Donald Trump and the Prospects for a Basic Income
By Steven Shafarman
The Republican Party convention is over, and I’m feeling hopeful. Trump’s triumph may be a big step forward in our campaign to enact a basic income in the United States.
With Trump’s speech, and the convention’s overall tone, the party has completed its transition and come out of the closet. It’s now the Repugnant Party.
Our best hope is a landslide defeat, leaving Trump and the Repugnant Party in the dust. That will also leave Republicans with the task of rebuilding, seeking to reunite their Pro-Trump, Never-Trump, and Stuck-with-Trump factions. They’ll need a platform that’s positive, uplifting, and optimistic, something like a new version of Reagan’s “morning in America” — and they’ll have that, if the reborn Republican Party endorses a version of basic income.
Republicans might call it a “negative income tax,” quoting Milton Friedman, who strongly endorsed it in several books and many articles. Perhaps they’ll favor “Citizen Dividends,” to underscore the fact that the basic income is for citizens only, not immigrants. During their convention, they loudly denounced Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party as the establishment status quo, and the cause of everything that’s wrong in America today. Republicans can reinforce those arguments by touting basic income as a way to cut taxes, end corporate welfare, and achieve many of their other goals and values.
Democrats will be pressing hard to bring rapid progress, and President Hillary Clinton will be eager to prove that she is much more than a third term for Barack Obama. She can do that by talking about basic income, even if she only floats it as an idea, stopping short of full-on support. They might like UBI, universal or unconditional basic income, using the “U” to emphasize liberal values. If Clinton doesn’t act, Bernie Sanders and his supporters may became our champions, running with this issue and taking over the Democratic Party.
We Americans will have a basic income within the next ten years, I predict, possibly within two to three years.
Steven Shafarman is a co-founder of Basic Income Action, a life member of BIEN, and on the coordinating committee of USBIG. His forthcoming book is The Basic Income Imperative: for peace, justice, liberty, and personal dignity. (If you are or know a literary agent or publisher, please contact him through www.basicincomeaction.org.)
Donald Trump photo credit: Gage Skidmore (2013)
It was a remarkable moment in 1969 when President Nixon offered universal basic income (UBI) legislation that was passed twice by the US House of Representatives, but failed to garner enough votes in a Democratic controlled Senate on both occasions. It was defeated despite the intellectual clout of 1200 bi-partisan economists, including Milton Friedman who designed the “guaranteed income” bill, and John Kenneth Galbraith who publicly supported the bill. The irony: a public welfare program proposed by Republicans was stalled by Democrats, who viewed the suggested $1,600 ($10,000 in today’s dollars) per year for each recipient as insufficient.  While Europe maintained a broad network of intellectuals, publications, and conferences promoting the idea, UBI policy has been largely absent from American political discourse ever since, other than among a committed following on Reddit, some forward thinking academics, and US affiliates of BIEN.
Andrew L. Stern
President Emeritus SEIU
Columbia University Richman Center
Ronald O. Perelman Senior Fellow
Over the past year, though, growing support from an array of thought leaders suggests a rising tide for UBI in the US. President Obama, in an interview with Bloomberg News this June, discussed the need to “build ourselves a runway” to ease the transition into an increasingly automated labor force.  Bernie Sanders has, on multiple occasions, expressed his support of UBI, stating in a 2015 interview that he is “absolutely sympathetic to that approach.”  Recently, UBI has received full-throated support from leading thinkers like Berkeley’s Robert Reich, Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, INET President Rob Johnson, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, former Zipcar CEO Robin Chase, Judith Shulevitz – writing in the New York Times, and Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton. This June past, my book Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream was released, and has helped to expand the discussion of UBI to progressives, unions, and mainstream media outlets like the FT, CNBC, NPR, Fortune, and the New York Times.
The interest in UBI is gaining prominence and commentary in mainstream think tanks across the political spectrum, which is an anomaly in our modern, divided political dynamic. From the progressive to libertarian poles, at places like Roosevelt Institute, INET, OSF, CATO, and AEI, basic income is gaining support as a solution to the economic crises of our present, and future. In the fall, the CATO Institute, whose Michael Tanner is a libertarian thought leader and key discussant in my book, is planning to host a forum in Washington, DC including Charles Murray and myself.
Global developments around UBI should also help to bolster UBI’s place in American political discourse. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has incorporated basic income into the Liberal Party’s platform,  and Canada is preparing a basic income experiment for residents of the Ontario province. Following the city of Utrecht’s decision, several other Dutch cities will test basic income policies in the coming years.  As these trials play out, hopefully with positive results or lessons that allow for improvement, the American public and their elected officials will have solid evidence upon which an American policy, perhaps city or state based experiments, can be built. Already, a small-scale basic income experiment will be carried out by Y-Combinator in Oakland, where unconditional income will be provided to roughly 100 Oakland residents for 6-12 months. 
In my book, I state that the American response to the tsunami of job upheaval will look more like the response to the Vietnam, rather than the Iraq War. In the Vietnam era a draft placed the children of middle-class families at risk, as they are again, as present and future technologically motivated job loss does not spare college graduates or white-collar occupations.
During the Vietnam era, the selective service draft mobilized parents from every walk of life to be vocal anti-war activists. Once their own children could be drafted to fight and die, many parents began questioning whether President Johnson had any justification for sending troops there. The draft also mobilized young people: Vietnam did not fit into their college and career plans, nor did the idea of killing people or getting killed in a far-off land.
Job loss has for too long been considered a condition of a more blue-collar, uneducated, and low-skill labor force. Not only is this prejudicial and inaccurate, but it is no longer supported by employment statistics. Unemployment and underemployment among recent college graduates is still significantly higher than pre-Recession levels, indicating that in the New Economy, white-collar jobs are susceptible to job erosion much as blue-collar jobs have been for the past several decades.  So while it was easy for legislators, prominent thinkers, and middle and upper class individuals to discuss job loss from the comfort of their personal professional security, as economists still do, they and their children are increasingly affected by the shifting labor paradigm. Job loss and erosion in the white-collar economy has the potential to mobilize a far more diverse and broad political movement to search for solutions to the economic and employment challenges of the future.
While there is a myriad of ideas on how to combat the restructuring of our emerging socio-economic paradigm, none have as of yet enjoyed the broad political support that UBI does. None provide such a simple means of addressing very complex problems: ending poverty; offering stability during any economic transition; or providing for universal assistance as technology creates a tsunami of labor market disruption. In the United States a new conversation has started on UBI, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the momentum does not wane. The time is now, and the solution is simple: make Universal Basic Income an American reality.
Author: Frances Hutchinson
The simple question, alluded to in the title of this article, is: ‘How do we end the wages system?’ That raises further questions – ‘Why end the wage system? What is wrong with it?’ or the fundamental question: ‘What is the wages system?’ It is my contention that all social and environmental reforms which ignore the role of money in directing human activity are doomed at best to be palliative, addressing individual causes for concern whilst ignoring the root causes from which the individual problems stem. As Marx and Veblen were well aware, the wages system lies at the heart of social injustice and ecological unsustainability. So long as absentee owners direct the work of waged or salaried employees (whether in private or state corporations), the motivation for reform will be constantly frustrated. Where money is the master motivation, all other values fade into subsidiary considerations. The major debates currently raging about war, famine, agribusiness, debt, environmental/ecological degradation, GM, world trade and poverty all stem from one central cause. People are held into doing what they are doing because they seek to profit financially from their cooperation with others. Whether the ‘profit’ is from speculative sale or sale of labour time becomes immaterial. Both are beholden to the same phenomenon: money is the first consideration in determining a course of action. The money economy is dividing people not only from their work and its product, but also from the land that ultimately sustains all forms of human society. If one cannot live on bread alone, one certainly cannot live on money at all. It is absolutely essential that material goods and services exist, and that the resources necessary for the production of those resources are cultivated and conserved. The money economy has come to obscure the practicalities of everyday life.
The money economy
With industrialisation, we were liberated economically from traditional social ties, only to become enslaved by a money system operating beyond everyday comprehension. Rights and responsibilities associated with respect for the ‘commons’ and social justice are swept aside in favour of economic pressures. Money is enthroned in place of identifiable individuals whose ability to hold sway over others could be monitored by a system of checks and balances which, however imperfect, nevertheless made the oppressor ultimately accountable. The present system of income distribution has come to seem as natural – even if as unpredictable – as the weather. Incomes are the reward for participating in the formal economy, regardless of whether the work is constructive or destructive of welfare.
As we have observed (Hutchinson et al., 2002, pp.42- 43), oikonomia, the material economy where tangible and useful wealth is created, is now dominated by chrematistics, the money economy that is parasitical upon oikonomia. The ‘real’ economy is the one that ‘earth has given and human hands have made’. The money economy takes from the God-given earth, and from human society, destroying and not replenishing. In short, we have an insane system of economics that counts waste, devastation, pollution, war and social devastation as ‘wealth’.
Take just a few examples. A car accident or environmental disaster adds to GNP (the over-all measure of total national wealth) because of the increase in economic activity – fire services, car replacement, ambulance, medical, insurance, and so on that it causes. Furthermore, in the formal economy, food is manufactured, not by God, but by the ‘food industry’: in 1971 a food industry study found that total food expenditure in 1971 need only have been £1,800 million to provide a varied and healthy menu. It was actually £6,636 million – i.e. the food industry added four and a half thousand million pounds – in processing, preserving, packaging, and so on, with all the attendant waste and pollution. In chrematistic terms, we were all ‘better off’. Today, international rulings force small farmers in poor countries to abandon sustainable and reliable practices for mono-cultural cash crops for export. Across the world, ‘financial services’ and dealings far outweigh trade in actual goods and services, which form a mere 5 per cent of the total. The money economy continues to sweep across the world, devouring land and cheap labour sources, leaving social and ecological devastation in its wake. In Hong Kong firms no longer manufacture goods: they merely trade in goods produced in the cheap labour factories, spreading across China. Already, a decade ago, 85 per cent of China’s rivers were dead. The key players: corporations, academics, and politicians – are mesmerised by the money system. In purely chrematistic terms, we are all ‘better off’ if we work for money, regardless of the social and ecological impacts of that work.
Citizen’s Income and the National Dividend
Citizen’s Income seeks to alleviate poverty, particularly family poverty, under capitalism. Arguments for it flow from the observed shortcomings of the welfare system instituted by Beveridge in the aftermath of World War II. The arguments are often accepting of the terms and premises of the capitalist financial system, and sometimes – but not always – assume that full employment and a growing economy are needed to provide the means to pay for Citizen’s Incomes.
The Social Credit movement emerged from a very different stable. Just over one hundred years ago, Europe was plunged into a senseless war. In a brief moment of sanity, young soldiers on the front lines joined hands in singing Christmas carols. People then and since have asked why war is necessary. The Social Credit movement became a worldwide political force working to end war, environmental degradation and economic growth based upon war and built-in obsolescence. Its message was plain and clear. There is enough for everyone’s need, though not for everyone’s greed.
Clifford Hugh Douglas, author of the original Social Credit texts (See Hutchinson and Burkitt, 1997) considered the expenditure of human life and resources in the Great War something to be learned from, rather than something to be repeated for the sake of creating a strong, financially sound, economy. Social Credit was part of a much wider social movement in the so-called ‘inter-war years’ of the twentieth century. Progressive thinkers from all classes and all walks of life questioned the wisdom of basing the formal, finance-driven economy on production for war, waste and consumerism.
Douglas brought his shrewd, common-sense, analytical mind to bear upon the practicalities of the workings of the money economy. As the 1914-18 War raged across the world, factories were working at full capacity. Vast quantities of armaments, uniforms, tanks, machinery, ships and other forms of transport were churned out on all sides. Farmers on the land prospered, supplying food to the armies of military and civilian workers. But the apparent prosperity was ephemeral because it was dependent upon the workings of an unsound financial system. As the war ended, Douglas was an obscure engineer accounting the finances at Farnborough aircraft factory. He predicted the inter-war depression and explained how it would happen and why. He detailed how the finance to run the war was conjured up by the Government as debt, when it could just as easily have been created as credit, in which case the prosperity would continue after the War.
In the immediate aftermath of the War (1918-20) Douglas wrote a series of articles on finance and income distribution. These were closely studied amongst trade unionists, politicians, economists (including Keynes), and a wide spectrum of intellectuals. A vast literature on Social Credit, including weekly newspapers, books, pamphlets, and journal articles, circulated throughout the UK, the Commonwealth, the US, Scandinavia, and Tokyo in multiple editions. Douglas’s predictions were correct, and his work has never been faulted. What is physically possible is always financially possible, because finance is a man-made system of accounting, and can be adjusted to meet the will of the people.
At the heart of Social Credit theorising is the justification for paying a National Dividend to all citizens regardless of work status on grounds of the common cultural inheritance. Douglas argued that labour – paid work – does not create wealth: ‘The simple fact is that production is 95 per cent a matter of tools and process, which tools and process form the cultural inheritance of the community as a whole’, being the result of work done over generations by an army of technologists, the vast majority of whom are now dead (Douglas, 1919, p. 95). Thus claims to a share of the common cultural inheritance, which rightly belongs to the community as a whole, can be justified not by work, and not by private ownership of land and property, but by common right of citizenship. Over a period of three decades Douglas argued consistently that finance is purely a matter of accounting: what is practical and desirable on social grounds is financially possible, because finance is a man-made system. The key to economic democracy is the political will to bring about legal change.
Women and Social Credit
Proposals for a non-means-tested National Dividend, payable by right of citizenship, were of particular interest to women. Although Social Credit was not specifically a women’s movement, women who studied the economics of the social credit movement in the interwar years campaigned on the basis of its potential for improving the socio-economic status of women. Their arguments are echoed in current studies of mothering and home-making:
Mothers in the United Kingdom today are in an impossible situation. Our very title has been erased from Government policy on families [Guidance for Government Departments October 2014] and general political discussion in a pernicious Orwellian language trend. Women who are mothers are expected to engage in the workforce in a liberalist and capitalist tradition of individual interest where market forces reign supreme – there is no room for love and care, let alone awareness of interdependency common to all our lives. There seems to be no place for maternal care. No place for improved, supported services investing in family life.
So writes Vanessa Olorenshaw in her groundbreaking pamphlet, The Politics of Mothering.
Women activists of the 1930s argued that Social Credit offers every woman and man a birth-right income based on the productive capacity of the community. It would:
… ensure economic independence and freedom, for it will release her from being tied to the home when she wishes to live her own life or bound to some man who ill-treats her. Nor would she be driven to work-wage slavery in competition with men in order to stay alive when she has caring responsibilities within the household. Women would get equal pay for equal work because ‘a Social Credit Government will naturally stand for fair play for all citizens without distinction’. Each individual woman will be able to say ‘If I do this job as well as a man could do it, I shall want the same pay as a man.’ And if the employer says, ‘No’, she will be able to say: ‘Very well, I refuse the job. After all, I can live on my National Dividend.’ This places every woman in a very powerful position. (It will apply equally, of course, to badly-paid male workers.) (Quoted in Hutchinson and Burkitt 1997)
Women were politically active in support of the proposals throughout the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States over the middle decades of the twentieth century.
From master to servant
Central to the Social Credit debate are the core issues of farming, finance, and the household. To date, mainstream economic theory has failed to accommodate itself to the realities of economic life. These include the futility and waste of war, which is officially accounted as a plus, and the need for income security so that good work may be undertaken in the home, in the community, in local businesses, and on the land. Today, concerned individuals and groups are bringing forward the identical issues as those surrounding the massive international debate based upon the writings of C.H. Douglas less than a century ago. Douglas asked the fundamental question – why should it be ‘absolutely necessary’ for the workers to produce weapons of mass destruction in order to put food onto the household table? His question remains as valid today as when he first posed it a hundred years ago.
Frances Hutchinson is the author of Understanding the Financial System: Social Credit Revisited (2010) and of The Economics of Love, forthcoming.
Douglas, Clifford Hugh (1919) Economic Democracy
Hutchinson, Frances (2005) If citizen’s income is the answer, what is the question?, European Business Review, Vol. 17, No.2. pp193-200. www.emeraldinsight.com/charter
Hutchinson, Frances and Brian Burkitt (1997) The Political Economy of Social Credit and Guild Socialism, Routledge (Jon Carpenter 2005 reprint).
Hutchinson, Frances, Mary Mellor and Wendy Olsen (2002) The Politics of Money: Towards Sustainability and Economic Democracy, Pluto Press.
Olorenshaw, Vanessa (2015) The Politics of Mothering, available from www.facebook.com/Politics of Mothering.
A recent article in The New York Times, entitled “Universal Basic Income is Poor Tool to Fight Poverty,” spawned a debate on the desirability of implementing a UBI in the United States. This Basic Income News feature analyzes the NYT column’s argument against UBI, and looks at the counterarguments posed in several response pieces.
On May 31st, the New York Times published an article that launched a debate about the cost and effectiveness of implementing a universal basic income in the United States.
The column’s author, Eduardo Porter, argues that “universal basic income is a poor tool to fight poverty” (to cite the article’s title). He makes two main arguments against UBI:
First, on his assessment, a UBI would be either insufficiently low to end poverty, or require too many cuts to existing programs, or it would be prohibitively expensive to administer:
It amounts to nearly all the tax revenue collected by the federal government. Nothing in the history of this country suggests Americans are ready to add that kind of burden to their current taxes.
Second, even if a UBI could be afforded, Porter believes that it would have “many undesirable features” due to its unconditionality. These include a “non-negligible disincentive to work” — work, in his view, “remains an important social, psychological and economic anchor” — and a lack of social control. (Porter brings up housing vouchers as an example of the latter: “Say we know the choice of neighborhood makes a difference to the development of poor children. Housing vouchers might lead them to move into a better one. A monthly check would probably not.”)
Additionally, Porter dismisses one popular argument in favor of basic income: he denies that technological unemployment is a pressing concern.
While Porter admits that poverty and precarity are problems in dire need of better solutions, he believes that there are better policy options than a universal basic income. In particular, he is fond of the idea of subsidized employment, suggesting that “The government could subsidize jobs as varied as school repairs and fixing potholes.”
Is a basic income too expensive?
Before the end of the day, responses to Porter’s argument appeared across the Internet, defending both the feasibility and desirability of a universal basic income.
Three notable replies include those of Vox columnist Matthew Yglesias, former BIEN secretary Almaz Zelleke, and popular basic income activist Scott Santens. All three of these authors respond to the cost objection, although they employ slightly different strategies in doing so.
While Zelleke remains focused on matters of principle, largely bypassing the attempt to numerically “prove” that a basic income would be affordable, Yglesias and Santens both crunch a few numbers. Yglesias calculates the cost of a basic income of $10,000 per adult (which is, admittedly, below the poverty line) and $6,000 per child. Santens considers an amount of $12,000 per adult (topped-up for seniors and people with disabilities) and $4,000 per child. They conclude that, although expensive, a UBI is not prohibitively costly.
Yglesias points out that the level of spending required, as a percentage of GDP, would not be out of line with the amount of government spending in social democracies like France and Sweden. Thus, while a UBI would “take federal spending to a level never before seen” in the United States, this level would not seem farfetched when compared to other developed nations.
But, of course, the question that worries critics of the UBI is not just “Could America afford a UBI?” but, more to the point, “Where would the money needed to fund a UBI come from?” On this point, all three of Porter’s opponents seem to agree, nodding to an answer that some Americans might not want to hear: funding a UBI will require some tax increases and redistribution.
Zelleke cuts to the chase here: the question of financing a UBI is not really a matter of affordability at all, but of political will:
It’s true that basic income is expensive, but calling it unaffordable short-circuits the discussion we should be having about the costs and benefits of a basic income. Raising taxes is never an easy sell, but might it be worth it if the additional revenues were spent on a program guaranteed to eliminate poverty?
And Santens puts matters even more bluntly, asserting that the money needed to fund a UBI “comes from the raises no one has gotten since productivity decoupled from wages and salaries back around 1973. Basic income belongs to us because it’s been effectively stolen from us for decades.” On Santens’ view, a UBI is not merely an affordable option to eliminate poverty; basic principles of fairness and justice make it mandatory.
At base, the disagreement between Porter and his opponents is not a dispute about the mathematics. It’s a question of value: it is more important abolish poverty, or to give individuals the shares of collectively-generated wealth that they deserve, or is it more important to avoid raising taxes and federal spending?
Interestingly, Porter himself seems to tacitly agree with opponents like Yglesias that, technically, the United States could afford a universal basic income. In an article published just a week later, he complains that paying for a sufficiently high basic income would require “raising taxes to Scandinavian levels.” Similarly, U.S. News and World Reports contributor Chad Stone — in an article echoing Porter’s — says of Yglesias: “he assumes that the goal of ending poverty would make conservatives and GOP politicians comfortable with raising federal spending to European levels…”
Even its adversaries, then, seem to admit that a UBI could be financed if the United States was willing to raise taxes to a level that already has a precedent in countries that rank among the happiest in the world. Where money alone is concerned, the United States can pay for a UBI.
As Santens puts it, “The money is there, it’s just massively maldistributed after decades of upward redistribution.”
A June 6th article in Quartz — written in part as a response to Porter’s New York Times piece — makes a similar point: the debate over the cost of basic income “isn’t really about welfare spending: It’s about tax policy.”
The remaining disagreement, I submit, is twofold:
- Is it fair to raise taxes on the highest earners in order to redistribute money to all?
- Even if it is, could this be a viable sell in American politics?
These are the debates that must be had. I believe that, where matters of justice and fairness are concerned, UBI proponents can easily mount the more compelling normative argument. Political feasibility, to be sure, might require a tough and prolonged fight — but the advantages of UBI are enough to warrant it.
(For more background on these normative arguments and practical advantages of UBI, I recommend further exploration of the BIEN website.)
Would a basic income harm society?
So, then, a universal basic income is affordable in the United States — as long as the country can summon the political will to implement it. But would it harm society?
Porter gives two reasons to think that it could: a UBI would disincentivize work, and it would deprive the state of valuable and productive control over how individuals spend money. While Yglesias and Zelleke do not focus on this portion of Porter’s article, Santens addresses both in some detail.
Porter’s first worry is a common objection to UBI: if people can get money for free, they might stop working (specifically, they might abandon or reduce time spent in paid employment ).
Note that, in general, there are two ways to respond to this objection:
- Don’t contest the implicit evaluative presupposition that it’s bad if people stop working (in paid jobs), but deny that this is likely to happen under a UBI.
- Don’t contest the prediction itself, but deny that it would be a bad thing if people spent less time in paid employment; that is, deny the evaluative presupposition that more paid work is better for individuals or society.
Of course, one could employ both tacks in tandem — which is, roughly, what Santens does in replying to Porter.
For the most part, Santens takes the first approach, countering Porter’s empirical claim that a UBI would disincentivize (paid) work. In doing so, he cites multiple studies of cash transfers and basic income pilots — notably drawing upon an article written last fall by none other than Eduardo Porter — that show that unconditional cash transfers have not, in fact, had this effect.
There is a danger, though, in relying too heavily on this first tack: it can tend to reinforce the assumption that, all else equal, more time spent in paid work is better than less. It reinforces the view that the issue is an empirical one (“Will people spend less time at jobs or not?”), when the bigger issue is a normative one (“Is it bad or good if people spend less time at jobs?”).
Ezra Klein’s contemporaneous piece in Vox, which was also inspired by Porter’s article, partially exemplifies this danger. Klein takes for granted that some people would leave the workforce if provided with a basic income — and that this would indeed be an unwanted result “in a world where a job with a steady paycheck is the only path to self-respect.”
In fact, he goes so far as to say,
If that’s the reality of the situation, then, yes, a UBI is a bad idea — it’s better to push people to work by supplementing incomes or using the government as an employer of last resort. Sure, that’s more paternalistic, and it means we’ll waste people’s time in unpleasant or useless jobs and consign others to unemployment.
Although Klein is willing to admit that a UBI could be a good idea if Americans change the way that they view work, he believes that Americans have not yet reached this point.
I submit, however, that it is precisely the job of the UBI advocate to challenge Americans to change the way that they view work — assuming that Klein is correct about the status quo.
This brings us to the second of line of response to Porter’s “a UBI would disincentivize work” objection — which, in fact, Santens also touches upon (although he does not develop it in his response to Porter to the extent that he has elsewhere):
[B]asic income is not at all an idea about paying people to do nothing, but instead about paying people to do anything. There is so much work being done right now that is not seen or recognized as work, but is. And there is so much work people want to be doing on their own volition that they are prevented from doing in a system that requires they spend their hours working for someone else just to survive.
Again, if Klein is right about how Americans view work, then Americans must change the way they view work. She might, though, simply be wrong about the current state of affairs in American culture: plausibly, Americans can see the value of unpaid work — or, in Santens’ words, “work that is not recognized as work” — even if it’s not always obvious that they can.
“Frustrated man at a desk” CC LaurMG
This leaves Porter’s contention that, as Santens puts it, a UBI “would not be paternalistic enough.” Santens’ response here is to argue that the lack of paternalism is for the best: allowing individuals more discretion over how they spend money, and with fewer restrictions and qualifications on who receives it, has been shown to produce the better outcomes.
He takes up Porter’s own example — housing vouchers — to create a compelling case study, combining anecdotal and statistical evidence in favor of the effectiveness of cash transfers and against that of means-tested programs. According to the research he cites, over three out of four people who qualify for housing assistance in the US don’t receive it. Meanwhile, studies of cash-transfer programs show that many beneficiaries do, in fact, use their cash to move into better houses or neighborhoods.
As Santens repeatedly complains, Porter’s attack on UBI rests on little in the way of empirical evidence. Now, perhaps Santens himself has cherry-picked studies in favor of his pro-UBI conclusion. Even if that were the case, however, he at least does provide some hard-and-fast data. Minimally, this shifts the burden of proof back to Porter to demonstrate — with evidence — why paternalistic welfare programs would provide a greater benefit to individuals and society.
Finally, in addition to arguing that direct cash transfers are more effective in producing certain results, one might directly object to the normative presuppositions of means-tested welfare programs — as Santens does here:
I’m fed up with people with positions “up on high” looking down at everyone else and telling them they know better who needs assistance and who doesn’t, and how that assistance should be provided and when that assistance should be taken away. I’m fed up with the idea that anyone must prove their right to live to anyone at all.
I will close with this passage. We do need to consider the evidence; sometimes, though, we need just to step back and ask “What does this policy imply about basic human dignity?”
 When critics like Porter complain that a basic income might cause people to “stop working”, they often conflate “working” with working for money — ignoring the many types of unpaid activities that add value to society (if not to the GDP), and that are even colloquially regarded as “work” (e.g., volunteer work, care-work, and housework).
Continuing to use the word ‘work’ in this narrow sense, they paint a false dichotomy between working for money and idleness. The important category of “unpaid work” is ignored — even though it might well that, given a basic income, many individuals would choose to engage in more unpaid work rather than either paid work or “idleness”.
In the interest of clarity, I’ve disambiguated ‘work’ as ‘paid employment’ in my treatment of the argument — but it should be noted that, quite misleadingly, Porter does not.
Eduardo Porter, “Universal Basic Income Is a Poor Tool to Fight Poverty,” The New York Times, May 31, 2016.
Scott Santens, “Universal Basic Income Is the Best Tool to Fight Poverty,” The Huffington Post, June 2, 2016.
Matthew Yglesias, “A universal basic income could absolutely solve poverty,” Vox, May 31, 2016.
Almaz Zelleke, “Actually, a Universal Basic Income Will Solve Poverty,” May 31, 2016.
Chad Stone, “A Universal Basic Income Is No Solution,” U.S News & World Reports, June 3, 2016.
Alexander Holt, “Critics of Universal Basic Income just don’t understand how the policy would actually work,” Quartz, June 6, 2016.
Ezra Klein, “A universal basic income only makes sense if Americans change how they think about work,” Vox, June 1, 2016.
Thanks to Asha Pond, Tyler Prochazka, and André Coelho for reviewing a draft of this article — and, as always, to my supporters on Patreon (click the link to join ’em!).
Featured image CC Luis Felipe Salas.
An article in the June 4th edition of The Economist, entitled “Basically Flawed,” argues that universal basic income is a radical policy that is just too risky to pursue. The anti-UBI argument itself is flawed, however, largely due to understating the benefit of UBI–if not ignoring its moral necessity.
According to an article in the June 4th edition of The Economist , universal basic income (UBI) is a policy of uncertain need but certain costs. A simple risk-benefit analysis, then, would advise us to maintain our current welfare states (perhaps with less radical adjustments) rather than gamble with a UBI.
The argument has two main components: first, establishing that there is no definite need for a UBI; second, establishing that a UBI presents unavoidable costs.
Concerning the first, the author assumes that there is one (and only one) reason why something like a UBI would become necessary: widespread unemployment due to new technologies. Here the author notes that the robot job takeover has not happened yet, and expresses skepticism that it ever will:
Worries that technological advance would mean the end of employment have, thus far, always proved misguided; as jobs on the farm were destroyed, work in the factory was created. Today’s angst over robots and artificial intelligence may well turn out to be another in a long line of such scares.
Having set aside robot-driven angst, the author turns to defend the claim that UBI has sure costs. The first and most obvious of these is financial: a UBI is certain to be expensive to any government that implements it. For example,
An economy as rich as America’s could afford to pay citizens a basic income worth about $10,000 a year if it began collecting about as much tax as a share of GDP as Germany and replaced all other welfare programmes with the basic-income payment.
Moreover, the author complains that a UBI would “destroy the conditionality on which modern welfare states are built” — leading to an “erosion” of the workforce:
During an experiment with a basic-income-like programme in Manitoba, Canada, most people continued to work. But over time, the stigma against leaving the workforce would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into an alienated idleness.
Finally, the author worries that it would be impossible to combine UBI with a reasonable immigration policy; immigrants would have to be barred or else treated as “second-class citizenries without access to state support.”
Thus, the author concludes, the risks of UBI — which are both large and near-certain — greatly outweigh its sole benefit as insurance against technologically-driven job loss (which might or might not occur).
Reply by Basic Income News editor Kate McFarland
The basic income proponent could, if she wished, directly attack any one of the author’s premises. She might be tempted to argue that a universal basic income could be afforded and that it could be reconciled with a fair immigration policy, contest the claim that it would cause people to stop working, or produce evidence that mass technological unemployment is indeed very likely.
For my own part, I am not particularly interested in quibbling over any of these points, however important they might be independently. Instead, I will concentrate on two overarching problems with the author’s argument:
1. The argument understates the potential benefits of a universal basic income, which far exceed security against a robot job apocalypse.
2. The argument assumes that risk-benefit analysis is an appropriate method by which to answer the question of whether to adopt a universal basic income. But this would not be the case if, for example, a basic income is required as a matter of individual rights or social justice.
Why do we need UBI?
In an article published last April, Rutger Bregman writes, “Forget about robots. The reasons why we need basic income are infinitely better.” This is a crucial viewpoint–and one common in basic income discourse, the media’s apparent fondness for “the robot issue” notwithstanding–which must be taken into account when addressing potential benefits of UBI.
Take, for instance, the elimination of poverty. When scholars and researchers like Pranab Bardhan, Nkateko Chauke, and the team at GiveDirectly–to name only a few–argue that developing nations should adopt a basic income, they are not worrying about robots; they are thinking about poverty and inequality.
But, of course, poverty is also a pressing and immediate concern in high-tech countries like the United States. Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times sparked a debate about whether a UBI could abolish poverty in the US. When Scott Santens and Vox’s Matthew Yglesias joined the fray to argue that it indeed could, they remained focused on the issue of present poverty–not future automation.
Perhaps the author of The Economist article believes that a UBI is unnecessary to fight poverty, because existing welfare programs could just as well be tweaked to accomplish this goal. But, if so, the author would overlook many known problems with means-testing, which a UBI might eliminate.
The abolition of poverty–along with all the hurdles, stigmatization, and poverty traps created by means-tested programs–is a potential benefit of UBI that is clearly quite profound, yet one the author fails to mention.
Furthermore, a benefit unique to UBI is that, if high enough, it would enable workers to refuse employment. This too promises many positive results in the here and now, without waiting for robots to arrive at the door.
A UBI could be an enormous boon to workers who need or desire to leave full-time employment, if only temporarily, in order to raise a child, care for an ailing family member, return to school, start a small business, participate in voluntary community services, contribute to the arts, or pursue any other unpaid project. UBI is often said to recognize the value of unpaid labor in all of its forms; current systems of social welfare do not.
Moreover, it is often argued that this ability to refuse work benefits even those workers who do wish to retain full-time employment, insofar as it increases their bargaining power: if a worker cannot be replaced by someone desperate to take any job just to survive, it is easier for that worker to demand higher wages, better working conditions, or shorter or more flexible hours. It is UBI, not existing welfare systems, that would generate this type of bargaining power.
None of these advantages of UBI are mentioned in the risk-benefit analysis in The Economist, despite the fact that they are arguably as near-to-certain as any of the alleged risks–robots or no robots–and would be positive impacts of very high magnitude. A UBI might well be expensive, but one should to consider its full range of benefits in order to properly assess whether it is worth its high price tag. The author does not.
Of course, this is all to grant that the use of risk/benefit analysis is a fitting approach to the decision of whether to pursue UBI–but I believe that even this assumption can, and should, be questioned.
Is UBI “just just”?
As evidenced by the various articles linked above, it is popular to argue in favor of basic income on the basis of its predicted effects: pro-UBI authors of cite empirical evidence of effectiveness cash-transfer to establish the claim that a UBI “will work”. That is, many authors argue that UBI will achieve certain desired outcomes (or not cause certain outcomes generally deemed undesirable, such as decreased workforce participation, laziness, or higher spending on alcohol or other temptation goods).
But what if a basic income is not merely an effective means to attain socially desirable ends? What if universal and unconditional basic income is mandated as a matter of social justice?
This is, in fact, far from an uncommon view within the basic income movement.
For example, Guy Standing and Yanis Varoufakis have recently described UBI as a form of social inheritance (cf. their linked lectures). The idea here is this: the money distributed in a UBI is money that rightfully belongs to all of us, equally, as inheritors of the wealth generated through the collective activities of our forebears.
Alternatively, one might argue for a right to a livable basic income in other commonly recognized individual rights–such as, perhaps most straightforwardly, a right to a certain minimal standard of living, just for being alive. Furthermore, a well-entrenched view in philosophical work on basic income–canonically presented by Philippe van Parijs and later developed in a somewhat different form by Karl Widerquist –holds that the protection of freedom mandates an unconditional basic income.
If a universal basic income is a universal human right, then there is no question of whether the benefits are worth the risks; thus, arguments of the form given in The Economist don’t get off the ground. There is simply no question as to whether a UBI should be adopted: it should. The only question is how to manage whatever risks the policy would create, or perhaps how to tweak and fine-tune the policy to minimize risk.
If a basic income is a right–if it’s necessary as a matter of social justice–then we must find a way to fund it, even if it requires hefty tax increases on the rich (or even German levels of government spending!). And we must be willing to assume risks, including the possibility that some individuals will leave the workforce (some of them, perhaps, to simply smoke weed and watch Netflix).
This is not to suggest that we should ignore the potential risky outcomes. On the contrary, it is crucial to understand what the risks are, so that we might build safeguards against them. But, under the present supposition that basic income is simply a right, they should be viewed as potential problems that can–and must–be surmounted for the sake of what is owed to individuals and society.
 “Basically flawed,” The Economist, June 4, 2016.
 Such arguments are made in the books mentioned in the embedded links. N.B. All chapters from Widerquist’s work are available for free download from his website.
Thanks to Genevieve Shanahan and André Coelho for reviewing a draft of this article, and thanks to my supporters on Patreon.
“MET II Robot Lab” photo CC Georgina Rose.
Introduction: the minimum income
In Italy, the debate on basic income has lasted for almost 20 years. Back in August 1997, the ECN.org website published my pamphlet titled “Ten thesis on citizenship income”. This text, which saw a successful circulation, especially underground, was re-edited in the book “Tute Bianche” , presented an overview of the Italian debate regarding the introduction of a basic income, a proposal that had begun to circulate in the neo-worker environments in the previous 2 years .
Twenty years later, it should be acknowledged that the definition of “citizenship income” has created more negative effect than positive. At that time, the phenomenon of migration had not yet assumed today’s proportions, although it had started to see an uptick. So, guiltily, the term “citizenship” was used without thinking that the concept of “citizenship” is terribly ambiguous. In fact, it can be used in an ethical and philosophical framework for designating that every human being is born as a “world citizen”, regardless of his or her nationality of origin. But today, the concept of citizenship is increasingly tied to the legal-national sphere within a grid of limited rights ius soli, not be extended to all those who were born elsewhere. From this point of view, the idea of a “citizen’s income” can only be misunderstood as a limited proposal to whomever has that specific nationality, in contradiction with what is our idea of an individual “right to income”. The term “basic income” appears therefore more appropriate and inclusive.
There are now numerous proposed pieces of legislation in Italy and abroad, as well as policy initiatives and declarations in favour of the introduction in Italy of some form of income support independent of employment status.
There are also numerous different interpretations of such a measure. In the cultural political debate promoted by Bin-Italy , which for years has promoted a cultural and socio-political campaign aimed to introduce a guaranteed minimum income (basic income), it is necessary to define certain parameters, to reduce the interpretive confusion that has now reached a critical level, making it unclear what a “citizen’s income”, “minimum income” or “a dignity income” actually is (to use the most common names).
To actually talk about “basic minimum income” (we use this term in a broad and provisional sense), we believe that at least 5 criteria have to be verified:
- Individuality criterion: the minimum income must be paid at the individual level and not filtered through family members. From this we can discuss if children under 18 years enjoy this right or not.
- Criterion of residence: the minimum wage must be paid to all individuals who, residing in a given territory, live, rejoice, suffer and participate in the production and social cooperation regardless of their marital status, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, etc.
- Criterion of the maximum extension of unconditionality: the minimum income must be provided by minimizing any form of compensation and/or obligation, maximizing free individual choice.
- Access criteria: the minimum wage is paid in its initial phase of experimentation to all individuals who have an income below a certain threshold. This threshold may, however, be greater than the relative poverty line and converge toward the median level of the personal distribution of existing income. Moreover, this level of income must be expressed in relative terms, not absolutely, so that increasing the minimum threshold (as a result of the initial introduction of the measure) the range of beneficiaries will increase continuously until it reaches universality.
- Criteria for funding and transparency: the modalities of financing of minimum income must always be set out on the basis of economic viability studies, detailing where resources are obtained based on an estimate of the necessary costs. These resources have to fall on general taxation and not on other assets of origin (such as, for example, social security contributions, sale of public assets, privatization proceeds, etc.)
The criteria 1, 2, 5 should not be amendable, while criteria 3 and 4, are expressed in relative terms, may be subject to additional definitions depending on the context of reference, but within the principle directives we have just outlined.
The basic income as a primary income and therefore unconditional
The basic income today is a good and just idea. The reasons for this claim are inspired by the forms of the social composition of labor and the modalities of accumulation and exploitation which are today dominant.
In this regard, it is necessary to propose a cultural leap before we take the political leap and affirm that Basic Income is a primary distribution variable: the basic income must intervene, in fact, directly in the income distribution of productive factors, such as salary (which remunerates certified work hours), profit (which rewards the business entity), or rent (which derives from a property right). Primary distribution variable means that it is not a re-distributive variable: it directly occurs at the level of the balance of power and social relations within a certain process of accumulation. Despite it, a redistribution of income, which occurs at a later stage, is the outcome of a second level of indirect distribution, an extra market level, thanks to appropriate discretionary economic policies.
If basic income is remuneration, the question is what is the level of pay. To answer this it is necessary first to analyze what the main sources of exploitation are in contemporary capitalism. More and more studies confirm that today life itself, in every daily event, is the productive factor par excellence . If we take into account the acts of daily life that characterize our existence, they can be categorized into four types: labor, work, leisure, entertainment/games. Today it is not only labor that is the basis of added value, but also the time of creation (opus/work), the otium/leisure time, entertainment time. These are all included in a growing and continuous enhancement mechanism.
The classic dichotomy of the Fordist paradigm between labor and non-labor time, between production and consumption, between production and reproduction are now partially obsolete. It is the result of a historic process of structural changes in manufacturing processes and labor organization, which marked the transition from a material Fordist capitalism to a bio-cognitive and financialized capitalism. Today, wealth production derives, at the same time, from absolute surplus value and relative surplus value extraction, where for absolute surplus value we intend the existence of a sort of primitive accumulation in capitalist organization based on capital employment and on private property. The result is the change of the relationship between productive and unproductive labor. What in the material Fordist capitalism was considered unproductive (i.e. no production of surplus value and therefore not remunerable), has now become productive, while the remuneration remained anchored to the one of the Fordist era (the salarization crisis). As a result, we are facing new ways of valorization such as “dispossesion” (Harvey ) and “extraction”, to whom no remuneration is applied, according to the dominant rules (legal, industrial relations, uses and so on).
It is no coincidence that unpaid labor is sharply increasing from those sectors in which more has been invested by the transformations of the enhancement methods and the adoption of the new linguistic-communicative technological paradigm (cognitve-relational activities).
Against this background, one proposal that could be advanced to counter this phenomenon of unpaid labour (i.e., basically “slavery” with another name, even though for most it is not perceived as such) is to proceed with its salarization. But we ask yourselves: is it possible? If the answer is yes, then the basic income should be not necessary
The vagueness of labor time
This question opens up a second theoretical problem – both political and methodological. When technological and organizational transformations favor the spread of increasingly intangible productions with a high degree of non-measurability, when value is created by a whole range of life activities, from learning processes, to social reproduction  and networks of relationships, then arises the problem of “measure.”
The theme of the measure is linked to the calculation/quantification of labor productivity. Unlike in the past, where this calculation was possible because employee labor activity could be measured in hours and by an equally measurable amount of production on an individual basis, productivity today has changed shape: it depends on the increasing use of new forms of scale economies: learning and network economies. These are scale economies no longer static but dynamic, because it is the flow (continuously) of time to allow for growth and learning of social skills as well as social reproduction and thus increase productivity, whose effects can be seen no more on individual basis but on social one. Both learning and networking, in fact, need a social context and a social cooperation. The productivity in bio-cognitive capitalism is therefore primarily social productivity or, with reference to the role of knowledge, general intellect.
Learning economies are based on the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge is not a scarce resource, such as material goods, but abundant: the more you swap, the more it spreads, the more it grows, with a highly productive cumulative mechanism: cumulativeness requires relationships and social networks. Learning and network are two sides of the same coin: if knowledge is not spread through relational over individual processes, it is not economically productive. Only if you develop social cooperation and general intellect does it become productive.
We are not talking in the traditional sense of the term co-operation, that is, “join forces” but co-operation, namely the interaction of individual operations that only achieve synergy in the common processes of accumulation and thus of surplus value creation. These relational activities often hide forms of hierarchy and exploitation, whose value is difficult to measure, not only on individual basis but collectively as well. If traditional factory productivity was based on precise technical mechanisms that allow you to measure individual productivity in the labor places today, then the productivity of social cooperation cannot be measured in terms of individual productivity.
Not just individual productivity but also the same product of social cooperation is not measurable. When you are producing symbols, languages, ideas, forms of communication, social control, what kind of measurement can we take? Every relationship between output value, its production time (measured in hours) and its remuneration (measured in wages) becomes almost impossible or very difficult and subjective.
The crisis of the labor theory of value derives from the fact that the individual contribution today is not measurable and the output tends to escape a unit of measurement, as production tends to become immaterial. And this takes place in a context in which the measure of value is no longer constrained by a scarcity factor. As was pointed out earlier, learning (knowledge) and network (space) are abundant inputs, theoretically unlimited (especially if we consider the virtual space), as the human nature. A theory of value based on the principle of scarcity, such as the one implicit in the theory of free market founded on the law of supply and demand, no longer has any economic and social relevance. It is only artificially perpetuated in market dynamics which have continuously defined power relationships. Paradoxically, the only theory of value that appears adequate to contemporary bio-cognitive capitalism, the labor theory of value, is not able to provide one measure.
How to give a measure to social cooperation and general intellect?
It is a question that can only surmise some answers. One possible aspect to consider has to do with the sphere of financialization. The pervasive and central role of financial markets, such as investment financing tools, privatization of social welfare and the form of partial compensation of the high content of knowledge labor, has affected not only the sphere of realization but also that of production. In capital gains, the speculative activity partially derives from the value produced by the cognitive-relational living labor. It is in financial markets that we can roughly see the implementation of the process of expropriation of social cooperation and of general intellect.
This process is not immediate and direct. It is often handled by the dominant bio-power management and the hierarchical relationships that continually redefine the property structure and market structure.
From this point of view, basic income, as a primary income, becomes even more a tool of direct re-appropriation of the wealth that is generated by the common life time put to labor.
The inadequacy of wages form at the time of the body-mind
The order of discourse leads us to say that the traditional salary structure is no longer adequate, it does not fully capture the transformations in the valorization process. The classic wage structure can still be useful in those parts of the overall production cycle in which there is a measure of the value of labor in term of time. But it cannot be generalized. From a theoretical point of view, this issue leads to the need to review, rethink and redefine the Marxian labor theory of value.
The inadequacy of the wage form as remuneration of all the productive life, leads us to say that we need another way of remuneration (in addition to the wage forms where these are measurable). From this point of view, basic income is something structurally different from salary (though potentially, in the future, convergent); it cannot simply be understood as an extension of the wage form, because it is necessary to take into account the quantitative and qualitative change that new technologies have generated.
In particular, I would like to stress the relationship between human and machine.
In the sixties, the relationship between human beings (with his body, his nerves, his muscles, his brain, his heart, his eros) and the machine was a relationship between separate domains: on the one hand, the human being, living labor, on the other hand, the machine, the dead labor. The relationship between life and death was clear, physically traceable. From the point of view of human inner, the machine was something external and tangible, separate from himself.
From the nineties to the present, such a separation is no longer as clear. The machine becomes mechanic and loses some of its materiality: the old Tayloristic machine becomes increasingly linguistic and relational. In presence of linguistic-communication technologies (ICT), only the support is material (hardware) but the core depends more and more on cognitive-relational human faculties processes. The use of language as the main tool of the mechanic operation changes the relationship of interdependence between human and machine typical of Taylorist technologies. In digital technologies, the despotism of the machine is less prevalent.
But is this hybrid between man and machine that takes direction? And is it the machine that is humanized or rather the human becoming mechanical? That is the challenge of bio-robotic.
Consider the web 2.0 and the recent spread of social media. “The profit of advertising agencies, just like the profit of all firms in web 2.0, depend almost entirely on the ability to develop control technologies. Social control is then presented as the only way to innovate and develop in the future. But what is checked, exactly, today? Our identities and how they change. “The profiling algorithms of digital technologies feed on human biodiversity that it is itself channelled and integrated “in a Panopticon space, completely transparent, where we are called to act publicly”. See Google Pagerank, for instance.
Control of the body-mind becomes today (in agreement with the unpaid labor) the new enhancement border. Even if such activities were salarized or simply paid otherwise (which is not), our freedom of choice would be conditioned.
An unconditional basic income is a tool not only to recognize that our life is an active part (though often not aware) of contemporary exploitation but also able to exercise the right to choice, that is towards an individual and social self-determination: the right to choose our destiny as far as social participation is concerned, and also the right to refuse bad and indecent labor conditions. And this cannot be allowed, otherwise there is the risk to break the fragile balance between social control and the supine condition of subordination. From this point of view an unconditional income is subversive and that is the political struggle.
Author: Andrea Fumagalli (Università di Pavia – BIN Italia)
Andrea Fumagalli note for the conference: “Future of Work” Zurich 4 May 2016
 A. Fumagalli, M. Lazzarato (eds), Tute Bianche, Derive-Approdi, Roma, 1999
 M. Bascetta, G. Bronzini (eds), La democrazia del reddito universale, Manifestolibri, 1997. Il tema di un reddito sganciato dal lavoro, etichettato con il termine salario sociale era già stato patrimonio del dibattito degli anni Settanta a parte dalla formulazione del rifiuto del lavoro (salariato).
 See www.bin-italy.org
 A. Fumagalli, C. Morini, “Life put to work: towards a theory of life-value”, in Ephemera, vol. 10, 2011, p. 234-252
 D. Harvey, “The new imperialism. The accumulation by dispossession”, in Socialist Register, 2004
 C. Morini, “Riproduzione sociale” in C. Morini, P. Vignola (eds), Piccola Enciclopedia Precaria, Milano X, Milano, 2015