Why is Universal Basic Income suddenly such a great idea?

The idea of an unconditional basic income, paid to all (UBI), has a long history. Very long in fact. Yet, although the policy has been deemed philosophically and (sometimes) economically attractive, it has generally languished in the bailiwick of enthusiasts, mavericks, philosophers and policy nerds (these are, by the way, overlapping categories). But now, with the global pandemic, UBI is very much back in the spotlight. Previous sceptics are coming out with more enthusiastic assessments (for example, here and here). Spain apparently aims to roll out a UBI scheme ‘as soon as possible‘ in response to the crisis, with the aim that this becomes a ‘permanent instrument’ of how the Spanish state works. And even the US Congress relief cheques for citizens, though short-term, have a UBI-like quality to them. So why, all over the place, does UBI suddenly seem like such a great idea?

Answering this question requires answering another, prior one: why didn’t people think it was such a great idea before? To understand why people’s objections have gone away, you need to understand what they were before, as well as why they seem less compelling in this time of upheaval. UBI is a policy that appears to suffer from ‘intuition problems’. You can model it all you like and show that it would be feasible, efficient and cost effective; but many people look at it and think ‘Mah! Giving people money without their having to do anything! Something wrong with that!’. It’s like a musical chord that is not quite in tune; and that’s a feeling that it is hard to defeat with econometrics. But intuitions such as these might be very context-dependent: and the context of society certainly has changed in the last few months.

To try to understand if the acceptibility of UBI to the public has changed for these pandemic-affected times, and, if so, why, Matthew Johnson, Elliott Johnson, Rebecca Saxe and I collected data on April 7th from 400 UK and 400 US residents. This was not a representative sample from either country, but we had a good balance of genders and a spread of age.

We first described a UBI policy to respondents, and asked them to rate how good an idea they found it, both for normal times, and for the times of this pandemic and its aftermath. As the figure below shows, they almost universally thought it was a better idea for times of the pandemic and its aftermath than before-on average, 16 points better on a 1-100 scale.

Ratings of how good an idea a UBI scheme is, for normal and pandemic times, UK and USA samples. Shown are medians, inter-quartile ranges, and the distribution of the data.

Actually, these participants thought UBI was a better idea for normal times than I would have expected, which is hard to interpret without some historical data on this participant pool. Support for UBI has found to vary a lot, in the past, depending on how you frame the policy and what alternatives you pit it against. In our study, it was not up against any alternative scheme; just rated as a good or bad idea.

Now, why was UBI thought a better idea for pandemic times than normal times? We listed nine of the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of the policy, and asked respondents to say how important they felt each of these would be for their overall assessment of the policy – again, as a policy for normal times, and for pandemic times. The advantages were: knowing there is a guaranteed income reduces stress and anxiety; the policy is simple and efficient; the universality gives a value to every individual in society; and the system cannot be cheated. The disadvantages were: it’s expensive; you would be paying money to the rich, who do not need it; people might use it irresponsibly, like on gambling or drugs; people would be less prone to work for money; and people who did not deserve it would get it. All of these pros and cons were rating as having some importance for the desirability of the policy in normal times, though naturally with different weightings for different people.

Rated importance of nine advantages and disadvantages for the overall assessment of the desirability of UBI, for normal times, and for the times of the pandemic and its aftermath.

So what was different when viewing the policy for pandemic times? Basically, three key advantages (reduces stress and anxiety; efficiency and simplicity; and giving a value to every individual) became much more important in pandemic times; whilst three of the key drawbacks (people might use it irresponsibly; the labour market consequences; and receipt by the undeserving), became rather less important. I guess these findings make sense; given the rapidity with which the pandemic has washed over the population, you really need something simple and efficient; given how anxiety-provoking it is, it is imperative to reassure people; and given that millions of people are economically inactive anyway, not through their own choice, potential labour market consequences are moot. Rather to our surprise, the expense of the policy was not rated as the most important consideration for normal times; and nor had this become a less important consideration now, when figures of £330 billion or $1 trillion seem to be flying around all over the place.

The strongest predictors of supporting UBI in normal times were rating highly: the importance of stress and anxiety reduction; the efficiency of the policy; and the valuing of every individual. So it is no mystery that in pandemic times, when those particular three things are seen as much more important, that the overall level of support for the policy should go up. In other words, what the pandemic seems to do is make all people weight highly the considerations that the most pro-UBI people already rated highly for normal times anyway. Perhaps the most intriguing of the pandemic-related shifts in importance of the different factors was the increase in importance of giving every individual in society a value. It is not obvious to me why the pandemic should make us want every individual to have a value, any more than we should want this the rest of the time. Perhaps because the pandemic is some kind of common threat, that we can only solve by all working collaboratively? Perhaps because the pandemic reminds us of our massive interdependence? Because we are all in some important sense alike in the face of the disease?

Whatever the reason, our respondents felt it was more important, in these times, for every person in society to be accorded a value. And for me, that is one of the most philosophically appealing aspects of UBI. Not that it decreases income inequality, which unless it is very large, it will probably not do to any appreciable extent; not just that it gives people certainty in rapidly fluctuating times, which it would do; but that its existence constitutes a particular type of social category, a shared citizenship. Getting your UBI would be one of those few things that we can all do – like having one vote or use of an NHS hospital – to both reflect and constitute our common membership of, and share in, a broader social entity. In other words, in addition to all its pragmatic and adminstrative appeal, UBI bestows a certain dignity on everyone, that may help promote health, foster collective efficacy, and mitigate the social effects of the myriad and obvious ways we are each valued differently by society. And these times, apparently, are making the value of this unconditional dignity more apparent.

One last point: people who consider themselves on the left of politics were more favourable to UBI than those on the right (particularly in the US sample; which is interesting given the places of Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon in UBI’s pedigree). But the boost in support for the policy that came from pandemic applied absolutely across the political spectrum. Even those on the right wing of our sample thought it was a pretty good idea for pandemic times (with, of course, the caveat that this was not a representative sample, and we did not offer them any alterrnative to UBI that they might have preferred). So, just possibly, an advantage of UBI schemes in this uncertain time is that pretty much everyone, whatever their ideology, can see what the appeal of the scheme is. That may yet prove important.

Support for UBI for normal times (solid lines) and pandemic times (dotted lines), for the UK and USA, against self-placement on a scale of 1=left-wing to 100=right-wing.

June 2nd 2020 update: We have now written this study up. You can download the preprint here.

This is no time for utilitarianism!

An interesting feature of the current crisis is the number of times we hear our leaders proclaiming that there are not weighing costs against benefits: ‘We will do whatever it takes!’. ‘We will give the hospitals whatever they need!’. And even, memorably, from the UK Chancellor, ‘We will set no limit on what we spend on this!’. No limit. I mean when did the UK Treasury ever say that? Maybe only during the war, which is a clue.

Such statements seem timely and reassuring just at the moment. When people are timorous enough to question whether some of this largesse might actually be sensible – for example, whether the long-term costs of some decisions might be greater than the benefits – it seems in incredibly poor taste. But people are dying! Those commentators are roundly excoriated on social media for letting the side down.

All of this is something of a puzzle. The whole essence of evidence-based policy, of policy modelling, is that you always calculate benefits and costs; of course this is difficult, and is never a politically neutral exercise, given that there are so many weightings and ways one might do so. Nonetheless, the weighing of costs and benefits is something of a staple of policy analysis, and also a hallmark of rationality. So why, in this time of crisis, would our politicians of all stripes be so keen to signal that they are not going to do the thing which policymakers usually do, which is calculate the costs and benefits and make the trade-offs?

Calculating costs and benefits comes from the moral tradition of utilitarianism: weighing which course provides the greatest good for the greatest number. What our politicians are saying at the moment comes from the deontological moral tradition, namely the tradition of saying that some things are just intrinsically right or wrong. ‘Everyone should have a ventilator!’; ‘Everyone should have a test!’; ‘No-one should be left behind!’. Deontological judgements are more intuitive than utilitarian ones. So the question is: in this crisis in particular, should our leaders be so keen to show themselves deontologists?

‘We will fight until the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit!’, said no war leader ever.

Some clue to this comes from recent research showing that people rate those who make utilitarian decisions as less trustworthy and less attractive to collaborate with than those who make deontological decisions. The decisions come from the infamous trolley problem: would you kill one person to save the lives of five? Across multiple studies, participants preferred and trusted decision-makers who would not; decision-makers who just thought you should never kill anyone, period.

The authors of this research speculate on the reasons we might spontaneously prefer deontologists. If you are to be my partner-in-arms, I would like to know that you will never trade me off as collateral damage, never treat me as a mere means to some larger end. I want to know that you will value me intrinsically. Thus, if you want to gain my trust, you need to show not just that you weight my outcomes highly, but that you will not even calculate the costs and benefits of coming to my aid. You will just do whatever it takes. Hence, we prefer deontologists and trust them more.

I am not sure this account quite works, though it feels like there is something to it. If I were one of the parties in the unfortunate trolley dilemma, then under a veil of Rawlsian ignorance I ought to want a utilitarian in charge, since I have a five-fold greater chance of being in the set who would benefit from a utilitarian decision than being the unfortunate one. If my collaboration partners are rationally utilitarian, I am per definition a bit more likely to benefit from this than lose, in the long run. But maybe there is a slightly different account that does work. For example, mentally simulating the behaviour of deontologists is easier; you know what they will and won’t do. Utilitarians: well, you have no idea what set of costs and benefits they might currently be appraising, so you are slightly in the dark about what they will do next. So perhaps we prefer deontologists as collaboration partners because at least we can work out what they are likely to when the chips are down.

In a time of crisis, like this one, what our leaders really need is to be trusted, to bring the populace along with them. That, it seems to me, is why we are suddenly hearing all this deontological rhetoric. They are saying: trust us, come with us, we are not even thinking about the costs, not even in private. And there is a related phemonenon. Apparently, deontological thinking is contagious. When we see others following moral rules irrespective of cost, it makes us more prone to do so too. I suspect this is because of the public-good nature of morality:- there is no benefit to my abiding by a moral rule unless everyone else is going to do so. We are quite pessimistic about the moral behaviour of others, especially in times of crisis, and so we need the visible exemplar, the reassurance, that others are being deontological, to ressure ourselves into doing so. In the current crisis, society needs people to incur costs for public-good benefits they cannot directly perceive, which is why, again and again, our leaders rightly proclaim not just the rules, but the unconditional moral force of those rules. Don’t calculate the infection risk for your particular journey; just don’t make it! (This is also why leaders who proclaim the rules but do not follow them themselves, as in the case of Scotland’s chief medical officer, are particular subjects of negative attention.)

I am not saying this outbreak of deontology is a bad thing; even in the long run it will be hard to write the definitive book on that. Indeed, perhaps it would be nice to have a bit more of this deontological spirit the rest of the time. The UK government recently decided that every homeless person should have the offer of a place to stay by the end of the week. Whatever the cost. To which I respond: why could that not have been true in any week in the last thirty years? Why only now? In normal life, governments are utilitarian about such matters, not weighing homelessness reduction as highly as other policy goals, and not prepared to do the relatively little it actually takes because they believe the costs are too high. Evidently, the populace’s intuitive preference for deontologists extends only to certain moral decisions, and certain times (such as times when we are all facing the same external threat). At other times, governments can get away with meanness and inaction: the populace does not notice, does not care, or can be convinced that solving the problem is too hard. Many people in progressive policy circles are no doubt asking: if we can achieve so much so fast in this time of crisis, how can we hang on to some of that spirit for solving social problems when the crisis is over?

Are people selfish or cooperative in the time of COVID-19?

On March 12th 2020, in a press conference, the UK’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance stated that, in times of social challenge like the current pandemic, the people’s response is an outbreak of altruism. On the other hand, we have seen plenty of examples in the current crisis of bad behaviour: people fighting over the last bag of pasta, price gouging, flouting restrictions, and so on. So there is probably the raw material to tell both a positive and a negative story of human nature under severe threat, and both might even be true.

Rebecca Saxe and I are trying to study intuitive theories of human nature. That is, not what people actually do in times of threat or pandemic, but what people believe other people will do in such times. This is important, because so much of our own behaviour is predicated on predictions about what others will do: if I think everyone else is going to panic buy, I should probably do so too; if I think they won’t, there is no need for me to do so. We have developed a method where we ask people about hypothetical societies to which various events happen, and get our participants to predict how the individuals there will behave ‘given what you know about human nature’.

Our most recent findings (unpublished study, protocol here) suggest that (our 400 UK) participants’ intuitive theories of the response of human nature to adversity are more pessimistic than optimistic. For example, we asked what proportion of the total harvest (a) should ideally; and (b) would in practice get shared out between villagers in two agrarian villages, one living normally, and one facing an epidemic. Participants said the amount that should ideally be shared out would be nearly the same in the two cases; but the amount that actually would get shared out would be much lower in the epidemic (figure 1). Why? In the epidemic, they predicted, villagers would become more selfish and less moral; less cooperative and more nepotistic; less rule-bound and more likely to generate conflict (figure 2). One consequence of all of this predicted bad behaviour was that our participants endorsed the need for strong leadership, policing, and severe punishment in the epidemic village more than the baseline village, and felt there was less need to take the voices of the villagers into account. This is the package often referred to as right-wing authoritarianism, so our data suggest that the desire for this can be triggered by a perceived social threat and the expectation of lawlessness in the response to it. 

Figure 1. How much ideally should, and actually will get shared out in a normal village, and a village facing an epidemic. The epidemic is seen as massively reducing actual sharing, not the amount of sharing that is morally right. n = 400, for full protocol see here.
Figure 2. How much will various morally good and behaviours be seen in a normal village, and one facing an epidemic, as people are told to work together. n = 400, for full protocol see here.

We also asked the same participants about their predictions of the response of their fellow citizens to the current real pandemic (the data were collected last Friday, March 20th). There was really strong endorsement of the proposition that other people will behave selfishly; and rather low or variable endorsement of the proposition that others will behave cooperatively (figure 3). Overall, our participants gave slightly more endorsement to the idea that the pandemic will lead to conflict and distrust than the idea that it will lead to solidarity.

Figure 3. During the current pandemic, how much do you agree that others will behave selfishly (red); and that they will behave cooperatively (blue). n = 400, for full protocol see here.

So how do we square this with Vallance’s claim that there will be an outbreak of altruism, and indeed the evidence that, in under 24 hours, more than a quarter of a million people have registered as NHS volunteer responders. Well, Saxe and I are studying intuitive theories of human nature (my expectation of how you all will behave), not human nature itself (how you all actually behave). And there may be a systematic gaps between our intuitive theories of behaviour and that behaviour itself.  It might even make sense that there should be such gaps. For example, what may matter for people is often avoiding the worst-case scenarios (giving all your labour when no-one else gives any; forbearing to take from the common pot when everyone else is emptying it fast), rather than predicting the most statistically likely scenarios. Thus, our intuitive theories may sometimes function to detect actually rare outcomes that are bad to not see coming when they do come (what is often known as error management). And we don’t know, when our participants say that they think that others will be selfish during the pandemic, whether they mean they think that ALL others will be selfish, or that there is a small minority who might be selfish, but this minority is important enough to attend to.

There may be very good reasons for prominent figures like Vallance to point out his expectation of an outbreak of altruism. Humans can not only behave prosocially, but also signal their intention to do so, and thus break the spiral of ‘I am only doing this because I think everyone else is going to do so’. So, if intuitive theories of human nature have a hair-trigger for detecting the selfishness of others, than it becomes important not just to actually be cooperative with one another; but to signal clearly and credibly that we are going to doing so. This is where what psychologists call ‘descriptive norms’ (beliefs about what others are doing) become so important. I will if you will. I will if you are.

One more thing of interest in our study: I have a longstanding interest in Universal Basic Income as a policy measure. We asked our 400 participants whether government assistance in this pandemic time, and normal times, should come unconditionally to every citizen, or be based on assessment of needs. We find much stronger support for unconditionality (43%) in these times than normal times (19%). This may be the moment when Universal Basic Income’s combination of extreme simplicity, ease of administration, and freedom from dependency on complex and difficult-to-track information really speak for themselves. So much that seemed politically impossible, completely off the table, as recently as January, has now actually happened, or is being quite seriously discussed. And, perhaps, once you introduce certain measures, once the pessimistic theories of human nature are defeated in their predictions of how others will respond, then people will get a taste for them.

The view from the top of the hierarchy of evidence

About five years ago I began doing meta-analyses. (If, as they say, you lose a tooth for every meta-analysis you conduct, I am now gumming my way through my food.) I was inspired by their growing role as the premier source of evidence in the health and behavioural sciences. Yes, I knew, individual studies are low-powered, depend on very specific methodological assumptions, and are often badly done; but I was impressed by the argument that if we systematically combine each of these imperfect little beams of light into one big one, we are sure to see clearly and discover The Truth. Meta-analysis was how I proposed to counter my mid-life epistemological crisis.

I was therefore depressed to read a paper by John Ionnidis, he of ‘Why most published research findings are false’ fame, on how the world is being rapidly filled up with redundant, mass produced, and often flawed meta-analyses. It is, he argues, the same old story of too much output, produced too fast, with too little thought and too many author degrees of freedom, and often publication biases and flagrant conflicts of interest to boot. Well, it’s the same old story but now at the meta-level.

Just because Ionnidis’ article said this didn’t mean I believed it of course. Perhaps it’s true in some dubious research areas where there are pharmaceutical interests, I thought, but the bits of science I care about are protected from the mass production of misleading meta-analyses because, among other reasons, the stakes are so low.

However, I have been somewhat dismayed in preparing a recent grant application on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and telomere length. The length of telomeres (DNA-protein caps on the ends of chromosomes) is a marker of ageing, and there is an argument out there (though the evidence is weaker than you might imagine, at least for adulthood) that stress accelerates telomere shortening. And having PTSD is certainly a form of stress. So: do people suffering from PTSD have shorter telomeres?

It seems that they do. There are three relevant meta-analyses all coming to the same conclusion. One of those was done by Gillian Pepper in my research group. It was very general, and only a small subset of the studies it covered were about PTSD in particular, but it did find that PTSD was associated with shorter telomere length. As I wanted some confidence about the size of the difference, I looked closely at the other two, more specialist, meta-analyses.

A meta-analysis specifically on PTSD (by Li et al) included five primary studies, and concluded that PTSD was reported with shorter telomere length by -0.19 (95% confidence interval -0.27 to -0.10). All good; but then I thought: 0.19 what? It would be normal in meta-analyses to report standardised mean differences; that is, differences between groups expressed in terms of the variability in the total sample of that particular study. But when I looked closely, this particular meta-analysis had expressed its differences absolutely, in units of the T/S ratio, the measure of relative telomere length generally used in epidemiology. The problem with this, however, is that the very first thing you ever learn about the T/S ratio is that it is not comparable across studies. A person with a T/S ratio of 1 from one particular lab might have a T/S ratio of 1.5 0r 0.75 from another lab. The T/S ratio tells you about the relative telomere lengths of several samples run in the same assay on the same PCR machine with the same control gene at the same time, but it does not mean anything that transfers across studies like ‘1 kilo’, ‘1 metre’ or ‘400 base pairs’ do.

If you don’t use standardized mean differences, integrating multiple T/S ratio studies to obtain an overall estimate of how much shorter the telomeres of PTSD sufferers are is a bit like taking one study that finds men are 6 inches taller than women, and another study that finds men are 15 centimetres taller than women, and concluding that the truth is that men are taller than women by 10.5. And the problems did not stop there: for two of the five primary studies, standard errors from the original papers had been coded as standard deviations in the meta-analysis, resulting in the effect sizes being overstated by nearly an order of magnitude. The sad thing about this state of affairs is that anyone who habitually and directly worked with T/S data would be able to tell you instantly that you can’t compare absolute T/S across studies, and that a standard deviation of 0.01 for T/S in a population study simply couldn’t be a thing. You get a larger standard deviation than that when you run the very same sample multiple times, let alone samples from different people. Division of labour in science is a beautiful thing, of course, and efficient, but having the data looked over by someone who actually does primary research using this technique would very quickly pick up nonsensical patterns.

I hoped the second meta-analysis (by Darrow et al.) would save me, and in lots of ways it was indeed much better. For PTSD, it included the same five studies as the first, and sensibly used standardized mean differences rather than just differences. However, even here I found an anomaly. The authors reported that PTSD was associated with a much bigger difference in telomere length than other psychological disorders were. This naturally piqued my interest, so I looked at the forest plot for the PTSD studies. Here it is:

Excerpt from figure 2 of meta-analysis by Darrow et al.

You can see that most of the five studies find PTSD patients have shorter telomeres than controls by maybe half a standard deviation or less. Then there is one (Jergovic 2014) that apparently reports an almost five-sigma difference in telomere length between PTSD sufferers and controls. Five sigma! That’s the level of evidence that you get when you find the Higgs boson! It would mean that PTSD suffers had telomeres something like 3500 base pairs shorter than controls. It is simply inconceivable given everything we know about telomeres–given everything, indeed, we know about whole-organism biology, epidemiology and life. There really are not any five-sigma effects.

Of course, I looked it up, and the five-sigma effect is not one. This meta-analysis too had mis-recorded standard errors as standard deviations for this study. Correcting this, the forest plot should look like this:

Forest plot of the PTSD data from the meta-analysis by Darrow et al., with the ‘standard deviations’ corrected to standard errors in the study by Jergovic 2014.

Still an association overall, but the study by Jergovic 2014 is absolutely in line with the other four studies in finding the difference to be small. Overall, PTSD is no more strongly associated with telomere length than any other psychiatric disorder is. (To be clear, there are consistent cross-sectional associations between telomere length and psychatric disorders, though we have argued that the interpretation of these might not be what you think it is). What I find interesting is that no-one, author or peer-reviewer, looked at the forest plot and said, ‘Hmm…five sigma. That’s fairly unlikely. Maybe I need to look into it further’. It took me all of ten minutes to do this.

I don’t write this post to be smug. This was a major piece of work well done by great researchers. It probably took them many months of hard labour. I am completely sure that my own meta-analyses contain errors of this kind, probably at the same frequency, if not a higher one. I merely write to reflect the fact that, in science, the main battle is not against nature, but against our own epistemic limitations; and our main problem is not insufficient quantity of research, but insufficient quality control. We are hampered by many things: our confirmation biases, our acceptance of things we want to believe without really scrutinizing the evidence carefully enough (if the five-sigma had been in the other direction, you can be sure the researchers would have weeded it out), our desire to get the damned paper finished, the end of our funding, and the professional silos that we live in. And, as Ionnidis argued, vagaries in meta-analyses constitute a particular epistemic hazard, given the prestige and authority accorded to meta-analytic conclusions, sitting as they are supposed to do atop the hierarchy of evidence.

These two meta-analyses are of a relatively simple area, and cover the same 5 primary studies, and though they come reassuringly to the same qualitative conclusion, I still have no clear sense of how much shorter the telomeres of people with PTSD are than those of other people. The effect sizes found in the five primary studies as reported by Darrow et al. and by Li et al. are no better correlated than chance. So the two meta-analyses of the same five studies don’t even agree which study it was found the largest effect:

Two published meta-analyses of the same five studies show no better than chance agreement in their views of what the relative effect sizes were. Even allowing for the fact that they measure the effects on different scales, you might at least hope the rank order would be the same.

I hoped that meta-analysis would lift us above the epistemic haze, and perhaps it still will. But let’s not be too sanguine: as well as averaging out human error and researcher degrees of freedom, it is going to introduce a whole extra layer. What next? Meta-meta-analysis, of course. And after that…..?

Hanging on to the Edges book published

I am delighted to be able to say that my new book Hanging on to the Edges is now published. Thanks to Open Book Publishers, it’s an open access book; you can read it online, download the PDF, or order paper copies here.

People often ask me what Hanging on to the Edges is about, and it is not entirely easy to say. It is based on fourteen blog essays I published on this site over the past two years, though they are revised and re-ordered in the book version. It is an attempt to reflect on the major things I care about most in life: science and being a scientist; human nature and human cognition; the relationship between the social and the biological; inter-disciplinarity; politics; and human well-being.

To give you some idea of the scope, here’s a word cloud of the terms in the index:

And here’s the table of contents:

Contents
Introduction
PART ONE
1. How my theory explains everything: And can make you happier, healthier, and wealthier
2. What we talk about when we talk about biology
3. The cultural and the agentic
4. What is cultural evolution like?
5. Is it explanation yet?

PART TWO
6. The mill that grinds young people old
7. Why inequality is bad
8. Let them eat cake!
9. The worst thing about poverty is not having enough money
10. Getting your head around the Universal Basic Income

PART THREE
11. The need for discipline
12. Waking up and going out to work in the uncanny valley
13. Staying in the game
14. Morale is high (since I gave up hope)