April 30

What Would Happen if We Just Gave People Money?

Daniel Straub remembers the night he got hooked on basic income. He had invited Götz Werner, a billionaire owner of a German drugstore chain, to give an independent talk in Zurich, where Straub was working as a project manager for a think tank. He had read an article about the radical proposal to unconditionally guarantee citizens an income and spent a few years casually researching the idea. Straub had heard Werner was a good speaker on the topic, and that night in 2009 he was indeed excellent at connecting with the audience, a sold-out house of 200. “It was a very intense evening; people were paying attention,” Straub recalled.

Werner posed a pair simple questions to the crowd: What do you really want to do with your life? Are you doing what you really want to do? Whatever the answers, he suggested basic income was the means to achieve those goals. The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.

Straub had studied business, international policy and psychology at school and spent years working for IBM, the International Red Cross and a Montessori school. Basic income “struck a nerve,” he said. “People are burned out more than ever. You come to Switzerland and talk to people, they aren’t happy. They fear for their jobs. There is a gap between the economic possibility in this country and the quality of life.”

After Werner’s talk, Straub quit his job at the think tank and began to campaign for a basic income full time. He and a few hundred volunteers gathered 126,000 signatures over two years to force a referendum, now slated for June 5, to amend the Swiss Constitution to guarantee a basic income to all citizens. (The suggested amount is 2,500 Swiss francs per month, or about $1,700 after adjusting for the cost of living.)

Source: FiveThirtyEight (link opens in a new window)