Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income and You

In 2007 I was part of a group that met weekly. The facilitator, the person who made the arrangements for the space and led the group, said little about himself during the meetings. Once when I arrived early I asked him what he did between the meetings. He said he was in a post-graduate program. I asked what his area of study was. It was Universal Basic Income.

I remembered reading about Universal Basic Income. “Good luck,” I said. He gave me a look and I added, “I think it’s a good idea, but it will be really hard to get it.” He was used to hearing that. Others began arriving and we didn’t have time to talk about it more.

In 2017 there was a TED Talk with Rutger Bregman, titled Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash presenting the concept of Universal Basic Income. This is interesting, I thought, but still, would it ever be part of society in our lifetimes? I have an archive of more than ten years of TED Talks. After seeing the recent interest in the topic on the internet, I re-viewed the 2017 video.

Here is that video:


Rutger Bregman’s 2017 TED Talk

The topic of Universal Basic Income has surfaced and is being talked about all over the internet and media, including talk shows and a candidate for president in the 2020 election, Andrew Yang. The subject can’t be avoided, but will it take hold for real?

I often wonder what happens with ideas on TED Talks. I looked for info on Rutger Bregman. It turns out he is not only a cute TED-talker. He is a passionate advocate for Universal Basic Income.

Rutger Bregman gave another TED Talk, this one in Maastricht the site of the signing of the European Union treaty. In this talk he elaborated on a different example of Universal Basic Income. Here is the audio1 from that talk:


TEDx Maastricht audio

And a link to the TEDx Maastricht video.

Following that talk he was invited to a conference in Davos, the World Economic Forum, ostensibly to talk about his book, Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. Frustrated with the proceedings at the conference he brought up the subject of taxes. After upsetting the participants at the conference he was invited to appear on Fox News by Tucker Carlson who was at the conference. Paraphrasing one part of the conversation, Carlson: “people fly in on private jets to talk about global warming and you talk about taxes”; Bregman: “it was like going to a fire fighters conference and not being allowed to talk about water.”

A segment of the show with Tucker Carlson was cut out, but showed up on the internet. Here is the improved audio from that clip:


Rutger Bregman and Tucker Carlson clip

Rutger then appeared on Late Night with Trevor Noah where a clip from the World Economic Forum at Davos was played. Here is that clip of Rutger Bregman at the Davos conference


Rutger Bregman at Davos clip

And the Trevor Noah episode with Rutger Bregman.

This reminded me of another TED Talk, by Douglas Rushkoff. It is not specifically about Universal Basic Income, but it sounded like he was at the same conference, though perhaps not at the same time as Rutger Bregman. If it was the same conference, it gives further context to the above clips. Here is a link if you would like to see it: Douglas Rushkoff: Team Human.

Does Universal Basic Income have a chance of becoming real now? Let’s see.

Bernie Sanders sponsors a bill in congress called “Scrap the Cap”. This is about the cap on Social Security. Actually there are three different caps involved. There is the cap on the Social Security payout, a cap on gross earnings from employment before a two-tiered reduction occurs on the payout, and there is a cap on the payroll deduction where, over a certain amount of earnings, there is no longer a deduction. These will need clarification, but Bernie Sanders has said, “I don’t know how anyone lives on $13,000 dollars a year.” And not everyone who receives Social Security gets “the cap”.

I used to listen to a podcast, (World Business Report, defunct now) wherein the host frequently mentioned that he thought Social Security payments should be increased. He said this increase would be spent and immediately help the economy.

There is, in 2019, a presidential candidate calling for and claiming he would institute a “Freedom Dividend” which would be his version of Universal Basic Income. This candidate is Andrew Yang. His slogan is MATH: Make America Think Harder. He references Rutger Bregman’s TED Talk. Yang echoes Bregman’s statements in the 2017 TED Talk; he does not offer any of his own research on the subject, but he does present a plan unique to his campaign. On his 2020 election website one post gives us the example of a couple with two children and who receive less than $600 a month; the ages of the couple and their children is not given. I caught a phrase in the post that said, “wouldn’t they rather have this than that?” What does that phrase mean? I did the Think Harder thing and explored exactly what Andrew Yang means and I found a flaw in the math, a big gaping, ironic flaw. Here is a series of clips from one interview, edited together from Yang’s appearance on The Breakfast Club:


Andrew Yang at The Breakfast Club clips

Yang would give everyone $1000.00 a month, everyone EXCEPT the poorest of the poorest people in America; they do not get $1000.00 a month over and above their basic living expenses like Everyone Else, and in fact those people would potentially lose some benefits that are based on income, such as food stamps, subsidized child care, and subsidized housing in exchange for at most a few hundred dollars, leaving them with hard choices to make.

Yang originally had it so only people up to age 65 were eligible for the $1000.00 per month “Freedom Dividend”.

Further in the interview Yang is asked if the $1000.00 a month would adjust with inflation. He says no. He continued that there has been no inflation on basic consumer goods. There has been some recent inflation, but so far it has been minimal. Inflation will likely change rapidly when the current administration’s tariffs trickle down to consumer level. There are exceptions, he says, in Housing, Education, Health Care. He says he would forgive most student debt, Medicare for All will take care of health care, but housing – which affects everyone – is due to zoning and other factors that he blows past and changes the subject.

On top of this flaw in Yang’s math, which he calls a technological dividend and paid for by the advances in technology and taxing tech companies, he would also impose a “value added” tax that all consumers would pay, further reducing the “value” of the $1000.00 a month. In the end, the host of the show, Charlemagne, says to Yang, “You’re a great disruptor.”

Not long ago I encountered a man on the street rattling a paper coffee cup with what sounded like a few coins in it. He walked briskly past me and went around the corner. A few minutes later he came back and we started talking. He said he lived in Brooklyn. I asked him what it was like. He said I wouldn’t want to live there, it wasn’t safe. I thought Brooklyn was cool, I said. Not where I live, he said. We continued talking for several minutes. He seemed mentally and physically healthy, in his 40’s, intelligent and friendly. I mentioned this and asked why was he doing this, wasn’t there something else he could do besides the coffee cup thing. He said something about the government, stopped and, as if he had just thought of something, became defensive. I told him I understood, “you’re on SSI, I’m not an inspector.” He nodded yes and relaxed and we talked more. I asked if this was the beginning of his day or the end of his day (it was near dawn by now). He said it was the end of his day and left soon after. Andrew Yang’s “Freedom Dividend”, as it is, will have no affect on someone in his position. He will still need to beg on the street with an empty coffee cup to supplement his income.

It will be better to start by getting support in Congress for a Universal Basic Income. One way to do that is to, for example, if you are in New York, vote for James Felton Keith who supports a Universal Basic Income with a slightly (or more) different approach.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said she pays her congressional staff a living wage: $52,000.00 a year. Keith’s disrict is next to the district Ocasio-Cortez represents.


  1. You can download a zip of all the audio files on this page here.  ↩