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Posts Tagged ‘basic income’

I mean, the science is pretty clearly in, so we know the social and economic benefits of providing everyone with a basic income would be vast. Apparently another bonus is that it makes people “more entrepreneurial“, whatever that means and whatever’s so great about it. Sounds less exciting than escaping the constant anxiety of being homeless and starving if the intrinsically fragile capitalist economy has a bit of a bad day and decides to fuck you up, but sure.

But another thing that’s actually interesting about it, is that a basic income makes sense of a bunch of other policies many economists have recommended, but which often make bleeding-heart lefty types like me bristle.

F’rinstance: charging people a flat fee to see their GP or attend A&E. All the articles I’m finding about it seem to be at least a year old, but I’m sure this cropped up again somewhere just recently.

Basic economics tells us that an increase in something’s price will reduce the volume of its consumption; an increase from free, to a nominal fee of £10 a visit, would ease the burden faced by the NHS and reduce the volume of people using its services, but only those people whose problems are worth less than a tenner would be foregoing any medical attention. Care is still available to anyone who’d really benefit from it, but those who don’t really need it won’t go along anyway on the grounds that “might as well, it’s all free”.

The point of having money, after all, is to allow people to express preferences in a meaningful, concrete way. People who wouldn’t “prefer” to see a doctor than whatever else that small nominal fee could provide – coffee with a friend in Starbucks, say – probably aren’t going to die or deteriorate abruptly based on that decision, since it can’t be bothering them that much.

The problem, as things currently stand, is that the people who’d end up “preferring” to do something else with their nominal fee wouldn’t be choosing between a hospital visit and some overpriced caffeine; they’d be choosing between a hospital visit and the gas bill for keeping their home warm. Or the food they were planning to buy for their children this week. Or the bus fare to get to the Jobcentre so the bastards don’t fucking sanction them again.

Some people are so rich they can have basically all the things they want, and the use of money as a way to express preference becomes meaningless on this scale, while some people are so screwed over by the system already that they don’t get to make choices between preferences in a way that’s remotely fair. Even if you try and means-test it, it’s another hurdle requiring poor people to prove their neediness once again before granting them access to basic medical care.

If only there was some way to make sure people didn’t face that kind of harsh, brutal, unjust, life-or-death dichotomy, and were free to make genuinely economically rational choices about how to allocate the resources available to them.

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A question often asked of libertarians – of people who think that society can and should organise itself without centralised government, or at least with much less of it than is commonly found in many Western societies – is this: “In a world without a government to collect taxes and provide public services, who will build the roads?”

Roads, after all, are an obvious example of something which can produce positive results which far outweigh the cost of producing them (otherwise we wouldn’t keep building them). But, unless every road is a toll road, their benefits can’t be hoarded by the people who put in the initial expense. No private actor in the free market would bother providing useful public services like building roads, the argument goes, if they’re not going to make a profit off of it themselves – even if building the road would provide a benefit to everyone.

In some ways, it’s a symbolic and rhetorical question, used to assert the need for some form of government in order to provide certain necessities of modern society. But it’s often posed seriously as well, and numerous responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the current one”, to “who needs roads anyway?”

Whatever the current state of the political theory, we’re yet to enact any solution to this problem, besides establishing a government to pay for projects like road-building, and fund it by taking some of everyone’s money by force, whether those people want to pay for a road or not. In most mainstream discourse, the idea that there actually might be a better solution – or an alternative, functional solution at all – doesn’t come up a whole lot. People tend to revert to whichever standard position they’re most familiar with (libertarian/statist) and defend that against the other, without considering whether the scope of reality might be any broader than this one binary issue.

A similar dynamic plays out in discussions of any sort of an unconditional basic income. If everyone in your society were being provided with sufficient resources to get by, to live a decent life with basic amenities, regardless of their employment status, then who would do all the unpleasant jobs that we need people to do? Who would do the unpleasant jobs in sanitation, the boring jobs like directing traffic, the dangerous jobs like fighting fires – or, indeed, the necessary but perhaps unfulfilling or rather dull jobs like building roads?

I’m still slowly building up a worldview which can encapsulate some sort of satisfactory answer. But in the meantime, I want to highlight something hiding in the question.

Let’s assume that you oppose the idea of an unconditional basic income – of a comfortable minimum standard of living being provided to everyone, regardless of history or circumstances – on the grounds that people don’t deserve what they haven’t earned, and will be unmotivated to provided any useful work or contribution to society if all their basic needs are taken care of.

Implicit in that position is the following belief:

In order to keep society running smoothly, we must routinely threaten people with destitution, starvation, and homelessness, if they refuse to do what we need them to do for the greater good. These tasks are so vital to our way of life, that the best way to achieve them involves making people’s ability to feed their family, heat their homes, and live somewhere with a roof over their heads, entirely conditional on whether they’re willing to do them. I cannot conceive of a more practical or desirable way to motivate people to do the work necessary for modern life than to impose this threat on every living person by default.

Without hashing out the arguments and counter-arguments of whether this is a convincing argument or not, let’s at least be clear that this is absolutely the claim you are making, if you don’t think that an unconditional basic income is practical, or that there’s any way roads would ever get built if there wasn’t a government in charge to make it happen. At least own your position in explicit terms.

Classroom discussion questions

1. So, wait, who actually builds the roads now?

2. They must know something about how you build roads, right? Is there any other way we could structure society so that they could keep doing that?

3. No? The way we happen to do it exactly here and now is the only way it’s possible to imagine it ever being done? Okay, fair enough.

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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Here are two facts about Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Irritable Duncan Syndrome Iain Duncan Smith.

1. He recently claimed that he’d be capable of living on £53 a week, as some benefits claimants do.

2. He currently earns over forty times that amount, but when he recently spent £39 on breakfast he charged it to the taxpayer.

Taken completely in isolation, these two facts should tell you quite a bit about Iain Duncan Smith. In the most kind and charitable interpretation you could settle on, he’s somewhat out of touch with how other people live, and hasn’t as nuanced and detailed an understanding as he seems to think he does, when it comes to the way many people think about money.

There are less kind and less charitable interpretations as well, of course – and strong arguments that these are the ones he more greatly deserves. But just how much of a vicious bastard Iain Duncan Smith is isn’t directly relevant to how much he’s missing the point.

I don’t doubt that he could sit and work out a scenario whereby he forewent a few luxuries for a while, bought some generic non-brand foodstuffs, and provided himself with a sufficient supply of life’s staples that he didn’t literally die, while on a standard Jobseeker’s Allowance budget. He could probably make that work for a week – if, as he says, he had to – and he seems to see himself as the sort of person with the kind of moral fortitude required to just knuckle down and grit your teeth through such an ordeal, to see it through till the end.

But of course, in his case that end would be a week away. For most people, it’s nowhere in sight.

He only has to think in terms of spending thriftily and shopping smartly for a few days in order to make a point (and is sitting comfortably in his £2million mansion which hasn’t cost him a penny all the while). But frighteningly many thousands of people (whom his own Workfare schemes are doing not a damn thing to help, incidentally) are having to go through life like this.

They don’t get to just budget a simple week free of extravagances to show the world what they can do. They have to keep it up, every week, and deal with every unexpected expense which comes their way too.

Need to take a bus journey somewhere? Have to travel back to the Jobcentre at short notice because they cocked something up and you’re in danger of getting sanctioned? Need a haircut ahead of a job interview? Emergency dental work? Christmas presents? When each of these comes up, you’ve no idea if you can afford them. If several arise too close together, there goes your heating bill for next month. Hope you own plenty of blankets.

If Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could maintain anything remotely comparable to his current lifestyle – if he thinks he could cope with that constant uncertainty and insecurity always knotting his stomach, the regular demands for unplanned expenses any one of which might be enough to tip him over the edge and into unrecoverable debt or simply be impossible for him to pay – if he thinks he could live anything he’d recognise as a life, and not need more than £53 a week…

…then charitable interpretations be damned; the guy’s a fucking idiot.

Speaking of which, here’s something else he said which it’s hard to find a charitable interpretation for:

…the amount of money that taxpayers pay sees some value at the end of it in terms of people being supported.

It’s all about the poors making themselves useful, you see. Never mind caring for others in society for its own sake; raising the standard of living for the less fortunate; providing some dignity and security; helping lift the constant fog of judgment that sits over anyone not able to find a job or prevented from “giving back” as much as the rest of us deem they should because of physical or mental health issues. To hell with all that lefty bollocks. If we’re going to give you dozens of pounds every single week so that you can just scrape by in a dismally meagre existence devoid of luxuries, we’d damn well better get something out of it ourselves.

Of course, the taxpayer also pays Iain Duncan Smith £134,565 a year, or over £2,500 gross every week. The precise “value” we’ve seen as a result of supporting him in this way is left as an exercise to the reader.

A petition has sprung up, and become massively popular at great speed, demanding that IDS prove himself by doing exactly what he’s claimed he could do, for a whole year. This might be a useful exercise in highlighting the issue of poverty and his inability to appreciate it, and I hope it generates some press – but it’s worth remembering that we don’t really want him to have to live on £53 a week, because we don’t want anyone to live like that. As 21st century citizens of the developed world in the internet age, when we’re more than capable of amply looking after everyone’s needs if we got ourselves better organised, we all deserve better. Even Iain Duncan Smith.

Of more direct value is the petition against the War on Welfare. Whatever you think of the capacity for these online petitions to do any good, adding support and another voice to this side of the conversation should be a no-brainer, especially when the opposition seems to consist of all the people in charge. Some of the stories coming out of that campaign, about how the disabled and least able to defend themselves are treated, should make you feel sick and angry.

And while we’re at it, Universal Basic Income, bitches. I’m still not intellectually convinced it’s as likely a solution as I powerfully hope it could be, but the more such ideas are discussed and such attitudes are fomented, the better.

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