A commentary by Georg Schuermann

Unconditional basic income as the motor of a more sustainable economy?

Opinion

Can an unconditional basic income be the answer to changes to global employment? It depends on how it’s implemented, says Georg Schuermann, managing director of Triodos Bank in Germany.

Creating value is based on human labour in our society. How close this relationship will be in future is difficult to say. Algorithms and robots already perform many tasks that used to require human labour better than any human could and this phenomenon is becoming ever more prevalent. Rapid digitalisation and automation in the workplace is accompanied by fear of loss of employment. Will human labour be needed in future? Can we find employment in some other area or is it already time to introduce a completely different economic system that does not have gainful employment as its primary feature?

This is where an unconditional basic income may play a role. It envisages everyone having a secure basic livelihood without having to work for it. The concept is the subject of increasing debate. In Switzerland a referendum on its introduction failed but gave the discussion new impetus. Finland introduced a test of the idea in early 2017 and Utrecht in Holland is experimenting with the idea. The “My basic income“ initiative that regularly holds a lottery with a prize of a basic income of €1,000.00 for a year is another interesting variant. The idea is receiving increasing support from business.

I’m sure most people would make good use of an unconditional basic income that gave them more liberty than hitherto and would make productive contributions to society as a whole
Georg Schuermann

What are we to make of all this? An unconditional basic income mustn’t be a neoliberal sleight-of-hand intended to save social security benefits and replace them with a low basic income. It should not relieve employers of responsibility for their employees. It must not result in any loss of labour rights or increased dumping of wages or salaries. If it did it would be a step back.

Properly implemented, an unconditional basic income could promote positive change in our economic system as it results in human potential currently needed for gainful employment being released. Many critics claim, however, that it would promote laziness. People would simply put their feet up and not be motivated to do anything for themselves. I’m not convinced by such arguments. I’m sure most people would make good use of an unconditional basic income giving them more liberty than hitherto and would make productive contributions to society as a whole.

Georg Schuermann
Georg Schuermann is managing director of the Triodos Bank in Germany.

Why do I think so? Because I see proof daily. Triodos Bank clients want to change the world with the money they entrust to us. They want to invest in renewable energy, nursing homes, schools and biological agriculture. In short, to change our society together with us. Our client base is increasing all the time.

Financing of an unconditional basic income is a matter of fierce dispute. Critics say the idea is completely unrealistic. Many studies assume the opposite. An unconditional basic income can be implemented in many ways that have been thoroughly investigated, including by combining social benefits and via taxation. The realisation of the idea seems to me more a political than an economic question.

Many people are unhappy with our current economic system. Its lack of equity is worsening – as, for example, the economist Thomas Piketty has proven. The gap between rich and poor is widening more rapidly than twenty years ago. Conventional banks are part of the problem. Far too much money flows into the financial markets and too little into the real economy. This is one of the reasons people come to us and other sustainable banking institutions.

The will to make changes is there.

The chances of individuals achieving their good intentions are greatly improved by an unconditional basic income. It could lead to an economy making our society much more equitable. One that isn’t solely based on maximising profits but on human, animal and environmental welfare. Many polls show this is just what people want. What’s lacking is large scale implementation. A lot’s going on – but not enough. An unconditional basic income could change this state of affairs. It releases resources. The first evaluation of the experts in Finland and Holland will be extremely interesting. We’ll soon know more.

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