Dissertations >> Charles Maxwell Young: Making Sense of Basic Income

Charles Maxwell Young: Making Sense of Basic Income

In recent years the idea of a basic income has captured the popular imagination. Despite this, there is a widespread misunderstanding of its multitudinous expressions. Basic income proposals can be separated and defined in terms how schemes are fundedii, but they also differ at the opposite end of the policy design process. There have been a great number of experiments and pilots around the world in recent years, with many more in the pipeline. Finland, Canada, Kenya, The Netherlands, Uganda, the United S and others are currently running trial schemes, with governments and local authorities eyeing up more potential projects in the UK, Barcelona, India and the United States. Similar discussions are underway in countries such as France, Portugal, Italy, Serbia and South Korea. These are each building upon historical experiments including those in Canada, the United States, India and Namibia. Given the gathering momentum and wide variety of applications of the idea, this dissertation is an attempt to draw together the manifold lessons learnt thus far and formalise a series of structures through which to understand, compare and deliver these experiments with an eye to facilitating the collaborative formation of basic income policy.
ii Young, C (2017) The Conversation about Basic Income is a Mess. Here’s how to make sense of it Evonomics [Online] Available at: evonomics.com/basic-income-conversation-make-sense-charlie-young/ [Accessed 6 June 2018]

When it comes to basic income’s on-the-ground application proposals and experiments vary in significant ways. The aims of this dissertation are to disaggregate historical and contemporary basic income experiments (or, more accurately, basic income-type experiments) and classify them into easily distinguishable typologies for comparison and contrast. This has been done with the intention to improve collective understanding of basic income, and will hopefully help to move the conversation beyond an assumption that basic income is a homogenous intervention, towards its recognition as a heterogeneous and diverse field of proposals.

This process was born out of several meetings about basic income with potential recipients of payments, key stakeholders and representatives from the Scottish government. These meetings took place in Glasgow and Edinburgh, two of the four cities chosen by Holyrood to investigate the possible implementation of
trial schemes. The conversations were linked to work I undertook at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) to better make sense of and communicate different expressions of basic income in an experimental context. Being based at the RSA meant that it was possible to collaborate with a considerable number of experts in the field, internally and externally, especially as a result of presentations I gave at the London School of Economics and to community interest groups. This formed a considerable part of my research, along with an in-depth analysis of available literature relevant to this dissertation’s avenues of inquiry. My report, produced for the RSA, Realising Basic Income experiments in the UK (Young 2018), makes up a considerable portion of this dissertation – although it has been edited, refined and re-focused in order to more specifically deal with the typologies of experiment design identified, in addition to how these insights might be applied in the context of prospective experiments in the UK.

The findings of this dissertation, which are based on the set of widely accepted principles of basic income derived and outlined herein, indicate that it is possible to construct and utilise a table of experiment characteristics and a decision-tree style typology to categorise the many variations of basic income into coherent systematised groupings. Basic income is a contentious idea and it is also far more complicated than most assume. 

The findings in this dissertation are built upon a comprehensive and concisely conveyed set of widely accepted basic income principles – like unconditionality, regularity and non-withdrawability – that are relevant to what is referred to here as the ideal type. This dissertation finds that very few basic income experiments, historical or contemporary, fulfil all of these principal criteria – certainly none in the western world. This is largely due to logistical, financial and time constraints peppered throughout the implementation process, but also due to differing policy goals and, significantly, myriad interpretations of basic income as a concept. 

This has led to a collection of different experiment architectures: from saturation sites, where every member of the community has the option to receive basic income payments, to experiments with randomly distributed and
chosen participants; from simplified flat payments that aren’t withdrawn as earnings rise, to staggered payments for different subgroups, each of which have distinct effective marginal tax rates (which have historically been up to 80%); from universal programs to those focused solely on those of certain income or employment status; and from payments made to individuals to those made on a household basis. Some of these experiments run for 2 years, others for over a decade. By categorizing and systematizing the core characteristics of these experiments, the basic income experiment typology incorporates major and minor variables: like whether to have one or multiple concurrent interventions, for the former; or whether to give out part of the basic income in a local or crypto-currency, for the latter. 

Such decisions, and the associated options that cascade from each, should simplify and catalyse the process of both considering the feasibility of and eventually designing and carrying out experiments. The new analytical lens outlined here means that basic income experiments can be more accurately scrutinised in terms of quantitative and qualitative research findings, and can also be more easily positioned in terms of their socio-economic, ideological and political ramifications. Towards the end of this dissertation there is also a detailed outline of four different scenarios for particular (hypothetical) basic income experiments in the UK. These are costed and explained in logistical and policy terms, along with suggestions for how to measure choice indicators. These are demonstrations of both the variety of creative and imaginative ways to enact basic income policy and result from the application of the tools developed here.

My primary research question is the following:

“How to clarify and classify the multitudinous expressions of basic income as a systemic, transitional proposal in an experimental context?”

Associated questions for the purposes of this dissertation are as follows:

“What are the core principles of an ideal type basic income, as viewed by the idea’s advocates, and how might these be defined?”

“What are the core variables of basic income-type experiment architectures and how might these be codified?”

“Could resulting findings be of practical use, for example in: i) the classification of existing experiments, and; ii) the generation of realistic basic income-experiment scenarios?”

Sections 2 and 3 contain the literature review and methodologies used throughout this dissertation, respectively. Section 4 outlines and discusses this work’s findings. 4a enumerates the principles of basic income experiments and explains the key facets of each with reference to real-world examples. It concludes with an assessment of individual experiments in relation to these principles. Section 4b builds on these to produce, first, a series of guidelines for best practice in running basic income experiments and, second, a typology of basic income experiments in the form of an elaborated decision tree. Four scenarios for possible UK basic income experiment are laid out in Section 4c, each of which are intended to flag the various options and related challenges and opportunities presented by an array of very different but fundamentally related applications.

I hope that this report can elucidate a number of confusions and queries in the basic income space. Now that basic income is advancing toward real-world application it is easy to recognise the imperative utility of thorough understanding. Producing this will be crucial to communicating and collaborating across borders, ideologies and disciplines for a richer and more coordinated approach to exploring basic income its and potential ramifications worldwide.

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