Future Building Society

UBI is a society-level failsafe for its people

Bookmarked An Engineering Argument for Basic Income by Scott Santens (

Utilizing fault-tolerant design in critical life support systems

Because we know things will fail, we should design them in a way such that when they fail, lives are protected first and foremost, wherever lives are at risk

We know that our primary income distribution system fails. It fails all the time. It’s called losing your job. We have a “safety net” designed to catch people when it fails, but that system is really poorly designed, and it also fails all the time, at which point, people can and do die as a result.

We have engineered a life support system without fault tolerance.

I’m realizing that this argument for the need for universal basic income mirrors the argument for universal healthcare, which has not succeeded. (Sigh, why is it the group that wants to “make America great again” fights everything that would actually make America great again, like catching up to the rest of the world on basic human rights? God, they’re good at branding.)

Because UBI would mean incomes never fall to zero, anyone who ever loses their job would fall to the level of the UBI instead of the severe poverty of having $0. We can think of this as what engineers call “graceful failure.”

Graceful failure means that a failure does not result in catastrophic failure (e.g. sickness or death), and instead fails in a way that protects people or property from injury or damage.

This is kind of funny to think of engineers developing a more compassionate solution to our fiscal policies since in our society’s stereotypes engineers design for maximum efficiency and not cultural needs — but engineers design for outcomes, not based on politics, which is how most of our policies have come to be — through compromise that isn’t necessarily based on outcomes, but often rooted in judgments and moralism (as he points out).

Preventing people in our society from falling into poverty is good (society ignores that because we jump to moral judgments about why people don’t deserve help). It’s much harder (and more expensive) to get people out of poverty then to prevent them from falling into it.

Right now, our safety net uses bang-bang design. If you lose your job, bang, the safety net turns on, that is if you satisfy the necessary conditions, and you may or may not still fall to your death because of the holes in the net. If you do get help, it’s temporary and then, bang, no more help, or if you don’t satisfy the conditions, bang, no more help.

However, UBI would be proportional control design. Everyone receives UBI, but everyone also pays for it in varying amounts depending on income and/or consumption. So if your income goes down for any reason, or to any degree, you pay less for your UBI, meaning your disposable income boost is increased.

Bang-bang design, what a name!

Unconditional basic income is how to engineer resilience into our social and economic systems.

I’m hoping we come out of this pandemic in agreement that resilience is a useful and worthwhile thing to build into our society??? Especially when it comes to protecting lives??? Even though resilience costs money, since what we have going now only works for rich people???

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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