by Judge Dennis Challeen
The Finnish government began an experiment at the beginning of this year to select at random 2,000 unemployed persons (white- and blue-collar, construction workers, etc.) and give them the equivalent of about $587 U. S. dollars automatically every month for two years. No strings attached. The government will then study what happens to these people after two years. The lucky jobless recipients are free to spend the money, called “basic income” anyway they choose, and if they get a job or start a business and make a profit, they still keep the free money. They don’t have to report whether they are applying for or even looking for work.
Finland, a Scandinavian country just below the Arctic Circle, has a population of 5.5 million — about the same as either Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Canada, India, and the Netherlands are also considering such an unusual experiment. At first glance most Americans would conclude that it’s a freeloader’s paradise, and they’ll sit on their couch in front of the TV, drink beer, eat potato chips and remain completely useless slackers.
The Finnish government is betting on the opposite. Their reasoning anticipates a new changing world.
Automation will continue to replace human workers for low-skill routine jobs, because robots can produce goods and many services much cheaper and more efficiently. There will always be a demand for highly educated skilled employees, but for many the necessary education is beyond their means and abilities. There are now discussions about taxing robots to help pay for the unemployment they cause.
Poor people and unemployed are viewed differently, often depending on one’s political persuasion. Those who lean conservative tend to see these people as lazy, unwilling to work, and mainly looking for handouts. Those who lean liberal tend to see them as disadvantaged, who need a little help to compete in the job market that favors the establishment and wealthy. Both are partly right and wrong. There are some who fit these stereotypes but many do not. The Finnish government believes there are more people who will pursue jobs, start businesses, gain some education and begin training for new careers and pursue their own betterment while contributing to society. They also realistically anticipate that some will lie around, do nothing and squander “their money foolishly on vodka.” Some critics claim this is nothing other than socialism … others say it invigorates capitalism.
Those of us who work in the criminal justice system have long understood that if a person does not work, or is not supported by another, that person becomes desperate and often resorts to begging, stealing, or dealing in order to survive. Thus society either pays directly with some form of welfare payments or indirectly by its citizens being crime victims.
Finland determined that their unemployment compensation discouraged people from finding part-time or full-time work because any earnings had to be reported and were subtracted from their unemployment check.
Many of us Americans may have noticed that in high unemployment areas there have also been high numbers of federal disability claims filed. Disability compensation, once established, usually continues until the disabled qualifies for Social Security benefits later in life. Disability compensation in the past was difficult to obtain; it is now much easier, particularly for those who can no longer make their living doing physical labor — many of which jobs now are being taken over by automation. Some Finnish “basic income” advocates would say it’s already in America — just called a different name.
The concept of “basic income,” an amount barely sufficient to pay food and rent costs, is not new. Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” has been credited with provoking the colonists to start our revolution, also advocated creating a national pool of money to be distributed to adults who were experiencing poverty to help them until they become self-reliant.
When I was working as a judge it became clearly apparent that all people are not created equal, in spite of it being stated in our Declaration of Independence. There simply are unfortunate people who are unable to compete in the job market. If hired, they’d most likely be fired. The old adage “You can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey” sounds insulting, mean, and cruel, but it applies to some people whose mental and physical makeups are so disadvantaged they simply can’t overcome, no matter how hard they try. Those of us who are more fortunate can always say, “I got mine … to hell with you.” However, a society that says that will pay for its arrogance, directly or indirectly.
When the end of 2018 comes around it will be interesting to see if Finland’s “basic income” experiment proves — or suggests — whether human nature is to be lazy, freeloading, and greedy, or to invest in future betterment.
If we look at what happens to many lottery winners, and professional athletes’ multi-million dollar contracts, the outlook doesn’t look optimistic, but Finland is only talking about free basic food and shelter money — not free Porsches.