UBI et orbi


Says God to Adam, after he and Eve have eaten the fruit,

in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground… [Genesis 3:17—19]

The story of the casting-out or ‘Fall’, in which humans are given their divine punishment for knowledge, is one of our most familiar creation stories, in which God sets the terms of human existence unilaterally. Like a boss making a workplace agreement with themself, the story of the Fall is the original greenfields enterprise bargaining agreement. It’s a powerful morality tale which has informed our attitudes and assumptions about work for a very, very long time.

These days, economists and political thinkers read more widely than scripture when trying to suggest ways of organising work and income. We worry about underemployment, unemployment, automisation of labour, and come up with a dizzying range of potential technical solutions. An increasingly popular one is the Universal Basic Income, or UBI. The NSW Fabian Society is running a forum on 9 September on this issue, and as I cannot attend, and as my comrade Luke Whitington foolishly asked for my opinion—what follows is a response.

The labour market is under no obligation to provide you income. Everyone knows that. The distributed working of the market, by which economists like Smith argued public benefits can come, is necessarily amoral in its decisions of who thrives and who does not. The baker and brewer’s regard for their own-self interest provides our dinner, not their cares for their fellow humans. Capitalism, in short, does not care if you starve.

Into this breach, in the modern era, we bravely step with politics, and we attempt to ameliorate things if we can. The UBI is a remarkable proposal, bone-simple when you really get down to it: every citizen should get an amount of money, guaranteed, every year, without limitations. The payment would be a complete insurance against reaching into empty pockets, and promises to end material want. Workers would stand to benefit by having certain money to fall back on, and encourage people to leave crummy jobs. It would eliminate the humiliating and counterproductive work-for-the-dole schemes of tree-planting and rock-painting. We could use the money to do whatever we pleased, to study for our interests, to volunteer for causes we believe in, to play videogames or go surfing every day, to create art, or just do the things we’re already doing anyway—the caring and support we give every day to our families and loved ones. Like Marx’s fisher in the morning, cattle-rearer after dinner, critic in the evening, it’s the promise of being able to actually do what we want.

As Olin Wright has written, it’s distinguished from millenarialism by being an actually ‘Achievable’ utopia. Not only can we do it, maybe we have no choice. Two prominent promoters of universal incomes, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, stress the point that in computers, robots, and other labour-saving devices, we’ve got to the point where we, as a species, unexpectedly and suddenly have the tools to make this utopia possible. It’s compelling argument, because after all, computers really are amazing.

Consider some of the other technologies that our predecessors have developed in response to the same problems: the old age pension, socialised medicine, State provision of social services. Kindergartens, public schools, laws against child labour. Unemployment benefits, workers compensation, workplace safety laws. In the twentieth century we remember some technical achievements better than others: the 1969 moon landing was an excellent engineering achievement, sure, but in the end it was really a matter of putting a room full of electric clocks on top of a gigantic bunger, pointing it up, and setting it off. Getting an aged pension paid correctly, promptly, and sufficiently, across entire societies, to stop old people from starving? That’s an achievement, and one that took not a few years of engineering, but generations.

We forget sometimes that automation isn’t new, and is a process that’s been applied to humans for centuries. The same problems of low growth, workplace exploitation, profiteering, degradation, and pollution, were much as part of industrialisation and deskilling in the 1700s as they are today. The same moral revulsion and inventiveness were experienced by our ancestors.

And there can be no separating questions of morality from what the State does. The ‘nanny’ state and its paternalism are moral tools, and we should acknowledge that the full attention of the State hasn’t always been kind, or fair, or lawful. The poorhouse of the 1800s was not a place of generosity. In the guise of protection, the Australian Government has confiscated land, removed children, stolen wages, imprisoned, tortured. Because the State is fearful that refugees might drown in the Indian Ocean, it also decrees island jungle tent camps of suffering. It is a terrible institution precisely because it reflects our own sentiments.

The modern welfare state responds, though, in its own idiosyncratic way, to the equity principle. To each according to need, from each according to ability—more or less. In the ideal scheme of things each of us will, at various points in our lives, both contribute to and benefit from the big money pot. When we are children we benefit from school funding, when we work we pay taxes, when we are injured or sick, the health system supports us, when we have a windfall profit we contribute a part of it back, and when we get old, we can hope the pension and superannuation will keep us from the gutter.

Universal income is another goal on another equity principle—that all citizens are equal—but it’s diametrically opposed to the way the benefits of the welfare state have been apportioned in the past. Not all citizens have equal needs all the time. The appeal of the basic income is that it would do away with the complexities and the real inequalities of the way the welfare state runs at the moment.

One of the most consistent conservative impulses of the seventeenth to the twentieth century was that those who’d done well out of society were under a moral obligation to voluntarily give back to it. It’s from that urge that our benevolent and charitable sectors come; as well as the Tory notion of ‘public service’ in civil life, and the shame Dickens and other moralistic writers expressed for the selfish rich (‘Scrooges’). The progressive counterpoint has always been that society itself owes support and change to those whose suffering makes luxury and profit possible, and that common sharing and mutual support is a more ethical basis for human interaction. Both, right and left, operate under the ethical assumption that it’s human dignity and justice, rather than one’s income at any given time, that should be equal and universal.

At the time of writing I, for instance, am able bodied, in prime of age, in full-time work, without dependents. I simply need less from the welfare state than almost everybody else, and I should expect, instead of taking, to contribute to to the pool. Any reform that proposes to distribute more income my way is frankly immoral.

This whole ethical assumption of mutual contribution is threatened by the libertarian premise of the universal basic income, which, conversely, draws an upper limit to the support any individual may get from Government, and draws a false universality on our human needs and abilities. It’s not just do-nothing money; it’s go-away money. It’s a minimalist view of society and of government, one that seeks to define as nearly as possible the moral obligations each of us has for every other, and that, to a periodic cash payment.

The counterargument—that people with greater real needs for support (for just one example, those with lifelong profound disabilities) should have top-ups or greater help-in-kind on top of the UBI—is one that destroys the very principle of universality itself. If you start adding ‘but also’ in you wind up right back where you started; at the modern welfare State in all its complexity.

A UBI society, which provides for everyone equally with a moderate and frugal cash payment, is one that could quite easily coexist with exceptionally concentrated wealth, power, and privilege. In very real ways the penal settlement of Port Jackson’s first years was a UBI economy, in which convicts and others drew from the Government store in flour and rum, in return for labour. From the point of view of capital, the UBI’s appeal is of an affordable price to pay against the requirement that possession of productive things be shared fairly in society: a bribe to guard against actual redistribution.

The counter-tradition, which we forget, to universal income, is universal ownership. If we wish to share the benefits of modernity more justly—and we must—we should be talking, rather than about regular rations, or wage top-ups, or cash payments, about owning and sharing the institutions that make them possible.

Is that too unrealistic a dream?


I had forgotten that I’d written about this at length three years ago, producing a post that—as always on this blog—produced a comments thread much more interesting than the content.



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Luke Whitington · 23 August 2016, 11:47 · #

Very well written and a useful contribution.
To take the last point first – How do you think we propose to pay for a UBI? You seem to presuppose a simple income redistribution like the current welfare system – which won’t work. A UBI can be paid for a number of ways, but two jump out immediately as particularly attractive – a) by ownership of the means of production (either in part or as a whole), or by taxes on the common wealth and land of a society- a tax on unearned rents. The first of those goes straight to your last point. A UBI is simply the dividend from ownership. The question is which you choose to do first and which has more likely chance of gaining the support of the majority in a liberal nationalist (post)colonial society. We know that the State ownership of certain means of production in the 20th century did not free people from capitalist wage labour relations, either here or in the Soviet systems. A UBI is a practical way of allowing that freedom to happen.
To your point that technological change has always existed, ie. the ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ argument. People can argue about this, but all the signs are there that deflationary forces in the production of actual goods is real and accelerating. If energy abundance is a likely result of simple (ie. non-exponential) advances in technology, then costs of material production will continue to fall. Add to that demographic change, which further removes the effectiveness of monetary policy, which is already proving to have little growth-promoting potency, and the result is deflation and permanent low unemployment. Both of these are already happening. Since the 1970s unemployment in Australia has never been under 5%, and no policy, fiscal or monetary, macro or micro-economic has been able to give us full employment. And the jobs that have been created after automation has killed the old ones are mostly low-paid, insecure and often meaningless or demeaning. If the effect of automation is to increase unemployment by ‘only’ 9% as some conservative commentators are saying, then this is taking us into devastating territory. Even with our current levels of unemployment we have seen the precipitous decline in working class industrial and political power, in all jurisdictions, no matter the local labour laws, because unemployment is the strike-breakers friend. A UBI gives labour a base from which it can negotiate with capital about wages and conditions, rather than capital’s preferred position of ‘take it or starve’.
To address your point that allowing top-ups to the UBI defeats the simplifying purpose of a UBI. Well it all depends on the top ups. For instance, I don’t think a UBI could ever replace the NDIS. But the rules for qualification for the NDIS are very different from those that dictate whether you get the single or couple pension, or unemployment benefits if you’re in a relationship. I don’t think the state has a lot of right to ask who I sleep with and how often in order to determine what subsistence cash I am given to keep body and soul together in a permanent low-employment economy. But that is the situation we have now. I do accept that the Government should see proof that my child has a disability before giving me money for that child’s treatment. So to get to practicalities, a UBI in Australia should be higher than the single pension, higher than the dole + rent assistance, and the UBI + child’s UBI should be higher than the single parent payment. So it can replace nearly all our welfare payments, but it needn’t replace the NDIS. That would reduce the complexity of our welfare system by about 95%. The only people that may be worse off in that situation are people currently working at DHS, and a transitional package would need to be implemented to ensure they got other comparable jobs. If any didn’t however, they’d at least be eligible for a UBI which would be higher than the benefits they previously administered. As a proud CPSU member I am very serious that the workers who currently administer the welfare system are looked after in the transition away from our complex and often punitive system of welfare compliance.
Finally, as to your labelling of UBI as a libertarian solution or even as immoral. Firstly, you and I are old enough to remember when
libertarian socialists were the best kind – when a revolution was no fun unless it allowed dancing. Alas, ‘libertarian’ has been hijacked as a term by Americans with adolescent fantasies of screaming ‘leave me alone!’ at the world. Even still, the idea that people should be able to say to the state and capitalists that they don’t want to give them their time, their bodies, their obedience or their mental energy is still attractive to many. I for one, agree with you that the state, especially the colonial settler state, the nationalist, genocidal war-mongering state, the state of child abuse, deaths in custody, torture in detention and so on, is something that it would be nice to be able to avoid if possible. No other policy proposal I have seen in the past twenty years does that as effectively as a UBI, especially if innovative institutions are set up to pay for a UBI.
Finally, to address possibly the biggest hurdle, the ‘immorality’ of giving anything to people that are already rich. This is what Yanis Varoufakis addresses in his speech here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1eOVU61mZE
As Yanis points out, we already do give direct income support to the already rich – the tax free threshold applies to all, no matter their income. You can give people a UBI and do away with the tax free threshhold pretty easily and have nearly the same net result. And of course the rich also get all the benefits of our common wealth and the economic rents they appropriate for themselves more generally. A UBI paid for by either owning some of that currently owned by capitalists, or by taxing their rents, starts to deal with that immorality of the rich getting something for nothing.
The implementation of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ has its attractions, but the rub always lies in – who judges ones abilities and needs? Funnily enough, our system at the moment works on this principle. Our progressive income tax takes from the richest according to their ability, but only at the top marginal tax rate. Our punitive job search/welfare system judges the abilities of the poorest. Then the Parliament, the liberal nationalist settler-colonial legislature, decides how much we all ‘need’. Currently that’s set at about ‘starving-minus-$100-a-week’ for those out of work who are judged to be fit and able to swing a pick.
In contrast to ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ I prefer, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ and ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’
A UBI can help make that a reality. Our current system does not.
Once again, thanks for taking the time to respond. As usual, your eloquence far outweighs mine, but I hope you don’t see the urgency of my response and language as anything other than how it is intended, as usual, with great respect and affection.

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Douglas Maclaine-Cross · 1 September 2016, 14:36 · #

As a person who is very concerned about growing income inequality, and simultaneously has high hopes that UBI is a viable solution to solve it. I felt the need to address that specific concern of yours that it wouldn’t help.

Firstly, inequality is primarily measured as a percentage difference in wealth. Adding a fixed amount to everyones income would mean everything to a homeless person and absolutely nothing to the wealthiest. As I understand it this could be explained in the form of diminishing utility of money.

Secondly, if people aren’t afraid of starving or going homeless they will able to be engaged in the political process. So there will be a flood on effect to additional issues. Such as how and from whom to raise government revenue.

Thirdly, not facing starvation will increase every individuals bargaining capacity. Whether it be quitting a fruitless job, or going on strike.


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