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  • [ Applause ]

  • >> Hello, and welcome.

  • I'm Emma Alberici the host of Lateline on the ABC,

  • and I'm here with Rutger Bregman

  • who has a fairly radical proposition.

  • [Laughs] So imagine everyone gets an income

  • and you don't have to work for it.

  • Awesome. [Laughs] And on top of that, if you do work,

  • you only have to work 15 hours a week.

  • And all the borders are open.

  • So you go wherever you like and no one questions you about it.

  • That's apparently Utopia for Realists.

  • I'm not sure that it's Utopia for politicians.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • So Utopia for Realists examines a different approach

  • to economics and to life and it challenges us all to think

  • in a way that modern politics wouldn't dare allow us to,

  • certainly not with Donald Trump in the White House wanting

  • to build walls, and Brexit and Guilders in the Netherlands

  • and Marine Lapen in France and Colin Hanson indeed here.

  • Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who started writing

  • about this idea of a basic wage back in 2013 long before many

  • of the concepts he espouses could ever be called mainstream.

  • The book is an international bestseller.

  • We're lucky to have him here.

  • Welcome. Join me in thanking him for being with us.

  • [ Applause ]

  • We're just going to be in conversation for this hour.

  • So I'll open it up and then I'll start the questions

  • and then we've got two microphones at either side here

  • and I'll invite you to participate

  • in the conversation shortly.

  • So I guess we'll start by just the simple question

  • of what is a universal basic income?

  • Give us the concept.

  • >> It's a very simple idea.

  • So everyone would receive a monthly grant that is enough

  • to pay for your basic needs, food, shelter, clothing.

  • So that's it.

  • Basic income is really a floor in the income distribution.

  • So it's not the same as communism.

  • It's not that everyone will receive the same amount

  • of money.

  • It's sort of you could see it as venture capital

  • for the people, right?

  • For the first time, everyone will have the freedom to decide

  • for themselves what to make of their lives.

  • And say for example everyone could say no to a job

  • that they don't want to do.

  • It's a very simple idea with quite radical implications.

  • >> But it is the same amount for everyone?

  • >> Yeah. Yeah, it's the basic income

  • that everyone would receive it.

  • Whether you're employed or unemployed, whether you're poor

  • or rich, man or woman, it doesn't matter.

  • Everyone gets it.

  • >> And how is it calculated?

  • And how on earth do countries afford such a thing?

  • >> A big part of my book is

  • about how would this work in practice?

  • That is the realist part of the title.

  • When I started researching this subject in 2013, it was --

  • well, in the first place it was completely forgotten

  • and what I could find about it was quite abstract.

  • So a lot of people thinking about what is human nature like,

  • what will you do with a basic income?

  • What would I do?

  • Will we all be lazy?

  • Et cetera.

  • And I was really interested in the practical question,

  • you know, has it ever been tried?

  • And it turns out there have been huge experiments,

  • forgotten experiments in the '70's in Canada and the US,

  • and since then in other places as well

  • where they actually tried it.

  • And it turns out that it works very well.

  • I even discovered, which is probably one

  • of the craziest stories in the book, is that Richard Nixon

  • of all people almost implemented a basic income

  • at the beginning of the '70's.

  • >> In fact, it was very popular.

  • I recall something like 90% of the population were in favour.

  • Republicans were on board generally en masse.

  • >> Yeah. At the end of the '60's, almost everyone in the US

  • and in Canada believed that some form

  • of basic income was going to be implemented.

  • So for example, John Kenneth Galbraith the left-wing

  • economist, he thought it was a great idea.

  • But also Milton Friedman, you know, the neo-liberal economist.

  • They actually agreed on the need for a guaranteed annual income.

  • Martin Luther King, he was in favour of it.

  • So it's not that Richard Nixon was suddenly a great philosopher

  • or utopian thinker.

  • He was just saying, "Oh, everyone wants it.

  • Let's do it then."

  • >> And it's interesting because back then also it united the

  • unions, the corporate sector, churches.

  • And I was just getting in my notes here,

  • because there's a quote from Nixon

  • where he says it was the most significant piece

  • of social legislation in our nation's history.

  • So why didn't it go ahead?

  • >> It's a pretty bizarre story full of crazy coincidences.

  • >> US politics?

  • [ Laughter ]

  • >> What happened in the first place is that, well,

  • everyone was in favour of basic income.

  • Richard Nixon had a proposal for a modest basic income and it got

  • through the House of Representatives twice.

  • But then it hit the Senate floor and Democrats started to think,

  • "Well, if this is going to be implemented anyway,

  • we want a higher basic income.

  • So let's just vote against it now

  • and then it will probably get higher in the second round."

  • Didn't really work out that way.

  • So it was basically killed by the left in the Senate.

  • The idea finally died in 1978 with an experiment in Seattle,

  • one of the big basic income experiences

  • with a lot of positive results.

  • So crime went down.

  • Kids performed much better in school.

  • You know, healthcare costs went down.

  • Basically it turned out that basic income was an investment

  • that pays for itself in the long run.

  • But there was one big problem.

  • The researchers found out that the divorce rate went up by 50%.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • So you can imagine at that point all the conservatives saying,

  • "We can't have basic income.

  • This will make women much too independent.

  • You know, we really don't want basic income."

  • >> Was there a connexion drawn

  • between the basic income and the divorce rate?

  • Was there an obvious kind of thread there?

  • >> Well, that's what they thought, yeah,

  • that it was really caused by a basic income.

  • That suddenly a woman can say, "I want to leave him.

  • Now I've got the freedom to do so."

  • The thing is that years later they found

  • out that it was a statistical mistake.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • So in reality the divorce rate did not go up at all.

  • But back then we were already in the era of Reagan and et cetera

  • and the idea was forgotten.

  • >> How is a basic income any different to welfare?

  • >> I think in a few important ways.

  • The most important way in which it's different is

  • that a basic income is absolutely unconditional.

  • What we've seen in the past 30 years is that the welfare state

  • from Holland to Australia has become more

  • and more conditional, actually quite humiliating for the people

  • who have to rely on it.

  • Time and time again, the assumption is

  • that government bureaucrats know better what the poor should do

  • with their lives than the poor themselves.

  • The idea behind basic income is that poverty is not a lack

  • of character but just a lack of cash.

  • And you can cure a lack of cash pretty easily with cash, right?

  • [ Laughter ]

  • >> How novel.

  • >> Yeah. Once you've seen the light,

  • it's very simple actually.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • But it actually works.

  • I think that's the most important thing.

  • My book is I believe a very evidence-based book.

  • And I believe that's also the way forward,

  • is to do more of those experiments.

  • And that's actually what's happening

  • around the world right now.

  • I mean, Finland is just doing a big experiment.

  • Canada has just announced one.

  • A lot of people in Silicon Valley are enthusiastic

  • about this idea.

  • So yeah, it's really spreading around the globe.

  • >> But isn't there also evidence that when people come

  • into money, they often squander it?

  • That when they haven't had to work for it,

  • they make poor decisions?

  • >> Well, if you watch a lot of reality television,

  • I can imagine that you'd believe that.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • One of the stories in my book is about a pretty crazy experience

  • that happened in London in 2009.

  • And this was a social organisation that worked

  • with chronically homeless men.

  • And there were about 13 of them

  • and they had tried pretty much everything at that point

  • and nothing really worked.

  • So it was simply time for something new.

  • And one of the people who worked there said, "You know,

  • why not try something really new?

  • Let's just give them money.

  • 3,000 pounds, and let's see what happens."

  • Now even at that organisation,

  • obviously most people were quite sceptical,

  • but they were wasting money anyway,

  • so let's see what happens.

  • Now a year after the experience, 7 out of 13 of the men --

  • and some of them had been living on the streets for 40 years --

  • but 7 of the 13 of them had a roof above their head.

  • Two more had applied for housing

  • and all had made significant decisions

  • to invest in their lives.

  • So what did they use the money for?

  • One of them bought a dictionary.

  • Another bought [inaudible].

  • One of them took gardening classes.

  • It was pretty incredible to see

  • that the money really empowered the men

  • and for the first time they felt like society trusted them

  • to make their own decisions.

  • Now the twist comes at the end because that's when you look

  • at the financial side of the story.

  • You could say, "Well, we've got to do this because we've got

  • to pity the poor or pity the homeless.

  • It's the moral thing to do."

  • But it actually also makes financial sense.

  • The project in total cost 50,000 pounds.

  • That's about seven times less

  • than what they would normally spend on these homeless men.

  • So even The Economist, you know, nota very utopian,

  • left-wing magazine, right?

  • Even they wrote, "The best way to spend money

  • on the homeless might be just to give it to them."

  • And to be honest, I think that is almost always the case.

  • That if we want to help the poor,

  • just solve the problem, you know.

  • Don't try to manage the symptoms, but solve the problem.

  • And the problem is the lack of cash.

  • That's it.

  • >> There's a talk in your TED Talk about the other approaches

  • of people thinking they know what's best

  • and buying certain things for them

  • and giving poor kids teddy bears in countries and so on.

  • >> Yeah.

  • >> Things they don't need.

  • >> When I gave the TED Talk, I had one line in my talk.

  • I said, you know, we should get rid of the vast industry

  • of bureaucratic paternalists and simply hand over their salaries

  • to the poor they're supposed to help.

  • And the TED audience was really like clapping and laughing

  • and I was a big confused because I'm talking about you guys.

  • [ Laughter ]

  • >> So you mentioned this right at the outset,

  • that one of the instincts people have is,

  • "Doesn't this create kind of a bunch of lazy sloths

  • who don't work anymore and just collect the money?"

  • That's kind of instinctively what you think would end

  • up happening.

  • >> Yeah, yeah.

  • >> A bunch of people would say, "Well,

  • what am I going to go to work for.

  • I'm getting paid anyway."

  • >> Exactly, exactly.