Money for Nothing – it Sounds Like a Utopia

Money for Nothing – it Sounds Like a Utopia

The London-based Apolitical website’s article on basic income (BI) opens with “Money for nothing – it sounds like a utopia” and then looks at some examples of BI concepts that have already been applied around the world.

This phrase, “money for nothing” represents a commonly held bias that, when there is no commodity returned for the money, whether that commodity is a thing or someone’s labour, then there is no tangible value returned for the monies. This bias is widely held and promoted by many adherents of modern-day economic theories – a bias which too often dismisses, or simply ignores, the numerous personal and societal benefits that others have evaluated and documented as attributable to BI models.

The article does a fairly good job of maintaining its organizational claim of being “apolitical” in that it does not overtly favour any particular side in the issue. Yet that does not mean it has escaped the narrow-minded focus that so many politicians, their handlers, and media commentators alike have grudgingly adopted regarding the BI. In fact, the Apolitical article offers a wonderful example of the very limited ways in which the BI idea is being appraised, namely as simply a response to job automation and/or carrot-and-stick welfare programmes.

Apolitical does, occasionally make mention of the fundamental roots of a BI, roots that run far deeper than simply jobs and poverty. Yet to emphasize that a BI is simply about addressing poverty or unemployment is to overlook the very foundation of a BI – namely that such a policy is meant to be an expansion upon, and commitment to, something that should never be commodified, namely personal freedom. All other aspects of a BI flow from this fundamental premise. That is, if a nation and its people are sincerely committed to the idea of freedom itself.

The five points made by Apolitical in the above article are all legitimate and commonly discussed around the world. Yet the shallowness of these points is intricately tied to the same old penny-pinching issues that surround welfare, as well as the easy access to cheap human labour that employers have enjoyed for far too long.

Yes, a BI can help eliminate the stigma and overbearing bureaucracy associated with welfare programmes. It would also force employers to be truly competitive regarding employee wages and hours. However, the most valuable asset each and every person possesses is our time in this life. We should be the stewards of that time – not employers and not bureaucrats. It is the personal freedom provided by a BI that is truly important to everyone, not just the workforce and welfare recipients.

A BI would allow individuals to tend to family and personal concerns without the anxiety of how to survive without a “job” income during these times of personal need. For example, if a family member severely injured as the result of a car accident. The family of this person may be too young for jobs, or on very low income as they had been relying upon the injured family member for income and cannot afford a carer to help in these times. In this case, a BI would help tremendously. Some might say that they can seek a uber accident attorney Glendale or a personal injury lawyer in order to seek compensation and financial security. Indeed these cases can bring great compensation, but court cases can take time, what will the family do in the meantime? Again, a BI would allow individuals to tend to family and personal concerns should anything happen. There may be no greater freedom than to have the time and economic stability necessary to order our lives as we, ourselves, see fit, rather than as employers demand, as is becoming far too common these days.

Politicians are slowly coming to accept that individuals are the best stewards of their monies, not bean-counting governments who tend to value the beans over the people the beans are intended for.

Let us examine each of Apolitical’s five points to see how personal freedom is addressed here.
1. Governments are not thinking the same as tech optimists

Apolitical is right about this and politicians are notoriously slow to respond to social changes of any kind, never mind one of this magnitude. Yes, the tech optimists foresee an evolutionary step in human time management when robotics and automation take over the monotony and the drudgery of the repetitive and injury-prone tasks found in so many labour-intensive “jobs”. Of course, these robotic inventions will not come soon enough to stop so many of our hardworking population from getting injured. In the meantime, if you’ve been injured at work, you will likely be entitled to personal injury compensation. Hopefully, the workforce of tomorrow will mean fewer people will have to take legal action in the future. We should create a new workforce that is far more reliable (never taking time off), disposable (without regrets or complaints) and economically more efficient than human beings.

From the technologist’s viewpoint, a BI becomes an essential aspect of employment and personal advancement because of the accelerating pace of technological advancement. Every new innovation requires that the humans who will be utilizing those innovations undergo time-consuming training and up-skilling. These advances can even lead to whole new careers for which a BI would be the springboard to pursue those educational and up-skilling goals. To tech experts, this is not “money for nothing” but instead an investment in the future of the nation, its economic infrastructure, its people and its economy.

But there is also a very real need to understand how a BI frees workers – especially those who only have labour, rather than any marketable skills or training, to sell – from the spectre of destitution and homelessness if they are unable to find work, or simply to feed and/or shelter themselves on the meager, subsistence wages offered today to unskilled labourers.

Of course, time management in this case refers only to the workplace. What is overlooked here is the personal freedom that a BI introduces into the optimist’s time management scheme. A BI would provide an individual with the economic freedom to then choose to acquire more skills or education, or to spend more time with family, or to take a much-needed break. This freedom is of great value to the individual, as well as their future prospects, but has little or no meaning to many economists.

Apolitical, however, does make a very good point about welfare reform. It is true that eradicating the expensive and needlessly patronizing welfare bureaucracies would entail huge cash savings for governments at national, provincial/state and municipal levels everywhere – savings that could be utilized far more efficiently and effectively when incorporated into a BI.

2. People already get money for nothing

Actually people get money from their government because they are deemed, by their government, to be in need and it is a government’s principal responsibility to succor to its citizens in times of need. While Apolitical talks about how “money for nothing already exists in the state pension” system, it ignores a number of other social safety net programmes such as health care, welfare, student loans, disability, make-work projects, employee subsidies, food banks, and shelters, to name a just a few of the most common.

Social safety net programmes always incur infrastructure and staffing costs associated with the policing and distribution of these monies. A BI removes the stigma associated with so many of these programmes via its universality but it cannot ignore the special needs associated with people such as the disabled, seniors, and the unemployed. Their special circumstances can easily entail more than simply a “free money” infusion involving things such as in home support, accessibility of public buildings, mobility aids, wheelchair-friendly streets and curbs, and emotional and mental supports to deal with chronic and acute complications, to name just a few.

Apolitical also mentions the Alaska Fund, a decades old statewide “free money” programme that, today, is surrounded by much controversy, with some demanding the money be used, instead, to fund state social programmes while others are happy for the money to be put directly into the hands of the people themselves.

This is a very good example of how the assets of a community – its resources, both natural and human – are the heart and soul of its economy. However, the Alaska Fund’s greatest feature is that it offers good, sound support for the premise that some of the wealth flowing from a community’s resources should be returned to the people that comprise the community.

The debate here is not whether “free money” should be distributed to the citizenry, but rather how much and in what manner.

3. The schemes in the developing world aren’t really analogous

Apolitical is absolutely right to point out that the drastically modified BI programmes implemented in Namibia, India, and Brazil cannot be directly applied in more developed areas. These programmes are largely a response to severe destitution and poverty in those countries, while here in North America the BI is framed as a response to automation and welfare inequities.
However, Apolitical does recognize that there is a self-empowerment and entrepreneurial spirit that blossoms within the poorest individuals in the above-mentioned countries once they have been freed to make their own choices of how best to utilize their time and abilities to address their own needs and interests.

These observations correlate well with Canada’s own Dauphin Manitoba Mincome BI programme, which ran for five years. Mincome was well monitored and documented at a variety of levels and interests. Documentation that highlighted the many personal advantages derived from a BI. These advantages included the reduction of both individual and family stress levels, greater ability to cope with family issues and, most importantly, noticeable improvements in children’s health and growth due to better nutrition which lead to higher learning evaluations. While some people did indeed leave the workforce, they did so to upgrade their education and skills, to attend to personal and family issues, or simply to take a much needed break.

All of these findings amount to huge social and personal savings that invariably strengthen and improve communities, yet, once again, they are not benefits that economists are able to quantify or put a monetary value on and are too often deemed to be without value.

4. It actually all comes down to incentives

Here Apolitical addresses the commonly held fear that a BI would act as a disincentive to “working,” as if “paid employment” should be every person’s preoccupation rather than the management of their lives. However, Apolitical cites Hugh Segal, a Canadian senator who has been a long-time advocate for BI programmes and who laments the very real disincentives to improving one’s life that have been built into Canada’s social programmes. This is why Senator Segal has long applauded the personal empowerment that a BI could provide to all Canadians.

It is here that Apolitical acknowledges Sam Altman of Y Combinator – a US private investment firm – who sees a BI as the seed money necessary to provide the personal freedom allowing individuals to be economically empowered to address the rapidly changing education and training demands of a technologically driven economy. Of course, Altman seems far more interested in employing a BI to address the demands of technology and its impact upon production and the workforce than in actually addressing personal freedom per se.

Apolitical is absolutely right to acknowledge that BI differs from existing, welfare-style social programmes and highlights the divide as between those who insist upon “incentives” used coercively to promote job seeking and those who support the “freedom to choose” as incentive enough for anyone.

5. It’s not utopia or bust

Apolitical wisely concludes that, if supporters of a BI succeed, “…they will establish the principle that you can simply give people money and trust them to use it in a way beneficial to themselves and, indirectly, to society.” This is a sentiment long-shared by those who advocate for BI and wonderfully demonstrates that this sentiment is central to personal freedom and the creation of an empowered population. For Apolitical and the rest of us only time will tell.

Denmark: Nordic Conference forges ties among activists

Denmark: Nordic Conference forges ties among activists

Written by: Dr. Louise Haagh

On September 22nd to 23rd, BIEN Danmark, the Danish affiliate of BIEN, hosted the Nordic Conference on Basic Income Pilots at the Danish parliament buildings of Christiansborg.

The event aimed to stimulate discussion and forge closer ties between local groups and fielded speeches by activists from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland, as well as talks by politicians and researchers from inside and outside the region.

The first of its kind, there is talk the event may be the beginning of many more to come. I certainly hope so. It was one of the best organised and most fun of the BIEN events that I have attended. With Karsten Lieberkind from BIEN Danmark quietly leading proceedings and a large contingent of BIEN Danmark and other local actors present, it was both very well-organised and a site for constructive critique and self-reflection.

From my perspective, one of the most positive aspects of the conference was the way it engaged the union movement in debate. I was especially encouraged in the exchange I had with Bjarke Friborg and Finn Sørensen, who had both at the outset – Sørensen in particular – staked out their opposition to a BI reform.

Louise Haagh Photo credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

Louise Haagh
Credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

I tried to stress the different ways the historical objectives of workers’ movements and a BI reform had affinities, as well as ways the BI can be complementary to and upscale the policies and institutions the union movement supports and administers. I think that is generally true in any context. But, in addition, being Danish, and having worked with both the union movement and other social movements in the past, it seems important and feasible to me to bridge the divide that is perceived to exist.

In general, I argued that it is important to think about BI in terms of its general effects on human security and relational freedom, and in that sense its transformative potential in relation to changing and improving social relations and institutions’ quality. An upshot of that is that in thinking about finance proposals and transitions into a BI, the affinity with existing mechanisms of economic security needs to be thought about positively, and steps taken gradually.

Specifically, I tried to argue that the BI proposal does not have to be viewed as in conflict with the unemployment insurance funds and the unions’ administration of them. In fact, there is a strong potential affinity between the claim BI supporters make for a right to basic income without conditions, and the concern of trade unionists – expressed by Friborg – about the state using its subsidy of the unemployment insurance funds as a means to exercise greater leverage of the unemployed individual’s job search behaviour. This direction in the state’s role is precisely one that both BI supporters and trades unions want to reverse, so here is the basis for a natural alliance.

Finn Sørensen Credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

Finn Sørensen
Credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

I made a similar point in response to Sorensen. I was encouraged to note that both Friborg and Sorensen in turn noted that – with this new perspective in mind – they might be able to engage more positively in an investigation into BI and what it might mean positively for unions, their members, other workers and citizens.

I have always argued (Haagh 2011, a.o.) that it is a mistake to necessarily pit the finance of BI directly against the state’s subsidy of the unemployment insurance in the Nordic states. It is possible to see each as elements in a multivariate structure of economic security that is more freedom-promoting by virtue of its composite form. There might have to be accommodations and details can be worked out in different ways, but I see no conflict in principle between a BI and state subsidy of a voluntary insurance. One can think about ideal institutions of work and mechanisms of developmental security. But it is also important to work with the existing institutions that act as life-style stabilisers within the capitalist economy such as it is. Considering that institutions transform gradually over time, what matters is that the steps taken at a given time have in general positive systemic effects.

Bjarke Friborg Credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

Bjarke Friborg
Credit: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark

It is important to acknowledge the historical importance of the gains of organised workers in Nordic states – together with mechanisms and services of the public sector – in democratising education, work and welfare. Today, labour market institutions and welfare services are under different forms of strain, including from the influence of global competitive forces and ways state initiatives extend those pressures within the education and employment systems. BI supporters, the union movement and other defenders of public services and more stable and unconditional forms of distribution and services, have interests in fighting pressures to hollow out the taxation system. In this context of a race to the bottom in pubic spending, it is the more important not to stake claims for different elements of economic security as in conflict in principle. In reality, their stability rests on broad coalitions across social groups.

In terms of the Danish context, the contribution of the political party The Alternative, hosting the conference in Christiansborg, and the information from municipalities experimenting with lifting conditionalities, gave the event a sense of a political momentum. Finally, hearing about the political initiatives in other Nordic states, the Pirate Party’s proposals in Sweden, the upcoming pilot in Finland, and thoughts about an experiment in an Icelandic city, suggest the basis exists for building a regional coalition for transformation of the Nordic welfare state.

Finally, Uffe Elbæk, leader of the Alternative, in his welcome speech, cautioned BI supporters about being too complacent and inwardly focused, and argued the BI movement should not be afraid of engaging critical voices. In my speech I echoed this view in the sense that I argued we should be more open and responsive to the views of our critics and be self-critical when we are unable to persuade others of the force of our ideas.

Overall, in my view the Nordic conference went some way to create a new platform for a more positive debate about BI in the wider society.

UBI-Nordic Review: “Still More People Want to Discuss Basic Income”

UBI-Nordic Review: “Still More People Want to Discuss Basic Income”

Still More People Want to Discuss Basic Income

Written by David Lindh; translated and edited by Karsten Lieberkind


All over the world we are witnessing a growing interest in basic income – an unconditional basic allowance for all citizens. A number of experiments have been scheduled for next year, and on September 22-23, representatives for the Nordic basic income movements as well as researchers and politicians met at a conference in Copenhagen to discuss the upcoming pilot projects.

The conference took place in Christiansborg Palace, which is the seat of the Danish Parliament, situated in central Copenhagen. Organizers of the conference were the Danish branch of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) in collaboration with the political party the Alternative.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing

Among the speakers were Guy Standing, Professor at SOAS, University of London and author of a number of books on the precariat, Thomas P. Boje, Professor of Social Sciences at Roskilde University and Annika Lillemets, MP for the Green Party of Sweden.

The conference was met with much anticipation and was fully booked. Journalists and other members of the press were present, and not only the invited speakers but even quite a few members of the audience were active, one way or the other, within the basic income movements in the Nordic countries, Europe and USA.

The first day of the conference focused on the pilot projects with basic income that are planned for Finland, the Netherlands and France. Nicole Teke, representing the French basic income movement, talked about the experiments that are to be carried out in the Aquitaine region. Sjir Hoeijmakers explained why, in recent years, ideas about basic income are spreading in the Netherlands, and Olli Kangs, Professor at Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, outlined the Finnish basic income pilots that are scheduled to begin in early 2017.

Thomas Boje

Thomas Boje

On the second day of the conference, there was an in-depth discussion on how the various basic income models could be implemented in the so-called Nordic Model, the social welfare and economic systems adopted by Nordic countries. Dorte Kolding, spokesperson for BIEN Denmark, in her opening speech of this day of the conference, explained how basic income might contribute to a development in society in which fear and control will be replaced by a sense of security, freedom and happiness.

A key element in the discussion during the second day was about the future relation between the basic income movement, which seems to be growing stronger each day, and the labour unions with their often quite critical or even negative view on basic income. Finn Sørensen, MP for the Red-Green Alliance and spokesperson for labour market affairs, took part in this discussion and was to be counted among the critics of a basic income society as, in his view, it would weaken the position of the labour unions relative to the employers.

During lunch, I asked Guy Standing whether the basic income movement and the labour organizations are likely to approach each other sometime in the future.

I am in favour of strong labour unions, but the labour movement must realize that we have witnessed dramatic changes in society, and we are now facing other conditions and challenges than in the 1970s and 80s. The labour unions are deeply concerned about the fact that they are losing members, but they are themselves partly responsible for the situation.

I also talked to Göran Hansson, active in the Malmö Basic Income Group, about the doubts that the labour unions have about basic income as a future model.

Many labour unions are critical towards basic income because they are afraid that they will have less power and influence. While this is true, it is also a fact that basic income would enjoy greater support from the population if the labour unions were to change their views on this issue.

Annika Lillemets

Annika Lillemets

Annika Lillemets, is a Member of Parliament for the Green Party, but also a member of BIEN. She talked about how political parties in the Swedish Parliament, no matter their political orientation, in recent years have been almost obsessed with wage labour because they want to position themselves in relation to the increasing unemployment.

She thinks it is an indication of fear and to break this fixation we should question the very nature of work, what counts as work and what not. Annika Lillemets also criticized the Swedish culture of consensus.

Thomas P. Boje, Professor of Social Sciences at Roskilde University, pointed out that basic income reforms might have a positive effect on the democratic participation in society and contribute to the strengthening of democracy in the Nordic countries.

Safety and security encourage participation in society and a sense of wanting to contribute. Today, insecurity in jobs and economic inequality breed suspicion towards the democratic institutions and society as a whole.

Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, has been attached to BIEN for a long time and is the author or editor of several books and articles on the subject of basic income.

He talked about how the basic income movement is growing fast in the USA, and I asked him why this is happening just now.

One reason is that both civil rights movements, political parties and businesses are beginning to realize the advantages of a basic income reform. Also, the fact that the subject is not linked to any particular political party or system helps spread the idea.

Photo: Michael Husen, BIEN Danmark (more…)

Will basic income cause inflation?

Will basic income cause inflation?

I recently led a roundtable discussion on basic income at National Chengchi University (NCCU), which was attended by students from various countries. The participants vigorously debated whether a basic income would result in inflation, with some parties worrying that the greater spending power will push up the demand for goods and, in turn, prices. The increased prices could possibly erode much of the spending power from a basic income.

To confirm whether these worries were justified, I reached out to three experts on basic income (BI), co-editors of the Ethics and Economics of a Basic Income Guarantee, to see what the research says about basic income and inflation.

It turns out: it depends.

Overall, the scholars agreed that there could be some areas where prices are pushed up, but that it would depend on how the BI is implemented.

Knowledge about the topic is limited since none of the BI research has looked at inflation, nor have the experiments been long enough to get a true idea of the BI’s effect on prices.

Dr. Steven Pressmen, former professor of Economics and Finance at Monmouth University, said this means economists “therefore must fall back on theory to answer the question about the inflationary consequences of a BIG (basic income guarantee).”

Dr. Michael Lewis, associate professor at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, added that “multiple variables affect inflation”: if government spending is reduced in some area after a basic income is introduced, there would be a simultaneous push-and-pull effect on inflation.

Pressman also said that the outcome of a basic income on inflation will be based on “the overall condition of the economy and how a BIG is financed.”

According to Pressman, there are several potential scenarios that could play out.

If the economy is near full employment, then a BI would likely “push up prices rather than employment.” Also, since much of the gains in income from a BI would go to people in poverty and “people with low income tend to spend any extra income that they get,” then total spending will increase along with inflation.

On the supply side, Pressman said there are two important factors: taxation and labor.

If a basic income is financed by sales tax or value added tax (VAT), then this will increase prices and inflation. Second, if BI gives employees more leverage to increase wages, firms may “try to pass along these costs to consumers in the form of higher prices,” Pressman said.

On the other hand, Pressman said that financing a BI is paid for by reducing other government spending means “there should be little or no inflationary impact of a BIG.”

Dr. Karl Widerquist, co-chair of BIEN and associate professor at Georgetown University SFS-Qatar, said that Denmark’s economy demonstrates that spending on welfare such as basic income should not lead to inflation “taking away all those workers’ gains.”

“There is nothing special about Basic Income spending. It is not any more likely to cause inflation than any other spending,” Widerquist said. “It is not any more difficult to use taxes and borrowing to counteract inflationary pressure caused by Basic Income spending than it is to counteract inflationary pressure caused by military spending or any other kind of spending.”

Regardless, some inflation may not be such a bad thing for the economy, according to Pressman. He pointed to the Japanese deflationary spiral in the 1990s as to why some inflation may help an economy.

For policymakers considering a basic income, it may be useful to think about adjusting the BI benefit depending on economic conditions.

“It also may (make) sense to think about a variable BIG — one that increases as unemployment rises and falls as the economy gets closer and closer to full employment. This too will reduce the inflationary impact of any BIG program,” Pressman said.

Although more research needs to be done, it appears a basic income is unlikely to contribute to inflation in a substantial way because there are so many factors that influence prices.

“Policy matters, and sensible fiscal and monetary policies can ensure that more egalitarian social policies are consistent with low inflation,” Widerquist said.

Canada: What is basic income?

Canada: What is basic income?

The article is meant to challenge Canadians and others to consider what precisely a basic income is and what goals it can accomplish. For BIEN’s official definition of basic income, click here.

By: Reza Hajivandi

Both as a concept and policy, basic income (BI) has been around for some time, losing and re-gaining traction at different points in history. However, the vague manner in which the term is sometimes used, and the lack of effort in providing any clear demarcations, has led to its obscurity.

To give the term clarity, first the question must be asked: What is basic income? Asking the question is not intended to provide a concrete and singular definition, nor is it a good idea to do so. The purpose is clarity, which could be achieved by first, asking the question; What is basic income? And second, journeying through the process of finding answers. The journey therefore takes priority here, by helping to provide clarity.

How can we approach the question in a way that provides answers and clarity? One possibility could be researching academic articles or the worldwide web to see how basic income is defined. However, as aforementioned, if the purpose is clarity, then skipping past the ‘journey process’ and jumping straight to the finish line will not be helpful. A more in-depth approach involves asking the ‘why’ question: Why Basic Income in the first place? By asking this question we will be forcing ourselves to embark on a journey of discovery, through which we may encounter difficult questions and decisions.

Why basic income?

Immediately we can respond by suggesting that the goal is to advocate for a policy that will effectively tackle obstacles such as precarity and poverty, which are preventing people from living with freedom and dignity. Such a response, however, immediately yields a new question: Do we not already have existing social security policies with the same purpose? And don’t some of those policies already possess elements that closely resemble the idea of basic income?

First, we have a social assistance program that is offered by each province. This is known as Ontario Works (OW) in Ontario, and British Columbia Employment and Assistance (BCEA) in British Columbia. Yet these services are quite distinct from basic income in that they are neither universal nor guaranteed, but targeted, means-tested, and subject to heavy claw backs and other conditions. The rates that are provided are also insufficient in the face of rising and already staggering living costs (rent, food, and other basic needs). It is for all these reasons that social assistance tends to perpetuate existing poverty, rather than helping people escape it. In addition, targeted assistance programs are known to be shouldered by government taxes that primarily target the middle class. This squeezes both the government and a shrinking middle class for scant funding. It also leads to class divisions by creating the popular perception that the lazy poor/refugee/immigrant etc on welfare are responsible for societal and economic problems, while wealthier segments stay off the tax and social radar and continue with their unfair and extensive accumulation of wealth.

Coming closer to the idea of basic income are other existing social security measures such as Old Age Security (OAS) and Canada Child Benefit (CCB). OAS is guaranteed to recipients aged 65 years or older almost regardless of income and other conditions. This might move us a little closer to what we want: A basic income that is the opposite of existing income security programs like OW and BCEA and more like guaranteed income ones like OAS.

This is perhaps where basic income takes its own character. It has to be universal, because if it isn’t, then it’s going to closely resemble what we already have in place, and prone to falling victim to the same problems that have historically plagued the social security system. Therefore, unless we are after a simple re-branding or name change, basic income has to be radically different from (and perhaps the opposite) of existing social assistance. Even the term ‘basic income’ seems to orient itself towards something that’s universal and guaranteed, because that’s what income is, anyway – a form of earning that is guaranteed. And if something is universal it needs to be guaranteed and come with almost no conditions, otherwise it cannot really be called universal. Not to play with semantics, a responsible BI program must therefore be universal, and tax the rich in ways that sufficiently redistribute the wealth in society [1]. By doing so it will be able to effectively reduce poverty, and strengthen class solidarity and people’s position against austerity and neoliberalism.

Now that we have a clearer idea of what BI could be, we have to be mindful of a piece of the puzzle that is not quite making sense: the government, and in our case, the current provincial and federal governments. We have to ask ourselves why the government is suddenly so interested in providing people with a new form of welfare? Let’s be honest, governments are almost never excited about spending on social security and welfare services. Instead, it tends to be the case that persistent and consistent mobilization from grassroots are necessary to secure even minor social gains. Yet absent is precisely this strong push from below, while instead the government seems to have filled the vacuum by acting as both the ‘activist’ and ‘saint’[2]. This is indeed a strange development. But what’s even odder is its occurrence in an era of neoliberalism and austerity, where the pressure is to cut services and spend less, not more. The goal here is not to undermine the groups that have been courageously fighting the government to pass a good BI policy [3]. But there is no doubt that the government has played a significant leadership role in advocating for BI as well.

Perhaps then it is useful to ask what ‘BI’ means to the government. In some sense, BI can provide the government a convenient way to increase the efficiency of social security by streamlining all or most of its existing services into one. This could save the government money through reducing the resources required to administer social security programs, and even more by keeping assistance at its current (insufficient) rates. Another way a BI program could save the government dollars – one that has community groups and organizations worried – is the implementation of BI with the aim of gradually reducing funding for existing welfare services such as health, housing, and community development. Therefore, BI can be an opportunity for the government to cut back and save resources, and this makes sense in an age of austerity and accumulation by dispossession. But it is likely that if subsidized services such as housing and food banks are scrapped and replaced with BI, social security recipients are going to be worse off than they were before, or, at best, live under the same conditions as today. It is also the case that a uniform rate under a streamlined system could actually serve to increase inequality and poverty by providing the poorer recipients with a lower rate than before [4].

In this conjecture then, BI seems to be a valuable opportunity for two parties (people and government) with nearly distinct and opposing goals. Many see the grossly insufficient social assistance rates and rapidly rising living expenses as their critical juncture to push for a BI. On the other hand, the government sees this critical juncture in other terms: one in which it can continue to make good with neoliberalism by cutting, streamlining, and creating more ‘efficient’ services. To the rest of the population the government may present this as evidence that it’s listening, ‘seeing’, and coming up with the appropriate solutions, even though it is more likely that the solution is for the benefit of the government, than for those who need it most [5]. Perhaps a question that needs to be asked is who is more likely to prevail and close this critical juncture in their own terms? The push from below is certainly strengthening, but to ensure an effective universal BI, more organizing and capacity building may be necessary. The goal then should not be to abandon BI, but to realize the risks involved and work together to build and strengthen the movement.

[1] This can be done through progressive forms of taxation, and with taxes that do not affect low-income and the poor, such as varieties of luxury and large-estate taxes.
[2] Senator Art Eggleton is starting a tour to promote Basic Income across Ontario. Also see:

[3] The Kingston BI Group in Hamilton, and others.
[4] See Commentary: Universal Basic Income May Sound Attractive But, If It Occurred, Would Likelier Increase Poverty Than Reduce It by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

[5] This is not to pit ‘government’ and ‘people’ as two antithetical forces; such a characterization would be both simplistic and inaccurate. Instead, the current conjecture and active promotion of BI from ‘above’ and weak push from ‘below’ serve to indicate that the government has a different purpose in promoting a BI model of social security, one that is at odds with the model imagined by BI advocates.


The Greater Happiness for the More Workers: Basic Income vs Job Guarantee Pt 2

The Greater Happiness for the More Workers: Basic Income vs Job Guarantee Pt 2

Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby, the authors of Only Humans Need Apply, favor a job guarantee (JG) over a universal basic income (UBI). In a previous post, I critiqued their use of the claim that people who lack jobs tend to be less happy than those who have them (irrespective of income). Of course, we all aim to have successful careers which is often what drives employees in the financial sector to push on and start a firm of their own. Without a doubt, starting my own accounting firm wasn’t easy but I have zero regrets.

In this follow-up post, I take a different tack, and argue that we have reason to support UBI over a JG even if we grant that most people would be happier when employed than when not.

Two points will be key: a UBI does not prevent individuals from working; a UBI, but not a JG, would benefit the minority of individuals who do fare better outside of traditional employment.


1. A Basic Response

In their recently published book Only Humans Need Apply, Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby briefly dismiss a universal basic income (UBI) in favor of a job guarantee (JG).

I laid out their main argument in a previous post on Basic Income News. To recall: Davenport and Kirby’s primary claim is that a JG provides benefits to individuals that exceed those provided by a UBI–specifically, jobs. Central to their argument is the assumption that jobs “bring many benefits to people’s lives beyond the paycheck, among them the social community they provide through having coworkers, the satisfaction of setting and meeting challenging goals, even the predictable structure and rhythm they bring to the week” (p. 7).

In my previous post, I focused on their use of one particular type of data: studies that suggest that unemployed people tend to be less happy than employed people, even after controlling for monetary factors. I will now pursue a slightly different tack. Here I will argue that, even if it is true that jobs improve the happiness of most people, this does not necessarily favor a JG over UBI. (For the purpose of the argument, I will also assume–as do Davenport and Kirby–that sufficient jobs can continue to be created to support full employment, notwithstanding advances in automation.)

These are the crucial observations:

  1. A UBI does not compel individuals who already have jobs to leave them (obviously); thus, it would not hurt those people who already have jobs and value them. Similarly, a UBI does not prevent those without jobs from taking jobs (while also permitting them more time and flexibility to find, or retrain for, a job that is a good fit to their skills and interests).
  1. Even if most individuals are disposed to be happiest when employed in a stable, full-time job, there are some individuals who aren’t. Some individuals are disposed to be happiest–as well as most productive–when not traditionally employed. A UBI, but not JG, would allow those in this minority to flourish.

Combined, I believe that these two points provide strong reason to prefer UBI over JG. When we consider individuals who are happily employed, the choice appears to be a draw. Perhaps a JG could provide more security in a cherished job, but a UBI would not necessarily hamper it. Meanwhile, a UBI–but not JG–would immensely help those individuals who would better thrive outside of traditional jobs. (There is one important caveat here, which I will return in Part 3 of this article: a JG is likely to provide the greater benefit to some individuals who would prefer to be employed but are out-of-work.)

If the majority of individuals are happiest in jobs, as Davenport and Kirby assume, then a JG presumably would be for the good of the majority. A UBI, however, would be for the good of the majority and then some. A UBI would not cause anyone to be unemployed. However, a large enough UBI would enable individuals to abstain from employment temporarily or permanently–should they choose to do so. A UBI would support the majority and, unlike a JG, also the minority of individuals who are not happiest in jobs (as well as those who are happiest in jobs but need the flexibility to transition into a better job, as I’ll mention briefly in §3).


2. Liberation from Jobs

Most regular readers of Basic Income News have, no doubt, encountered the argument that basic income necessary to liberate individuals from overtaxing jobs, oppressive jobs, or meaningless “bullshit” jobs. Many, perhaps, were drawn to investigate basic income (as I was) precisely because it opens this possibility. Nonetheless, it’s worth rehearsing some points.

It is not hard to demonstrate that some individuals do not gain meaning, happiness, and self-worth from jobs. And, for the purposes of the above argument, this weak claim is all that is necessary (there’s certainly no need to argue that most individuals are so disposed). Some individuals would be much better able to gain meaning, happiness, and self-worth outside of a job–and, in the process, contribute more to society than they otherwise could.

In my last post, for example, I mentioned entrepreneur Robin Chase’s informal studies of individuals’ “passion jobs”. Recall, for example, the couch-surfing, open-source programmer–an individual who is presumably not interested in monetizing his work, who is motivated just to engage in challenging projects and disseminate his work as widely as possible. (For bigger examples on similar lines, we might look to the communities of creators of Linux and Wikipedia.) Even if he could monetize his work as a programmer, this would only take time away from–and perhaps constrict–the socially valuable work that he is currently performing for no financial reward. But, of course, one must have capital (possibly in the form of friends with couches) in order to devote significant amounts of time to open-source programming or other unpaid work. Many would-be creators and innovators lack such capital, and thus remain trapped in jobs that might well be less valuable–to both themselves and society–than the unpaid work they could (and would) otherwise perform.

Brian Eno CC BY 2.0 Garry Knight

Brian Eno CC BY 2.0 Garry Knight

Musician Brian Eno supports basic income for quite similar reasons–that it would enable individuals to avoid jobs in order to engage in more creative work–as evident, for example, in remarks made at meet-up in London last December:

I often get asked to come and talk at art schools, and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.’ … My first message to people is: try not to get to a job. That doesn’t mean try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position where you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximal advantage of whatever your possibilities are. The obstacle is that most people aren’t in a position to do that. I want to do anything to work to a future where everybody’s in a position to do that. … [T]he concept [of basic income] is the closest thing I’ve heard to achieving the kind of future that I would like to live in.

Similarly, anthropologist David Graeber, known in part for his trenchant look at the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”, supports basic income as a means to unleash the innovative potential of people who might otherwise wasting their talents in unfulfilling jobs.

David Graeber (left) CC BY 2.0 Guido van Nispen

David Graeber (left) CC BY 2.0 Guido van Nispen

This has all seemed perfectly obvious to me: I’m among those who find traditional jobs confining and stifling, and who has no particular interest in monetizing and advertising the work that I do outside of traditional employment–including, of course, my writing and other work for BIEN and Basic Income News. If only could afford it, I would indeed prefer not to have to seek personal monetary gain from my work. And this preference is not limited to my work for the basic income movement. For instance, one of alternative plans has been to do more work as a “curriculum development consultant” for graduate teaching associates and adjunct faculty in my discipline. This would be interesting, challenging, and rewarding for me–as well as a valuable service for others. But, being familiar with the financial plight of most graduate TAs and adjuncts, I am rather appalled by the thought of charging money for any such services.

Chakay Artisan Roasts

Chakay Artisan Roasts: one product of an unpaid passion job

Prior to my recent personal experiences, my late mother stood out for me as someone who quite clearly found her meaning and purpose outside of paid employment. After spending years feeling stuck low-paying, dead-end service job, she only discovered her “passion job” after she was fired: developing and manufacturing a vegan meat-substitute. Indeed, although the product has begun to be sold in restaurants in the year prior to her death, my mother and her partner didn’t view their invention as a (meatless) cash cow: their vision was that it would eventually provide a low-cost and sustainable way to end worldwide protein malnutrition.

Meanwhile, some people find traditional jobs constricting simply due to the norms and expectations of job culture. A recent blog post on Medium, which focused on neurodiversity, makes this point well:

Most people are unhappy with their jobs, and workplace stress is the biggest cause of workdays lost to ill health. There are many reasons for this, and some of them are directly linked to the reasons so many autistic people struggle to find or hold onto jobs. Noisy environments, interruptions, long work hours and lack of autonomy are stressful for everyone, but often downright intolerable for autistic people. Expectations of conformity hit neurodivergent people especially hard, but they can be stifling or even ruinous for people from other cultures, too, not to mention anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender roles assigned them by society. [Embedded links in original]

Neurodivergent individuals, and others who do not fit neatly in the mold of society, can be stifled and inhibited by traditional work environments. Such individuals are better able to flourish personally–and, in turn, become more valuable contributors to society–if they are able to working outside of traditional jobs, or perhaps take the time to a job that is a better match.

Examples like the above easily could be multiplied, but these will suffice to make the point.

Now, then, what do Davenport and Kirby have to say about such individuals? The answer is not much. They do mention explicitly that proponents of UBI often claim that “the impulse to create value is innate in humans, and if anything is channeled into less socially valuable activities when the point must be to gain payment for one’s work” (p. 242). However, their only reply is quite hastily and uncritically dismissive:

Unfortunately, the data don’t bear that out. As Derek Thompson notes in his provocative Atlantic article “A World Without Work,” time studies suggest that people who don’t work tend to sleep more, watch more TV, and browse the Internet. So much for taking up painting.

There’s no need to say much more in reply to this hasty assertion. Certainly, it is not difficult to compile anecdotes of specific individuals who would (or do) thrive outside of paid work. And, for the purpose of the present argument, there is no need to demonstrate that all or even most individuals would engage in socially valuable activities outside of paid work. Plausibly, even with a UBI, most individuals would choose to remain in paid employment. To make the case for the advantage of a UBI to a JG, we need only to show that some individuals (and, in turn, society) would benefit tremendously if liberated from the need for work for money–as we’ve done.

It is worth pointing out, though, that the Thompson’s Atlantic article goes much farther than Davenport and Kirby’s comments would suggest–and it goes much farther, specifically, in exploring and describing a multitude of creative recreational activities performed by individuals outside of paid work. Indeed, Thompson states that one of his objectives in the article is to envision “how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages”. He accepts that it’s possible for people to “meaningful work without wages”. Moreover, he investigates what such meaningful work might be–visiting locations such as the Columbus Idea Foundry, a large “makerspace” (right next door to my own neighborhood, as it happens).

CC BY-NC 2.0 Stephen Wolfe

CC BY-NC 2.0 Stephen Wolfe

It’s worth reading more of Thompson’s own words:

The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests-to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.

After touring the [Columbus Idea Foundry], I sat at a long table with several members. … I asked them what they thought of their organization as a model for a future where automation reached further into the formal economy. A mixed-media artist named Kate Morgan said that most people she knew at the foundry would quit their jobs and use the foundry to start their own business if they could. Others spoke about the fundamental need to witness the outcome of one’s work, which was satisfied more deeply by craftsmanship than by other jobs they’d held.

Late in the conversation, we were joined by Terry Griner, an engineer who had built miniature steam engines in his garage before Bandar invited him to join the foundry. … “I’ve been working since I was 16. I’ve done food service, restaurant work, hospital work, and computer programming. I’ve done a lot of different jobs,” said Griner. … “But if we had a society that said, ‘We’ll cover your essentials, you can work in the shop,’ I think that would be utopia. That, to me, would be the best of all possible worlds.”

To echo Davenport and Kirby: So much for just sleeping, watching TV, and surfing the web.


3. UBI for Workers

I believe that the proponent of UBI can hardly underemphasize the need to liberate individuals from stifling, unengaging, and unnecessary jobs. At the same time, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the choice between JG and UBI is not a choice between “jobs and fewer jobs”. A UBI per se does not entail that individuals will stop working: it merely enables this possibility. A UBI does not harm those who are already happy in their jobs. Indeed, far from discouraging paid employment, UBI carries the advantage of avoiding the “welfare trap”: individuals do not lose the benefit when they assume a job or wage increase. (Indeed, this is a major reason that countries like Finland are seriously exploring the implementation of UBI.)

And we could add that there might be advantages of a UBI over a JG even when limiting our attention to those who do prefer to work in traditional jobs. A UBI would benefit anyone who feels trapped in a job that is a poor match for their personality, interests, and capabilities–even those would prefer to remain in full-time employment (but simply not in their current ill-fit jobs). With a guaranteed unconditional income, one could take away from full-time employment in order to retrain, further their education, start a private business, or pursue other such opportunities. A basic income provides a financial floor to enable individuals to switch jobs and careers–and even to execute the retraining that Davenport and Kirby recommend to cope with the age of automation!

A job guarantee provides jobs. A basic income, however, provides individuals with the financial security necessary to temporarily abstain from employment while retraining or searching for a job that is a good match to their interests and capabilities.


4. A Critical Caveat

There is, though, one caveat–which I’ll take up in my third and final installment. We must concede that there is something that UBI doesn’t guarantee that JG does: jobs.

Under a UBI, without a JG, there is no guarantee that sufficient jobs will even exist for all individuals–and even if there are sufficient jobs, a UBI alone does not enable individuals to access those jobs. A UBI does not provide social networks, cultural or linguistic capital, resumé-writing or interviewing skills, or self-marketing abilities. A UBI does not overturn implicit biases in hiring. A UBI does not guarantee that jobs are located where job-seekers live, or that job-seekers have the training and credentials needed to obtain a job. And so on.

A UBI program is likely to treat individuals as self-reliant–left to their own devices to find a job (or not)–in contrast to a JG program, which would bring along services to ensure that individuals are provided with jobs. Quite likely, one fear of Davenport and Kirby is that a UBI, but not JG, would result in many individuals who desire jobs but have difficulty in finding or obtaining them. While UBI might not prohibit individuals from taking up employment, it also does nothing to guarantee jobs to those who want them.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 New York City Department of Transportation

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 New York City Department of Transportation

Perhaps, then, there is one category of individuals who stands to benefit more from a JG than from a UBI: those who are not employed, and who are looking for entry into a traditional job.

My hope, as broached in my last feature, is that UBI would usher in the attenuation of the job-culture. But it would not be immediate. At present, many (perhaps most) people have internalized the job-ethic. At present, unemployment does bear a stigma. And many people lack the training, motivation, or desire to start a small business or become independent artists, craftspersons, researchers, or software developers. Plausibly, there are many unemployed individuals who just want a job to provide their lives with purpose, dignity, structure, and a sense of social contribution. And we must not simply assume, without evidence, that such individuals would not be satisfied with the sort of “make-work” position created by a JG (which, after all, could be a truly important one, such as repairing our failing infrastructure).

It’s important that UBI advocates do not overlook this category of individuals: those who would prefer guaranteed employment (even in a government-created job) to guaranteed income.

But how many such individuals actually exist? And how would they fare under under a UBI? Is the solution a UBI plus a JG or other policy? Are other compromise positions available?

These are important concerns, which I plan to address in future work.


Davenport and Kirby: Full Bibliographical Entries

Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby (2016) Only Humans Need Apply: Winners & Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, HarperCollins Publishers.

Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby (May 26, 2016) “What Governments Can Do When Robots Take Our Jobs“, Fortune Magazine (and reprinted in Yahoo Finance).

Reviewed by Tyler Prochazka

Featured Image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 San Francisco Public Library

Thanks to Kate’s supporters on Patreon