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Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey, Crown, US $26.00, Pp 272, July 2018, ISBN 978-1524758769

You are not able to pay your bills on time or you have to forego something less important to pay your essential bills. Your income is not growing at the rate of inflation. It must be very frustrating to juggle with your paycheck, month after month and year after year. Or you don’t have a job at all. If you are in such a situation, imagine that a check shows up in your mailbox or bank account every month. The money would be enough to live, just barely. You do not have to earn it and there are no strings attached. It would save you from destitution if you had just got out of prison, needed to leave an abusive partner, or could not find work. This simple proposal is called a universal basic income (UBI). It is universal because every resident of a given community or country receives it. It is basic because it is just enough to live on. And it is income, assured. This is an old idea which can be traced to Tudor England and the writings of Thomas Paine, a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has resurfaced over and over again over the last half millennium, often coming in with the tides of economic revolution.

In Give People Money, Annie Lowrey analyzes arguments for and against the concept of UBI and powerfully argues that UBI will not only improve the living standards of the people but also help the national economy grow faster. Annie Lowrey says that the most prominent argument for a UBI has to do with technological unemployment – the prospect that robots will soon take all of our jobs. Annie Lowrey estimates that about half of American jobs, including millions and millions of white-collar ones, are susceptible to imminent elimination due to technological advances. Analysts are warning that Armageddon is coming for other professions as well such as truck drivers, warehouse box packers, pharmacists, accountants, legal assistants, cashiers, translators, medical diagnosticians, stockbrokers, home appraisers- the list is long.

Annie Lowrey says that a second common reason is less speculative but more rooted in the problems of the present rather than the problems of tomorrow. It emphasizes UBI’s promise at ameliorating the widening inequality and grating wage stagnation that the United States and other high-income countries are already facing. The middle class is shrinking. Economic growth is aiding the brokerage accountants of the rich but not the wallets of the working classes. A UBI would act as a straightforward income support for families outside of the top 20 percent. It would also radically improve the bargaining power of workers, forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits, and improve conditions to retain their talent.

Another argument is that a UBI could be a powerful tool to eliminate deprivation, both around the world and in the United States. Annie Lowrey says that around 41 million Americans were living below the poverty line as of 2016. A $1,000-a-month grant would push many of them above it and would ensure that no abusive partner, a bout of sickness, natural disaster or sudden loss of a job means destitution in the richest civilization that the planet has ever known. The case is yet stronger in lower-income countries. Some of the libertarian-leaning boosters of UBI argue that a UBI would end poverty not just effectively, but also efficiently. Replacing the current American welfare state with a UBI would eliminate huge swaths of the government’s bureaucracy and reduce state interference in its citizens’ lives. Annie Lowrey writes, “I believe that a UBI is an ethos as much as it is a technocratic policy proposal. It contains within it the principles of universality, un-conditionality, inclusion, and simplicity, and it insists that every person is deserving of participation in the economy, freedom of choice, and a life without deprivation. Our government can and should choose to provide those things, whether through a $1,000-a-month stipend or not.”

Annie Lowrey has done a commendable job by reviving an old idea of providing assured basic income to people in order to stop people from falling below the poverty line in her meticulously-researched Give People Money. She successfully shows that the benefits of paying a UBI to support families outside of the top 20 percent far exceed the costs. Annie Lowrey has made the concept of UBI a mainstream idea in the modern economics and welfare state discourses. Give People Money is a recipe to turn the United States into a welfare state, better than existing European welfare states such as Nordic countries. This brilliantly written book is a must-read for everybody.

 

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