By BERT SCHOUWENBURG :
In order to properly analyse UBI, it is important to define exactly what it is and in doing so dispel some of the myths surrounding it. Sometimes referred to as a “citizen’s income,” UBI is a flat-rate benefit paid to all, ideally at an amount equivalent to or greater than the prevailing poverty line, sufficient for one person to live on.
THE economic shutdown occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing job losses have rekindled enthusiasm for the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI), a concept that manages to divide opinion not only between left and right, but within left and right circles too. Some of the reasons given for opposing UBI can actually be deployed in its favour, such is the range of positions adopted by its supporters and detractors. In order to properly analyse UBI, it is important to define exactly what it is and in doing so dispel some of the myths surrounding it.
Sometimes referred to as a “citizen’s income,” UBI is a flat-rate benefit paid to all, ideally at an amount equivalent to or greater than the prevailing poverty line, sufficient for one person to live on. It would replace all means-tested benefits such as the hated universal credit but would leave in situ other material benefits related to housing, education and health.
It is not, as one ‘Morning Star’ correspondent erroneously claimed, the neoliberal scheme supported by Milton Friedman who posited the idea of negative income tax as a means of abolishing all welfare payments. Rolling out UBI would end the poverty trap caused by means testing, thus ensuring that everyone who opts to take paid work will be better off and makes part-time employment a more affordable option. Moreover, it would act as a safety net for those considering self-employment or indeed for those already in the often bogus self-employment of the platform economy who want to leave. It would signal an end to the demeaning and punitive system of assessing entitlement to benefits and the hideous (now privatised) bureaucracy that goes with it. Importantly, it would recognise the unpaid work of millions of family carers who are disproportionately women and, if needed, allow them to leave abusive relationships where they are dependent on a male partner’s income.
Parents could opt to bring up their own children rather than being forced out to work only to hand over what they earn to a child minder or nursery. One aspect of UBI that has united detractors from both sides of the political divide is that it would allow more time for non-commercial activities or voluntary work by liberating people from the necessity of selling their labour to survive. Consequently, the architect of universal credit, Iain Duncan Smith, has unsurprisingly opposed it because as he correctly points out, it could disincentivise people from seeking employment. Perhaps more surprising is the view from those on the left who maintain that work pays and that it should be available to everyone.
This work ethic has been prevalent since the days of the Poor Laws and lives on in the rhetoric of politicians purporting to represent “hard-working families” even though it is not universally applied. The ruling classes have never entertained the dubious values of hard work, preferring instead to enjoy the proceeds of rentier capitalism, but what Duncan Smith and his ilk fear most is that UBI would remove the element of control that being forced to work brings.
They view poverty as a personal aberration that should be remedied by getting a job and earning a living, despite increasing numbers of working poor. The goal of full employment and guaranteed jobs for all, even in a relatively prosperous country like Britain, is a fantasy in a capitalist economy, especially at a time of rising productivity brought about by technological advancement and the offshoring of so many industries to lower-cost locations.
However, that has not stopped the TUC from pursuing this unrealisable ambition, without any push for or mention of UBI. To that end, unions are prepared to back the Government of the day in wasting enormous sums of money on nuclear power, HS2, a third runway at Heathrow, Trident and other white elephants, regardless of their environmental and social impact, just because they will provide jobs. Nevertheless, there are trade unionists who understand that the introduction of UBI, far from weakening their position, would actually enhance their bargaining power because of the reduced pressure on people to take junk jobs in Amazon, Uber or McDonald’s and the guarantee of an income for members who withdraw their labour during an industrial dispute. Other criticisms of UBI are that it would be unaffordable and because it is payable to everyone would deepen inequality.
In fact, a 2009 study demonstrated that Income Tax set at 57 per cent would be sufficient to guarantee everyone £170 a week or £230 in 2020 terms. Raising taxes in this manner would make 80 per cent of the population better off while the richest 20 per cent would be worse off so a UBI would significantly improve equality as measured by income. There are of course other ways to fund it and the imposition of a land tax, for example, has found favour in some quarters.
What is not in doubt is the Government’s ability to pay, given the enormous amounts of money frittered away on quantitative easing over a sustained period. UBI is not is a panacea or miracle solution for the ills of capitalism but it does underwrite the most basic right of all: The right to a material existence. Ultimately, we want a society built on socialist principles of democracy, equality, dignity and justice but until we achieve our aims, the thousands of people who are going to lose their livelihoods as a direct result of capital’s response to COVID-19 would be delighted to have a UBI to fall back on. (IPA) (Courtesy: Morning Star)