If America ever does take the radical step of introducing a universal basic income (UBI)–that is, a regular payment to all citizens to cover their basic needs–presumably the idea will need something like universal support. To pay for such a scheme might cost more than 1 trillion dollars, and generally America doesn’t spend that sort of money unless the people are broadly onboard (except perhaps during war time).
So far, say filmmakers Deia Schlosberg and Conrad Shaw, basic income has yet to make sufficient headway beyond Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C., where it has plenty of supporters. And the way it’s discussed tends to be dry and serious, rather than human and urgent. To change that, they want to make a documentary following 20 UBI recipients (paid for by the filmmakers) across the country over two years. It’s only by showing how UBI affects people’s lives–including their choices about work, food, shelter, and family–that the idea can gain mainstream acceptance, they argue.
“The pitch to the American people needs to be done in a way that speaks to their hearts,” Shaw tells Fast Company. “You can’t have an academic paper and just reach out to the Silicon Valley types. What we found in the last election is the middle of the country is ready for something new. They need to speak up if we’re going to pass UBI, because it needs to be bipartisan and something that everyone votes for.”
Schlosberg and Shaw are currently crowdfunding $50,000 on HandUp to pay for the first two people to receive UBI payments of $250 a week for two years. Eventually, they hope to raise at least $500,000 to pay for up to 20 UBI subjects. The plan is to follow the lives of a diverse group of people–artists, farmers, former factory workers, academics–and then to release the film during the 2020 presidential campaign (that being the time when Americans are most receptive to big ideas both brilliant and crazy-stupid).
UBI has a long history and a rich intellectual pedigree, having been supported by everyone from Martin Luther King to the conservative economist Milton Friedman. Lately it’s leapt to prominence as a response to worries about the future of work and as an alternative to the traditional welfare system. The left sees UBI as evening up the scales of economic unfairness. On the right, UBI has supporters who think public assistance is inefficient, ineffective, and unnecessarily prescriptive. There are currently several experiments going on, including one set up by startup accelerator Y Combinator in Oakland, and others in Kenya and Finland.
For Schlosberg, UBI is a matter of human decency–that, as a society, we could look after everybody if we wanted to. “For me, it’s that everyone’s basic human rights are covered. The system has easily enough capacity to do that, and it’s just a societal choice [that we don’t],” she says.
Schlosberg and Shaw argue that UBI payments will lead people to “invest in themselves,” to be more entrepreneurial and risk-taking, politically active, and engaged in their communities. People are not more outwardly oriented, they say, because they’re constantly working, or looking for work, and trying to keep their heads above water. They allow that some of the 20 subjects may respond more selfishly, however, and they’re prepared to show that in their film as well. But the project is more UBI endorsement than come-what-may research exercise. “This is not a rigorous study. The point is to communicate the idea,” Schlosberg says.
I ask the filmmakers whether they considered following one of the existing UBI trials instead. First, they say, they want subjects from across the U.S., so the characters are diverse and can speak to a large cross-section. Second, they say, the other pilots are wary of outsiders coming to talk to their subjects, lest they muddy experimental outcomes. The only way to do the film, they say, is to fund the UBI themselves, even if it makes the project more expensive.
As they raise $50,000, they plan to draw lots to decide who gets the UBI payments (their mailing list already has 4,000 names and addresses). The money raised will sit with Amalgamated Bank. Amalgamated, owned by unions, has a strong history of supporting labor, and CEO Keith Mestrich says it wants to see experiments with UBI. “Artificial intelligence, computers, and self-driving cars will have a profound impact on work, and we’re going to need to have a policy approach to take care of people,” he says in an interview. “I don’t think UBI is the only public policy solution. I would favor a massive public works program. But I think it’s worth exploring. Our bank should be in a position to help find policy solutions that help working people.”