Should We Institute Universal Basic Income in the NWT?


A few years ago, I had one of my crazier shower thoughts, for which I scrubbed myself on the back proudly until I realised that half the people I know had already thought of it. You might have too.

The idea goes like this: if the GNWT gets a transfer credit of around $30,000 per capita from the federal government, why don’t they just pay people to come here by cutting each resident a cheque for $15,000 each year? After discovering I wasn’t a special flower, I moved on with my life under the assumption that some previous variation on “weird government pyramid scheme” obviously hadn’t gotten any traction with the GNWT.

Last year, though, while talking to a Sahtu-based researcher, my interest was rekindled when I found out that the idea was globally precedented. In fact, it’s basically a crude implementation of the “Universal Basic Income” idea (UBI), which has been a dinner party conversation in academic circles for over a century, and is an increasingly prominent subject these days in places from Ontario to Switzerland. Thanks to the US presidential election this year and honorary Canadian Bernie Sanders, UBI is getting a lot of air time, and is especially popular in tech circles, busily preparing for a world in which work has been largely outsourced to machines.

Obviously this fresh bone for the talking heads to gnaw on is quickly becoming another yawnerific right-vs-left debate, with “Everyone will just stop working” on one side and “Even people not working will contribute to society with their free time” on the other.


So how is UBI supposed to work? In the few trials that are currently being done, the scheme takes the form of a guaranteed salary; if you work you don’t get it and if you choose not to you do. Old? You get a cheque! Sick? You get a cheque! Just don’t want to work? You get a cheque!  

As you would expect, that last point is where most people get hung up on UBI. We all live in a post-communist world and know what can happen when utopian idealism meets real people. But so far the results are compelling, and there’s something for everyone in the idea. Even “small government” people like the idea of simplifying the tax code and replacing hundreds of social welfare programs with one simple one.

Additionally, research shows that people aren’t as shiftless as we might think: in the studies, most didn’t just quit their jobs. Even those that did largely took the opportunity to get an education and re-enter the workforce. Could the fact that people don’t quit their jobs be related to the trials being temporary? Yes. Could you reverse the law if it’s not working? Also yes. Might that possibility stop people from quitting their jobs? Yes. And around and around the sociologists go.

So let’s call the situation so far “proceed with caution,” at least in southern economies. In a real economy, I wouldn’t be applying this, and I really think research would need to show decades of data before it should be applied it on a large scale. But here in the North, it’s another story: because of the per capita transfer payments mentioned above, our entire economy is already totally disconnected from reality. In essence, the Number One Job of the GNWT is to maintain and increase the population of the NWT. Maybe that’s through tourism, maybe that’s through mining, but the sheer presence of a human being in a bed North of 60 is far more economically important than whatever they’re doing with their time. When the government spends $30,000 a year in wages and contracts, that cash swirls around in our isolated economy, putting money in everyone’s pockets and increasing our GDP per capita by far more than that $30,000 initial injection. Although buying one-way flights, taking in refugees and offering people free rent for their first six months would probably work, setting up an universal income program would probably work too. And it would certainly generate headlines.

With the population flat and ideas for changing that remaining uninspired, what would a $30,000 Universal Basic Income experiment do? It would surely turn more heads than the GNWT’s current recruitment program Come Make Your Mark. But here’s the biggest reality check of all: Is it possible that a government that still struggles to stop sending faxes could move quickly and capture the current zeitgeist? Maybe, but probably not before the Yukon does it.



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