When I hear people talk about UBI, they often paint a picture of a future in which most labor has been automated, from agriculture to shipping to construction to manufacturing. A handful of people can produce everything needed to support the entire population. That handful of people are rewarded handsomely, and the rest of the population lives out their days in leisure, supported by UBI.
Generally speaking, I like that picture. It leaves out important questions, like what the majority of the population does with their time, but that’s a question for another day. It certainly seems silly to have an economy in which most people work jobs they hate, when you could have an economy in which most people don’t need to work at all unless they want to.
On the other hand, that picture depends on very high productivity, driven by very high automation of labor. In the middle ages, it would not have been possible to build this sort of UBI-society, because the vast majority of the population needed to work just to produce enough food to feed everyone. If most people need to work just to keep everyone alive, then no amount of clever distribution is going to create a society of leisure.
But where’s the line? Somewhere between the middle ages and the future, UBI should be possible… but how can we tell whether we’ve passed that line yet? And what happens if we try to institute UBI before crossing that line?
I sat down at one point and worked out the math for UBI in a very simple model economy. The answer was, in retrospect, pretty intuitive. The key questions are (1) how many people need to work, and (2) what motivates those people to work? Conceptually, the logic goes like this:
- Enough people need to work to produce and distribute all the necessary goods needed by the population as a whole. This includes food, housing, medical, military/police, etc.
- Extra goods, above and beyond those consumed by the general populace, must be produced in order to incentivize the workers to work. Additional workers are needed to produce these incentive goods. Enough must be produced for both the workers producing necessary goods, and the additional workers who are producing the incentive goods.
The key piece here is that, under UBI, nobody is forced to work - everyone has the option of simply not working, and everyone can live a comfortable life without working. But at the same time, we need some people to work - the economy isn’t 100% automated, and worker productivity isn’t infinite. So we need a positive incentive to convince people to work - people who work must be able to afford some goods which are not available to the populace as a whole, and those goods must be attractive enough to motivate working rather than not working, and the incentive goods must attract enough people to produce both necessary and incentive goods.
Note that the UBI amount is a key variable here. Is the UBI amount set to include internet and cell service? Travel? A car? Every additional good provided to the population as a whole requires more people to work in order to produce that good. On the other hand, every good provided to the population as a whole is one less good to serve as incentive. There has to be things which workers can afford, but non-workers cannot - otherwise there’s no incentive to work. As UBI amount goes up, more workers are needed but fewer people will work. Economically, the more goods covered by the UBI amount, the higher productivity and more automation required in order for that UBI amount to be possible.
To make these requirements more intuitive, I’ll outline what happens when UBI fails, i.e. when UBI is implemented without meeting the economic prerequisites.
Scenario: One Time Inflation
In this scenario, UBI is set to some fixed dollar amount, sufficient to live comfortably at pre-UBI prices. As soon as UBI is put into effect, most of the population quits their job. Prices skyrocket across the board, reflecting shortages in every good. Wages also skyrocket, with companies desperate to fill positions.
Very quickly, prices on consumer goods increase enough that the UBI amount no longer covers living costs. The population reluctantly returns to work, and the economy basically ends up where it started. Inflation has rendered the UBI amount too small to have a significant impact.
Scenario: Runaway Inflation
In this scenario, UBI is indexed to inflation. As before, everybody quits, prices shoot up, etc. But this time, every few months, the UBI amount jumps up to reflect price growth.
This won’t make a substantive difference. Everybody knows the UBI will increase, so prices stay ahead of it. As before, the economy ends up roughly where it started, except inflation is so high we have to ask Zimbabwe to return our wheelbarrow.
Scenario: Price Controls
In the worst case, price controls are instituted. Now people quit their jobs, don’t go back, and things get very ugly. The economy does not produce enough goods for everyone, and prices cannot adjust, leading to shortages. Food riots are likely.
Political Failure Mode
There’s one more important failure mode, separate from the economic failure modes above. In this case, the economy is capable of supporting UBI, but there’s no politically stable equilibrium.
As before, UBI is set to some fixed amount, sufficient to live comfortably at pre-UBI prices. Lots of people quit their jobs, prices go up, but it’s not a full failure. Enough people still work, and the UBI amount is still enough to live off.
But now a huge chunk of the population has lots of time on their hands and not much to do. Maybe they want to travel, but the UBI amount isn’t enough to travel much. Maybe they want to take classes in music or a language, but the UBI amount won’t cover that either. Maybe they just want to eat out more often.
One way or another, a huge chunk of the population is left with lots of time on their hands, and they’re all going to want more money for something. They may not want more money badly enough to work, or they may not be able to work, but they’ll still vote. So every politician with a hope of winning is going to promise to raise the UBI amount.
It shouldn’t take much imagination to see that, in a country like e.g. the US, the UBI amount is going to increase and keep increasing. Sooner or later, it will cross the threshold, and the economic failure modes discussed above will kick in. Politics will raise the UBI amount, inflation will kick in to effectively lower it, back and forth, back and forth. That’s a stable equilibrium, and not a terrible one, inflation aside. But it’s only a matter of time before some clever politician tries to outsmart inflation, and the food riots kick in.
I see two solutions where politics won’t likely ruin UBI.
The first is less-ambitious UBI, intended more to replace welfare than to overhaul the economy. In this case, people able to work are generally expected to keep working, and the UBI amount is intentionally limited to a living wage, not intended for comfortable living. The key here is that living off UBI would have to be tight enough that pretty much everyone would prefer to work if they can. This would still need to meet the economic prerequisites, but with most of the population still working, hopefully the political issues wouldn’t be a limiting factor.
The other solution is when automation is so complete that hardly any people are needed. If only a thousand people need to work to support the entire population, then we could plausibly get a thousand people to just volunteer, without needing extra goods to incentivize them. We’re certainly nowhere near that point today - even just looking at food distribution, we’d never get enough volunteers to drive all the big rigs needed. But it’s not out of the question for the future.