Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

RP Siegel headshot

Could Donald Trump Deliver a Universal Basic Income?

By RP Siegel

Three weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump has seemingly gone out of his way to alienate everyone who opposed him -- or perhaps just about everyone, period. Levels of dissatisfaction have reached the point that many would be unlikely to acknowledge Trump even if he did something truly beneficial for society. But then some might ask, what good could he possibly do?

Trump came in on a wave of domestic insurgency. If any mandate can be construed from his messy, purely technical win, it was to shake things up in Washington. And while he clearly does not have the interest of progressives at heart, Trump could end up inadvertently supporting a few progressive causes.

Much has already been written about the compelling business case for renewable energy. While Trump clearly prefers his energy dirty -- and made no mention of renewables in his so-called energy plan -- it would not be surprising to see some level of support for renewables emerge, if today’s reality is given a chance to sink in (always a question with this crew).

On a related note, a number of prominent Republicans came forward last week in support of a carbon tax. None of these men, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, are in the current administration. But they have reportedly spoken with administration officials about their plan. Current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has supported similar plans in the past.

The carbon tax plan, which would likely result in a quarterly check for most Americans, would presumably take the place of current carbon regulations. A similar measure recently failed in Washington state, defeated primarily by liberals who wanted the revenues to be used for energy efficiency, rather than being returned directly to taxpayers.

Finally, perhaps the most radical proposal of all is the idea of a universal basic income for every American.

The idea has been around for a while. Economist Milton Friedman proposed a universal basic income just after World War II. And the idea goes back historically to the writings of Thomas Moore and John Stuart Mill.

Perhaps its time has come.

Finland is trying the idea with 2,000 adults to see how it works. Ontario, Canada, is also starting up a pilot. Switzerland put the idea up for a vote last summer, but it was soundly defeated. Yet the idea has a surprising amount of support in the U.S., not only among progressives, but also among conservatives who see it as a preferable to the “welfare state.”

Is it time for a universal basic income in the U.S.?

You would think this kind of talk would be limited to socialist blogs. However, as the libertarian Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “I think that a [universal basic income] is our only hope to deal with a coming labor market unlike any in human history and that it represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.”

Indeed, the forces of a world economy in transition -- causing a split between old and new orders, with workers caught in the middle -- was the impetus that propelled Donald Trump to the White House. The answer is clearly not as simple as talking tough, building walls or restricting immigration.

However, even on the left, some faint cries can be heard for some reasonable level of protectionism in light of these changes. Check out Colin Hines’s thinking on the subject. A contributor to the Guardian newspaper, Hines believes that some level of restriction on immigration will be necessary to promote the flourishing of local economies.

But it’s not just global trade that has siphoned off American jobs. Everywhere you look, you see technology where workers once stood. Whether it’s ATM machines, automated checkout lines, factory robots or, soon, driver-less taxis and trucks, all those lost wages are going directly into the pockets of business owners.

Is it not the role of government to try and make things more fair?

The pros and cons of a universal basic income

Iain Murray is the Competitive Enterprise Institute's vice president of strategy. He writes in the National Review that he, too, is “leaning” toward supporting a universal basic income (UBI).

Murray argues that libertarians support the idea because they “see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.”

Michael Strain, who is against it, lays out the following pros for the policy in the Washington Post:

  • Far less government bureaucracy

  • No stigma for recipients

  • Personal responsibility for how the money is spent

  • No penalty for supplementing income

  • A base of economic security for all (oddly, he makes this point last)

Despite these potential benefits, Strain says he can’t support it because, “In a UBI world, those who choose to work will support those who choose not to – not those who can’t work, but those who won’t. This really would be a world of makers and takers.”

Strain says he simply can’t abide the idea that the wealth of some could bring comfort to the poverty of others -- arguing this is somehow unfair, despite the fact that it's already what happens, albeit quite imperfectly, in our current system.

CEI’s Murray disagrees, taking comfort in the fact that the basic income stipends would be meager enough to dispel the sense of blatant unfairness:  “[The] entitlement would almost certainly not give people enough money to shirk work," he wrote. "It would avoid people starving on the streets, but it wouldn’t enable them to do much more.”

While conservatives seem to be more concerned about the rich feeling put upon, liberal supporters tend to focus more on the benefits to the poor. UBI can help reduce inequality and provide a safety net for all Americans, they argue. Plus, being a fixed amount, it would proportionately help the poorest among us the most.

Another advantage, proponents say, is that since a UBI could mean that no one is starving, our leaders might be less willing to sacrifice everything under the sun in the name of jobs. It would also fit perfectly with today's growing gig economy.

How would a universal basic income work?

Writing in the Huffington Post, UBI advocate Scott Santens says the policy will make the market more efficient by allowing the poor to vote with their dollars, something they could not do before.

The stipend would initially be small: He estimates around $1,000 per adult, per month, which would at least be enough to avoid starvation.

Santens cites a UBI pilot study conducted in Namibia in the wake of the financial crisis. The results after one year were quite remarkable. Child malnutrition dropped from 42 percent to 10 percent. School attendance increased while crime dropped by over 36 percent. Poverty declined from 97 percent to 43 percent. Even unemployment dropped.

Although some conservatives seem to expect that UBI grants would lead to fewer people working, the converse turned out to be true in Namibia. Perhaps the increased amount of money in circulation helped the business climate. It turns out there’s another reason.

Santens cleverly points out that when people choose to work, rather than having to work, they are far more motivated and may well end up more successful. Much has been written about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, intrinsic being far more powerful.

He makes another great point here:

“In the 21st century, as we continue quickly automating away half our jobs in the next 20 years   — jobs less cognitively-complex and more physically-laborious   — we need to enable ourselves to freely pursue our more creative and complex ventures.

"Some of the best work happening right now, is the stuff being done in our free time  —  that is unpaid  —  like Wikipedia and our many other open-source community creations, not to mention all the care work performed for our young and elderly.

"Basic income is a means of recognizing this unpaid work as having great societal value, and further enabling it.”

The bottom line

Maybe it all comes down to what kind of world to you want to live in. Some Americans remain immersed in the idea that life is hardscrabble and “dog-eat-dog is just the way it is.” This mindset has cost them so much that they can’t help being trapped in it

Perhaps the next generation will be able to see things differently.

This country has tremendous abundance, and it belongs to all of us -- not just the rivers and the forests and the mountains, but the economic abundance as well. That’s because so much of the core technology on which productivity is based was developed and paid for with taxpayer dollars -- not to mention the education system, infrastructure and security on which leading businesses depend. That’s money that we, and our parents and grandparents, contributed off the sweat of our brows. So a piece of all of it belongs to "we the people."

Teddy Roosevelt recognized that truth a hundred years ago, when it came to the nation’s natural treasures. Now, say the UBI supporters, it is time for a new leader to stand up and acknowledge that we are stronger as a nation when the great prosperity that all of us have worked to create is used, in part, to ensure that all of us are strong.

All that being said, is this a policy the Donald Trump administration will support? If Trump is consistently anything, it’s unpredictable.

There are those who think he might back a UBI. It would be one relatively easy way to fulfill his campaign promise to help the middle class recover some of what they lost financially over the past few decades.

If he wants to help the middle class, then many say a UBI is a much better idea than the tax cut he is now proposing. Indeed, it seems to fit many of the points Trump says he is aiming for: ending the status quo, reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and ending corporate welfare.

Trump has yet to connect those dots, but it could happen. If he does, the outcome, as with the healthcare law, will be in the details. But in America, anything is possible.

If it doesn’t happen during Trump’s time, then perhaps it will be one of the many things that happen afterward, as support for these policies seems to be growing steadily.

Image credit: Joe Green: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


Read more stories by RP Siegel