The recent international basic income conference “Visions for a Brighter Future,” UBI-Nordic 2019 was held in Oslo from April 5–7; at it, Nir Yaacobi and Gilad Barner became the first representatives of a universal basic income (UBI)-related blockchain project to present at a UBI conference. Their not-for-profit research organization, GoodDollar, aims to develop an open-source method for implementing UBI through blockchain. Blockchain technology was popularized by cryptocurrencies, but is, in general terms, a distributed ledger (i.e., a database hosted by numerous servers rather than one central authority) where all transactions are verified publicly, rather than being controlled by a single administrator. Blockchain protocols can allow for the execution of smart contracts, or an encoded agreement that auto-executes once its terms are fulfilled. Due to the nature of the type of encryption that blockchain uses, each encrypted transaction includes information from the one that occurs before it, making transactions, once verified, theoretically impossible to change or erase. Some blockchain projects, like GoodDollar, aim to eventually create Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) that eschew classical governance for a public, distributed, social and financial system based on blockchain.
The idea of GoodDollar was born over ten years ago in a paper called “The Visible Hand,” which outlined a framework for a monetary system where smaller investments are granted the same interest rates as larger ones in order to combat extreme wealth inequality. The organization’s current mission is to “build open-source solutions for efficient allocation of resources according to principles informed by research on UBI and related policy proposals.”
Chamberlain’s book explores universal basic income (UBI), which he calls unconditional basic income, as a potential step on the way from a “work society,” in which individual gainful employment is placed at the center of citizenship and community membership, to a post-work community in which the wellbeing of others is valued over individual achievements. Undoing Work, Rethinking Community focuses primarily on the UK and the US, moving through a detailed discussion of the place of work in contemporary life and politics, as well as more recent changes that have witnessed a gradual erosion of worker’s rights and stability, contending that the current overvaluation of work undermines freedom, equality, and justice. It then outlines a potential role for UBI in Chamberlain’s vision of the transition away from the work society, along with guidance for UBI advocates who share similar priorities with regard to shifting the conversation from its focus on encouraging employment. Finally, it sketches the theoretical beginnings of a “post-work” community.
Employment in Politics and the Meaning of Citizenship
Chamberlain begins by touching on the centrality of work and employment as a right and citizen’s obligation to the campaign rhetoric on both sides of the US 2016 election. Beyond America, he also points out 2011 UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s focus on employment as a solution to riots through the words “work is at the heart of our society.” In his very first pages, Chamberlain outlines his central contention: that citizenship and social participation are conditional upon employment and that those who are not able (or do not desire) to pursue employment for any reason, be it ability, other priorities or means of subsistence, family responsibilities, etc., are marginalized and configured as social pariahs or “freeloaders” rather than good citizens. In essence, he argues that society itself is currently understood to be the product of collective labour, and thus the work society values work ethic, the independence it permits, and the full citizenship or social participation made possible by said independence.
Interestingly, Chamberlain traces a brief history of types of “dependence” that used to be considered socially permissible or positive (that of a wife, for example, or the elderly) but have become more and more suspect, such that one must demonstrate the reason for one’s dependence (i.e., in the case of pregnancy, disability, or other inability to work) or show that one has paid one’s dues (in the case of the elderly) or is preparing oneself for employment (in the case of youth in school).
Undoing Work outlines the roots of the work society in history and political theory and examines several of the key arguments that connect work to citizenship. For example, the idea that individuals exist outside of society but collectively create society with their labour implies, in turn, that a lack of gainful employment is necessarily anti-social. This can be tied to a kind of apocalyptic, chaotic rhetoric, saying that unemployment will lead to social unrest and disintegration (as in David Cameron’s focus on employment in response to social unrest).
The “Work Society” Limits Freedom and Demands Increasing Flexibility
What is the problem with this social emphasis on everyone “pulling their weight”? Chamberlain argues that it limits the freedom to act according to one’s own “values, needs, and desires,” (10) when a person needs to take any or all employment available. Freedom is also limited when all of one’s time is occupied by making money with no opportunity to spend time on activities that don’t have a price put upon them. Furthermore, the increase in information technology has begun to dissolve the boundaries between work and the remainder of life. Importantly, restrictions to freedom do not fall equally upon a population, with regard to access to greater varieties and qualities of employment: “One can understand justice as equality of freedom or, more specifically, the equal ability of all members of society in ways that reflect their own ends” (12).
In his third chapter, Chamberlain discusses the idea of increasing flexibility of employment, from Reagan and Thatcher to the gig economy and the increase in remote work. Flexibility is a double-edged sword. Half of it entails deregulation, erosion of support for workers, increased precarity in terms of employment and compensation, dissolution of work–life boundaries, lack of collective bargaining, and other employer-friendly policies. Many qualities of flexibility can also be worker-friendly, however: flexible scheduling and the dissolution of work–life boundaries may allow a person to work from home or on their own time, or it may ask them to devote significant quantities of their life to work without any additional compensation. At least there are solutions available to offer support to those remote working away from the office so that they can receive additional training and mentorship from wherever they may be and still progress in their careers.
UBI: Undoing or Supporting Employment?
If our jobs are becoming increasingly flexible and precarious, allowing us to participate socially in a complete manner and support ourselves as independent citizens less and less, then UBI is one way to fill that gap and allow people to continue to find meaningful employment: however, it is just this argument for UBI that Chamberlain finds suspect. In Undoing Work, UBI is established as a partial solution to many of the aforementioned issues, a very important stop-gap permitting what he claims is actually required, which is to dismantle the work society and the social value of employment.
Chamberlain identifies an ideological disjuncture within the UBI movement, between advocates who say that UBI will support employment and advocates who contend that supporting employment is beside the point. This is echoed in the works reviewed by BIEN, as emerging UBI research and economic simulations define different metrics for success, and many of them are focused on employment rates rather than health indicators or other measurements associated solely with wellbeing. Undoing Work places UBI proponents on a spectrum from a full commitment to the work society to the preference for freedom from employment/right and ability to refuse employment. However, Chamberlain acknowledges that some who have argued for UBI’s positive impact on employment rates have done so for the sake of expediency. In other words, supporting a truly Unconditional BI may necessarily be politically precarious due to its promise to give “something for nothing.”
Chamberlain then contends that UBI’s implementation and effects depend upon the ideologies of social participation and citizenship by which it is surrounded. Whether or not a UBI recipient lives in Chamberlain’s “work society” will have a significant impact on a basic income’s ability to transform their lives for the better.
To highlight his point, Chamberlain contrasts UBI with workfare/unemployment and means-tested benefits, examining the differences between the administrative goal of re-integrating a person into the workforce and UBI. An implementation of the latter without a corresponding ideological shift may simply result in social forces creating the same stigmas against and marginalization of those who appear not to be contributing in a normative manner. In other words, without a cultural change in the value of work, people receiving UBI will still feel the pressure to take jobs regardless of interest or aptitude. From the perspective of a reader perennially curious about the intercultural differences in UBI implementation around the world, this is an interesting and important point, though it is beyond this book’s purview to speculate about the international differences that might be seen in UBI implementation depending on each country or region’s ideological variations.
A more radical implementation of UBI may in fact encourage people to shape new “purposes,” voluntary or collectively informed but not necessarily rewarded or validated by a wage. Indeed, if work is as essential to a valuable and meaningful life as its proponents suggest, Chamberlain suggests that it is unlikely that UBI recipients (i.e., all of us) will simply give up any kind of occupation or responsibility.
The Post-Work Society
The final chapters of the book examine visions of a post-work society. Chamberlain suggests that many contemporary visions of post-capitalism (e.g., André Gorz’s work, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire) have not in fact theorized a real “post-work” society because they remain centred upon community-oriented production and reproduction: they still see the common/society as produced by some form of work or labour, and participation in their post-capitalist models is still frequently predicated upon social contribution conceptualized as labour.
A real post-work society, argues Chamberlain, means that membership in one’s community must not be connected to work (paid or unpaid). Rather, he suggests a vision of community that is predicated upon concern for the wellbeing of others but does not then turn around and stigmatize or marginalize community members who do not appear to share similar concerns.
One key part of this is that we should not view individuals as things that can be separated from a community or society (or accordingly marginalized as “non-contributors”). Rather, a community is in its fundamental form made up of interconnected relationships that have little to do with labour.
Chamberlain argues that the tendency to think about this kind of community as encouraging “freeloading” is an intuitive response from those of us who have grown up valuing employment so highly. Accordingly, Chamberlain provides some insightful advice for UBI advocates, suggesting that arguments for UBI should be focused on collective well-being rather than employment potential, shaped in a way that does not encourage critics to jump straight to criticisms about giving “something for nothing.”
Chamberlain’s vision for a post-work society is outlined in terms of what it must not be. The lack of a fuller picture is understandable given the magnitude, impossibility, and perhaps unsuitability of attempting this task theoretically (a challenge he acknowledges). Despite this, the last few pages of the book cite reasons for hope of a transition: the prevalence of conversations about UBI, minimum wage movements, and economic cooperatives, as some examples.
A reader may wonder if none of the smaller communities established within and regardless of political boundaries, including economic or social cooperatives, faith-based communities, secular or intentional communities, families, or Indigenous or ethnicity-based communities, already value interpersonal wellbeing more highly than labour and, accordingly, exhibit unique social economies. While it is sensibly out of the book’s scope to conduct an international comparison of work ideologies, Chamberlain’s focus on national discourse feels relevant and interesting but also general and totalizing, spoken from the “voice” of the work society without exploring the diversity that may be occurring within a nation or testing its borders on local scales. However, overall, Chamberlain’s Undoing Work, Rethinking Community is a considered and valuable critique of the role of employment in life, politics, and UBI policy and discourse. His discussion of increasing precarity, demand for flexibility, and the lack of freedom that employment often delivers despite independence’s promises to the contrary will strike home for many readers.
CESifo publishes a quarterly journal, the latest issue of which is devoted to Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Five of seven pieces within this 48-page publication present a variety of perspectives on UBI research and theory, predominantly addressing the European context.
Straubhaar, Thomas, “Universal Basic Income – New Answer to New Questions for the German Welfare State in the 21st Century”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 03–09 | Details| PDF Download
The focus: Transforming social support in Germany by replacing Bismarckian welfare state ideals
Straubhaar describes a series of proximate social and economic changes due to globalization, aging societies, income polarization, and dissolution of traditional economic safety nets. He comments that the contemporary version of the welfare state is founded upon 19th century Bismarckian principles that rely on a classic population pyramid (weighted by youth at the bottom), a male-breadwinner model, a fast-growing economy, and a labor-focused Protestant work ethic, none of which will continue to be relevant indefinitely. He proposes UBI as a welfare state model that would completely replace all other publicly financed social support and provide a 21st century solution to the aforementioned changes, particularly in Germany, but as a model for the rest of the world.
Torry, Malcolm, “Some Lessons from the Recent UK Debate about Universal Basic Income”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 10–14 | Details| PDF Download
The focus: Enhancing UBI data distribution and ensuring that discussions maintain a clear definition of the difference between UBI and other related economic policies
Torry highlights a number of key events and issues from the UK that have broader relevance for the global community interested in UBI. The first discusses the important use of microsimulation to predict the impact of economic policies on households of varying incomes (for example, to estimate the loss of disposable income to low-income families if means-tested benefits remain or are removed). The second relates a story in which a public organization cherry-picked UBI data, to which Torry simply says that high-quality research ought to be better distributed. The third and fourth call the reader’s attention to the importance of using specific definitions of UBI schemes and not allowing the term to be misused.
De Wispelaere, Jurgen, Antti Halmetoja and Ville-Veikko Pulkka, “The Rise (and Fall) of the Basic Income Experiment in Finland”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 15–19 | Details| PDF Download
The focus: Improving the international understanding of Finland’s basic income experiment, its origins, and its limitations
The Finnish basic income experiment began as a one-line commitment in the national Government Programme in 2015. Kela, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution, proposed several experiment design options, and a two-year control trial began in January 2017. Kela will evaluate the results and present them to Parliament in 2019.
Basic income stakeholders have become increasingly critical of the trial parameters, raising concerns about the limits of the sample and the pilot’s restricted scope and goals. The authors argue that proponents of UBI initially overstated the extent of the Finnish government’s commitment and capabilities, heralding the commitment as a “watershed” moment for European basic income, when in fact the Finnish experiment and others have been limited from the outset by policy inertia, existing budgetary and taxation systems, and other institutional limitations. The pilot program is designed to assess basic income as a means of activating the labour market, a politically safe goal, and was never likely to result in policy changes of the kind UBI advocates desire to see.
Colombino, Ugo and Nizamul Islam, “Basic Income and Flat Tax: The Italian Scenario”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 20–29 | Details| PDF Download
The focus: Evaluating proposed basic income-related policy packages in Italy and comparing their political origins
Like other European countries, Italy has seen several basic income proposals that have yet to be implemented. Several current potential models are rooted in different political ideologies and thus provide an interesting comparison. The first, “Reddito di Inclusione,” (RdI) is a basic income scheme that targets the most impoverished segment of the population in practice but is intended to be universal. The second, “Reddito di Cittadinanza” (RdC) is means-tested and only covers the population “below the relative poverty threshold” (20). Another model, proposed by Istituo Bruno Leoni (a think tank), involves both basic income and a flat tax.
The authors provide a basic overview of the differences between UBI, means-tested guaranteed income, and negative income tax. They then simulate and evaluate the various government-proposed combinations of policies, concluding that while it is possible to design a fiscally neutral policy package, current government proposals have not yet done so.
Widerquist, Karl, “The Devil’s in the Caveats: A Brief Discussion of the Difficulties of Basic Income Experiments”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 30–35 | Details| PDF Download
The focus: Making UBI research accessible and understandable, particularly with regard to its limitations
Widerquist’s basic thesis is that, contrary to popular representations of policy research, all UBI experiments contain a significant list of caveats. He argues that science journalism has not done an adequate job of communicating the limitations of UBI studies, or indeed any social sciences research, to the public. Furthermore, specialist researchers’ lists of caveats are inadequate for communicating a study’s limitations. Widerquist has an upcoming book that will address both best practices in UBI research given its inherent difficulties and best practices in communication the results of said research to the public and policymakers. In this article, he identifies four broad strategies: (1) iteratively designing studies with public feedback, so that research directly addresses the questions relevant to local stakeholders; (2) highlighting UBI’s impact in publications, rather than its side-effects (even though the latter might be more interesting to researchers); (3) attempting to define a “bottom line” or generalizable conclusion from research; and (4) addressing and discussing ethical controversies.
Clauss, Michael and Stefan Remhof, “A Euro Area Finance Ministry – Recipe for Improved Governance?”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 36–43 | Details| PDF Download
The authors discuss the possibility and potential function of a euro-area finance ministry. Such an organization could either martial Europe’s national fiscal policies to align them throughout the region, or it could be one more “layer” of fiscal authority in each European nation. This paper does not explicitly address UBI.
Nam, Chang Woon and Peter Steinhoff, “The ‘Make in India’ Initiative”, CESifo Forum 19 (3), 2018, 44–45 | Details| PDF Download
The authors discuss a 2014 federal initiative to promote industrial manufacturing in India. This paper does not explicitly address UBI.
Dr. James Chamberlain, of Mississippi State University’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, published Undoing Work, Rethinking Community in February 2018. This new work examines the contemporary overvaluation of work, highlighting political rhetoric that puts employment at the centre of society without addressing the socio-economic factors that limit access to employment and a living wage. Its underlying argument mirrors its title, that community must be separated from the idea of paid labour as inequity grows. Chamberlain’s book includes a chapter on basic income (UBI), emphasizing that while UBI is an important part of social restructuring, it must be paired with conscious attention to deconstructing the importance of paid work.
The book was listed as an exciting contribution to the literature on unpaid work and basic income by JoAnne Swanson of The Anticareerist. It has also gathered several reviews. Hull University’s Patrick Reedy comments that “Chamberlain’s book provides a useful resource for questioning our own assumptions regarding the close coupling of work and organization and the centrality of work to our understanding of citizenship and community.”
Blogger and author John Budd comments further on the connections between Undoing Work and UBI, noting that “A popular proposal these days is for a universal basic income, the (simplified) theory being that reducing people’s dependency on work for subsistence will allow them to choose from a broader set of life activities. An interesting contribution of Undoing Work is showing how the thinking that lies behind many of the proposals for universal basic income do not break with traditional views of work and society to the extent needed to really bring about a large-scale change in the centrality of work.”
The beginnings of a formal Basic Income movement in Sri Lanka
Basic Income Sri Lanka (BISL) was founded two years ago by Selvi Sachidanandam and colleagues based in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Initially, the group’s activities were to meet from time to time and discuss what Basic Income meant and how it was relevant to the Sri Lankan context. The Basic Income developments taking place in neighbouring India in 2017 also acted as stimulants. In India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) conducted a pilot project on Basic Income between 2011 and 2013 and brought out a report and a book in 2015. The India Network for Basic Income was also formed in 2015. In February 2017, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian government, Arvind Subramanian, authored a full chapter on Universal Basic Income for discussion in the Indian parliament.
In 2017 and 2018, BISL made overtures to the Sri Lankan government to organize a workshop to raise awareness about Basic Income and its desirability as a policy direction in Sri Lanka. Despite attempts made to reach out to political leaders and bureaucrats, BISL has thus far only been able to work within civil society, building awareness among NGOs and within the art community.
UBI discussions often begin with burning local issues and contextual priorities, and Sri Lanka is no exception in this regard. Thirty years of war in Sri Lanka left deep scars on the entire society. Many parts of Sri Lankan society bore immense suffering, and they continue to do so. Today, war widows experience insecurity and isolation across the country: in the Northern and Eastern Provinces there are numerous Tamil widows, and in the south there are also the widows of soldiers who died in the war. Nearly ten years after the end of the war, there still is no coherent state policy to address this social calamity. According to a report by the International Crisis Group submitted (2017), there are more than 90,000 war widows in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. This estimate does not include the families of ‘missing persons,’ and the wounds of war are much deeper than what these statistics show. According to one estimate, in the northern region, there are about 58,000 households headed by women (one quarter of total number of households).
Women in Sri Lanka (picture credit to: UNDP, Palmyrah Processing Centre, Naruvilikulam, Mannar, Sri Lanka)
BISL grants and work with the Government of Sri Lanka
It was in this context of providing aid to war widows that BISL brought forth the idea of basic income. BISL believes that giving an unconditional basic income to these widows for a period of 10 or more years could be an effective policy approach. Instead of waiting for the government to adopt this idea, BISL decided to award basic income to some war widows from the north and east through donations from private individuals, as a symbolic gesture. Simultaneously, a study has been initiated to examine the efficacy of Basic Income in this context.
In addition to the war widows from the North, BISL selected two other categories for the basic income awards: an artists’ community in Colombo, and women from a Muslim fisherpersons’ union in the East. These three groups were chosen to maintain a geographical balance; BISL took a cross section of Sri Lankan society to demonstrate the universality of vulnerability across the socio-cultural spectrum, as well as the potential universal applicability of Basic Income. On July 18th 2018, BISL organized a ceremony for five awardees chosen randomly from the first two communities. Three Tamil war widows from Kilinochchi and two artists from Colombo were given the Basic Income grants. Awards to the third category will be distributed once sufficient funds are collected; BISL can raise money for only five awardees at the present time.
Currently, each award is 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees per month for a period of two years (roughly US$63 per month). This calculation is based on the World Bank’s definition of the poverty threshold as US$1.90 consumer expenditure per person per day. The ceremony was attended by about 40 people including civil society actors, government officials, artists, and students. BISL also invited Sarath Davala, the coordinator of India Network for Basic Income to share the results of the Indian pilot study and the policies pertaining to basic income in India.
On the left: Eran Wickramaratne. On the right: Sarath Davala and Selvi Sachidanandam.
The event received wide publicity in Colombo. The next day in Parliament, a women’s caucus met to discuss policy related to war widows and disabled persons. Selvi Sachidanandam was invited to make a presentation on BISL’s proposal concerning a policy for rehabilitating war widows. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Selvi and Sarath both attended the meeting and made presentations to the honourable Members of the Parliament. Also present was Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Finance (Hon) Eran Wickramaratne. After the presentations, the Minister assured BISL that the government would study the idea of unconditional basic income in depth. Assurances were given on behalf of BISL and INBI to the honourable Minister that assistance would be provided in every possible way to the government process.
Subsequent to this meeting, Selvi, Sarath and the BISL Co-Coordinator Visakha Tillekeratne met the Deputy Director General of the Department of Planning of the Sri Lankan Government. A detailed presentation was made to the deputy director and his colleagues. Following this work with government officials, BISL will undertake a brief study of current welfare policy delivery in two districts and examine the schemes that are implemented by the government of Sri Lanka. This study will analyze the comparative efficacy and relevance of unconditional basic income to specific groups in different parts of Sri Lanka.
The developments described in this report are a major leap in the basic income movement in Sri Lanka. BISL is keen to build on this momentum.