Universal Basic Income an expensive system to be sure, but social justice commentator Eva Cox argues that the societal returns will be worth the investment.
It’s difficult to deny the attractive qualities a Universal Basic Income (UBI) holds. A radical policy such as this could right many of the inequalities that exist in our societies, says Eva Cox, a former program director of Social Inquiry at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Brought together, it is clear that a Universal Basic Income (UBI), if implemented appropriately, could help address historic gender, race and material inequities,” Cox wrote in an essay for the Green Institute, titled Why a Universal Basic Income Can Address Historic, Gender and Material Inequities (pdf).
She argues there’s a bias in how we calculate the GDP, which does not account for many unpaid activities that contribute to the health of our society and economy. “My case for changing the paid work bias is based on wider traditions that recognize the value of widely diverse ways of living and contributing to the common good and personal wellbeing.”
At its core, the purpose of a UBI is to create opportunity and freedom where it formerly never existed. It would help ease the frustration many factory workers in America’s heartland are facing with the rise of automation and give those in poverty a chance for something better. This movement has a message centered around creating a fair start for everyone, and challenging misconceptions surrounding the very nature of work. It’s an idea that has had promising outcomes for society in at least one past study.
But many economists question its practicality. It’s an expensive system to be sure, which is why many countries (the Netherlands, Finland, and Canada) are launching pilot programs to test how it might best be implemented and whether the return is worth the investment.
Cox argues that a UBI would not only recognize the unpaid contributions people already make through volunteer projects and societal demands, it could also encourage its expansion. “It would allow people to redirect some of their energies to unpaid roles, encourage creativity, enterprise and goodwill,” writes Cox. She continues:
"If we accept officially that people are not essentially lazy or work-shy, we can change the current assumption that welfare payments need to be mean and stigmatising, with sexist and racist overtones. Removing requirements to search for paid work or prove incapacity, would enable many more people to feel value and return a sense of agency."
Universal Basic Income is an idea that has long been discussed by history's great thinkers, but is finally being tested. Whether its time has come is still being debated and trialled, but many hope it can narrow the inequality that causes so much societal tension. The proof of its worth will be in the data.
Louise Tarrant argues less work is not weakness, but a sign of prosperity and a necessity to the coming automation.
Louise Tarrant, a union representative of United Voice members, wants us to work less so we can create work for those who don't have it. However, she believes we need to create a new social contract to help us see the value of less work.
Her paper outlines several pivotal points in history where citizens demanded better, like an 8-hour work day and a 5-day work week. But in our modern society, people still toil for 40 hours or more a week with no guaranteed boost in their quality of life. As Godfrey Moase, the Assistant General Branch Secretary at the National Union of Workers in Melbourne, Australia, said in his own essay for the Green Institute series, “We live within a broken system where there is no necessary connection between hard work and wealth.”
Many believe Universal Basic Income could be a great tool for talking about how we solve many of those inequality issues. However, Tarrant is somewhat ambivalent in how Universal Basic Income will play a role in the future of our society. She’s sees it more as a means by which to create less work for more people. Her main argument for less work has been the point of many: the rise of automation.
Jobs automation has so far moved in two waves since the 19th century: replacing the unpleasant and dangerous, replacing the dull, and soon we'll have AI capable of replacing employees who make decisions. Jobs are set to slide as our technology advances.
"Compare 1990 when the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees to 2014 when the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees," writes Tarrant. "That’s thirty times the value and one tenth the workforce!"
In America, the loss of jobs has hit the heartland the most. Many believe it is a significant factor in Trump’s electoral victory. Would those people be content with working fewer hours, sustained by a base UBI?
Here are a few of Tarrant's proposals to curtail hours:
Cap maximum hours—although this would disproportionally impact male workers as they currently work longer hours;
Have a more flexible approach to shorter hours—but this is more likely to increase wage inequality as it likely favours highly skilled and senior positions;
Cut the number of working days in a week. Utah recently trialled a four-day week for government workers and, although the trial has since ended, it was liked by the workers and had appreciable and varied impacts from lowering the carbon footprint and reducing commute times to improving health outcomes for the workers involved; or
Cut the hours worked per day. Sweden is trialling six-hour shifts in a few places. Early indications are that, like the Canadian Mincome trial of the 1970s, improved health and reduced use of medical services is a noted feature of the trial to date.
Find a balancing act between those in society who feel chronically overworked and those who are under- or unemployed seems noble and essential. Tarrant's preference for dividing the remaining labor opportunities rather than phasing out the human work force altogether is rooted in the idea that people want to work. Receiving a cash stipend may not result in mass idleness, as many fear, but may only have an "incredibly modest effect".
Influential British economist John Maynard Keynes viewed reductions in paid working hours optimistically, interpreting such a trend as a sign of great societal advancement. "He projected that the standard of living of the western world would multiply at least four times between 1930 and 2030, by which time people would be working just 15 hours a week," writes Tarrant.
Let's not let the prospect of a little free money stop us from pursuing more progressive regulations and reforms.
A Universal Basic Income (UBI) will not fix everything—it’s not supposed to—it’s a start for some people and a boon for everyone. But don’t let the prospect of a little free money stop us from pursuing more progressive regulations and reforms.
UBI is meant to provide a floor—a standard—which no one can fall beneath. But giving people unconditional free money shouldn’t be the end of the conversation, says Ben Spies-Butcher, a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Masters of Policy and Applied Social Research in the Sociology Department at Macquarie University.
In his essay “Not Just a Basic Income” for the Green Institute, Spies-Butcher writes:
“A basic income can potentially help break down the stigma and conditionality of many government payments, and improve work incentives and equity. However, where it is used to replace other components of social policy—whether through ‘buying out’ public services or reducing the ‘need’ for fair labour laws and job creation, it may instead serve to entrench the inequalities of a neoliberal world.”
UBI is about how we make society and our economy better, and it’s never just about giving people unconditional free money. It’s a small part of a larger conversation about how we fix many of the issues within our system.
Hugh Segal, a conservative and special advisor to the Canadian province of Ontario, which is leading a test on UBI, believes it could be the reform to our welfare system. He wants to know if a basic income could buy out healthcare and other forms of government spending -- something American conservatives would love to hear. But at its core the study is meant to “generate an evidence-base for policy development, without bias or pre-determined conclusion."
There’s already evidence to indicate the adoption of basic income could do wonders for our society on a number of levels. But it should not be the end.
Spies-Butcher and others believe it is not a shortcut to ending inequality in all areas of society. There’s talk of shortening the work week to assist in job growth and cutting down on “Bullsh*t jobs.” It’s important to remember that the most progressive movements have been in regulation. We must assure, in addition to a UBI, that people are earning a fair wage and working in good conditions.
“Looking to a UBI as a shortcut, to create consensus and avoid opposition, or to substitute for other struggles, will not deliver the kind of reform we want,” Spies-Butcher writes. “A UBI capable of doing everything would likely face even more political resistance than campaigns for public services or shorter hours. UBI is part of the answer, but only if it builds on a broader project for social change.”
People like Thomas More, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell have already had many of the arguments we're having about basic income today.
Dr. Elise Klein wants to point out the conversations we’re having around Universal Basic Income (UBI) aren’t new. Great leaders and thinkers Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Tony Atkinson have already had many of the arguments surrounding UBI, today. Its history bears repeating.
Dr. Elise Klein wants to point out the conversations we’re having around universal basic income (UBI) aren’t new. Great leaders and thinkers Thomas More, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Bertrand Russell, and Tony Atkinson have already had many of the arguments currently surrounding UBI. Its history bears repeating.
In Klein’s essay for the Green Institute, she walks through a 10-page outline of the many historical conversation surrounding UBI. It’s meant to be read as a taster, encourage further reading. Klein, a lecturer of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, walks us through a sampling, discussing UBI through the lens of three themes present in conservations surrounding it throughout history:
1. Freedom: Freedom to live the way one wants, freedom from starvation, and so on.
2. Justice: A more equal and just society, especially for those doing labor that is unpaid but valuable. It’s a way to give back to everyone participating in our society.
3. Economic transformation: UBI is how we take our economy to the next level—it’s the next step in our evolution.
It’s important to note this idea has been argued by liberal thinkers, as well as conservative. Indeed, Y Combinator founder, Sam Altman once tweeted, “Important point: basic income is not socialism. Basic income provides a floor, and then people can get as rich as they want.”
One of the earliest instances of a proposed UBI can be seen in Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. In it, UBI was proposed as a solution to stopping petty thievery, questioning the idea of punishment when the thief has no other choice but to steal.
“Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.”
What’s interesting is that many people assume that giving money to the poor is a fruitless labor. “They’ll just spend it on alcohol,” we say. However, when we review the evidence, we see how far it is from the truth. Unconditional cash transfers do not increase the rate of purchase of tobacco or alcohol among the poor. In many cases, studies have found it actually reduces these purchases.
British Labor Party member George Cole referred to an unconditional income as a social dividend. He saw the individualized nature of success troubling when success is something born of a society. According to Cole, there’s merit to the idea that wealth – the success of one – should be shared:
“Current productive power is, in effect, a joint result of current effort and of the social heritage of inventiveness and skill incorporated in the stage of advancement and education reached in the arts of production, and it has always appeared to me only right that all the citizens should share in the yield of this common heritage, and that only the balance of the product after this allocation should be distributed in the form of rewards for, and incentive to, current service in production.”
Perhaps the most recent and most urgent argument pushing for UBI is that wage labor cannot and should not be a basis for membership within our society. There are many non-traditional jobs from motherhood to volunteer work, which contribute heavily to the success of our society. But what’s most compelling is the idea that automation—robots—paired with waining job creation may leave many of us without wage work.
Throughout history there have been many pushes for adopting UBI. We are only just beginning to realize the real power this idea may have in providing a better future for everyone. Support is far from unanimous, but curiosity is alive: many countries are beginning to green-light trials, such as the Dutch city of Utricht, Finland, and Canada.
It's time we talked about working less. While some argue that we shorten the working week, others favor cutting out pointless, time-filler jobs altogether.
Abundant, paid work might be an old-world way of measuring prosperity. After all, many manufacturing jobs are being taken over by bots, leaving those without computer science or relevant degrees in the dust, without work. Chris Twomey, policy director of the non-profit organization Western Australian Council of Social Service, argues we shouldn’t be trying to create more jobs; instead, we should be working less.
Twomey's essay is one part of a series of essays put out by the Green Institute, all working together to create a larger conversation surrounding a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a plan that gives people unconditional, free money regardless of employment. The Green Institute remains agnostic on whether a UBI is what we need in order to fix many of the issues we face, including inequality and a shrinking job market. But they agree it’s a conversation worth having, if only to find a way to create a better, fairer society.
Technology is helping to make a future of less work possible, however, the noise of politics has created a distorted message. Our politicians are going around trying to bring back the jobs, says Twomey. Many in America’s heartland feel like President-elect Donald Trump will help bring the factories back from China. Here’s the problem, China is a scapegoat for the real issue. The factories have been coming back, and the jobs? Not quite as much. Because of the rise of automation, factories have been hiring only a fraction of the workers.
“Computers and automation are creating a world with fewer and fewer paid jobs, and more insecure work,” Twomey writes. “Education and training, supporting innovation, are important in this context. But they will not be sufficient. Working less, sharing jobs, and institutionally supporting people to do so, will be vital.”
The world is changing around us, which requires a shift in how we perceive work. Work is necessary, but do we really need 40 hours of it each week?
Here we arrive at the idea of fewer jobs, more shared work, and more meaningful work. “Technology has the capacity to free us from tedious and mundane work and enable us to pursue more meaningful and productive activities.”
Anthropologist David Graeber says our capitalist society has managed to create “bullshit jobs.” These are areas of industry that have little to no value other than to provide work for people to do – like a symptom of Soviet socialism. Middle managers who file inconsequential reports no-one will read. Unnecessary administrators who orchestrate meetings. Or take telemarketers. If all these were to go away, no one would miss them. This is what Graeber defines as a “bullshit job.”
“It seems to be this idea that work is a value in itself,” Graeber said in an interview.
What we need to realize is there’s also value in leisure from a health and environmental standpoint. Leisure is time to create, invent, educate, care for our family, and more.