Credit: Flickr/Russell Shaw Higgs. Some rights reserved.
If we took all of the income the United States makes in a year and divided it by the total number of Americans, then every woman, man, and child would be making over $50,000. That’s over $200,000 for a family of four.
If we wiped the slate clean and took all of the personal net wealth of the United States and divvied it up among every American with a heartbeat, each person would receive over $250,000 as a nest egg.
Let’s take a second to think about those numbers. Even though nearly 40 per cent of the country doesn’t work in paid employment and 46 per cent couldn’t come up with $400 if their life depended on it, the ‘average’ American apparently pulls in $55,000 a year and has a cool quarter-of-a-million Dollars in assets. The national poverty line is defined as just below $12,000 per year for an individual.
Does it surprise you to learn how much wealth there is in this country, or how rich the top one percent really are?
These facts should make it clear that we already have the resources to eradicate poverty if we want to. It wouldn’t require a revolution. It would only require an adjustment of our priorities in favor of a Universal Basic Income or UBI.
UBI is a serious solution that simply and elegantly delivers an economic floor of security to every person in society. As these figures show, we can easily afford it, so it should be a no-brainer on the basis of both logic and human decency.
Right now the UBI movement is exploding. It’s founded on the idea that everyone in a civilized society has an inalienable right to the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter and healthcare, and that the most effective way to guarantee those rights is through a regular cash stipend to each individual. In the US a good starting point for a full UBI would be around $12,000 a year for every adult, with a smaller amount provided for each child.
Beyond human decency, there are myriad other arguments to be made in favor of UBI: economic stimulus and sustainability, improved health outcomes, reduced crime, more community action, higher creativity, more self-fulfillment, more participation in politics, and more flexibility to spend time with and care for our children and loved ones when they need us.
Even Silicon Valley is pushing hard for it as a way to help people through the coming times of job displacement due to automation, since recent estimates forecast that we will lose up to half of our jobs to machines in the next 20 years. Basic income pilots are popping up all around the world, doing important research to test these claims and measure the efficacy of direct cash giving under a host of different scenarios.
But here’s the thing: the US has just witnessed a presidential election in which large numbers of voters rebelled against the technocrats and political elites on both sides of the aisle who have ruled America for decades. These voters felt ignored and decided to push back. What’s to say that UBI won’t be seen as another technocratic solution handed down by the same political class from Washington DC? If so, it would probably be doomed.
The UBI movement must avoid the establishment’s tendency to overestimate its own influence and take everyone else for granted, of valuing the support of billionaires and corporations above all else. Basic income is a policy of, by, and for the people, and to succeed it’s going to have to have the support of the great mass of those people, both Democrats and Republicans.
I care less about convincing another tech whiz kid CEO, veteran venture capitalist, or Nobel laureate economist to join the movement, and much more about bringing on board farmers in Missouri, displaced coal miners in West Virginia, and schoolteachers in Wisconsin. This is necessarily politics after all, not just economics and philosophy. To win a Universal Basic Income we must eventually pass legislation, and in order to do so people will have to stand up and demand it across the political divide.
So how do we handle the politics of UBI? My partner and I are filmmakers. Politics runs on storytelling, and we see film and visual media as the most powerful storytelling tool available today. So we’ve decided to make a film about UBI, a documentary film, but what kind of documentary?
It can’t just be for and about the experts and the reams of historical evidence; great research doesn’t rivet an audience. Statistics alone don’t capture hearts and minds or make an emotional connection that’s powerful enough to overcome the opposition. I’ll wager that every single one of the films you remember most vividly in your life, those that have had the most impact on you, have revolved around human stories, not talking heads and facts.
What’s more, they were likely not simple snapshots of people in interesting situations. They were rich character studies, following unexpected plot lines, and ultimately culminating in some kind of growth or change. An effective documentary about UBI must do the same.
And it also needs to honestly address the elephant in the room: some people’s fears about subsidizing laziness in others. While I expect a world with a Universal Basic Income would be freer and more productive—populated by more effective and intrinsically-motivated human beings—others might forecast a world of entitled do-nothings living off the work ethic of a noble few. If we want to prove them wrong we had better provide some evidence to back our claims.
This is the point of the trials that have already happened, or are underway or are coming soon around the world. But how much can a study of UBI in a rural Kenyan village or an already generous Scandinavian social support system offer to Americans? Even successful results in the trial that’s currently taking place in Oakland, California might not hold much water in making the case to a Montana rancher or a manufacturing worker from the Rust Belt.
So instead, what we’ve decided to do is to create a new basic income pilot program specifically for our film, crafted for the sole purpose of telling diverse American stories from all walks of life: a farmer, a student, an athlete, a new family, a manufacturing worker, a police officer, an artist, a teacher, a veteran and a retiree.
We want to know and show what all of them do with a floor of security to stand on. Each participant will receive a basic income of $1,000 per month for two years, and we’ll check in with them regularly, recording their achievements, failures, choices, and growth in their daily lives.
Watch the trailer for Bootstraps.
However, we aren’t billionaires or celebrities, and this film will boast no A-list stars. We’re artists and journalists, and so we need your help. While the big political movers and shakers would consider our $600,000 pilot budget miniscule, it’s an unachievable fortune for everyday Americans. So if you are invested in the idea of a brighter future through UBI please give a few dollars to the campaign to fund our pilot, and share this article widely.
As a former engineer, one of UBI’s greatest appeals for me has to do with human optimization. When people are operating through anxiety, they lose 10-15 IQ points. When they are worried about survival, they aren't dreaming about what they can offer to the world. We are currently turning people into diminished versions of themselves through the systems that we’ve built, but it needn’t be that way.
We can invest in them and support them to bring their best selves to the challenges they face. If we expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the least we can do is provide the boots and a solid floor to stand on. When everyone around us has that same fair footing, we’ll all stand taller together.
You can make a contribution to the Bootstraps campaign here.