What Would a Real Utopia Look Like?

“Most people want to make something of their lives, especially if you give them the means.”

READ ON TO LEARN:

  • Why poverty stems not from a character defect, but a simple lack of cash
  • How much poverty costs our society
  • How universal basic income could transform our world for the better

Rutger Bregman is one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers. He has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics, and been nominated twice for the European Press Prize. His new book, Utopia for Realists, offers a provocative and pragmatic take on how we can build an ideal world today. He talked with Heleo’s editorial director, Panio Gianopoulos, about the growing popularity of a universal basic income, the coming 15-hour workweek, and why creativity doesn’t need to be a professional afterthought.

Panio: You argue for a return to utopian thought. Have we become too pessimistic? Too self-interested? You seem to be saying, at least in the U.S., that we lack a grand vision.

Rutger: Not just in the U.S., actually. This is a global phenomenon. These ideas resonate all over the world. I believe that the big problem today is not that we don’t have it good, but that we don’t have a vision of where to go next.

We’ve achieved a lot in the past 200 years. We’ve become richer, wealthier, healthier than ever, but we don’t really have an idea about what’s next. You can compare it to climbing a mountain. If you’re standing on top of a mountain, you can do two things. You can look on towards the next mountain that you want to climb or you can look down and be very afraid. We’ve done the latter.

Panio: Is it possible that this system of constant growth and looking to the future and to improvement is the thing that corrupts happiness?

Rutger: I think that our old definitions of growth just don’t work anymore. Growth of more stuff that we don’t need to impress people that we don’t like, or growth of more jobs that are considered meaningless by the people who have them themselves—that’s not real growth. That’s not real progress. We should rethink all those terms. But I’m not anti-growth or anti-progress.

Panio: One of the big issues that you bring up, and one that’s been gaining popularity lately, is universal basic income (UBI). I would love to get into it historically, because [much of the resistance to it is based on] this association we make between poverty and lack of character. It’s so intrinsic that I don’t think I’ve ever dismantled it and thought, “Where does it come from?”

“The long term doesn’t exist if you’re poor. It simply doesn’t exist.”

Rutger: It’s a very, very old idea. It goes back all the way to the poor laws of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century. Back then, there was already a distinction between the so-called deserving poor and the undeserving poor. The undeserving poor were the able bodied men who wouldn’t just find a job and work.

Up until today, this is still an incredibly popular idea: if you’re poor, and especially if you’re not sick or old, then there’s probably something wrong with you. Not many people would be as blunt as to say you deserve it, but even on the left, there are many who think there’s something wrong with the poor, that we should just teach them how to live their lives or help them make better decisions.

Panio: Poverty stems from a lack of motivation and a lack of discipline—those seem to be the arguments most often used.

Rutger: What I’ve tried to do is to show that there’s new, convincing scientific research that shows that it’s all about context, that poverty is just a lack of cash and nothing more.

If you and I would be poor, or if anyone would be poor living in the same context, we would make worse decisions as well, especially for the long term. You shouldn’t forget that the poor are incredibly smart and rational in managing their short term problems. When I go to the supermarket, I make a lot of small mistakes. I don’t buy the cheapest product. There are lots of small decisions, but I can afford [to make mistakes]. But in the long term, I make much better decisions: I eat healthier, I make better financial decisions in the long term. The long term doesn’t exist if you’re poor. It simply doesn’t exist. That’s what we call the psychology of scarcity.

That’s really important to understand: if you eradicate poverty in a certain country, you’ll get an explosion of long term thinking. Suddenly many, many more people will be able to plan for the future, try something new. That’s why some people call universal basic income venture capital for the people. I really like that term. It enables everyone to get up and do something, try something new, move to a different city, get a new job, start a new company, etc.

Panio: How would UBI work practically? How much would people get and how would it be dispensed and things like that?

Rutger: It would have to be enough to get you just at the poverty line. It shouldn’t be much higher than that. It should be enough to pay for your basic needs, food, shelter, maybe a little bit of clothing, etc.

Then there are a lot of ways in which you can implement this policy. I’ve personally come to be in favor of a so-called negative income tax. This is a form of basic income. If you have a job, normally you pay taxes. The negative income tax works in such a way that if you don’t earn a lot of money or don’t earn money at all, then you’ll get money from the government. Your income is automatically set at the basic income level.

If you start earning additional money on top of that basic income, you can phase that out. People will start paying a 30, 40, or 50 percent marginal tax on that, then at some point they won’t need the basic income anymore. I think that’s probably the smartest and most efficient way to do it.

To be honest, I don’t really care [how it’s done]. I’m just in favor of a basic income. There are various ways to do it and I think that politically the most feasible way is a negative income tax.

Panio: I imagine this is a hard sell in certain places. Where has it actually been done?

“If you actually look at the scientific evidence, most people want to make something of their lives, especially if you give them the means.”

Rutger: In a lot of places. Richard Nixon almost implemented this negative income tax [nationally] in the beginning of the 70s. There were huge experiments in the 70s—in Seattle, for example. These were all very successful. They show time and time again that healthcare costs go down. Kids perform much better in school. Crime often goes down. Most importantly, people don’t work any less.

This is the fear obviously that many people have. [Although] they don’t have it about themselves. If you ask people, “What would you do with a basic income?” almost everyone says, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve got dreams, ambitions. I’ll put the money to good use.” It’s always the other people that we’re worrying about. What these experiments show, if you actually look at the scientific evidence, is most people want to make something of their lives, especially if you give them the means.

What we’ve seen with experience in the US, in Canada, we’ve got a huge amounts of cash transfer studies. Governments and NGOs keep giving unconditional cash crops to the poor and the global south, from Mexico to Brazil, India, South Africa. We are living in the golden age of new basic income experiments because Finland has just started a big experiment. Canada has just announced what I think is the most exciting basic income experiment. It’s going to involve 4,000 people in the province of Ontario.

Just a few years ago, when I started writing about this idea, no one knew what it was. It was an old idea, but it was completely forgotten. Now the idea is everywhere. Mark Zuckerberg even came out in favor of it recently. It’s in Silicon Valley, in Europe, Japan. A lot of people are interested in it. It’s fascinating to see how this idea is spreading around the globe.

Panio: An attendant initiative is an argument for the 15 hour work week. It’s appealing in that it helps with unemployment, and it seems to inspire less resistance because it’s still work. It’s still this idea that working is good and not working is bad. Getting something for nothing is unfair.

I’m curious because you mentioned Mark Zuckerberg being a supporter of UBI. It seems, in general, that Silicon Valley is more forward thinking or more optimistic about it. Do you think because of tech [advancements], that this paring down of the work week is going to happen whether we like it or not?

happy kids

Rutger: Well we are definitely living in an era where we have to rethink so many of our central concepts. We have to rethink what progress is. We have to rethink what growth is. We also need to rethink what even work is. About a third of the American workforce has a job that he or she considers completely meaningless. In the UK, it’s 37% according to a recent poll. Just this week there was a poll in Holland where 40% of all workers said their job is completely useless, meaningless. We’ve got all these polls and the numbers are quite astonishing. I think they all show that we need to work less and do more.

People often ask me, “How can we ever afford a shorter working week?” I say, “We can’t afford what we’re doing right now. We’re wasting a third of all our time and jobs that don’t need to exist.”

It’s the same with poverty. How can we afford a basic income? How can we afford poverty? A recent study found that in the U.S., poverty costs about $500 billion in higher healthcare costs, higher crime rate, higher dropout rate. I really see this as an investment.

Again, I’m not saying we should move to a 15 hour work week because we should all sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day. [But] did you know that it’s the countries with the longest paid working week that watch the most television? Japan, Turkey, and the United States, that’s where people watch the most television. In countries with a shorter working week, people devote more time to volunteer work, caring for the elderly, participating in their local communities, etc. We need to work less in order to do more.

Panio: There are people who argue that work itself is a kind of psychological escapism. It’s a way of deferring whatever realities you don’t want to face. Morally, work is this impregnable activity. It’s virtuous, untouchable escapism.

“People often ask me, ‘How can we ever afford a shorter working week?’ I say, ‘We can’t afford what we’re doing right now. We’re wasting a third of all our time and jobs that don’t need to exist.’”

Rutger: That’s a very dangerous idea right now. I think it’s even one of the biggest tragedies of our time. If you look at so many young people at the end of their 20s and in their 30s with dreams and ambitions who have gone through great universities and are now thinking, “What should I do with the rest of my life?” Just 30, 40 years ago, many of them would have gone to work for universities, research organizations, NGOs. Nowadays, many of them go to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley to work for Facebook or Google.

There’s this great quote from a math whiz who works at Facebook. He said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” I think that sucks. We are wasting so much of our talent right now. Indeed it has everything to do with this ideology of work and this ideology that the amount of money you earn represents the value you create. That’s not true.

Panio: Every end of life study always has people saying, “I worked too much. I didn’t see my family enough. I didn’t pursue my dreams.” It’s haunting that person after person says that, and yet we often disregard it as a culture.

Rutger: What I’ve always found really funny is you’ve got these stories in magazines sometimes, about a banker, for example, or corporate lawyer. He’s made a radical decision. He’s worked years and years for a bank, made a lot of money, and then said, “You know what, now I’m going to do what I really want. I’m going to quit my job and I’m going to paint, I’m going to make art. I’m going to work for a museum,” or something like that.

In these magazines, this is always portrayed as a heroic decision. “Oh my God, he’s actually doing what he wants. Wow. If only I would have that courage. He is a hero.”

This shouldn’t be a heroic decision. This should be common sense. He’s doing what he wants. That’s what we all should do. With a basic income, everyone would have the opportunity to decide for himself what to do with his life.

Nowadays you’ve got so many kids being told by their parents, “Sure, if you like history, art, or music, well you can study that—but you’ve got to pay the bills as well, so maybe you should go to business school. Maybe you should go to law school.” Then, when they’re 40 years old, they have this mid-life crisis. They’re completely depressed. Then they’re going to use all that money they’ve earned to buy some property and paint for the rest of their lives. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Panio: If we could cut out the 20 missed years, the deferral period, that’d change everything.