Movement for universal basic income picks up steam in Taiwan

2018/01/12 10:22:39 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Philippe Van Parijs and Peter Huang

Philippe Van Parijs and Peter Huang

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

Compared to countries where the idea of universal basic income (UBI), regular cash payments made to every citizen with no strings attached, has been widely debated and even implemented on a small scale, Taiwan has shown little interest or even awareness of the idea until recently, but that could be changing.

"In terms of UBI, Taiwan is a latecomer even compared with our Asian neighbors. In the main, society is ignorant about the idea," Peter Huang (黃文雄), a veteran human rights advocate, told CNA on Dec. 19 last year.

Huang added, "We have been largely isolated internationally, but we must not allow ourselves to remain apathetic to the global debate on UBI."

An advisor to the Lei Chen Public Interest Trust Fund, created to honor pioneering democracy advocate Lei Chen (雷震), the 81-year-old Huang has been the main force behind recent efforts to generate public debate of UBI.

It all started about a year ago when Huang invited Philippe Van Parijs, a central figure in the international advocacy network Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), to give last year's Lei Chen Memorial Lectures on Democracy and Human Rights held from Dec. 18-21 in Taipei.

Philippe Van Parijs (photo courtesy of Acropolis)

In the run-up to the lectures, UBI was prominently featured in the scholarly journal "Reflexion" and a Chinese language edition of "Basic Income," the most comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of UBI, co-authored by the Belgian professor, was published. In addition, a series of speeches were held to draw public attention to the topic.

Taiwan a latecomer to UBI

Huang notes that only a handful of academics in Taiwan were interested in UBI when he invited Van Parijs. "But the preparatory work for the lectures throughout the year brought together people who were interested in further exploring the idea."

The number of people attending those lectures, especially young people, was "an even more hopeful sign" that there is a desire in Taiwan to learn more about UBI and its potential benefits, he added.

Huang believes that one of the big challenges facing humanity in the 21st century is the inevitable elimination of jobs by artificial intelligence and automation. This together with wealth concentration and economic growth without employment will lead to joblessness, erosion of purchasing power and a decrease in the availability of decent work.

"The magnitude of the problems is way beyond traditional approaches to poverty alleviation. As a result, possible solutions to income distribution and redistributions are being deliberated by every country," Huang said. "We cannot lag so far behind in this regard."

Van Parijs has argued that regular basic income paid to individuals without means or work tests should be a central element in the institutional framework of "a free, fair and sustainable society."

The introduction of UBI on a national scale was first proposed by Brussels-based Joseph Charlier against the backdrop of social turmoil in 1848, in a book "Solutions of Social Problems." However, it had no discernible impact and has only emerged intermittently as a topic of discussion in the years since, according to Van Parijs.

A better world needs Utopian thinkers

In recent years, small-scale experiments with basic income have been conducted in India, Kenya, Finland, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

In his talks in Taipei, Van Parijs addressed the most frequent objections to the idea from three perspective -- whether it is ethically justifiable, economically sustainable and politically achievable, and concluded his four lectures with an invitation.

"It's an invitation for you to be utopian thinkers and have the courage to be utopian," Van Parijs said at a lecture held at Academia Sinica on Dec. 21.

Despite the long history of arguments relating to UBI, Van Parijs is aware that these may still be obscure for many.

In Taipei, he was repeatedly asked whether UBI would not in fact constitute a free lunch for those who do not want to work.

Answering that question, Van Parijs seemed to imply economic theory is not the only relevant point of reference, although he did use an aphorism often associated with late Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman "there is no such thing as a free lunch," suggesting there is always an opportunity cost involved in any choice.

Van Parijs is more inclined to view the question through an "ethical" lens when he says we must realize that we have been given a big present by nature, technological progress, capital accumulation, all the social improvements made in society by previous generations.

In that sense "none of us today did anything" to earn this gift which is "very unequally incorporated in our incomes," Van Parijs said. "What basic income does is to distribute the free lunch in a more equal manner."

He also dismisses the concern that UBI discourages work, citing various reasons: such a small amount of money is not enough to live on for one's whole life; people aspire to earn more and have a better life; they also work not just for income but also to reach out to others, learn things or benefit society.

For Van Parijs, the question comes down to hoping for a better world that seems almost unimaginable and then trying to achieve it by engaging in "intellectually honest discussions that do not avoid inconvenient facts and embarrassing difficulties."

UBI provides chance for real freedom

For example, as to whether the idea is politically achievable, he said "that depends on you and your critical thinking on its desirability. When you convince yourself, you must listen to objections and fight for it, to reach for the impossible."

Van Parijs told CNA in an interview on Dec. 19 that there are two fundamental reasons he advocates the idea: First, it provides a possible answer to employment issues at a time when unemployment remains high despite economic growth and a growing number of people with little job security are even more likely to lose their jobs due to technical change or international competition, he said.

With the basic income, the working poor who work full time but still do not make enough to live on could work less or get a part time job, to avoid burnout, he said.

Van Parijs said the second reason is that UBI provides an alternative to the neoliberal vision of a free market utopia and the socialist utopia of a society that totally submits to the state.

"UBI uses the economy to emancipate people and gives everyone a chance to choose what to do with their lives," he said. "That's why I like the connection between UBI and real freedom for all. That's the basic motivation."

(photo courtesy of Lei Chen Public Interest Trust Fund)

The second argument is what Shei Ser-min (謝世民), a philosophy professor at National Chung Cheng University and one of the few local academics to have researched the subject, finds the most attractive feature of the idea.

"It gives people who are unemployed, trapped in jobs with no security or poor work conditions, a foundation on which they have the freedom to choose between work and things that are much more meaningful to them," Shei said on Dec. 24.

Lin Thung-hong (林宗弘), an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology whose recent research has focused on youth poverty, hopes the visit by Van Parijs will encourage greater discussion of UBI in Taiwan "to which the government and thinktanks have remained oblivious."

Predating the aforementioned pilot projects, Alaska in the United States and Macau have ongoing schemes under which every citizen receives cash stipends that collectively amount to 2-3 percent of GDP per capita, according to Van Parijs.

UBI can alleviate poverty

However, nowhere has yet adopted a policy in which UBI is provided at the benchmark level of 25 percent of GDP per capita, as Van Parijs suggests.

Asked by CNA on Jan. 3, Liao Mei (廖美), a postdoctoral researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology, said there is evidence indicating basic income has produced benefits for recipients and helped reduce poverty.

Since the 1980s, a small annual dividend has been paid to all residents of Alaska from the Alaska Permanent Fund created out of oil revenues, contributing to the leveling of income distribution in the state, which has one of the lowest poverty rates in the country, she said.

Brazil's "Bolsa Familia" program, under which female heads of poor and extremely poor households receive a small monthly stipend, has pushed the poverty rate down from more than 30 percent when it was introduced in 2003 to less than 10 percent today, lifting 50 million people, or 25 percent of the Brazilian population, out of poverty, Liao said.

In November 2017, GiveDirectly launched a program in Kenya which will provide about US$20 monthly to 16,000 people for 12 years to determine the efficacy of UBI.

The Silicon Valley-funded initiative in the U.S. decided to embark on a larger trial because smaller-scale cash transfer programs conducted in Kenya and Uganda several years earlier produced welfare-improving impacts, Liao said. For example, studies have shown that recipients were able to invest in farming and start their own businesses thereby developing the local economy and improving their well-being in ways that the provision of reliefs does not facilitate, she said.

(photo courtesy of Acropolis)

According to Patience Chuang (莊瑞琳), chief editor of Acropolis which published the Chinese edition of "Basic Income," it is the first translation of the book in Asia. At Van Parijs' lectures, the questions young people asked clearly reflected their deep concern over major societal problems associated with a lack of fairness and equality of opportunity, Chuang said. "We may not see UBI being adopted anytime soon, but getting to know more about the idea will ignite our imagination on how to create a more egalitarian society," she said.

Will Taiwan embrace UBI to the test?

The movement to advocate UBI in Taiwan is also being promoted by UBI Taiwan, a member of BIEN led by Tyler Prochazka a Fulbright scholar completing his Master's in Asia Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University.

Prochazka said the group views the idea from a human rights perspective. "The slogan of UBI Taiwan is 'living, not just surviving.' We believe that the only way to secure human rights is that you have the basic necessities taken care of."

"If the basic necessities are not secured, you can't push for any other human rights, because you just focus on surviving," he said on Dec. 19.

Taiwan's economy is going to slowly fade away if the financial security of young people remains un-addressed, he said.

When young people have that basic floor underneath them, they can take a breath, get new training, new education, create new businesses, or take risks on new ideas rather than being trapped in jobs they hate, Prochazka said.

"This would unlock the potential for everyone to pursue their passions in Taiwan."

(photo courtesy of Acropolis)

Prochazka said that the most frequent objection he hears when championing UBI is how to finance basic income.

Taiwan is one of the richest countries -- in terms of GDP per capita adjusted by purchasing power parity it is richer than Japan -- but Taiwan's tax rate and social security rate are both among the lowest in the developed world, Prochazka said.

"The problem is that the government does not tax enough. Why is Taiwan not willing to fund something as basic as a social welfare guarantee for its people?" he asked.

Lu Chien-te (呂建德), head of the Social Affairs Bureau of Taichung city government, told CNA on Jan. 6 that last March UBI Taiwan proposed a trial universal income program in a village of 3,000 people in Taiping District.

The city government had welcomed the draft plan which involves handing each household in the village NT$10,000 (US$300) per month for a three-year period, Lu said.

That project remains stalled because of lack of funds. Nevertheless, despite such teething problems, UBI is finally being discussed in Taiwan as a practical approach to some of the problems that lie ahead.


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