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AUG 25, 2020

Utopia for Realists: Rutger Bregman’s Better Future Is One of Basic Income

By Aki Ushida, Translated by Melissa McIvor
iStock/brushpiquetr

Several years ago, I was on assignment in Chile, supporting tourism development in a desert town. During my time there, I met a Japanese friend who was on holiday. She told me about her work (for a global company), her living situation (a condo in the center of Tokyo), and said (with a luxury brand bag in her hand), “If I won the lottery, I’d quit my job and do something different!”

I had no words.

Even with so much going for her, even as she lived the life others dreamed of, she wasn’t satisfied with her work. And the truth is, many people feel the same way—that their work is meaningless, and that they’re not getting the satisfaction they long for in life.

Why are we so unsatisfied?

Human civilization has come a long way in the last 200 years. Technology has advanced, life expectancy has increased, and the global economy has grown. But there is also a widening gap when it comes to prosperity and work satisfaction. Successful people have become too busy to enjoy their successes. There never even seems to be enough time to stop and think about what we find meaningful in our lives. Depression has become so prevalent that it is listed as a “priority condition” in the World Health Organization’s mental health Gap Action Program.

What on earth is going on?

In his book Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, Rutger Bregman says the true crisis of our time isn’t that we can’t achieve a better world, but that we can’t imagine one. If we want to improve our lives, he says, we need a new map.

And that map, according to Bregman, must be drawn around universal basic income (UBI), defined by Investopedia as “an unconditional, periodic cash payment that a government makes to everyone with no strings attached.”

What makes Bregman think UBI will work?

Born in the Netherlands in the late 80s, Bregman’s work as a young European historian and journalist has gained him respect similar to French economist Thomas Piketty. Utopia for Realists was originally conceived as an article for the Dutch news website The Correspondent. It was later self-published as a book through Amazon, first in Dutch and later in English, finding immediate acclaim that eventually took it to twenty countries.

One of the reasons the book found such widespread welcome so quickly is its accessibility. Understanding Bregman’s arguments doesn’t require a degree in economics or public policy. Instead, he uses real-life cases to demonstrate the problems of today’s society and question our supposed “common sense.”

In one such case, an experiment conducted in London in 2009, thirteen homeless people were given £3,000 in cash (about USD$5,300). To simulate UBI as closely as possible, this handout was given unconditionally. Popular pessimism and stereotypes make it easy to expect that money would disappear quickly into drinking benders and drug dens. But a year and a half later, all of the individuals who received the handout had used the money to begin rebuilding their lives. Seven even had a permanent place to live.

This small-scale demonstration shows how putting substantial money in people’s hands encourages them to do better.

How will UBI solve the poverty problem?

People in poverty often make poor decisions. Bregman addresses this phenomenon, as well, referring to it as “scarcity mentality.”

It’s easy to get distracted by imminent shortages, or even perceived imminent shortages. When outside factors influence our sense of long-term vision, it becomes hard to control our behavior and easy to err in judgement.

The privileged got a taste of this in the early days of COVID-19 when the suggestion of shortages and future uncertainty spurred irrational stockpiling. This is the kind of panic that the poor face every day, except they’re not worried about where their next sixteen rolls of double-ply toilet paper will come from. They’re worried about where their next meal will come from, where they’ll be sleeping tonight, whether they’ll have a job to go to tomorrow.

In the face of these problems, simple decisions become overwhelming and negatively impact our ability to think straight. According to one study, poverty reduces IQ by an average of 14 points.

As Bregman says in his TED talk, “[The poor] are not making dumb decisions because they are dumb, but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make dumb decisions.”

Because UBI would provide equal basic means to everyone, it would eliminate scarcity mentality. This would then make it possible for everyone to think rationally and support our society equally.

How do we measure value?

Bregman explains how modern society has produced high-paying jobs that serve to transfer wealth, but produce little tangible value. This leads to a sense of hopelessness for a growing portion of the working class.

UBI has the potential to revive our hope and redefine value.

Currently, GDP is a common measurement of value, but Bregman insists that not all value can be measured by GDP. Utopia for Realists examines changes to the business world that might create new value. One suggestion is shortening work hours (a hot topic in Japan), for which he lays out clear benefits.

To make this and other transformations a reality, we must ask ourselves, “How do we measure value?”

How do we get to a realistic utopia?

We tend to think of existing competition and social systems as givens, preoccupying ourselves with workarounds and schemes to win against the current mechanism. But the truth is, that will never work. To give everyone a fair chance, we need to change the mechanism itself.

It’s becoming a little clearer every day that this needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

Bregman’s Utopia for Realists not only encourages this perspective, but aims to provide a way forward by inspiring independent thought. To remove the distractions of scarcity mentality, rebalance the wealth in our society, and achieve work-life satisfaction, the first step on our road to a better future is universal basic income.