Universal Basic Income: Changing the Rules of the Game

Last week, I went to a meeting of a local political group about the Green New Deal. It turned out to be made up almost exclusively of retired people. This being Seattle, they were very excited for the GND, and had a lot to say about other things that should be done to prevent global climate change.

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The types of ideas that were present was interesting to me. They were very interested in some big, radical changes to our society, the end of consumerism and a return to a more agrarian way of life. It would be necessary, they thought, in order to survive on our planet, and it would be good for society as well. They were interested in accepting more refugees, being prepared to accept the millions who would be pushed out of their countries by the ravages of a warming planet.

There was something I noticed, though. The notion of a “jobs guarantee” was popular, as was the idea of bringing in immigrants and putting them to work. They talked about finding work for the homeless in fields. But not once did they say a single thing about giving anything away for free. It seemed like that premise was anathema. Everything should be earned, people should be given opportunities to succeed, not merely helped.

This shit drives me crazy. Especially things like the idea of a “jobs guarantee”. Where if you want a job, you are guaranteed to get one. At first glance, it sounds great! Everyone who wants to work, can work. But it’s only tackling a very small part of a larger problem, in a way that is going to be extremely complicated and inefficient. How is this going to work? What are the jobs going to be? Is it just a government-run employment agency? Is there any guarantee about the quality or type of job it is? How is the government going to compel companies to hire people?

It’s a rube goldberg machine. Something incredibly complex designed to solve a very simple problem. This is something politicians love to do, because then it gets boring and technical and the public stops paying attention, so they can do whatever they want. Give easy jobs to cronies, family members, give kickbacks by paying contractors or consultants, and so on.

What I favor, instead, is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). It is what it says on tin, an income given to every single citizen of the country, every single month. It’s the opposite of a rube goldberg machine, in that it is very simple, and solves a lot of complex problems at once.

Our society is rife with rube goldberg machine policies and institutions already. Think about something like disability benefits, where you have to prove over and over again that you really can’t work, and have all sorts of rules about what you can do with the money when you manage to get it. You can’t save up past a certain amount, you can’t invest it. If you get married, both you and your partner will have your benefits slashed to the bone.

All these restrictions are placed on any sort of assistance. It all leads to a kind of bureaucratic bloat that serves nobody. All in the name of preventing waste and abuse. Making sure that the money is going to the wrong people. God forbid someone who isn’t worthy receive help! This meager help, which is barely enough to survive on anyway.

The UBI gets around all that. Being universal, it is given to literally everyone. Nobody is undeserving of sharing in the bounty of our great nation, after all. Sure, some people will spend it on alcohol or drugs, and still be bad off. But that’s their choice, actually. I am not positing this as a solution to all of society’s ills, only some of the big ones.

The labor market is the biggest one. As it is, you need a job to live. So, when you are trying to get a job, the potential employee has almost no bargaining power whatsoever. They are forced to accept whatever they are offered, because the alternative is unpaid bills, no food, no home, and death. If you had a guaranteed income to allow you to survive, to keep your head above water at the very least, then you have so much more power. You can just refuse to take awful jobs.

What effect do you think this would have? Employers would suddenly have a lot of trouble filling jobs that suck real bad. They would have to change things, to offer more money or benefits of some sort, or just make the jobs less terrible. It would, in effect, be a vast reduction in human misery across this country.

Think of this: In the United States, it is practically unheard of for cashiers to be allowed to sit in a chair. Their job does not require them to stand, they could sit on a chair or a stool behind the register and perform just as well. This is, in fact, the way it works in Germany, where there are much stronger unions. But no, cashiers must stand. Millions suffer from the pain of sore feet, actual injuries, and are just plain tired out, unnecessarily.

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You may say, “Robin, this is not exactly the greatest tragedy of our time. They’re just tired!” Ah yes, but it’s unnecessary! It is only this way because the workers at this level have absolutely no power. Anyone could be a cashier. If you complain, they will replace you in a moment. Make everyone else work a little harder. If people were empowered, on an individual level, to refuse jobs that would be harmful to them, then the jobs would necessarily become less harmful.

Or, the other option: they would be compensated more fairly. If you’re doing a job that is likely to harm your body, or be unpleasant in some way, you’re not gonna do it unless you get paid well. In the current system, employers are allowed to foist this work off on people who have no other choice. Work or die.

Fundamentally, it represents a shift in the way the labor market would work, and a rebalancing of the benefits of modern technology. As it is, all the gains in efficiency from technology go to one place: capitalists. Investors. All that excess efficiency becomes pure profit, as jobs are automated and you can get more out of fewer workers. There may be some minor reduction in costs, but it’s negligible in comparison to the massive profits reaped by the investor class over the past 50 years, as efficiency has skyrocketed.

The UBI would allow the rest of us to enjoy some of those benefits. By forcing employers to closer to what labor is actually worth, rather than the bare minimum they can get away with.

Yes, unions are still necessary. They may still be abuses under this system. It doesn’t solve every problem. But, it solves a lot of them. No longer would people need to stress over whether or not the government determines them worthy of assistance. No longer will millions have to suffer through horrible indignities.

If you want to change the priorities of a society, to radically alter the things that it views as important, you have to change the rules it operates under. Incrementalist and compromised steps will get you exactly what they purport to: incremental steps. Nothing much really changing. A compromised result.

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People will try to tell you that what we have is the best that is possible. Don’t believe them. Better things are possible.

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