Taiwan's Basic Income Movement Wants to Break Into the Mainstream

Taiwan's Basic Income Movement Wants to Break Into the Mainstream
Credit: UBI Taiwan
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Can basic income save Taiwan? The movement has momentum thanks to some high-profile supporters.

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Basic income can solve some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, a range of experts said at this year’s Basic Income International summit, staged at the National Taiwan University (NTU) campus on Saturday. A youthful audience of around 100 participants gathered for the third iteration of the event, organized by Universal Basic Income (UBI) Taiwan.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, basic income is most broadly defined as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” It is designed to provide a robust, modern form of social insurance. Speakers at the event discussed the capacity of basic income to address a range of contemporary issues in what they believe to be a critical juncture in the policy’s development.

“If you can succeed in what you are trying to do, I actually think it has the potential to be the tipping point that changes the direction for the rest of the world, and that's not an exaggeration,” said Ryan Engen of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). “It's primarily the globalized elite who are getting the rewards and the benefits from the current model… and that's what’s in part fueling the nationalist, populist movements that you see spreading throughout the world.”

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Credit: James Grant
Ryan Engen of AIT and UBI Taiwan co-founder Tyler Prochazka speak at last week's event.

“If we are to reverse this, we need to create a new social contract that leaves nobody behind,” said Engen. “Taiwan's central policy challenge is to make the transition to an innovation based society. UBI in Taiwan could be a democratically inspired grease that enables Taiwan to make this transition.”

Sarath Davala, co-founder of the India Network for Basic Income, chose to frame the argument for basic income in more global terms.

“We have an ecological crisis, we have a moral crisis about the meaning of our lives, and we have a social crisis, in terms of what exactly has happened to the structure of society in the last 2030 years,” said Davala.

“What kind of the world are we leaving behind for our children and grandchildren?” he asked. “Are we leaving behind institutions that are going to take care of the next generation of generation after that?”

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Credit: James Grant
From left: AIT economic specialist Shih Ta-ching, India Network for Basic Income co-founder Sarath Davala, UBI Taiwan co-founder Tyler Prochazka.

Davala proposed that UBI would “enable everybody to have a basic floor to stand on, to improve the quality of life, it should improve the way you imagine your life, you should give you space to design your life.”

Experts from across Taiwan also contributed to the discussion, Huang Hou-ming (黃厚銘), a sociology professor at National Chengchi University (NCCU) Department of Sociology, looked at the potential of basic income to help realize Marxist social models. Ku Yun-wen (古允文), a professor in NTU’s Department of Social Work, gave a guest talk and shared his belief that basic income can play a role in upholding Taiwan’s embattled existing social insurance systems.

Advocates of basic income believe it can be used to mitigate the worst impacts of artificial intelligence and automation in the workforce in the future. This topic was touched on throughout the day and explored in depth by Feng Po-han (馮勃翰), an economics professor at NTU.

The afternoon session also saw a detailed discussion of basic income as a tool of poverty reduction, with Yang Fen-ying (楊芬瑩) of The Reporter (報導者) providing a detailed look at how this could work if implemented in Taiwan.

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Credit: UBI Taiwan
Forum attendees look on at the ...

The policy is one that has received a lot more coverage over the last few months, to the extent that it has become a topic of frequent discussion in the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections.

This is in part thanks to the policies of Andrew Yang, an American businessman of Taiwanese descent, who has earned a seat at the Democratic Party primary debates taking place in June. Yang’s main campaign promise is that, if elected, he will ensure a monthly dividend of US$1,000 per month reaches every U.S. citizen. Yang’s popularity has surged in recent weeks, with some bookmakers offering favorable odds on him being the eighth most likely candidate to win the U.S. presidency in 2020.

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The 'Yang Gang,' online supporters of Andrew Yang, have used memes to help propel their candidate to the Democratic debate stage. (Credit: Reddit u/Emmerson-Emerald)

The basic income movement is not one that has shied away from making big, bold promises, and overall the tone of this year’s event was both optimistic and ambitious. Many delegates I spoke to believed that basic income may be on the verge of breaking into the political mainstream. If the policy continues to reach new advocates throughout 2019, that breakthrough may yet arrive.

Read Next: Taiwan's Basic Income Movement Plans National Referendum

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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