We talk to Sergi Raventós about the tasks he will have to carry out as head of the office of the Pilot Plan for the Basic Income of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the first experiment of a basic income that exists in the whole of Spain.
By Guillem Pujol
Sergi Raventós has worked for more than twenty years in the field of mental health as a social worker. With a PhD in sociology from the UAB, he is also one of the founding members of the Basic Income Network, from where he has dedicated himself to explaining and promoting the benefits that the application of a universal basic income would bring to the vast majority of the population. This legislature, as a result of the investiture pact between the CUP and ERC, the Office of the Pilot Plan to Implement Universal Basic Income was set up, and he was offered the possibility of leading the project to design and implement the first experiment of basic income in the whole of Spain.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is often presented as a “right to exist”: what exactly does it mean?
This is very important. Before talking about the pilot scheme or the various experiments that are being carried out worldwide in this field, it is important to understand what basic income is.
What is universal basic income, then?
As an idea it can already be traced back to some authors of the 16th and 17th centuries, who, in other words, argued that a person needs an income in order to exist; an income that is more or less equivalent to the poverty line that covers a person’s material existence. An individual, unconditional and universal allowance for every person living in a territory would generate a series of effects – which have been much analysed and studied – that would go much further than ending poverty.
What are the tasks and competencies of the Office of the Pilot Plan to Implement the Universal Basic Income that you coordinate?
We have the challenge of designing, organising, planning and subsequently implementing the Basic Income Pilot Plan. It is a job that will take time. First, we will have to draw up a population sample, which will distinguish between the age groups and social groups we want to reach with this unconditional income. Then, once we have the results, we will compare them with the conditional incomes we know. From here we will have to see how to implement a universal basic income system.
Does this mean that the competences of the office are not only propositional, but also executive? In other words, will they have the capacity not only to design the plan, but also to implement it?
The task we have at the moment is to design the Pilot Plan, implement it and evaluate it. Then the government will have to analyse the results and see if they invite us to move towards a universal basic income system.
Making a UBI in Catalonia is very complicated, although not impossible.
What is the timetable you have in hand?
We want to organise all the design and planning of the pilot plan during 2022. At the end of 2022 we would like to start implementing it, but if we don’t get there it will be in 2023 and 2024. During the first months of 2025, we would do its evaluation.
You mentioned that the Pilot Plan distinguishes between age groups and social strata, so should it be understood that it would not be a universal income, as it would not be given to all citizens regardless of their age or income?
It should be very clear that a pilot plan is not an application of a basic income throughout the territory and population, in this case, Catalonia. A pilot plan, or basic income experiment, like those that have been and are being carried out around the world, are experiments that have a series of particularities and limitations. What we can do, for now, is to take a sample that is representative of the Catalan social and economic fabric and see what results we obtain. If they are positive, which I think they will be, they should serve to move towards the application of a universal basic income for the entire population.
In the hypothetical case that the results of the experiment were positive and there was the political will to move forward with a universal basic income in Catalonia, would it be legally and economically possible?
Implementing a UBI in Catalonia is very complicated, although not impossible. It is clear that not having our own state with taxation capacity complicates matters enormously. However, if we wanted to apply the UBR here in Catalonia, important steps would have to be taken that would require a broad consensus on a political and social scale. If a whole series of things were done at the same time, we could achieve something similar to a basic income.
How should it be done?
If we had the capacity to reduce and limit all the existing benefits in a basic income, and we increase certain taxes such as inheritance tax or wealth tax, we could move towards a basic income. But it is clear that there are a number of aspects that could collide with the Spanish legal system, as we are used to seeing all the time.
The office has been created this legislature as a result of the investiture agreement and the pact between the CUP and ERC. Does this mean that these two forces would be in favour of implementing an RBU?
I know that within both the ERC and the CUP there has been a positive evolution towards a basic income, and that today they are two political organisations in favour of its implementation.
Even so, the CUP is not in the government, but Junts per Catalunya is there: what is Junts’ position on basic income?
I don’t know Junts per Catalunya’s position. I suppose that there will be sectors within Junts that look at it critically, and others that may be in favour. I’m not going to name names so as not to compromise them, but I know that there are people within Junts who have historically been in favour.
There are those who say that what people really need is a job that allows them to earn this income.
This has been the debate for many years: work or income? I think it is becoming increasingly clear that work is a scarcer and lower quality good for the vast majority of the population. First of all, unemployment rates are high. Precariousness in the labour market is evident. To all this we must add something as extraordinary as it is worrying, which is the percentage of the population that is poor despite having a job. Therefore, work is no longer a guarantee of income as it was fifty years ago.
Let’s move on to the criticisms: one of them says that basic income would discourage people from wanting to work, which would contribute to making the system unsustainable by reducing the contribution to the public coffers.
This is one of the recurrent criticisms. I think – and all the studies carried out to date corroborate this – that basic income does not conflict with people wanting to stop working. The difference is that we would work under better conditions, and perhaps we would work fewer hours, which would help to distribute jobs more evenly, and, in the case of Spain, this would have a positive effect on reducing unemployment. This is a criticism that, from the outset, has no empirical support if we stick to the experiments or surveys carried out. It should be borne in mind, moreover, that the amount of basic income we are talking about would be between 800 € or 900 € per month, which is also not an invitation to do certain things in view of the prices of rents and products in general.
So, you don’t think it would have any effect on the labour market?
Not exactly. What could happen is that certain jobs that are currently very poorly paid and that have proved very important during the pandemic, such as cleaning workers, food workers, or health workers, would be revalued.
Another common criticism is that unconditional income for everyone would have immediate macroeconomic repercussions in the form of price inflation.
It is important to be clear, because sometimes this criticism is made out of ignorance and sometimes out of bad faith, that in order to finance basic income, new money is not created, but existing money is distributed. A distribution that would obviously involve taxing the rich more so that it could be passed on to the neediest people. It should have no effect on inflation. At the same time, basic income is not incompatible with a policy on the part of governments to control, for example, the prices of rent, food, energy, etc. In fact, basic income should be accompanied by other measures to prevent this from happening.
The last criticism, which is perhaps more subtle or silent, is that those who might be most opposed to a basic income are sectors of the public administration, trade unions and the third sector, which would see their work threatened, since the implementation of a basic income would mean the elimination of all subsidies and aid conditions lower than the value of the basic income, which would have a direct impact on certain administrative functions that would no longer be necessary.
This is an important aspect that is not without reason. We have sometimes seen some sensitivity and unease when we have talked to certain sectors such as those you have mentioned. I would say this at the outset: I hope that we all understand that the fundamental objective is to end poverty and reduce inequalities. This must take precedence over any other interests there may be. Having said that, I understand that if there is concern on the part of these sectors, we must find a way to make it understood that everyone would gain and that, in addition, these people could carry out other tasks that may be much more necessary.
Pope Francis said a few weeks ago that he was in favour of a universal basic income. It is clear that the proposal is growing in popularity. Do you think basic income will be the new policy that replaces or fixes the shortcomings of the welfare states?
I believe that basic income will be part, along with other policies, of an increasingly intense and necessary debate. We must move in this direction. Anyone who looks at the data on welfare states will see that current benefits fail to end poverty or to reduce certain structural poverty rates that basic income, by definition, would eliminate. That authorities like the Pope, like the UN, or like the Financial Times consider that basic income is a proposal that needs to be put on the table along with other policies such as raising taxes on the richest people, I think is a clear indicator of that growing popularity. More than anything else, if we don’t do it soon our societies will collapse. I hope and wish that universal basic income will be a reality in the near future.
Sergi Raventós nhas a PhD in Sociology. He is a member of the Basic Income Network and head of the office of the Pilot Plan for Basic Income of the Generalitat de Catalunya. He is a regular contributor to Sin Permiso.