As the solitary representative of the third party in a provincial legislature, you quickly realize the extent of your impotency. But on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 in PEI, I had the rare pleasure of moving a motion which was unanimously approved by all parties in the House.
In the previous provincial election, in a rare expression of common agreement, all four party leaders who contested the campaign agreed that a Universal Basic Income policy is worth exploring. Economists from all sides of the political spectrum are open to the idea, and the federal government has also indicated a willingness to explore such programs.
Should PEI now proceed with a basic income pilot project as promoted in the motion, it would not be the first government to do so. The first in Canada was 40 years ago in Dauphin, Manitoba, and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario are currently in the process of creating their own initiatives. There is previous research and analysis to inform these efforts, and willing partners in governments, NGOs and academia with whom to collaborate and learn.
Furthermore, PEI's small size and clear boundaries provide an ideal scale for pilot projects exploring social issues and policy impacts at both provincial and community levels.
There is a long list of potential benefits that could come from a Universal Basic Income:
- Reducing or eliminating poverty;
- Improving health and mental health outcomes by addressing the social determinants of health;
- Increasing educational attainment;
- Reducing food insecurity;
- Improving working conditions and reducing income insecurity;
- Reducing crime and the associated social and economic costs;
- Stimulating economic development by boosting the purchasing power of those most in need in our society;
- Increasing demand for local products, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions;
- Consolidating multiple social programs, reducing bureaucracy and red tape and improving accessibility;
- Reducing the cost of administering multiple government social programs; and
- Allowing people to take better control of and ownership over their lives and allowing them to be more productive members of society economically, socially, politically, artistically and in many other manners.
Elimination of poverty would have some very obvious and immediate benefits, but a Universal Basic Income would also have some more subtle -- and yet, in my mind, very exciting -- possible benefits: a universal basic income could enable the greatest unleashing of human potential ever seen.
Without economic security, these human resources too often go unrealized.
Throughout most of human history right up to the present, the ability to innovate in business, science, the arts, society and politics has been largely the preserve of those who had either independent means of their own, or else through great chance found support from wealthy patrons. It is not the case that people of independent means are inherently more creative, innovative or better leaders; these traits are widely distributed throughout society. But without economic security, these human resources too often go unrealized.
The knowledge that you could take risks by starting a new business, building a prototype for a new invention or taking the time to write what could be the next great PEI novel -- and still be assured the dignity and security of a roof over your head and food in your belly while doing so, even if your venture fails -- would quickly multiply the most valuable resource we've got: human capital.
Another way to look at it is that in economics, we tend to talk about resources being put to their highest and best use. Capital should be invested where it will obtain the highest returns, and a piece of real estate in a busy downtown core is not the appropriate place to build a two-bedroom bungalow.
However, outside the realm of overpaid CEOs and professional athletes, there has been relatively little discussion about human beings being put to their highest and best use.
True, there has been an emphasis on education as a means of ensuring that the workforce has the skills that are in demand by certain employers, but we have not been very pre-occupied with the question of whether the person working on the shop floor might have more to contribute as the founder of his own business; whether the single mother living in poverty with her children and trying to make ends meet at minimum wage jobs might be the next J.K. Rowling; or whether the young man who seems to drift between short-term jobs and unemployment, never really finding his niche, might be carrying solutions to some of the most pressing problems of our time in his thoughts and dreams.
A basic income would allow us -- and them -- a chance to find out.
There has been relatively little discussion about human beings being put to their highest and best use.
Furthermore, the Canadian labour market is changing: Jobs are increasingly part-time and precarious, new digital technologies are replacing work through automation and algorithmic programming, and companies are more readily able to compartmentalize and outsource residual employment globally, increasing competition for work and limiting opportunities for even the most highly skilled workers.
While I firmly believe that a Universal Basic Income would have a strong and widespread positive impact, I also acknowledge that it will not solve all our problems. The common concerns presented against a basic income program are about its overall cost and that it could provide a disincentive for people to work.
This is exactly why we should do a pilot project -- so we can evaluate whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
I would caution, however, that in doing so we must ensure that we consider the long-term benefits and costs as well as short-term ones. We must also ensure that we can properly measure and evaluate the impacts of such a project; ideally, we would do this by adopting a holistic set of well-being indicators, such as the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.
A Basic Universal Income is, at its core, simply the humanitarian thing to do, but it is also a valuable tool to improve individual and collective health, reduce long-term economic and social costs, and free everyone to contribute to their community in a uniquely fitting way.
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