This past week, Finland released the final results from its two-year “basic income” experiment. The program produced a modest increase in working days among basic income recipients and noticeable improvements in perceived happiness and healthiness.
Is this a surprise? When governments give people cash assistance, of course, their lives will improve. And with financial stress alleviated, these recipients will still find productive uses for their time.
Simply imagine the unearned suffering billions of people could have been spared if governments had implemented basic income prior to the pandemic and global economic depression.
Basic income skeptics should consider which system failed when confronted with the current avalanche of suicide, descent into addiction, and hungry mouth these twin crises have created. But according to the government’s standard, Finland’s basic income experiment still “failed” because recipients only increased their working days by a week or so.
Let that sink in. Despite proof that the program improved basic income recipients’ physical and mental well-being, it was deemed a failure because it did not fix every aspect of the labor market in two years. Recipients worked more, but that apparently still was not enough.
Maybe the standard by which success is judged is, therefore, the true failure.
Our current situation shows us that the government was dead set on keeping us in jobs at all costs. And the natural result of that obsession to “preserve work” is that governments are now bailing out corporations instead of their people.
Of course, well-connected businesses like airlines are bailed out first (and multiple times) as average people languish on the edge of financial ruin. Meanwhile, complicated schemes in the United States like the “Paycheck Protection Program” are designed to create the impression of modest job loss, since employees are kept tacked to their employer by way of payroll. But these “jobs saved” are meaningless insofar as many small businesses will immediately shutter from falling demand whenever the program ends. Many are zombie employers, animated by governments’ obsession with “jobs” over human wellbeing.
Even increasing unemployment benefits with a $600 bonus has been a nightmare, having never gone to many informal workers like caregivers and mothers in the first place. The unemployed will now make every effort possible not to return to work. Unlike with basic income, where the payment is available unconditionally, people will lose their leisure time and $600 unemployment bonus when they accept their next job.
Unemployment payments are also being used to threaten employees to return to work before the pandemic is even under control. In Iowa, the governor said unemployment recipients will be thrown off unemployment assistance if they do not return to work when lockdowns are eased: even if their workplaces are still hotspots for COVID. This means even more lives will be sacrificed on the altar of “increasing work” and “saving jobs.”
In contrast, basic income would empower people to make an informed decision whether it is safe to return to work without the loaded gun of economic self-destruction being held to their head. Governments should pay people directly instead of paying their employers. If they did, employers would have to meet the safety and pay standards of the people they hope to woo back into work
Almost a year ago, I wrote that the era of “experimenting” with basic income to determine whether it causes “laziness” should end. This question is more often than not asked in bad faith by opponents of basic income, who ignore overwhelming evidence that it generally increases the number of hours recipients work: even leaving aside the productivity gains in those work hours, as people are given more freedom to choose how their labor is allocated.
When the article was written, Canada cancelled its basic income experiment and Finland released its first year of results. These experiments were deemed failures at the time. But the absurdity of that belief is clearer than ever before.
We stand at the abyss, with the highest unemployment rates and deepest recession of our lifetimes on the horizon. And yet governments have doubled down on putting “jobs,” narrowly defined as roles serving corporate interests, over our wellbeing. This paradigm, by supercharging the economic fallout of the pandemic and forcing people back to work without safety rails in place, defies all logic.
The following is part two of a two part series (part one can be found here) featuring Kate McFarland interviewing D. JoAnne Swanson of The Anticareerist on Basic Income. The original article can be found here.
KM: Are there any particular writers or thinkers on basic income who have influenced your views? Is there any additional literature that you would recommend for those who are interested, specifically, in the idea that basic income could facilitate and encourage unpaid work?
DJS: This could be a long list! Not all of these people are basic income writers per se, but they’ve all greatly influenced my views on basic income and unpaid work. Here are some of the writers I refer to most frequently, along with a favorite quote from each:
“…there has to be more political organisation to create change. The book is deliberately very explicit about this because I felt a strong need to distinguish it from popular books promoting lifestyle changes like “slowness” or “life simplification” as solutions to the problems with work. We are seeing a lot of these books where the author is positioned as a sort of lifestyle guru, who is going to tell us the secret key to living well, and it is usually by working less, being less materialistic, and so on. I don’t think that people really benefit from being told this, and these books actually anger me to a degree, because they suggest that change is a matter of changing individual habits.”
“Why do we want to create more jobs? It is so people have money to live. For that purpose, they might as well dig holes in the ground and fill them up again, as Keynes famously quipped…Wouldn’t it be better to pay people to do nothing at all, and free up their creative energy to meet the urgent needs of the world?”
“Unfortunately, the term leisure carries connotations of frivolity and dissipation that are inconsistent with the urgent needs of the planet and its people as the age turns. There is a vast amount of important work to be done, work that is consistent with degrowth because it won’t necessarily produce salable product. There are forests to replant, sick people to care for, an entire planet to be healed. I think we are going to be very busy. We are going to work hard doing deeply meaningful things that no longer must fight upstream against the flow of money, the imperative of growth. Yet I also believe we will have more true leisure — the experience of the abundance of time — than we do today. The scarcity of time is one reason we overconsume, attempting to compensate for the loss of this most primal of all wealth. Time is life. To be truly rich is to have sovereignty over our own time.”
“Some detractors of Basic Income say that it will create dependency and slavery to the government. That is what is happening with our so-called safety nets now. You have to prove yourself to the government to get benefits. You have to continue to prove yourself to keep benefits. You are told when and how and why you can use those benefits. You will lose those benefits the moment you step out of the framework. Basic Income eliminates all that.
Basic Income is about trust and respect. We respect you as a member of our society, and we trust you to make your own choices. We don’t need to means test you, or scour through your finances, or judge what you buy when. When everyone gets the same level of benefit, then no one needs to be judged, shamed or excluded.”
“I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative.”
“Demanding a basic income, as I see it, is also a process of making the problems with the wage system of income allocation visible, articulating a critical vocabulary that can help us to understand these problems, opening up a path that might eventually lead us to demand even more changes, and challenging us to imagine a world wherein we have more choices about waged work, nonwork, and their relationship to the rest of our lives.”
“…under capitalism every worker is manipulated and exploited and his/her relation to capital is totally mystified. The wage gives the impression of a fair deal: you work and you get paid, hence you and your boss are equal; while in reality the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit.”
“…anyone doing informal but necessary work such as unpaid care-giving is put under financial duress because their time used for unpaid work cannot be used for paid work. Families, neighborhoods and communities are robbed of the time and resources they need thrive and be healthy. This robbing resources from the informal sector causes great harm to children, elders, people with extra needs from illness or disability and it breaks apart families and communities. This creates a negative feedback loop because the subsequent problems fuel the need for more ‘fixing’ jobs (e.g. social workers, addiction counsellors, police, lawyers, jailers, etc.).”
“The sorcery of capitalist economics is precisely to make its own violence invisible, so that it can appear to be nothing but the miraculous liberator of human potential and the progressive deliverer of ever-abundant goods. And there is a disturbingly good reason for us to give in to this illusion: most of us are dependent on the very economy that has systematically exploited us and undermined the health of our communities and our environments. We have come to rely on the very “job creators” (that new euphemism for exploiters) whose project of profiting at our expense we condemn. We have come to need the very economic growth machine that is eating our world and destabilizing our planetary climate in the name of “progress.”
“This goes back to classism again and again and again. If you look across the spectrum, things women do for society are valued little or not at all in terms of money. They’re essentially forced to access capital through their relationships with men: personal, familial, professional.”
Molly Scott Cato – See Arbeit Macht Frei (the first edition of this book was released in 1996 under the title Seven Myths About Work.)
“Work is a confidence trick that lies at the heart of the economic system of capitalism. If a man walked up to another man and hit him over the head with a stick and stole half the money in his wallet this would be considered a crime and the man would be considered a threat to society. But if a man offers another a job and pays him half the value his labour generates we laud him as a wealth-creator, as a worthy entrepreneur, the sort of person our children should be taught to emulate in school.”
“…we need to be willing to argue for leisure as a right, and as a feminist issue. […] A gendered demand for leisure would argue that women’s time is as important as men’s, whether we are spending it parenting or reading a book or lying on a beach. It would take into account the racialized and classed expectations of different groups of women, and argue that low-income women deserve time off too (and it would argue that they deserve to make enough money to enjoy that time.) It would point out that what is earned vacation for white women is not “laziness” in women of color.
It would argue not from any biological imperative (that rarely gets us anywhere good), but from a time-honored (though lately forgotten) labor and left tradition that says that time, as much as anything, is a right—and it would take from the Wages for Housework movement the idea that unpaid work in the home is still work that we deserve a respite from.”
Karl Widerquist – Among my favorite quotes from his work is this powerful statement:
“One answer of mine to one of the common questions [about universal basic income, a.k.a. UBI] is unusual, and it’s been a major theme in my writing since I started. When people say it’s something for nothing, I argue most emphatically that it is not. We force so many terrible things onto the poor. We don’t get their permission. And without UBI, we don’t pay them back for what we force on them. We make them live in a world where everything else is owned. We make rules about all kinds of things they could otherwise do. Our ancestors lived without such rules for 200,000 years. They could hunt, gather, fish or farm as they wished. We’ve taken all that away and given them nothing in return. UBI is long overdue. UBI is paying for the privileges you have taken. If we don’t have UBI we put the propertyless in the position where they have no other choice but to work for the very people whose privileged control of resources makes the propertyless unable to use resources for themselves. UBI is no less than the end of effective slavery.”
“Not only does the requirement to work keep many of us too busy to engage in deep reflections on fundamental questions of collective existence, but the ideology of work erodes freedom by constructing paid work as an unassailable good and by placing it outside the realm of “reasonable” or “realistic” debate. By encouraging us to see the requirement to work for pay as an inevitable or even natural feature of collective existence, the ideology of work therefore chips away at our freedom to even imagine alternative futures in which paid work might play a different role (or none at all), and thus reduces our capacities to act according to our own ends.”
You can find out more about The Anticareerist and its author HERE.
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I was recently listening to a talk show on public radio. The first segment was about President Trump’s tax proposals. It included a debate between a supporter of Trump’s plan and an opponent of it. The supporter is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Her conclusion was that Trump’s proposed tax cuts would be great because they would lead to more economic growth and, therefore, more jobs. This is, of course, the supply-side/trickle-down economics reasoning, which could be a subject of debate itself.
A later segment on the talk show focused on New York City’s attempt to persuade Amazon to set up its headquarters in the city. For those who may not be aware, New York City’s mayor is widely considered to be politically progressive. If you are more familiar with European politics, you can think of him as something like a Social Democrat. He did not appear on the radio program, but one of his deputies did. The deputy said a primary reason the city wants to attract Amazon is that such a move would generate a lot of jobs.
Thus, there was a representative of a progressive mayor and a conservative, both of whom argued for two very different proposals on the same basis — jobs. This is not that unusual. The U.S. political Right and Left disagree on plenty: tax cuts, the proper role of the federal government, how best to improve U.S. schools, what the U.S. Constitution says about the right to own a gun, and a host of other issues. But both sides can always be counted on to agree that whether someone has a job or not is an issue of utmost importance.
Conservatives may argue that the best way to generate jobs is for the government to get out of the way and let businesses “do their thing.” Progressives may counter that the private sector will never create enough jobs for all those who desire one, and that the only way to assure people can find work is for the government to guarantee a right to work, even if it must do the hiring. But for both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, jobs are what matters.
It makes sense that both the Right and Left would be so focused on jobs. The main source of many, if not most, incomes in the U.S. is a wage or salary. For many people, if they lost their job, it would not be long before things became dire for them. For many of those currently without jobs, things are already quite dire. It is in the nature of capitalism for most of us to toil away as “wage slaves” as the Marxists define it. But it seems that over time, this economic necessity has developed into something many people call the work ethic, but which I have come to think might better be called the job ethic. The job ethic is the culture which develops when what we have to do to survive becomes not just a source of income but also one of social recognition.
In her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, the late philosopher Iris Marion Young has an essay on the definition of “oppression.” That essay is called The Five Faces of Oppression, and one of those “faces” is marginalization. Marginalization is what happens to the involuntarily unemployed. Obviously, those faced with this situation have a serious financial problem, given that they are living within a system which requires them to have money to meet their needs. But, according to Young, this is not the main reason involuntary unemployment is oppressive. The main reason is that those who are unemployed lack something which grants them access to being recognized and esteemed by their fellow citizens/residents — a job. It is this lack of a job which makes the unemployed feel cast aside and marginalized. The fact that someone is not willing to hire them results in their feeling socially worthless.
Being a philosopher/political theorist, Young does not support her argument with figures and statistics. But I think she may be onto something. A number of opponents of basic income seem to think so, too. Anyone who has followed the basic income debate has heard the argument that basic income is imprudent public policy because it would result in less work. Less work would mean people would be less inclined to engage in an activity which provides them not just with income, but also with meaning and social recognition. What these individuals are really saying is that basic income is bad social policy because it would result in fewer people having to obtain meaning and social recognition from what they have to do to “put food on the table.”
In the past, I have questioned whether basic income would have this effect. But I’m also inclined to wonder: So what if it does? As important as making a living is, humans do a lot of other things besides sell their labor. They spend time with children, spouses, and friends, they enjoy hobbies of various kinds, they engage in pursuits of higher learning, they become involved in civic pursuits to make the world a better place, and a host of other things. Can’t at least some of these things be sources of social recognition, as well? As long as capitalism and tasks that cannot be completed by machines exist, there will be a need for humans to sell their labor. But if a basic income freed some of us up to spend more time doing other things which provide us with social recognition, would that really be so bad?
About the author:
Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.
Jordan Peterson, cultural critic, psychologist, and member of the Self Authoring online service, gave his remarks on Universal Basic Income. His concerns seem to be largely drawn from a similar issue critics have with the idea, primarily in the face of leisure time: will people become lazy and unmotivated? Can people handle a life with none of the traditional burdens we normally face with work as it is? Where will people map out meaning in their lives?
All of these are fair questions, and Peterson seems to be open to the idea. A concern Peterson addresses is the rise of relative poverty in developed nations, which has been given terms such as “the precariat,” a term coined by Guy Standing. In addition to this, the rise of technology has made it so that many people who are not tech-savvy are poised to be left behind in this changing climate. This is coupled with the conservative myth that there is an infinite supply of jobs for everyone, and the liberal myth of retraining as a solution, both of which Peterson challenges directly. People might be phased out of the labor force, which is one of the general concerns automation forces us to examine.
In regard to UBI being proposed as a solution, Peterson seems to make some strong assertions. While he admits that a UBI is possible as something we can do, he remains unsure of “what would it do” to help people. In addition, Peterson makes a very strong claim that people in North America do not have issues with starvation due to a lack of income. Children go to bed hungry rather often, so Peterson’s remark doesn’t seem to be substantiated by any current facts or statistics. The most striking remark Peterson makes is perhaps a core view of his entire life’s work: he believes people are at their best when they are “burdened” by something. While one can sincerely entertain the possibility of struggles helping people become better versions of themselves, must it really be because one might not be able to add economic value due to factors beyond oneself, as Jeremy Howard argues? Is this an acceptable burden, given the scope of the problem?
Watch the video below
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more
A series of conversations from around the world that explore the relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic and Basic Income. Read more