American Studies, CIRS Faculty Research Workshops, Regional Studies

Karl Widerquist CIRS Book Workshop


The Center for International and Regional Studies hosted a workshop on Universal Basic Income (UBI) experiments. This was part of the CIRS-Faculty Book Series, which provides an opportunity for faculty members to present book manuscripts to scholars and receive critical feedback in advance of publication. The workshop was held on March 26, 2018, and included four sessions, in which eleven scholars from around the world critically assessed and provided suggestions on the manuscript, The Devil’s in the Caveats: A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, by Karl Widerquist, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Widerquist’s book discusses an important new topic in social science, large-scale experiments devoted to testing UBI—a policy that would assure every citizen a steady income regardless of whether they work or not. Several similar experiments were conducted in the United States and Canada in the 1970s, and recent interest in UBI experiments has returned with more than a half dozen experiments underway or under consideration in countries around the world.

The book discusses the difficulty of conducting UBI experiments and communicating their results to nonspecialists in ways that successfully raise the levels of debate. This is because of the inherent limits of experimental techniques, the complexity of the public discussion of UBI, and the many barriers that make it difficult for specialists and nonspecialists to understand each other. The book suggests that researchers stay focused on the public’s bottom line: an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of a permanent, national UBI policy. Even if experiments can examine only a few questions relevant to that overall evaluation, they need to draw the connection between what they can do and what citizens evaluating a policy option really need to know. 

In response to the growing debate over Unconditional Basic Income, several governments and NGOs around the world have begun or are seriously considering conducting UBI experiments. This book argues that a large gap in understanding exists between the researchers who conduct UBI experiments and the citizens and policymakers who hope to make use of experimental findings. The usual solution—a simple list of caveats—is not sufficient to bridge that gap. The problem is not simply that nonspecialists have difficulty understanding experiments, but also that researchers conducting experiments have difficulty understanding the role of experiments in that debate. These gaps create risks of misunderstanding, misreporting, oversimplification, spin, and what researchers call “the streetlight effect”—examining the most easily answered questions instead of the questions in most need of answers. This book is an effort to help bridge those gaps in understanding to avoid potential problems. It examines the many ways in which experiments can go wrong or be misunderstood, in an effort to help researchers conduct better experiments and communicate their results in ways more likely to raise the level of debate.

“The devil’s in the detailsis a common saying in policy proposals, and the author suggests that perhaps we need a similar expression for policy research, something like “the devil’s in the caveats.” This is both because nonspecialists (the citizens and policymakers who are ultimately responsible for evaluating policy in any democracy) have great difficulty understanding what research implies about policy, and because specialists often have difficulty understanding what citizens and policymakers most hope to learn from policy research.  

This problem creates great difficulty for UBI experiments that are now getting underway in several countries. These experiments can add a small part to the existing body of evidence people need to fully evaluate UBI as a policy proposal. Specialists can provide caveats about the limits of what research implies, but nonspecialists are often unable to translate caveats into a firm explanation of what that research does and does not imply about the policy at issue. Therefore, even the best scientific policy research can leave nonspecialists with an oversimplified, or simply wrong, impression of its implications for policy. 

Karl Widerquist is Associate Professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University. He specializes in political philosophy and his research is mostly in the area of distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. He holds two doctorates: Political Theory from Oxford University (2006), and Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He coauthored Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017) and authored Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He coedited Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Wiley-Blackwell 2013); Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); Exporting the Alaska Model: Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); and The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee (Ashgate 2005). He was founding editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, and he has published numerous scholarly articles and book chapters. His articles have appeared in journals such as Analyse & Kritik; Eastern Economic JournalEthnoarchaeologyPolitical StudiesPolitics and SocietyPolitics, Philosophy, and Economics; Journal of Socio-Economics; and Utilitas. He has been co-chair of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for several years and was a founder of the US Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) Network and its coordinator from 2000-10. He was NewsFlash editor for USBIG from 2010-15. He was also a founder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, and its principle editor for its first four years.