AUDIO: Basic Income – An idea whose time has come?
Photo: Nick Pearce. Credit to: Bristol Festival of Ideas.
In this audio recording of a conversation, in front of a live audience at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on the 17th of November, 2016, Louise Haagh, Anthony Painter, Nick Pearce and Torsten Bell discuss the pros and cons of the basic income idea, chaired by Jonathan Derbyshire.
In this talk, Anthony Painter, the Director of the Action Research Center at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), starts by describing what he calls the “gig economy” (one economy driven by tasks, not by jobs). He also refers to the great changes in the distribution of work which are occurring right now, and in the relationships with intelligent machines. According to him, people are feeling increasingly uncertain and powerless, which generates stress. That is his first argument for basic income: it is an agent for freedom. He says politics for basic income must be based in solidarity, empathy and compassion, and that basic income should not be pursued as an end in itself, but as a test and a measure for the betterment of society.
Nick Pierce, professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath (and former Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research), goes on to say that he considers himself to be a “friendly skeptic” of basic income. He recognizes qualities in the basic income movement, led by many activists, who defend tackling problems with current welfare states and pursue a vision/trend for the betterment of society; not simply reacting to problems. On the other hand, he does not agree that basic income can liberate individuals (from entanglement with the State and with the market), nor that it can liberate individuals from work. According to Pierce, work is a way to gain personal fulfillment and, as such, looks at basic income proponents as “anti-work” in a sense. He also fears basic income might lead people to disengage from one another, hence he considers it a dangerous form of dependency, particularly towards the State (seen as a provider). Pierce also points out that basic income, as a policy, will be a result of the social forces that have forged the different welfare states, hence may differ considerably from region to region. He advises basic income advocates to consider all of these regional differences, in order to propose meaningful basic income strategies.
Louise Haagh, as Reader at the Department of Politics in the University of York and co-Chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), replies that basic income is a “natural outgrowth of social democracy”. This comes despite Haagh’s agreement that, in fact, the basic income movement has failed to detail the implementation realities of basic income around the world. However, she feels it has succeeded in getting basic income out of academia and into mainstream discourse. She also points out that other welfare features, such as public education and health, do not contain as many conditions as income support (e.g. behavioral conditions), but agrees that basic income should not be seen as a replacement for organized fulltime employment. Rather, they should be seen as a complementary feature to guarantee full citizenship. She also sees basic income as a small but crucial strategic element that enables societies to think about their development with a more long-term approach.
On the critical side against basic income, Torsten Bell, Director of the Resolution Foundation, says that basic income interest has appeared due to two anxieties: robot anxiety (human jobs are being “eaten” by machines) and Left Existential anxiety (real wages stagnate or dropped, plus support for the traditional Left is fading). However, he perceives this interest as waning progressively. Bell is convinced basic income is not going to happen in the UK, reasoning that robots are systematically underperforming compared to their human counterparts, and that there have never been more jobs in the UK. Moreover, he says, statistics show that part-time jobs are not rising, or have not been, since records have existed. Bell detaches the United States case from the European reality, stating that what is happening in the former is not likely to happen in the latter, and equates basic income to higher taxes and higher poverty. He further reasons that it makes no sense to give a basic income to rich people, and that generally the public does not like the idea that “you should be paid not to work”. Finally, he disagrees with a political organization system where an elite at the top own the robots and make all the money, which is then redistributed to everyone else (assumed idle).
Replying to criticisms, Anthony Painter underlines that the world of work is getting more precarious, less paid and more insecure; hence something – like basic income – must be done about it. Contrary to Torsten’s assertion, he highlights that basic income advocates usually justify basic income as a way to validate work, giving people the opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way. He also points out that any basic income implementation cannot possibly surpass the already tremendously bureaucratic welfare state in the UK, so it is only bound to reduce it. On the other hand, Nick Pierce disagrees that basic income is waning, but agrees that politicians are constantly searching for “big ideas” to hold on to. Finally, Louise Haagh agrees that fortunately the basic income idea is not defended on a pure philosophical ground anymore, but instead has progressed to a more hands-on, practical approach. As Nick, she also disagrees that the notion of a basic income is waning, judging from the daily activity at BIEN.
Listen to the full conversation:
Bristol Festival of Ideas, “Basic Income – An idea whose time has come?”, in association with the Institute for Policy Research and the University of Bath, November 17th 2016