Can Basic Income Bring About the Next Creative Renaissance?


What would you do if money were no object? 

You've probably been asked that question at least once in your life, whether it was a high school guidance counselor or a friend trying to sort out why you hate your day job. 

But really: Would you finally record that album, write that novel, go on tour? Would you focus on your family and relationships? Would you travel, volunteer or write essays? Teach yourself new skills like cooking, coding or woodworking? Or all of the above?

According to a radical but increasingly popular theory about the future economy, it's a question we'll all be asking ourselves.

Basic income is a radical type of welfare reform that would give everyone a base salary just for being human. Where welfare is highly conditional — eligibility often comes with work stipulations, time limitations and other requirements like drug tests — basic income is granted with no strings attached. 

The idea is picking up steam as a political solution to the problem of robots taking over industries dominated by the middle and working classes, such as finance and corporate management, and the digital automation of America's white-collar workforce. 

The question leads to a schism between activists and scholars and the mainstream political right. The former argue that if our bare needs were provided for, it would lead to an era in which everyone is free to pursue the work they love. The latter believes struggling for a paycheck is the only thing keeping us on a path toward a stable future.

Every American should enjoy a humane quality of life.

If you support a higher minimum wage, consider basic income. Where private industries can't offer a living wage, federal and state governments are left propping up lower-income families. Because of this, there's a movement to offer substantial increases in minimum wage, from McDonald's workers down to independent shops and restaurants, on the premise that every working American should enjoy at least a basic, humane quality of life.

Advocates of cash-based welfare programs say that "in-kind" programs — food stamps or other options where the government restricts the ways you can use your welfare — say that people, not governments, should be making the decisions on how the money allocated to support them is spent.

But we can peer outside of our own system of welfare to see this: One look at the success of startups in Africa can attest to the power of direct investment in place of limited, government-backed solutions for small businesses. Considering that individualist framework, basic income (an idea with mostly leftist supporters) takes a distinctly libertarian hue.

Does welfare really make people lazy? It's an accusation that was often popularized in the Reagan Era, heaping blame on the poor and inventing harmful tropes like the "welfare queen." It assumes the pursuit of money is the only meaningful incentive that can motivate people. Take away the profit motive, and people will stop working. Easy, right?

The problem with this thinking is that it's never been empirically proven. Similar to the idea that any increase in minimum wage, no matter how mild, will necessarily devastate jobs and create unemployment, welfare shaming is often used to make a political point without supporting evidence. 

Mic spoke with a host of academics and researchers in the field of welfare reform who hesitated to say, definitively, whether or not social safety nets affect work ethic. "It's hard to find good, direct research on this topic," said basic income scholar Karl Widerquist, who is skeptical of exactly how conclusive the U.S. and Canada's few tax experiments around this idea have been. "You're dealing with something that hasn't been observed yet."

The surprising benefits of welfare: One thing we can see — through the din of a swirling, post-recession economy — is that our safety nets have given many entrepreneurs the security they need to take risks and launch their own businesses. 

As Walter Frick argued in the Atlantic, "One way to get more people to start companies, according to a growing body of research, is to expand the welfare state. ... A series of more recent studies challenge the view that larger or more activist government necessarily threatens entrepreneurship. In fact, that may get the relationship precisely backwards."

In a 2014 paper called "Food Stamp Entrepreneurs," Gareth Olds, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, found during the expansion of welfare programs in the early 2000s, there was a 16% boost in households owning incorporated businesses. For immigrants, enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program increased business ownership likelihood to 28%.

Many people are more inclined to start businesses once they're eligible for food stamps. Just knowing there's a safety net available incentivizes them to take more risks. 

What's most striking is that many of the entrepreneurs who ended up starting their businesses weren't actually cashing in on those food stamps. Just knowing there was a safety net available incentivized them to take more risks. 

But what happens when you give money to those who don't necessarily need it? One study from Nattavudh Powdthavee of Singapore's Nanyang Technological Institute showed in a group of lottery winners, unearned income "improves traits that predict pro-social and cooperative behaviors, preferences for social contact, empathy, and gregariousness, as well as reduce individuals' tendency to experience negative emotional states." In other words, acquiring unexpected funds that are untethered to job performance helped make them more empathetic, happy and social.

This all goes against the main criticism of welfare programs: that they decrease innovation and make people complacent.

Mic/Joel Watson

The power of the passion project: Innovation can be a byproduct of competition, but the struggle for market dominance is not the only place where creativity thrives. The tech industry, where some of the most exciting discussion about basic income is taking place, is providing perhaps the best model for how passion projects can create great innovation. 

Looking at projects built on the backs of volunteers and the crowd, like Wikipedia and the Linux operating system, show that great work can come from people united by purpose as opposed to a profit mandate.

It's the premise of the "hackathon," a day of free-working where you drop your regular duties to work on outside-the-box projects that might bring about innovation. In Google's earlier days of plucky hacker culture, the company had a policy that engineers would spend as much as 20% of their work time working on independent projects. That policy was axed years ago as Google came into its own as a global, corporate behemoth.

Digital innovation hasn't decimated the American middle class quite yet, but subscription services, downloads and online researchers have decimated creative industries, and artists have already begun seeking these kinds of alternative support networks. Using websites like Patreon, a site that allows creators to turn themselves into a subscription service, comic artists, journalists and musicians are setting up their own basic income-like situations so they can pursue the work they love.

Shirlaine Forrest/Getty Images

Independence looks different for everyone. With a ubiquitous welfare system, there will be some who lie around jobless and some who create great new enterprises — just like the world we already live in. The difference is the amount of personal freedom.

Unless we find some sort of solution to strengthen our safety nets in the face of broad automation, the only alternative is to find further justifications for being underemployed and underpaid. The American workforce will come up with measures to help people as they become more comfortable with working themselves sick, either with invasive workplace cultures or mantras like "Do what you love." But there's no avoiding the question an automated future demands.

What would you really do if money were no object?