay in to benefit too. They see it as open to all, rather than operated by an interfering, expensively bureaucratic paternalistic State.

The Finnish trial is interesting, if not entirely revealing yet. There are 2,000 people on it. Each of them receives around £475 a month. They are unemployed, so the trial is as much about seeing how this income impacts their freedom to earn, perhaps be entrepreneurial and have a chance to grow, rather than be under pressure to apply for jobs that may be unsuitable or unattainable. It’s a two-year trial and they are only halfway through. As part of the scheme, those on it are not being contacted during it.

At present, the Scottish Government is looking into possible trials. Independent thinktank Reform Scotland has been agitating for this. They have suggested a flat income of £5,200 per year. This could get interesting.

The big question at heart remains how Universal Basic Income would be funded. A multibillion pound annual outlay of this nature would then require a huge tax hike – not always the most welcome move. And if the jobs diminish, where will the tax come from? Bill Gates has suggested that the replacement robots are taxed.

The societal changes could be profound. If the basic income existed, would the need for many charities immediately disappear? Would it sweep away foodbanks all at once? Would The Big Issue cease? What would be do with our time? Would we all sit around in our pants every day eating Toblerone and watching Bargain Hunt? Would we even need Bargain Hunt? Does any of this matter as our machine overlords slowly wipe us out, keeping only a few necessary boffins to fix glitches from time to time? Will Brexit have actually happened by then?!

I don’t think the Finnish trial will answer ALL of these questions. But the, rather dry, subject of basic income is going to become a fundamental issue for us all. It’s inevitable. Blame the robots.

Join The Ride Out Recession Alliance

The Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) will develop and implement practical steps and solutions to prevent families losing their homes, and help people remain in employment.

Learn More

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Purists might baulk, but Sam Smith headlining BBC Proms opens a pathway to classical music
Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Claire Jackson

Purists might baulk, but Sam Smith headlining BBC Proms opens a pathway to classical music

We need more women MPs – but we can't just expect women to stand for election. We must act
Lyanne Nicholl

We need more women MPs – but we can't just expect women to stand for election. We must act

Poverty prevention is our best hope. Here's some tangible ways to keep people warm, dry and fed
Tom Clark

Poverty prevention is our best hope. Here's some tangible ways to keep people warm, dry and fed

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?
Paul McNamee

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know