I’d felt uncomfortable since landing in the country of my birth, but it wasn’t until Thanksgiving dinner started that I could pinpoint exactly why. It was this question, from my sister’s new boyfriend, that set me off: “So, what do you do?”
What didn’t I do? I helped coordinate a community garden near my home; I was one of the parent speakers at my son’s high school; I ran a project with a few friends that helped people become carbon-negative. I taught classes on sustainability and speculative fiction. I wrote poetry that a singer friend turned into songs. But none of these answers was what Jack was looking for.
“What’s on your business card?”
“I don’t have a business card.”
“Where do you physically go to work in the morning?”
“Well, I don’t work most mornings.” Well, this wasn’t exactly true. I did laundry and tended to my sourdough every morning. But was that work?
“How do you make money?” he asked, mouth turned into something between a scowl and a snarl.
“Well, I don’t really need to.”
Now the scowl turned into undisguised loathing.
“I get by on basic income. In Germany,” I said slowly, “we’ve had universal basic income for the past five years.”
The way his eyes widened suggested he didn’t know this. “That’s welfare!”
“Well, welfare means well-being, so I guess yes. But you’re thinking welfare as resources given based on need. Basic income is given to everyone. Twelve hundred Euro per month, no questions asked.”
“Possible. Wanna see my bank account?”
He shook his head. “That’s going to bankrupt the country.”
“That’s what the FDP said,” I replied, referring to the country’s libertarian political party, which had a brief resurgence when various proposals for universal basic income started being discussed in the Bundestag. Since its passage, however, the smooth implementation proved all the FDP’s worst nightmares nothing but fantasy. “Now, I’m biased, because I volunteered for a local NGO working to implement basic income. But despite some small growing pains, the policy has been a resounding success. The reduction of bureaucracy alone has increased well-being and saved some of the anticipated costs. But what’s really interesting is what people do, now that you don’t necessarily have to work to earn a living.”
I stopped, waiting for him to throw me a question.
“We saw on MSNBC that volunteer work doubled in the first year,” my father piped in. The number was quadrupled, but he was right that people spent more time volunteering.
“And domestic violence levels dropped.”
“What could that have to do with—?” Jack began.
“Women didn’t have to stick around with abusive partners to stay off the streets. Some men, too, but mostly women. And that’s a big deal, but I thought it was particular poetic justice how many U.S. multinationals went bankrupt in Germany after UBI passed. No one wanted to work at Amazon or Google or Uber, so they couldn’t find staff. They packed up and left.”
“But we haven’t seen anything on it since,” my father said.
It was true. I didn’t follow American TV news that closely, but it seemed that the initial interest—when Germany decided to use basic income to end the economic crisis caused in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic—waned once UBI was passed. I didn’t know whether this was because long-term implementation wasn’t as easy to translate into news or whether there was a more insidious interest in keeping Americans in the dark about the true efficacy of the policy. True, some politicians on the “far left” brought up basic income legislation at the beginning of every session of Congress. But with the looming specter of electoral inroads by the Republican Sedition Party, moderate Democrats called such proposals political non-starters. Of course, their outsized—and laughably conspiracy-laden—coverage in the right-wing media ecosystem guaranteed this.
“What about trash collection?” Jack’s question brought me out of my thoughts and back to the dinner table.
“Mostly automatized. But necessary work now pays better than useless industries like finance. And teachers, with basic income, are finally paid closer to what they’re worth.”
“You’re making this all up.”
“Here, Jack, if you want to learn more, listen to Basic Berlin. It’s a great podcast about all that’s changed since basic income was implemented. Or I could recommend some books that have been translated into English. And there are some cities testing UBI in England right now.”
Jack seemed to take that as a cue to end the discussion. After a few moments, he asked my mother to pass the potatoes.
After handing over the dish, my mother turned to my sister. “How are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know. Same old.” She took a sip of her water. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“And you, Lisa?”
This question, like Jack’s first, unlocked a whole new world of impulses in my brain. Because I wasn’t just fine. I was doing great. And I thought about this, deeply, what it meant and how it could be. I was doing great, because I didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of my apartment, or losing my job, or not being able to pay my bills. I was doing great, because I woke up every morning and actively decided what I wanted to do that day. I had the freedom to follow my passions, not just the markets, the freedom granted by a safety net based on a strong sense of solidarity, rather than a punitive sense of worthiness. I felt valued by my chosen home, valued for being me, regardless of what I produced or how much I paid into social security. And I felt like I lived in a place where everyone was valued as I was. It wasn’t conniving or aggressive or competitive. It was warm and giving. It was—
I looked up. All eyes were on me.
“I’m doing really well, Mom. I’m doing really, really well.” And looking around, seeing the yearning in their faces, I told them how basic income had made my life better.