by Rutger Bregman

Ratings: 10/10

I picked up this book after seeing Rutger Bregman speak at Davos. The way he talked about tax havens and making the rich pay their fair share is admirable. Here is the link to the interview if you are interested in watching.

The book mainly deals with Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour workweek. If your political leaning is toward the right, then the author would be someone they call the “radical left.” The views presented are by far the most progressive that I’ve read about anywhere.

Frankly, I think that whatever he proposed could be tried out in a small state like Tripura. Meaning that I think I could run for the Chief Minister’s office and implement these policies. But that is a story for another day.

I think our generation is at a turning point in human history. The truth is that the world is getting better generally, but perhaps not at the pace, we would want progress to happen. We do not see a rapid improvement in many aspects like women empowerment, income inequality, etc.

The author rightly points out that we might get too comfortable with what we’ve inherited and that we won’t come up with better things. If this happens, we are all doomed as a species. Every generation is supposed to get progressively better than the previous ones. That doesn’t necessarily have to economic. We are more prosperous than at any time in human history, yet the number of homeless people is also the highest in history. We need to shake up the status quo and do something about the world’s problems to make it more equitable and fair to everyone.

“One needs to be able to believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them.” I think this is so important. Sure, have a strong belief system that you were willing to defend, but not at the expense of someone else, and certainly do not set your beliefs in stone.

1. The case for Universal Basic Income & On Poverty

Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity. Trust me, this is true. I have seen extreme poverty growing up. Folks back at home still live under $1 a day. That might sound absurd to some, but it is not. Poor people are not dumb. They just don’t have enough cash to have options.

Let me narrate a story. Over the end semester break, I went to my village to meet my grandma. It so happens on that particular day, the government folks were distributing yarn so that women of the village could weave them and use the Rinnai. If my memory serves me right, the government also distributes piglets, rubber saplings, and goats under various schemes.

Now, I do not question the intention of these schemes. They are good and are certainly better than nothing. But, let me ask you this – how many of these women know how to weave the yarn into Rignai? How many of the piglets would grow up, and who would pay for the food? How many of the rubber saplings would grow up to yield something? What if the person does not have enough land to plant these saplings? More importantly, how cost-effective are these schemes?

As you can see, you can ask many questions. I am not aware of any studies being conducted on the ground to evaluate these schemes’ effectiveness. Some dudes sat at an office and thought that’s best for the poor, and so that’s that!

Wouldn’t it be so much better to just give cash directly to these people? A prevalent argument against this is that the village folks are illiterate and would blow all the money on desi liquor. As absurd as that might sound, this is the kind of argument the guys sitting in big-ass armchairs buy. Poor people are not making dumb decisions because they are dumb, but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make dumb decisions. Poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash.

If you are distributing 1500 INR worth of yarn, just hand them the 1500 INR. If someone wants to weave them into a fabric, then they would do so. Instead of asking a poor person to plant rubber saplings, hoping that the plants would later pull them out of poverty, just hand out the cash to him. Maybe he could then pay for his child’s education, eat something healthy and live a prosperous life. Instead of investing in stupid things like pigs and goats, why don’t they invest in people?

That leads me to one of the book’s central themes – the case for Universal Basic Income. In layman’s terms, it means to hand out monthly cash to all eligible people so that they can think about other problems in life than survival.

The arguments against UBI are that – 1) It will cost too much, 2) It is too risky, 3) People would get lazy, and productivity will decrease.

To counter these, let me lay down the following arguments:

  1. Sure, the cost would be high, but like mentioned before, the world is more prosperous than ever. So, if everyone paid their fair share of taxes, the cost is very much manageable.
  2. “Risk hai toh Ishq hai”, said a certain Harshad Mehta. Again, yes, it is true that it is a risky operation. But, UBI experiments thus far gave positive results. So, why not have a universal plan? Countries have come out of depression successfully. They sure can manage a Universal Basic Income program well.
  3. On the contrary, this would reduce the number of accidents due to overwork. Workers would become much more productive. After all, a well rested body and mind could perform tasks more efficiently. And, jobs that require very high efficiency could always be outsourced to robots. A basic income would also enable people to spend more time with their loved ones and do the things they love.

Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.
– Oscar Wilde (1854– 1900)

2. 15-hour Work Week

Rutger makes an interesting point. You see, despite rising automation and the wealth of the world, the world is working more hours than ever in history. With progress made by humankind, more and more humans should be living an eternal life. Not quite so. Inequity is at a record high. Sure, there are the ultra-rich who can change governments, rules, and almost everything in the world. Then there are the poor people and the middle class. In an equal society, the distribution of wealth would be more or less similar.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Someone who has merit and has worked more than others deserves more. That is not a point of contention. But, if someone had a headstart, then perhaps you are comparing the wrong people. A 15-hour workweek aims at restoring the quality of life.

With machines doing the hard work for us, we should take a break when we can. It is not so. Millions of families work as hard as possible and still fail to meet their necessities and put food on the table. Ours is a fundamentally flawed society. The structure is unfair to some, while it favors sure others.

The reality is that it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that fewer and fewer people benefit when a business succeeds. In this sense, today’s multi-billion corporations are doing more harm than good. Sure, they employ thousands of people, but the wealth is concentrated with a particular working fraternity section. A better way would be the redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.

This way, more people can enjoy the fruits of human progress, instead of a particular section getting everything while the others get nothing. I think this is truly revolutionary. I wish that such an equitable society takes shape during my lifetime. That would be a dope society to live in.

3. Open Borders

Borders are the single most significant cause of discrimination in all of world history. You would be surprised to know that passports are not that old a thing. Even human suffering has varying degrees of measures because of political boundaries.

Food-stamp recipients in the U.S. live like royalty compared to the poorest people in the world. This sheds light on the kinds of inequity that exist in the world. I don’t think anyone wishes to leave their birthplace. If we had open borders, I think we can solve many of the world’s problems.

In the twenty-first century, the real elite is born not in the right family or the right class but the right country. To quote Hasan Minhaj, “Being born is like real-estate. It’s all about location, location, and location.” If you are not born in the right country, then you are probably screwed. Sure, by the time you die, you will have done exceptionally well, but in terms of opportunities, you are much more likely to do well in a country like New Zealand, the U.K., the US, India, etc.

Conclusion

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.”

Smart people, concludes the American journalist Ezra Klein, don’t use their intellect to obtain the correct answer; they use it to get what they want to be the answer. This bias is so common that we fail to notice them. I am a victim of the phenomenon. When someone says something that I disagree with, my first instinct is to go online and find all the arguments that I could find to prove them wrong. It takes time to change people’s convictions (including mine).

It could easily take a generation before new ideas prevail. What’s the point of this? The fact is that ideas that seem bizarre today could shape society in the next twenty years. Voting rights for women were once considered absurd. It is a norm now. It is easy to discount ideas as being too radical or ridiculous until they change the world forever.

Ideas have indeed changed the world in the past, and they would change the world in the future. We have to ask ourselves, are we going to stay rooted in the old ideas or board the train to change?

Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again.

The book offers two crucial takeaways:

  1. First, realize that there are more people out there like you. I think this is so important to recognize. Whatever ridiculous-sounding ideas you have, chances are that more people have similar thoughts too. It takes time to find your kind. Once you do so, the ball will get rolling until your ideas have changed the world forever.

  2. And second is to cultivate a thicker skin. Don’t let anyone tell you what’s what.

As you can see, the note is a pretty long one. Thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far. The ideas presented in the book resonated so much with me that I thought about running for the CM’s office after I turn 25. That would be Tripura’s 2028 election when I am 29. We’ll see what happens. I really only have two lifelong dreams:

  1. To officiate someone else’s wedding just so that I can say, “You may start by kissing the bride” before anything else.
  2. I want to hand cash out to people instead of bullshit welfare schemes and witness more humans do amazing things.

Next, I’m reading Humankind: A Hopeful History by the same author. You can check out my readings here. Thanks so much again for reading.

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