System Reboot: Universal Basic Income And Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

System Reboot: Universal Basic Income And Iceland

System Reboot: Universal Basic Income And Iceland

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Halldóra Mogensen, an MP for the Pirate Party and the chair of the Welfare Committee, is not the kind of politician who speaks in dry, vague terms about the “importance of stability” and strengthening the status quo. Rather, she believes the status quo needs a complete overhaul, and one of the central elements of that goal is universal basic income, or UBI. There are profound philosophical reasons for her support of UBI, and she deftly shoots down the major criticisms of this radical concept, from both the left and the right, while emphasising that the underlying principles behind UBI mean changing everything about the way we do economics.

“I was always really interested in finding a way to change the incentives in society, because I’m a big believer that most of the stuff we do stems from human behaviour but not necessarily human nature,” she says. “I don’t think that it’s in our ‘nature’ to be the way that we are. I think it has more to do with behaviour that is learned and incentivised in our systems, due to the ideology that drives our society. I’ve always had this view that human beings could be doing much more amazing things than we’re doing right now. So I did a lot of reading into the ideologies behind our systems.”

Freedom and compassion

There are two running themes that persist when Halldóra talks about UBI: freedom and compassion. She questions how free we actually are in a capitalist society. “You can’t really talk about freedom when people are making desperate decisions just to survive,” she says. “That’s not freedom, and you’re not making a free choice when it’s a question of surviving. So I asked myself, how do you give people that freedom?”

“When you’re living in a scarcity mindframe, then you don’t have the same capacity for compassion.”

Halldóra believes that this desperation impairs our ability to tackle larger issues, such as climate change. She points out, “When you’re struggling, day to day and month to month, just to make ends meet, then you don’t have the capacity to think long term. I think that’s incredibly dangerous for all of us.”

At the same time, this desperation erodes our empathy for the less fortunate, and our sense of belonging to a larger community.

“When you’re living in a scarcity mindframe, then you don’t have the same capacity for compassion,” she says. “I think that’s another part of what’s causing all these problems in society; the hatred, the anger. I think a lot of that stems from scarcity. Why is there so much hatred towards immigrants? Because people are afraid they’re coming to dip into your limited resources. I think UBI would be an amazing social experiment to see how people’s attitudes would change.”

Criticism from the left and the right

Criticism of UBI has come from the left and the right. A common refrain from the left is that UBI would break down the social welfare system, and would be too costly.

Halldóra emphasises that health care “should be free for everyone” regardless of income level. Rather than destroy the social welfare system, she believes UBI could replace the pension fund and the per-child allowances paid by the government. This would also help alleviate the cost, but she sees other potential revenue streams.

“As one example, I always thought it was a good idea to start with our tax credit system, to raise it up in steps, and then pay it out to those who aren’t using it,” she says. She adds that revenue could also be generated from possibly raising taxes on heavy industry, the fishing giants and wealthy land owners. “One of the biggest fears people have with UBI is that people will stop working, and that it will be too costly. What’s more difficult to foresee is the savings that you will make, where we will save it, and how much is coming back.”

One of the most persistent memes from the right wing about UBI is indeed that it would eliminate the incentive to work. Halldóra’s response is to question the concept of work itself, and the inconsistent levels of value society places on different activities.

“Why does society decide what work is? Why do I get paid to watch someone else’s kid, but I don’t get paid to watch my own kid?”

“We judge someone based on how someone chooses to spend their time,” she says. “If someone wants to spend their days playing video games, who am I to judge that that’s a bad use of their time? Why does society decide what work is? Why do I get paid to watch someone else’s kid, but I don’t get paid to watch my own kid? I think it’s really strange how we define this stuff. But on the experiments that have been done with UBI thus far, one of the main things they wanted to see is if it had a negative effect on the job market, and it did not. So I think this has been debunked.” On the subject of incentives, she also points out the open source software community and volunteer charities. “They’re not getting paid for that. They do these things because it gives them a sense of purpose and belonging.”

Changing the system

Halldóra doesn’t pretend to have UBI completely mapped out. She does, however, believe it is essential for our survival to at least experiment with the idea. At the same time, she does not believe that you can simply inject UBI into a capitalist system and solve all of society’s ills. Rather, the entire system needs to be upended, if only in steps.

“This is not one change,” she says. “We’re not going to take UBI and install it in an unchanged system. It won’t work. The basis behind this is we have to rethink our economic system. The way that our system functions, the ideology behind it, is just not serving us in the future. Maximal growth of the economy in perpetuity, maximal production and consumption on a finite planet, is insanity. UBI will never function in this system. We need to rethink the whole thing.”

A major part of this is education. She believes children need to be taught from an early age to have a say in their environment, so that they will grow into people who will see themselves as stake-holders in their communities.

In short, a combination of conditioning newer generations for direct democracy, while building an economic system that leaves no one struggling, will bolster a healthier, more democratic society.

“For this to happen, you have to have a certain level of compassion in society,” she says. “You have to have people who are living comfortably enough for that compassion to exist. As soon as we get to a point where there are too many people struggling to make ends meet, who are angry and resentful, that compassion disappears. I wouldn’t want Iceland to go that way. I would like to keep us a compassionate nation. It’s ridiculous that we even have poverty in this country. Poverty is obviously built into the system, so we just need to change the system.”

Below is a TED Talk that Halldóra gave on UBI last September, where she expands on these ideas further (direct link if your browser blocks embeds):


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