British journalist and author Aaron Bastani was taken aback by the poverty and open drug use visible around the edges of Vancouver’s downtown during an excursion through Gastown on Monday, but he came to the city with ideas for dealing with such inequalities.
A believer in and evangelizer for the concept of universal basic services, Bastani delivered a TED talk to its influential audience on UBS as a means to deal with broken systems in capitalism that worsen inequalities, such as overheated speculation in housing.
“It was extraordinary to me,” Bastani said during an interview about his impression of the Downtown Eastside, “and I think for people, for British Columbians, this is a scar on the face of a really nice city — you should want to do something about it.”
So he argues for a bigger realignment to make housing, health care, education and transportation universal basic services, the core of his TED talk, as the means to smooth out inequalities, something he also talks abut in his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
He outlined a dreamy future in the year 2100 where people enjoy short work hours, efficient transportation enabled by AI, and lifelong education and health care, which might sound utopian.
“Personally, I think it’s technically easier to do than colonizing Mars,” he added, though society seems more captivated by that possibility.
Bastani’s talk follows from 2018’s TED Talks event that saw speakers such as Dutch historian Rutger Bregman tout universal basic income as the way to meet inequality head on. He spoke on the conference’s second day on a panel devoted to capitalism, with presenters addressing topics from the potential for cryptocurrency to confronting “moral clarity” in capitalism to revitalizing disadvantaged neighbourhoods with the same tactics corporations apply to talent retention.
During Bastani’s talk, he agreed that inequality is the problem that needs solving, but doesn’t believe universal basic income offers the policy solutions that will also tackle the concurrent critical issue of climate change that universal basic services would.
“A UBI would be an extraordinary amount of money to spend,” Bastani said, without a clear tie to the other issue.
“With universal basic services, we could put a post-carbon agenda at the heart of education, health care, transport and housing, rapidly decarbonizing our economies, moving them away from fossil fuels,” Bastani said.
In UBS, government doesn’t involve itself in most other markets, such as “making chocolate bars or socks or silk ties,” Bastani said, “but it is the central player in these four things we all need for liberty: housing, education, health care and transport.”
There are already models for pieces of the UBS puzzle. In the U.K., the National Health Service remains beloved, despite its faults, because everyone can relate to it. In Sweden, robust basic welfare has been shown to reduce poverty, even if there is still some homelessness.
Universal basic services would require higher, progressive taxation, but Bastani argues that this would hardly be radical in an historical perspective. In the U.S. of the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was 90 per cent, whereas today it’s 37 per cent. In the U.K. during the 1980s, the top rate was 60 per cent, versus 45 per cent now.
Now “we tax work more than we tax wealth, which is astonishing,” Bastani said. “In the U.K., and the U.S., capital gains are taxed lower than incomes, how the hell does that work, talk about a rigged system.”
Housing presents perhaps bigger barriers. Government would have to get involved in building a lot more housing, Bastani said, much more than could be accommodated by the $4 billion housing accelerator fund launched in the 2022 Canadian budget.
And those with vested interests in rising home prices have to be convinced that the payoffs in levelling off inequality would be enough in everyone’s interest to live with a long period of stagnation in home prices.
“I think the big structural challenge is, we would have to take on speculative investment in housing,” Bastani said.
And in Vancouver, “if you’re a homeowner, OK, well that means your property won’t gain in value for 10 years,” Bastani said, “but I think pussyfooting can only go so far.
“I think secure housing is something, (if it were provided) through universal basic services, we would have a very different political culture.”
Ted Talks continue in Vancouver until Thursday.
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