By Chris Köver
Sep 1, 2014
What would happen if we didn't have to worry about making a living anymore? Would people just sit on their asses all day or actually do something meaningful with their lives? Michael Bohmeyer, a 29-year-old founder of a tech startup in Berlin, wanted to find out.
After he stopped working earlier this year to live off the $1,300 he makes from his startup each month, Bohmeyer says his life has radically changed. So he started “My Basic Income”, a new initiative looking to raise enough money to pay someone $1,300 a month for a year, no strings attached.
Through crowdfunding, the initiative has already raised more than the $16,000 goal. On September 18, they're going to announce the lucky winners of that wad of cash at a party in Berlin.
I spoke to Bohmeyer to find out what he hopes will come of this and how his life has changed now that he doesn't need to work.
VICE: Would you say you’re a lazy person?
Michael Bohmeyer: I’d say that, but I don’t think being lazy is necessarily a bad thing. Other people probably wouldn’t call me lazy. I work a lot—even more so now that I don’t need to work for money. I even discovered a passion for washing the dishes.
You said that having an unconditional basic income has radically altered your life. How so?
After I stopped working earlier this year and started living off the approximately $1,300 I get out of my company, I just wanted to put my feet up and do nothing. Instead, I found a crazy drive to do things. I had a million new business ideas, I take care of my daughter, and I work for a local community radio. I buy less shit, I live healthier, and I'm a better boyfriend and father.
Because you have more time for your girlfriend and daughter?
Because I'm more laid-back. The pressure is gone. My working conditions were great even before, because I was running my own company and could pretty much do what I want. But making money was tied to conditions. Now, I do everything I do because I want to—and all of a sudden it’s twice as much fun.
Do you ever get bored?
I wouldn’t have the time. “My Basic Income” is keeping me busy 20 out of 24 hours. I’m not kidding—I barely sleep. All of a sudden I have these insane amounts of energy, because I'm doing 100 percent what I want to do.
So ever since you stopped working for money, you've been working your ass off. Kind of ironic.
Totally. It’s also funny how I got there. After I had stopped working for pay initially, I thought I’d have to immediately find a new project. I rented an office, made a to-do list, and showed up in the morning. After stressing myself out like that for a month and not getting much done, I thought, Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing? So I actively made myself do nothing for a month—I watched the sky, no cell phone, no books, nothing. It was physically painful. But after a while I could do it.
You want to pay someone a basic income of $1,300 a month for a year, no strings attached. What do you hope to prove or find out by doing this?
I was pretty astonished what not having to work did to my life. It would be presumptuous to make assumptions based on my experience, but I think that everybody has crazy potential that could be triggered by not having to worry about income. Don’t get me wrong, I think making money is awesome. To work and be paid for it—that’s great. But not to work for the sole purpose of making money. I got bored by the debates we're having about this issue and how they are not going anywhere. So I thought: Let’s just try this and see what happens instead of waiting around for politicians.
Through crowdfunding you've raised close to $32,000 so far—enough money to finance two basic incomes for a year. That’s two people not having to worry about getting by. Still, it doesn’t say a lot about what would happen if none of us had to worry about that.
Sure, my project is totally dumb for two reasons. First it’s limited to one year, so you still have to worry about making a living next year. And secondly, of course it makes a difference if it’s just me not having to worry about money or if nobody around me does.
So no, it’s definitely not representative. But at least we get a whiff of what having a basic income might feel like. And we're having a discussion about this. Because it’s not just about the two who are actually going to win this. It’s also about the 21,000 people who wrote on the website what they’d do if they had the money. They aren't looking to put their feet up. They want to continue working without having to stress so much—they’d like to volunteer more or start their own company. I think all of these things would be pretty rad for society.
So what do you think would happen if we all had basic income tomorrow?
At first, nothing much would change. But in the long run we’d see people making freer choices, because they wouldn’t have to make decisions based on economic pressure—only based on what they actually want. They’d have time to actually think about what it is that they want or they are good at. Now, you're just trying to get through school quickly so you can get a good job.
OK, you are talking about privileged people with university degrees who actually expect their jobs to not just pay the rent but also be fun, rewarding, and fulfilling. What about the underpaid who are cleaning toilets, working in call centers, or taking care of the old?
I'm not just addressing the privileged here. Having a basic income puts everybody into a better position when it comes to negotiating with their employers. The guy cleaning the toilet could say, "Nope, not doing that any more." The employer could then say, "Let’s automate this and we’ll only have self-cleaning toilets from now on."
Yeah, but it’s hard to automate taking care of children or the old.
Exactly. In these cases, we’d finally have to ask ourselves what we value in society. We’ll have to start paying these people way better. I think having clean toilets is important. It’s work that needs to be done, but it is done today at the expense of people who can’t afford to get another job. And I don’t know anyone who’d say child care isn’t important—yet we have people doing this work for the lowest possible pay, because no profit is to be made.
I’d actually like to be a pre-school teacher. But when I think about what I’d make compared with working in IT, I ask myself, why should I? With a basic income I can now reconsider this option, because with that plus the pay I’d earn an OK living. I'm pretty sure I’d make a better pre-school teacher than IT guy.
The group of people advocating a basic income is a pretty mixed bunch—from leftists, member of the Green Party, and anthroposophists to Milton Friedmanites and members of the German Liberal Party. Where on this spectrum do you fall?
Nowhere. Basic income doesn’t fit this left-right diagram. It’s partly socialist, because it’s about giving everybody the same. It’s also individualistic, because it’s about lean government and less bureaucracy. It’s neither left-wing nor right-wing; it’s a third road.
Today, politicians use it as a sociopolitical tool to get people to do what they want them to do. I think this strategy has gotten old, and it’s not working. Let’s give people some money and see what they do with it if they can decide for themselves.
What about your own agenda? Aren’t you also trying to prove a point?
Yes, but on another level. I think you can only achieve change by letting the people advocate their change. You can force people to do something they don’t want to do, but you can’t convince them. And most of all, you can’t force them to take jobs that aren’t there.
"The myth of full employment and the idea that everyone who doesn’t have a job is just not trying hard enough." What do you think of that?
That’s bullshit. In modern capitalism you can never have full employment. Having a reserve army of unemployed workforce at all times is necessary to keep the low-pay sector as a low-pay sector. There just isn’t enough paid labor for everybody. At the same time we are forcing people to take jobs that aren’t there. That’s just cruel.
Any other myths you’d like to bust?
People say, "Of course I would continue working if I had a basic income, but the others wouldn’t." That’s where I want to start. I want to show that most everybody would do something useful with their lives l if they had the money—it’s not just you. People want to contribute. You just have to let them.
People say a lot of things when asked. It doesn't mean they are actually going to do it.
Sure. But if you look at the 1.4 million people we already have in Germany today who could rely on welfare but prefer to work even though their job doesn’t pay enough for them to make a living—I’d say we can be fairly sure that people aren’t generally looking to be lazy. Even with the system we have now.