Author Archives: Jasper Bergink

The robots are coming. What purpose do we have left?

A life without purpose is no life all.

Our purpose – a key element of a happy and fulfilling life – could be radically overturned by the rise of robots. Automation and artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are threatening work and the economy as we know it. With that, even our happiness levels could be at risk.

The robots are coming

A seminal study on the future of employment by Frey and Osborne of 2013 put the figure of US jobs that could be automated by the early 2030s at around 47%. Imagining that about 1 in 2 employees lose their jobs is massive, but it is an average. For some sectors, like truck drivers or cab drivers, the figures are 70% or higher. If self-driving cars deliver on their promise, they will drastically reduce, or even eliminate, deathly car accidents. They will also radically cut employment in a sector that now represents about 3% of the US economy, and offers people with low education access to a middle-class lifestyle.

The gastronomy sector is another example. In a few years, you can order your pizza capricciosa online, and have it delivered home without any human intervention (we’re already almost there, though we still need a few humans). The dough could be prepared by one robot, the stuffing and sauces by a second, a third could bake it, and it could be delivered to your doorstep by driverless vehicle. Hygiene and efficiency would increase. For a capitalist, it is great: robots can work 24/7, without asking a salary, requesting additional training, getting bored, or going on strike.

White collar jobs are also at risk

But it’s not only blue collar jobs that can lose out. Also part of complicated jobs, like lawyers, accountants or radiologists can be automated. Again, their performance can be better than of humans. A well-programmed (or ‘trained’, through machine learning), robot accountant does not make the mistakes a human makes. A robot radiologist sees more cases during its training that a human during their entire career, and scores better in its diagnoses. These are just some examples: robots might also threaten your job, because humans can be beaten in every repetitive task.

Dramatic social effects

All these developments have massive social and economic effects. If robots take over so much of the current work, what will we do? Can we create new jobs for the 47%? Or will only be half the population be able to be employed? The demand-and-supply laws would posit that salaries would go down. Only those who control robots, the new means of production, would earn good salaries. Inequality would massively increase. This development is already visible in places like San Francisco. A four-person family with an income below $105,00o is now considered poor.

Maybe the entire economy would collapse. If only few people work and earn salaries, who can afford to consume of all products and services that robots produce? Henry Ford’s production line only started to take off when he realised that he needed to pay his staff enough to buy his T-Fords. Supply is nowhere without demand.

A new social contract?

Many in the tech industry, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg spoke out on basic income as a tool to protect those who lose out. In an interview last year, Bill Gates advocated a robot tax: “The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory has his income taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. Policy makers, such as San Francisco counsellor Jane Kim, have started to think what it could look like. Basic income might be part of the new social contract in a robot-driven economy – who knows?

What is our purpose?

At the moment, we have many more questions than answers. We know robots can do many parts of our jobs, and that some sectors are destined for radical transformation. But we don’t know what comes next. When coal mines in Western countries were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody could tell coal miners not to worry – we didn’t know yet that their children and grand-children could make a living as social media managers or YouTubers.

Similarly, the jobs that will be needed in the 2030s may not exist yet. At the same time, there are a few things that can give us hope. Coding is safe – robots cannot programme themselves (yet?). Social skills and social relations will remain important. And while robots are great in performing repetitive actions in situations they have seen before, they cannot (yet?) deal with completely new situations and decide what to do.

So, there are at least two avenues to find our purpose: one is to do the non-routine, creative work that is hard to automate (some creativity can be automated though – robots can create music and paintings). Another thing we can imagine is living the life as in Keynes vision – with a 15 hour working week, we can spend so much more time on holidays. There are a few big ifs – firstly, we need to have a new social contracts that allows it. Secondly, we  need to find a raison d’etre, a purpose outside work.

We should hurry to do so. The 2030s are close.

Finding happiness in unhappiness: “somehow, it will be” in Poland

Poland, my adopted home since four months, is a country of many associations, albeit often based on cliches. Your associations may be negative: you could think of the troubled history and ongoing struggle to find its place in Europe. They might be positive: a dynamic economy of hard working people valuing family and tradition.

Either way, Poland may not strike you as an extremely happy place. And you are right: Polish hovers somewhere around one-third in the World Happiness Report, ranking 46th out of 155 in the 2017 edition.

The Polish way of happiness

But how happy are Poles really? Is there a Polish way for happiness? These are some of the questions I wanted to research as I moved here.

In my search, I encountered a recent book written on the topic: “Somehow it will be: the Polish way of happiness”, or “Jakoś to będzie. Szczęście po Polsku”. I set out to meet one of the four authors, journalist Beata Chomątowska, to ask what this concept of ‘Jakoś to będzie’ means.

The book, which she co-wrote with Dorota Gruszka, Daniel Lis, and Urszula Pieczek, was born when they noticed a flurry of books on hygge had hit Polish book stores. “Why are Poles reading about hygge? Denmark is doing such a good job in advertising its country. We thought we could also show Poland and Jakoś to będzie as a source of happiness,” Chomątowska said.

The book thus inspires Poles (and foreigners) to take the old-Polish life philosophy to heart, rather than trying to be calm and light candles. The word ‘hyggeligt’ does not come in mind when thinking about Poland.

Jakoś to będzie

As Chomątowska told me,  Jakoś to będzie means something like ‘we will make it’, or ‘somehow it will be’. “It is the most appropriate title. Poles got used to deal with very hard circumstances, to be miserable. Regardless how bad it is, we will manage.”

(After being partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia, Poland disappeared from the map in 1795 and only returned in 1919. Twenty years later, World War II and then Communism followed. Poland again became a democracy in 1989).

The book then describes the ‘creative tensions’, or paradoxes, that Chomątowska and her co-authors see in their nation. They are hospitable to their guests, but quarrelsome among themselves. They are ingenuous, but desperate. They are working hard, but also enjoy festivities. All these elements make Poles Poles, and describe their approach to happiness.

Map of Poland filled with traditional folk pattern. Found on dekowizja.pl.

Map of Poland filled with traditional folk pattern. Found on dekowizja.pl.

Without danger, Poland does not thrive

According to Chomątowska, the Polish way of daily life is not made for happiness. She sees Poland as a ‘anti-hygge’ society that cannot live in stability. “Ordinary life is too boring. We can’t deal with it. We need the rush of adrenaline and can’t stand stability for a long time. We always had to fight and be active to reach our goals, like independence”. Without danger, Poland does not thrive.

That doesn’t bode well for happiness. But the picture is changing. Happiness levels tremendously increased in Poland, as the country is one of the biggest economic success stories of the last 25 years. The population enjoys higher salaries and higher wellbeing levels than before. While the country orients itself to Western Europe, Poland is now one of the happiest countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as Poles are often surprised to hear.

And there are more hopeful signs: a public debate on how a life should be well lived is slowly emerging. After the fall of capitalism, capitalism ran wild during the 1990s, but attitudes have been shifting since. “For twenty years, GDP was a fetish. But the younger generation is more aware that there is no sense in working 12 hours a day and run like a hamster in a wheel”.

Finding happiness in unhappiness

Whatever the future holds, Poles have an amazing skill, says Chomątowska:

“Poland is a land of paradoxes. We find happiness in unhappiness. We find it in actions to change our  circumstances because we don’t feel good. We have the ability to create something from nothing”.

And thus, jakoś to będzie. Somehow, it will be.

A dark portrayal of the rat race life can be

Interested in the pursuit of happiness? Take a few minutes to watch the video by artist and animator Steve Cutts.

Watched it? You’ll realise Cutts is an extremely sharp observer and critic of human society.

He paints a dark picture of the human pursuit of happiness. Far from finding real happiness, all our pursuits are temporary and doomed to fail. Whether it is consumer electronics, a brand new car, alcohol or drugs, nothing leads to lasting happiness. We always need stronger and stronger doses, or to switch to a heavier means of finding happiness. In the end, our desire to be happy – and chase money to afford it – enslaves us.

Cutts’ animation is a powerful narrative. And while he exaggerates and simplifies how we live our lives, he is asking some great questions: can humans be happy? Or is society dominating our choices to such an extent that true happiness is a mirage?

Can we escape from the rat race?

Nonetheless, I would like to turn the question around: is the rat race an inevitable result of your aspirations? Because I do not believe it is. Life doesn’t have to be a rat race. By making the right choices, one can achieve happiness on their own terms.

In some cases, it is very simple: enjoy your first or second glass of wine, but maybe don’t drink a full bottle by yourself. Be amazed about the possibilities of modern technology that a smartphone represents, but use them wisely, and don’t immediately switch to the next upgrade. And you can be dedicated to a great job, but don’t forget your work-life balance, and whether your job is right for you.

Be conscious of what makes you happy 

In his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the fast, or impulsive, brain functions that make most on the spot decisions of humans, and the slower, more reflective, functions humans use to think things over a bit more. Both fulfill a function: the fast brain pulls you away from a quickly-approaching car before you consciously realise what happens. But if you make big life choices – where to live, career, your partner – impulsively, they may not be right ones.

A conscious approach to what happiness is to you may be what pulls you out of the rat race.

My newsletter is back!

When I went for my ‘blogging sabbatical‘ in August 2016, I put my newsletter on hold.

Now I am back with fresh energy and ideas, and the newsletter is a great place to share some things that are not yet on the blog. To sign up, please fill the form here.

Few promises from my side: you won’t get emails more often than every six to eight weeks, and can unsubscribe anytime. And of course: no spam! That would be a waste of time for both of us.

Ready for a little dose of happiness straight to your mailbox? Leave me your details!

 

Schermafbeelding 2018-01-17 om 13.22.55

What would a once-per-50-years newspaper say on happiness?

I recently came across a brief podcast by the US National Public Radio (NPR) with an intriguing question.

Some of us have quit reading the news, as the endless updates about conflicts, natural disasters, political in-fighting, and abuse scandals make us depressed. (Sports news could balance it down a bit though, depending whether your team wins or loses).

The news is about what is uncommon – hence it is news – and often these are bad developments. In a time of online news and push notifications, we can get ‘new’ news in the time it takes to load a few tweets. As a result, we are a lot better informed about conflicts and disasters in many places we otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. But it might also make us lose the big picture on what is going well in the world.

That’s why the NPR jumped on an idea of Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie. The two are affiliated with Oxford University, and run a number-lovers’ paradise: Our World In Data. They came up with the idea: what would a newspaper consider as headline news if it appeared only once per fifty years?

 

The 50-year newspaper

The newspaper the NPR and Our World In Data made appeared on 1 January 2018, exactly fifty years after the previous edition of 1968.

It contains some bad news…

  • Is It Just Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? (on climate change, as human-induced greenhouse gas emissions rocket)
  • Humans to Animals: Drop Dead! (on biodiversity loss; the number of terrestrial animals declined by 60%)

… but also shows some of the great progress made in the last fifty years:

  • Poor No More (on poverty, which feel from 60% to 10% of the world population)
  • Child Mortality Plummets (in 1968, 1 out of 6 children died before their fifth birthday. With healthcare improving, it now is 1 out of 22)
  • Blame It On The Grain (on undernourishment; the population share with hunger fell from about one third to 12%)

 

What about happiness?

But what would the headline on happiness be in the paper of January 2018?

Fifty years after 1968, these are the headlines the newspaper should run:

  • Have You Jumped Out The Rat Race Yet? (on the growing awareness of people that they are in charge of their own well-being, but that they need to make important and difficult life style choices to achieve it)
  • Emerging Economies Show Massive Happiness Gains (the progress in fighting poverty, child mortality, and undernourishment across developing countries comes with a happiness dividend)
  • Free At Last! (on the transition towards democracy and self-determination in many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and former colonies)
  • Politicians and Bosses Say: Your Happiness Is My Command (on the growing attention for happiness and well-being as a policy issue for the state, and corporations increasing attention to happiness at work)
  • Materialism Out, Experiences In! (on the gradually changing habit of people to value and spend money on experiences such as trips or time with friends, and a lesser emphasis on consumer goods)

 

Bonus: what the 1968 papers actually said about happiness, referring to a creepily titled Beatles song.

american-rifleman-happiness-is-a-warm-gun_01-1

 

Set your Big Goal for 2018 and beyond

Just a few days to go, and 2018 is starting.

The last few days of the year are useful to look back in gratitude at what you achieved and experienced this year. At the same time, you can also look forward and determine if there are any Big Goals you would like to work on next year. New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?

Do you need some inspiration? We often can find it in people who do truly big things. That’s why I would like to share Jaco Ottink‘s inspiring story today. I met him a few weeks ago, and his talk prompted me to write about his Big Goal.

Seven Summits

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco dedicated twenty years of his life to his dream: climb the highest mountains of each continent. By 2015, he was almost there: he had the highest peaks of the North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australasia, and Antarctica covered. Only one summit was keeping him from realising his dream: the 8,848 meters of Sagarmatha in the borderlands between Nepal and Tibet – better known as Mount Everest. Getting there would make him the ninth Dutchman to climb these Seven Summits.

In Jaco’s story, there are three key lessons: preparation, perseverance, and setting the right goal.

Preparation

Step one of achieving your Big Goal is preparation. If you want to climb the Mount Everest, you need to be top fit. In Jaco’s case, it required months and months of training: running, weight-lifting, and lots more, for 25 hours per week.

And every single detail matters, so the gear had to be top notch too. You want to make sure that your sleeping bag and layers of clothes actually keep you warm when spending a lot of time below zero degrees. (Keep clothes in your sleeping bag, to prevent them from freezing in the tent). And between an ice hammer of 400 or 800 grammes, the best choice is obvious – every gramme of weight needs to make it to 8848 meters.

Perseverance

Without perseverance, you cannot achieve a Big Goal. When trying something as demanding as the Mount Everest, you inevitably will have setbacks. So, if he couldn’t train one day for some reason, he gathered the courage to do it double next day.

Support will be needed to persevere. Jaco told us his eyes almost froze one hour away from the top, and he felt he might not be able to reach the summit safely. It was the support of his sherpa that convinced him to go on – without him, he’d fail to meet his Big Goal.

Set the right goal

The notion of perseverance is also visible in Jaco’s definition of success: achieving something beyond your current means. But there’s more in it: to achieve a Big Goal, you must be sure you set the right one.

What is the goal of a mountain climber? Achieve the summit, you might say. But think again, it isn’t. The real goal is to return back safely, as unfortunately doesn’t happen to all who set off to climb Mount Everest. Hence, sometimes the right call might be to return to safety and abandon the expedition.

And what is your goal?

I gather most of you have more mundane ambitions than climbing Mount Everest. As Jaco tells his audience, your Big Goal could also be something to make you happy and proud in your daily life, such as spending enough quality time with your family (he is now a part-time inspirational speaker running a firm called Beyond Summits, part time stay at home dad). His next Big Goals might be a bit far off for most of us: he aims to travel to the North Pole, and to inspire 1,000,000 people with his story and workshops.

My own Big Goal is already a bit closer to the type of things you might have in mind: my objective is to learn Polish fluently. Not an easy one, given the complicated pronunciation, grammar and vocab of this Slavic language. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be a Big Goal. I have a few more years to go, but with preparation, perseverance, and maybe a little tweaking with the right goal, I should get there.

These are our goals – what is yours?

The unexpected ripe age of happiness

Life is a trap.

When you’re young, you’ve time and energy, but no money.

When you’re an adult, you’ve money and energy, but no time.

And in old age, you’ve finally have both money and time – but then your energy is gone.

At least, that’s how the online joke has it. Laughs aside, it also triggers an interesting question: what is the happiest stage of our life?

The age of happiness

The website Hospice End of Life Care is convinced there is. They collected data from various surveys (and kindly shared them in the neat infographic below!) showing that old age isn’t as gloomy as one might think. Beyond the cliches about lonely and depressed grandpa, the elderly often have lower levels of stress. They perform better on well-being indicators such as healthy eating and being energised from social contacts. And they’re even more confident about their looks!

One could cynically think: by the time you’re 70 or 80, you’re happy to be still around. Happiness scientists indeed are quite certain about the correlation of happiness and longevity. For instance, a 2015 study in the United States found that happy people tend to live longer. Compared to ‘very happy’ people, both people who consider themselves ‘pretty happy’ (+6%) and ‘not happy’ (+14%) had higher risks of death in the reference period.

Life expectancy is rising, and the share of the population above 65 grows ever larger. In the United States (15%, relatively low for the Western world), Germany (21%), and Japan (27%), over 65s represent an increasingly large share. So, the sample of over 65s grow and grow, and these figures are average across a wide range of values.

Are all older people happier?

It is not as simple as saying that all older people are happier everywhere around. In some geographies, that is indeed the case: people tend to be happy in their 20s, go down a bit in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, before picking up again in their 60s and 70s, resulting in a kind of U-shape.

Schermafbeelding 2017-12-03 om 20.13.44

However, their infographic at the end of the post uses American survey data. Globally, the US is a bit a different beast then many other countries. The World Happiness Report of 2015 studied the matter in some detail, as shown in the image just above. While the U-shape appears both across the North America and Australia/New Zealand (NANZ) region and East Asia, these are the exceptions worldwide.

In all other regions, happiness either stabilises at some point between people’s 30s and 50s, or continues to reduce. The reduction effect is strongest in the Central and Eastern Europe and former Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE & CIS in the graph).

Less stress and better rested

That, however, is not the full story. On some indicators for the positive emotions that underly happiness, older people seem to perform better, even where they are not among the happiest groups overall.

For instance, in many world regions they tend to smile and laugh more than other people. In old age, depression and especially stress levels fall far below their peak, around middle age. And in many regions, the elderly are among the best rested groups! Maybe those low energy levels are a just a myth, and we do have something to look forward to when growing older.

 The full infographic

HappinessIGFULLNOV

December, a month of kindness and happiness

It’s December again. Isn’t there a better time of the year to inspire happiness and kindness?

Random acts of kindness (and even those are more planned than random) greatly contribute to happiness. A thank you or a smile never hurt, and don’t even cost a thing!

As scientists have found, being kind or giving to others can result in moments of happiness. You could say that giving to others is both an altruistic and an egoistic act. As a giver, you benefit from it as well: giving simply makes you feel good!

The grass-roots movement Action for Happiness strongly believes in the power of, well, actions for happiness. We can’t always control how we feel, but taking positive actions can help us to feel happier.

In the season of advent candles and calendars counting down to Christmas, they came up with this amazing kindness calendar. Click the calendar to enlarge it and have a look at their tips. Feel inspired to have a kind December, and spread feelings of happiness around you!

Action for Happiness' Kindness Calendar. Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

Action for Happiness’ Kindness Calendar (click to enlarge). Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

How’s life in 2017? Social divisions result in lower happiness, finds OECD

How’s life?

It’s not only mother or your colleague who’s asking from time to time. Policymakers are interested, too.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) every year comes with thick studies to answer the question. Earlier this month, the 2017 edition was published, mapping how people in OECD countries feel about a bunch of things: jobs, health, safety, life satisfaction, and so on. Altogether, the datasets cover eleven broad indicators of the OECD Better Life Index.

These studies are important. Data is power, and having information on how people feel matters a great deal to making the world a better place. As the OECD says it: it helps achieving well-being for all.

So, how do we feel?

The answer is 6.5.

That is, on a ten-point scale, is the average life satisfaction for 2017, marginally lower than the 6.7 score shown in 2005. The small decline probably results of the interaction of a few steps forward and a few step backwards. For instance:

    • Incomes and earnings went up, by 8% and 7% respectively. But inequality remains strong: 1/3 of people would go in poverty if they had to miss three months of salary.
    • The employment rate went up by 1.3 percentage points, and working hours improved in most countries. But long-term unemployment got worse in half of the countries.
    • Since 2005, the number of smokers reduced from 22% to 18%. But the number of obese people increased from 22% to 24%.
    • Education levels see strong improvements. But voter turnout and trust in government decline in more than half the countries.

Well-being for all

A large part of the 2017 report is dedicated to equality. While debates about inequality are often about wealth and income, the OECD believes that inequality is felt in every area of our lives.

For instance, the richest 20% are advantaged in many well-being indicators:

  • Rich people spent 11 times more time on social activities than poor people
  • The top-20% has 5-fold higher household income than the bottom-20%
  • Life satisfaction is twice as high
  • And poorer people tend die a lot younger: the standard deviation in age at death is 13 years

And as a special section of the report shows, migrants particularly tend to be worse off.

This all matters, because more equal societies tend to be happier ones. While the situation is a bit scattered, there is some correlation between income equality and life satisfaction. In OECD data, the correlation is even stronger when inequality is plotted against the broad well-being indicators.

The American Dream vs Janteloven

Take the examples of the United States and Denmark. If you are successful in life, you can have all the American dream. The US is a ‘winners’ society: it is an extremely rewarding environment to build a business and prove yourself. Income taxes are low, and healthcare and social security provisions are bare. At the level of society, the payoff in happiness is not too high. America ranks 14th in the World Happiness Report, with an average below 7 out of 10. Not that great, one might say.

Denmark, to the contrary, is a society that also wants to make ‘losers’ thrive. It offers a strong social security system, that’s even a factor contributing to high happiness. Denmark also wants to offer a good life to people that ‘fail’ in life. Indicative for the Danish way of looking at success is the ‘Janteloven’, or Law of Jante. Janteloven is a list of ten rules that basically boil down to: don’t imagine you’re someone, we’re all the same, and you’re not worth anything. Though, depressingly, the sense of equality it instills helps contributing to a balanced, and happy, society. Denmark often ranks on top of the happiness list, finding itself back at 2 in 2017.

Data to learn from

Either way, Americans and Denmark are both as they are. Even cultural differences in our thinking about inequality could affect our happiness. Beyond books and articles about hygge, reports like the OECD one help to learn from each other. It feels naive to write this down, but the United States can become a little bit more like Denmark. And among the wealth of data, Denmark can also find some inspiration in how people in the US pursue happiness.

View of Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

View of Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Basic income, revisited: the Finns are on it!

Until recently, I lived and worked in Belgium, and benefitted from a benevolent state taking care of me. I received lunch vouchers for around €100 to €150 a month. Plus ‘ecological vouchers’ for organic products or train travel. Plus ‘sports and culture’ vouchers, for, well, sports and culture. My monthly contribution to the public insurance fund came in at a very modest €8,00, and my own contribution for most treatments was fairly low. Had I lost my job, there would be an expansive social security system where I could get support. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Well, I spent my time in one of the most heavily taxed countries of the world. Relatedly, Belgium ranks on top of the list across the OECD as for the labour costs – income tax, and employees and employers’ social security contributions. Over half of the wage costs of a Belgian employer account for income tax and social security contributions. Or in other words: it costs over €4,000 to have an employee with a take home pay of €2,000.

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Basic income, revisited

Even if you agree with the noble goals, and despite the correlation between high taxes and happiness, wouldn’t it be a lot better to remove this money pumping function of the state? If a tax reform increased  my net salary by the same amount, I’d have happily foregone all my vouchers and started paying an amount closer to the real cost of my insurance. Sweet and simple!

Last year I already wrote about the possibility of using basic income as a tool to simplify social spending. At the time – just after the Swiss voted ‘no’ in a referendum on the subject – I saw the possibility to get rid of series of tax breaks and charges that have little more effect than creating employment for tax collectors on the one side and tax consultants on the other.

Two things made me revisit the issue. Firstly, the policy discussion on basic income has advanced: more studies have been produced, and Finland’s experiment is underway. Secondly, we are getting a better picture on how basic income can help us solving social problems around globalisation and automation (the robots are coming, and they may give us the cash we need!). Let me take the second issue in a later piece, and look at the policy discussion now.

The Finnish experiment

Finland’s national experiment with basic income launched in January 2017, and contrary to other recent tests has nationwide coverage. 2000 selected Finns now get a monthly sum of €560 – no questions asked. That’s a modest amount, compared to the €2,500 national average wage. It’s not universal basic income per se, though. The participants are all unemployed; typical employees and billionaires don’t get basic income. Kela, the Finnish social security body that organises the experiments, deducts basic income from other social spending, so that basic income mostly replaces existing tools. Despite these limits in scope, the basic income is fully unconditional: participants are free to spend the money any way they like.

While Kela is clear that conclusions will only be reported after the end of the experiment, initial feedback confirms earlier anecdotal evidence that basic income increases the sense of freedom and happiness. Vice went to speak to Juha Järvinen, an artist who feels basic income allows him to focus on what he enjoys: creating the shaman drums that he sells. For Järvinen, the money is not the main advantage of the experiment: “you need to be a magician to survive” on €560 a month in Finland. Instead, it’s the fact that the employment office is not at his back all the time that gives him a sense of liberation. The basic income provides a first basis that makes it easier to undertake the project he likes. He recognises that with this level of spending a beneficiary couldn’t simply be lazy and do nothing, as some adversaries of basic income fear.

Left-wing and right-wing basic income

The Finnish government is a centre-right one, and this is visible in the design of the experiment. Typically, many proponents of basic income are centre-left, focusing on the benefits basic income offers to personal freedom and development, and quality of life. From a left-wing perspective, basic income is about citizens’ rights and distribution of state means. Basic income could then be a tool to ensure that citizens have equal possibilities, and that people of poorer or minority groups are not worse off.

The centre-right perspective would rather emphasise simplification and reduction of state spending. Basic income could replace up to 100 tax incentives in the Finnish case. This is also a key condition to ensure that basic income remains affordable, they argue.

Can we pay it?

That begs the critical question: can we afford basic income? The low Finnish basic income is set up with affordability in mind. It’s not an easy question. The answer of the advocacy group, the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), boils down to ‘it depends‘: if we narrowly redistribute existing benefits, it could work. However, if we maintain all existing benefits and then add a broader basic income for everybody to live comfortable, governments will struggle to find the means.

Is basic income better than current social spending?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) weighed into the debate via a study outlining a slightly different question: does basic income reduce poverty and increase equality? The study started with the observation that social expenditure is targeted in wildly different ways. As of 2013, the 20% richest in the average OECD country benefitted only marginally less from cash transfers than the 20% poorest. In most countries, the poor obviously benefitted more from transfers than the rich. But in a few countries, particular subsidies worked out in a net transfer from everybody else to the rich, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Portugal.

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

So, does basic income do a better job? According to the OECD, it probably doesn’t. If basic income were to be set at the level of current spending -  a narrow basic income – it would remain below the poverty line across all OECD countries, sometimes staying far below. Not surprisingly, if you consider that at present only a share of the population benefits from public spending. As such, basic income would risk distributing from the poor to all. Then, it could draw similar criticism as some education grants do: funds paid for by the baker and the electrician to finance the career investment of the lawyer’s son.

Redistribution from the poor to all

Looking at modeling of how basic income could work in Finland, France, Italy, and the UK, the study finds that a narrow basic income indeed would not reduce poverty. Rather than sharing wealth, the changes in public expenditure would redistribute poverty along different lower-income groups. As such, simply pooling existing benefits and reallocating them as basic income is not the right solution. But there might be other ways – maybe robots could come to rescue? That, however, is a topic for another post. See you later!

Post Navigation