Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a tool to reevaluate our relationship to work and money

Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a tool to reevaluate our relationship to work and money


Historian and author of the best-seller Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, summarizes money in these few words : Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes. Not everybody believes in God, not everybody believes in human rights, not everybody believes in nationalism...Blog
Action populaire Rimouski-Neigette

Martin Zibeau receives an unconditional basic income for a year in a pilot project called l’ARBRE (1)

For English version click here.

Historian and author of the best-seller Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, summarizes money in these few words : Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes. Not everybody believes in God, not everybody believes in human rights, not everybody believes in nationalism, but everybody believes in money, and in the dollar bill.(2)

With a friend in the Gaspé peninsula, we played a bit with this story when we started cutting dollar bills in half to make, as we said, an alternative currency we called, the Demi. This was our version of the story. Many people were intrigued by that story. But pretty much no one was indifferent to the act of getting a pair of scissors and actually cut a twenty-dollars bill in half. Most reactions were visceral. People were shaking, perspiring or were laughing nervously. We quickly realised to what extent our relationship to money, this fictional entity, was not clear.

When my first child was born twelve years ago, I was 40. I had been poor pretty much all my life with yearly earnings between 6 000$ and 20 000$. In my thirties, I fled to Northern Canada where I experienced monetary wealth. When I quit my last lucrative job at 40, I told my boss at the time, with a bit of humor, that I was retiring.

Twelve years later, now beneficiary of a guaranteed basic income, I receive each week, without any counterpart, enough money to pay everything I need to live.

What a trip!

When I went on my humoristic retirement at 40, my partner at the time and I had been able to stack about 30 000$ on the side. And we did not have any debt. We owned a small trailer in which we lived for a while, and then lived in a yurt on some friends’ land.

For about three years we lived on that 30 000$, learning to know our new community in the Gaspé peninsula and spending all our time with our two young kids.

With so little money, we quickly learned the value of what we really needed to live. Then, as time passed, money, that fictional entity Yuval Noah Harari talks about, went back to its rightful place as an economic tool, like the LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) or just the simple hand shake.

With the realisation of what money really is and our minimal use of it during these three years, came a complete and profound reevaluation of my relationship to work.
Especially regarding wage earning.

If I needed as little as 10 000$ per year to live a good life, but that the very large majority of jobs needed me to devote a minimum of 30 hours per week to it, usually a non-negotiable feature, what was my place in society?

After nine years of psychological warfare against myself, resisting to full-time employment, especially the jobs-only-to-make-money kind, here I am, for a whole year, in a certain way, financially independent.

If for nine years I trained myself to survive the wage earning approach (or more precisely to resist it) and to treat money as the fictional entity that it is, today, my newest fight is trying to live with the perception people often have of a person receiving money for nothing.

But is it really possible to do nothing?
The answer, of course, is no.

So what can I do with my time?
Am I happy? Am I useful? Am I profitable to society?

Let’s look at this question mathematically.

For the year 2020, I would have cost the State approximately 26 000$. In reality, since this pilot-project is not subsidised by the State, you can rest assured, you did not have to pay yourself for this experimentation. This way it might be easier to appreciate its results.

To live in the Gaspé peninsula in a small house with a small car, to be connected to internet and feed my kids and myself, it costs me about 21 200$ per year. The pilot project brings in 19 500$ for the year, plus the regular government transfers I get as a single father living under the poverty line, for about 7 500$. I am therefore left with approximately 4 000$ for unexpected paiements like dentist, car and house repairs, etc. We can probably agree that I am far from rich by any extent, and that this amount will not be put aside to travel the world.

It is a basic income, providing me with the means to live with dignity, at least.

And it works really really well.

But then I ask myself : Am I useful or profitable to society?

As far as money goes, 100% of it goes from one hand to the next. In other words, I keep the economy going. Although, it would be reasonable to ask ourselves which economy we are talking about.

Most of that money goes back to Caisse Populaire Desjardins, our once upon a time cooperative banking system, in the form of mortgage and interests. Hydro Québec is getting a fair chunk to pay for my electricity needs and so is the municipal government for property taxes.

In an ideal world, most of that money would go back to local entities, or at least, businesses that have the wellbeing of the collectivity as their main goal instead of monetary accumulation of a few shareholders or CEOs ... but that’s another debate.

So, to summarize, all that money that I receive for free goes immediately back to the economy to feed others, at least that is what we hope for. My small food budget goes as much as possible towards local businesses, for example.

On a daily basis, what it means, is that I can decide how I choose to contribute to society. First, it allows me to take the time to be with my son and daughter that are now 9 and 12. Their mom lives on the other side of the country and we share custody on a four-month basis. I had to come up with a hybrid school-home education, which is a bit time consuming. Unconditional Basic income gives me the time to take care of our needs this way.

It also helps diminish the possibility of a run-all-over-the-place-all-the-time type of life. That may sound a bit ludicrous, but having experienced a life of no-time-for-nothing before, there is in this, a form of wealth that is often known only to retirees, that too often comment on it by sadly saying ... if only I would have known before!

Not to be running all over the place, all the time, that also means using my car less. Being able to walk or bike to run my errands. And when I buy something, I had time to think about it which reduces compulsive shopping. I am gardening. Far from self-sufficiency, the time that I spend in my garden seems like a good investment in the future. When I take the time to think about these kinds of things, time that I have, it seems like a good idea.

Maybe are you wondering what is my real contribution to society.

Apart from having the luxury of idling, which Bertrand Russel(3)(4) wrote so beautifully about as having the opportunity of a happy life, becoming more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion, getting a basic income allows me to be more available for my community. Helping friends, but also strangers and businesses from around here. And finally, but not the least of the beneficial effects, create. Creating new practical projects or improving others, but also create well being and happiness.

I do not have enough money to waste it. The money I get must be used intelligently, and the free time it gives me, helps me to do so. Am I a plus or a minus for society? You would have to ask people in my community. From my point of view, I feel free and happy. And I feel that by the end of my life, if I am able to stay on this path, I could be able to close my eyes without saying those infamous last words ... I wish I had.

(1)L’ARBRE, tree in French, is the acronym for Alliance pour le revenu de base dans les régions du Sud-Est du Québec or The Alliance for a Universal Basic Income in the south east regions of the province of Québec. The website is not yet available in english, but Google Translate does a fair job translating it for an overview of the project.
(2)Ted Talk Yuval Noah Harari : What explains the rise of humans?
(4)In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell read by Scott Santens