From neoliberals to hippie dreamers, the spectrum of people passionate about basic income runs the gamut. Case in point: the idea of “money for all” has inspired this commune-dwelling accordion player to start waxing eloquent on the monetary system. Meet Stefan Mekiffer, a self-made alternative economist who is living the future he wants to see today.
Frustrated by the classical economics he was being fed in academia in Maastricht, Paris and Berlin, Stefan Mekiffer bailed on the stuffy university scene and wrote down his unorthodox thoughts about money and life in his March 2016 book Warum eigentlich genug Geld für alle da ist. He splits his time between Berlin and an 8000sqm rural commune in northern Hesse.
Your book is titled “Why there’s actually enough money for everyone”. So where does that money come from?
Many people tend to tackle the lack of money by increasing the state budget, but instead you can look at the monetary system. Where are all these billions and trillions floating around? The creation of money is done by a monopoly. The private banks, and to a lesser extent the European Central Bank, create the money, but they only lend it to those who promise to pay back even more of it, in the form of interest. So money is artificially scarce, and this just creates more scarcity. This is a thing you could easily tackle. You could just say, okay if money is just something we make up and create by slight of hand, then you could just give enough money to everybody. This would be a fundamental change in the economic system, more than just allocating more money to the state.
Are you saying we should think outside the capitalist model, or should we reform capitalism?
Depends on how you define capitalism. There are two aspects to it: the profit part and then there’s the market part. I’m fine with the market. I mean, what’s the alternative? Either you abolish all specialisation of labour, or just barter or you do everything through the state. But if you say that capitalism is the accumulation of more and more, then I would say we have to go beyond this.
How do you do that?
You could use the central bank and say every citizen gets an account there, and they would get the basic income of €1000 a month on that account. It’s just put there as credit. To make sure that this money is accepted, you’d limit the natural resources that are used for the economy and sell them only for this money. To prevent inflation, you’d put negative interest on it. It’d lose value of, say, 10 percent a year. This way the amount of money would remain stable. I think this is the most elegant model.
But how would businesses operate?
They would need this money too, because it’d be necessary to buy resources. That’s the beautiful thing about this model. We already have most things. You can keep most of the institutions. The lending system would still work as before, but banks wouldn’t be able to profit from creating the money everyone needs.
So it’s a state policy to give all citizens the same amount of money, but within the same framework… but then you would have the same problems, like people borrowing too much.
Fewer people would go into debt. First, because you wouldn’t have to go into debt in order to survive because your basic financial needs are taken care of. And there wouldn’t be interest, because money would lose value. If I had lots of money, I would be happy if someone borrowed it at zero interest, because otherwise it would just vanish anyway. You would no longer have this debt spiral.
Right now, the basic income is being tested in pilot projects around the world. Why are people so excited about the idea?
The time has come for it. It’s such an obvious solution to so many problems. Solve the problem of poverty by just giving money to the poor. I am not a neo-classical economist, but I can see the beauty of the proposal to say, we don’t like bureaucracy and it’s just very inefficient if everyone is being investigated by the state on whether or not they are entitled to social benefits. You can just give them to everyone and do away with all this stuff.
Rifkin says that a lot of the undesirable work would be taken over by machines and automation.
I wouldn’t stress it as much as Rifkin, but I agree: If you have a new technology which makes labour superfluous, you always have unions who say, no, we need those jobs, we need the work so that people can earn money. But this is stupid, actually, because if there is enough money you can just give it to everyone. The opposition between labour and automation would disappear with the basic income. But even if you had no more automation, it would just mean that the undesirable labour, like cleaning toilets, would get more expensive and hence we would try to avoid it more. Everyone who has toilets would have an incentive to clean them themselves.
The average German might not be happy with the idea of sponsoring a surfer who’s just surfing all day – why should we pay for people who do nothing?
What’s wrong with that? If you ask me, if you become a CEO and jet around the world, I would say that from an ecological point of view you’ve done more harm than the surfer. Also, most people want to do something with their lives. Look at me. At the moment I don’t have to work very much for money. Sometimes I stay in bed and read books, but if I do this for one or two days I get bored and go to the garden and start planting trees or writing articles or whatever. The same is true for all the basic income experiments. So it’s hard to imagine that someone will surf for the rest of their life.
If you had an extra €1000 a month, what would you change in your life?
Actually nothing. I’m just enjoying the life that I’m living. Plant some more trees, perhaps. Maybe I would take time off to travel. I would walk, or take the train or hitchhike. But I think the main change would be change within, more relaxation.
Basic Income Berlin, Thu, Jul 7, 17:30 | SRH Hochschule, Ernst-Reuter-Platz 10, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Ernst-Reuter-Platz
Originally published in issue #150, June 2016.