University of London economist Guy Standing has championed universal basic income since the 80’s. In Basic Income: A Guide For the Open-Minded (2017), he tackles the argument that UBI is flawed because recipients don’t work for it.
“A remarkable number of commentators and social scientists lose their common sense when it comes to talking or writing about work. While every age throughout history has drawn arbitrary distinctions between what counts as work and what does not, ours may be the most perverse.
“Only in the twentieth century did most work that was not paid labour become non-work. Labour statistics persist in this travesty. ‘Work’ is counted only if it is for pay, in the marketplace.”
For example, he says, it’s the same work to walk the dog whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to do it, but the former doesn’t count. If it did, it would add up to a lot:
“In the U,K. — and it is similar in other countries — the unremunerated economy (caring for children and the elderly, housework, voluntary work in the community, and so on) is estimated to be worth well over half the size of the money economy.”
Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test does work that counts and work that doesn’t; either way, he works hard:
“In a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 [about $640] is dropped into his bank account, with no strings attached.
“He’s a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.
“Until this year … he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself … The Finnish [workfare system] was always on his case about job applications and training.
“[He was in the same position as] an unemployed Finn called Christian [who] was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums [picks]. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.
“Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.
“So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as ‘poor.’
“Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children.
“All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.”
Compare his situation to that of Florian Dou, one of France’s “yellow vest” protesters, who has no UBI safety net:
“At the bare bottom of Florian Dou’s shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of $6 sausages and not much else… “My salary and my wife’s have been gone for 10 days,” he lamented.
“How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in Guéret, a grim provincial town in south-central France.
“In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?”
That last comment — “going out this weekend” — is a moralistic hot button among UBI foes. Again from Guy Standing:
“More generally, there is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable. As Marx pointed out in 1844, ‘every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury.’”
Standing also exposes a related presumption:
“It is often claimed that giving cash to those in need is misguided because people will spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and other ‘bads’ rather than on their children and essentials such as food, clothes, and heating.
“Obviously, this is a thoroughly paternalistic line of attack. Where to draw a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Why should a rich person have the freedom to buy and consume whatever the state bureaucracy deems a ‘bad,” but not a poor person?”
Good vs.bad, work that counts vs. work that doesn’t, necessities vs. luxuries… the UBI debate is littered with polarities and prejudices. Suppose the cultural pendulum swings all the way to a state of “total work” — what would that be like? We’ll find out next time.