UBI is Owed to Us

Michael Anthony Lewis

Professor, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center

My previous post, entitled “Why UBI,” focused on the main arguments I’ve seen in support of the proposal. This one will focus on arguments for UBI too. However, the ones I’ll discuss here are sufficiently different from the ones I discussed before that they warrant a separate treatment. 

What all of the arguments I’ll discuss in this post have in common is that they claim that UBI is owed to us. That is, a UBI shouldn’t be granted to us because it will promote freedom, facilitate care work, prevent poverty, address automation, promote racial justice, or promote an efficient or more sustainable economy (see https://usbig.net/why-ubi/). A UBI should be granted to us because it is rightfully ours. The place to start with such arguments is Alaska’s permanent fund dividend. 

Each year Alaska’s residents receive an allotment of money, called the “permanent fund dividend,” from the state government. The dividend isn’t conditioned on “work,” nor does it depend on people’s incomes. That is, every resident of the state gets a certain amount of money just for being an Alaskan. Using Basic Income Earth Network’s definition of “basic income,” which is the same as the JAIN Family Institute’s definition of “guaranteed income,” Alaska’s dividend is a basic income that’s “universal” in the sense that it goes to all residents of the state. The permanent fund dividend is justified in the following way.

Alaska, for years, has been a plentiful source of oil. This has resulted in a number of oil companies setting up shop there to gain access to this resource. What the state of Alaska has done is to declare that this oil doesn’t just belong to oil companies but to all Alaskans. That is, every resident of Alaska is effectively a shareholder in the oil companies which are located there. So, residents are owed a share in any profits these oil companies make. The way these profits are allocated to state residents is that 1) oil companies pay a tax 2) that tax is invested in a diversified portfolio and 3) some of the returns are allocated to residents as a dividend.  

Another variation of the “UBI is owed to us” idea comes from Peter Barnes. Following the example of Alaska, Barnes argues that the atmosphere, presumably only that part which hovers above the U.S., as well as the electromagnetic spectrum, are natural resources, which belong to all U.S. residents. That is, he advocates a national version of Alaska’s dividend. So, when private companies emit carbon as well as other chemicals into our atmosphere or communications companies profit from using our electromagnetic spectrum, they owe us our share of those resources just as oil companies owe Alaska’s residents a share of oil profits. This should be implemented by imposing a fee on companies and distributing the proceeds of that fee to each of us in the form of a dividend.

A third variation on the “UBI is owed to us” theme comes from engineer James Felton Keith (JFK). Here the idea that’s emphasized isn’t that oil or other natural resources belong to all of us, although Keith may believe that they do. The focus is on how, in the data science/machine learning age, so many companies’ profits rely on their uses of data which come from all of us. Yet these companies are currently under no obligation to allocate any part of these profits to us, although our data helped make those profits possible. It’s unjust for companies to profit from an input yet not provide compensation to the owners of that input. So, by not paying us for our data, companies are acting unjustly. A fee imposed on those companies and allocated to all of us in the form of a dividend is the way to right this wrong.    

There are other “UBI is owed us” arguments out there, but these are the ones I’ve heard most often. I’ve now written two posts on arguments for UBI. Something that may have occurred to those who’ve read both is possible tensions between pro-UBI arguments. For example, in the previous post, I said that conservationists may support UBI because it could curtail the economic growth that’s threatening our natural environment. Yet I’ve said here that one reason some people support UBI is that it amounts to granting us our share of the natural environment. It shouldn’t be too hard to see the tension between these two positions. 

If people come to view the natural world as belonging to them and, therefore, expect a share of profits companies make from exploiting that world, that might lead to a very pro-growth, instead of anti-growth, mindset. Conservationist supporters of UBI probably wouldn’t be happy about this. So, even though UBI supporters may all agree on the need for such a policy, at least some of them may need to iron out some important differences. 

1 reply
  1. Jeff Smith
    Jeff Smith says:

    Amigo, you can’t have Alaska! BIGists, keep hands off. Alaska is a _rent_ share, not a budget expenditure. People already living off other people’s taxes don’t easily see the difference. But it’s huge. The public can see it. Hence the resistance. They simply don’t want another big fat budget expenditure. But a dividend. From surplus. From natural surplus (oil rent). Or from social surplus (location rent). That’s a different story. Show people there is a surplus, and they’ll _demand_ a share. And BIGists can retire to nice easy, comfy just world. Right?


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