Universal Basic Income and How To Make it Happen (in Germany)

Spurred by the coronavirus crisis and the resulting prospects of an intense economic fallout, the case for Universal Basic Income is back on the agenda of activists and researchers around the world. In Germany, a state-wide UBI pilot plan is coming close to reality thanks to the work of Joy Ponader and their team. Johannes “Joy” Ponader has been working on Universal Basic Income initiatives for more than 10 years. In 2019 they co-founded Expedition Grundeinkommen, a project which aims to introduce a comprehensive, scientifically evaluated, long-term basic income pilot in Germany. In this interview, we discussed both theoretical and practical aspects of UBI, as well as the plans for its roll out.

Hi Joy! Tell us about the purpose and origins of Expedition Grundeinkommen?

The purpose of our organisation is to advance Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Germany. We’re focused on promoting the idea and, more specifically, bringing it to the political space. Over the past 10 years we’ve hosted a lot of events in Germany creating an environment for discussions and debates on this issue. Our mission is to make UBI graspable and decision-ready as a political topic.

How did you get involved in Universal Basic Income?

The topic of basic income has been an ongoing thread in my professional life, I’ve been engaged with it for the past 14 years. In 2004, I co-founded Netzwerk Grundeinkommen, an association of people and organizations that advocate for basic income with its four precisely defined criteria. I also organized several conferences focused on UBI. I was part of the Occupy Berlin movement and part of the Pirate Party in Berlin. All these experiences led me to finally co-founding of Expedition Grundeinkommen and Sanktionsfrei, an initiative trying to reform the current German unemployment system (“Hartz IV”).

Who is involved in Expedition Grundeinkommen, and where are you at with this project?

We have 10 people in the core team working on the project. We also have roughly 30,000 volunteers all over Germany. The project started in May 2019. We are combining the topics of UBI and direct democracy, building a platform where people can sign up to participate in Expedition Grundeinkommen. Depending on where in Germany you’re residing, there are different ways to contribute and get involved. Since we started we’ve been active in four regions — Berlin, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bremen. If you live there, you can sign the Volksinitiative (popular initiative), which we are in the process of collecting signatures for. We need roughly 80,000 signatures for all the 5 Bundeslaender (federal states). You can also collect signatures!

If you are outside of these 5 federal states, you can still ask people who reside there to sign it. We are planning to expand nationally in the early autumn this year.

How will universal basic income in Germany work in practice?

You can just imagine it as everyone receiving a basic salary — about a 1000 or 1200 EUR per month. Then you would have to pay taxes for the first Euro that you’re earning on top of your UBI, regular taxes on every transaction (be it income tax or VAT). UBI can be compared to a tax-free allowance, a basic amount that everyone gets. For people who don’t have any income, UBI works as a basic subsidy, to replace Harz IV and other types of income support help available in Germany today. I’m a strong advocate for having every person who is living in Germany to be eligible for UBI. In our pilot we have decided to have every person living in a certain location to be eligible for it, regardless of citizenship.

What needs to happen for Expedition Grundeinkommen to be successful? What’s your timeline?

The initiative needs to pass through the Volksgesetzgebung (citizen lawmaking) process which is a 3 step process. The final step is the referendum, in which all the citizens of the 5 federal states currently participating in the program will have to decide whether they want to be part of the UBI pilot project. When we go nation-wide, every city and every municipality where our activity is taking place will invite citizens to decide whether they want to be a part of the pilot program. Ideally, this should take place on the day of the federal elections in September 2021.

Because we don’t have direct democracy on the state level, we’re using a sort of a political hack — we are advocating for the introduction of the pilot project and not the UBI itself, and this decision can be taken on the federal level and a city level.

The concept of UBI has been gaining momentum in the recent years but the idea is not new. What are its philosophical and academic underpinnings?

There are a lot of predecessors to the currently proposed concepts of UBI, especially since the mid-18th century Enlightenment and since the evolution of liberal ideas of giving power to the people.

In the 1960s several philosophers and economists spoke in favour of the idea from very different angles. One one hand we have an economic liberal approach with advocates such as Milton Friedman, who argued for a ‘slim state’, wanted to take the power from the government and improve the market economy. The logic here was that if everybody had a basic salary, then everyone could participate in the market, no one would be excluded.

Another approach to UBI was espoused by Martin Luther King who focused on the power of basic income to overcome poverty and racial divisions, addressing social issues in order to bring social equality and a common base level on which everyone in the society stands together. In the 1960s and 70s in the US, there were very intense discussions regarding the possibility of introducing UBI programs, but after facing a conservative backlash the topic was buried again.

For the past 10 years we’ve seen a renaissance, a second spring for the idea. The topic is becoming more and more prominent again. We see this as a window of opportunity, especially now when with the new wave of automation and AI, we will see many jobs falling away or being completely removed.

In those new circumstances, having a basic salary for everybody, free from discrimination, and without strings attached — without needing to prove that you are actually poor — having this common ground will give people way more power to adapt to this new labour landscape.

On the other hand, we still have a lot to do to push the idea forward, especially in terms of creative and entrepreneurial work.

How is the renewed interest in UBI fuelled by the coronavirus crisis?

The coronavirus crisis is showing something interesting: the economy suffers when everyone consumes only the essentials, fulfilling their basic needs. We are actually experiencing a post-growth economy now. And despite the tragedy cause by that infectious virus, we can see a lot of positive side effects — on the planet, air quality, and so on.

In these times of crisis, we see politicians and state agencies setting up aid programs on a weekly basis, trying to help small companies, self-employed, artists etc. But we’re observing as well how they constantly keep forgetting or excluding particular groups. If only we had basic income in place, everyone would be included from the outset, no one would be left behind. No one would have to lobby for their particular interests alone.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country. We are therefore creating a common policy proposal that everyone can gather around and support. And especially in a crisis situation such as we are facing currently, a lot of people realize how much better would they feel with basic income in place, as opposed to now, without adequate support.

Can the state afford it? Is it feasible for the state to keep everyone supported in this way?

Absolutely. It’s very helpful not to imagine UBI simply as having a 1000 EUR on top of one’s regular salary — but as having the money that you already have, unconditionally, no strings attached. Nearly everyone in Germany already receives some sort of income support, be it family income, subsidies, children’s allowances (Kindergeld), pensions etc. If you imagine offering this money unconditionally — it becomes a way of insuring against losing this income — then it becomes way cheaper. We don’t generate more income but ensure that the financial support already collected by the people is guaranteed.

Some serious calculations regarding the cost of the state, they all have a net cost price tag between 0 and 100 billion EUR per year, depending on the source and approach.

Is there any literature or other resources that you recommend for those who want to learn more?

My first recommendation is the book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen by Guy Standing, a standard read on this topic. In terms of German authors, we have Götz Werner’s Einkommen für Alle. There’s also a lot of scientific studies online and several proposals from political parties and highly rated scientific institutes, for example this study from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

We are living in a world of socioeconomic disparities and inequality, including gender, race and class inequality. Will UBI be able to address these inequalities and directly impact this situation? Is UBI considered as a tool to address these issues?

There’s different opinions on that. I’m most familiar with the feminist discourse. From an intersectional level you’d rather agree that introducing UBI is a positive development. When you dive deep into each discipline itself, for example into the feminist discourse, you will encounter varied opinions. There’s strong advocates for UBI allowing women to become independent or receive compensation for unpaid carework. On the other hand there’s also criticism of the UBI in the feminist discourse — due to the fear that it will cement the traditional structures and gender roles. We see now in the corona times that a lot of homeschooling work is done by womxn. Some are afraid that if everyone receives UBI, it will be even harder to combine work life and family life. It’d be even harder for women to break out of these traditional structures.

There’s always on one side of the argument stating that bringing this level of equality will create a common starting ground for everyone, while the other side of the argument holds that the money should be used for direct action to address various inequalities.

What are the long term goals and effects of introducing UBI? Is there an overarching vision for UBI-based society?

From the pilot projects introduced all around the world, e.g. in Finland, Kenya or Namibia, as well as the pilot projects in the US in the 60s, we can already see the direct effects on individuals.

Those studies indicated mental, psychological, physical and the general well-being increase of the populations receiving UBI.

There’s no big scale effect on labour provided — there’s some people are investing in better education but in general the amount of labour provided by people stay the same.

On the societal level, the effects are hard to figure out from the small scale pilots. But you can imagine that basic income is like a common level ground from which its easier to leverage and solve other issues. A better common ground for how to deal with automation, a better common ground from how to eradicate inequalities including gender and race inequality, and a better starting point in order to address the climate crisis or solve the rent crisis.

Moreover, with access to UBI, more people would be willing to move to the small villages and build a decentralised life outside of huge metropolia, or even build autonomous structures there because they would no longer be afraid whether they’d find jobs in those places. They can be more risk tolerant, which is good for the community, because risk aversion stifles innovation. UBI can be considered as a form of social innovation in terms of overcoming inequality. At one moment in time we got to the point where women were allowed to vote in the elections, which back then was considred a social innovation. Similarly, with UBI we are stepping into more freedom and equality as a society. Having a common ground granted by UBI is very important before undertaking actions to reinvent the power structures and innovate on a society’s level.

How big is the social and political support for UBI across Germany? Is it politically plausible?

There’s a lot of support, roughly 50% of the German population are in favour of UBI — which is a lot and it increased over the past 10 years. Especially if you ask whether people are in favour of having pilot projects — a lot of them are. Within the political parties, on the left — a lot of people at the bottom of the party are in favour of UBI and there’s vivid discussion around the issue but there’s no decision on the party level yet to have it as a policy proposal. We will see whether basis votum (plebiscite within a party) will be established.

Among the left, all of the parties do have leaders who are in favour of basic income, with Saskia Esken (SPD), Katja Kipping (Die Linke) and Robert Habeck (Grüne). Among the conservatives there’s no prominent leaders at the moment who are in favour. The social democrats are struggling because their core narrative is to be a party for the workforce, so they are a bit afraid that their base narrative requires basic income.

How is UBI different from existing safety programs?

It’s universal and there is no strings attached. It is important to note as well that UBI is only a replacement for basic safety programs, it’s not a replacement for support for people with special needs or physical disabilities.

We can place it in the same category as many other initiatives in social and economic development. For example, a recent innovation in human service program regarding the treatment of homeless people – the Housing First discussion — happens in parallel to the UBI discussion. The standard approach towards helping a homeless person, who is also drug addict, used to be trying to get rid of the drug addiction first and placing them in a homeless shelter. The Housing First approach moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own accommodation.

There’s also a “Give Directly” movement in international development work in the countries of the Global South. It proclaims that instead of investing in classic programs, be it education or infrastructure — it’s better to give cash directly to people in need, which has proven more effective.

These are both parallel conclusions to the basic income scenario. It’s about getting rid of the unnecessary middlemen and excessive bureaucracy.

What are some of the criticisms of UBI, and how would you address them?

The first argument is that UBI is too expensive and it’s a misconception. If you realize that UBI means that everyone is having financial support they had already been eligible for, guaranteed, you’ll see that it’s actually affordable for the state.

Another argument against UBI is that it’s ineffective. “Why should the rich people get UBI? Shouldn’t we identify the people who are really in need?” The problem here is that you never can identify who really needs the money and who doesn’t. We’d need to uphold the governmental agencies who screen people and take those decisions, which generates a lot of bureaucratic overhead while often decisions are incorrect and end up in various battles in courts. We also face a lot of fraud in the social security system. It’s more efficient to give the money to everybody and then take it back via taxation.

How can UBI supporters get involved and help the initiative?

They can go to the Expedition Grundeinkommen’s website and check out all the information provided. If you are living in one of the Bundesländer where we are already active, you can sign the bill that we are proposing. You can also get involved in collecting signatures.

If you are not in the active region yet, sign up and leave your zip code — we’ll notify you when we launch our campaigns in those regions.

You also always give us donations to support our team who is carrying out this work.

Thank you!