The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them

I quite often write blogs for sites other than my own. It has been suggested to me that I should post them here too, to make life easier for followers who like to see things in one place, so here is one that was published on the Open Democracy website on 14th December.

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How can a universal basic minimum income be made compatible with socialist principles and avoid inadvertently furthering a neoliberal agenda?

More than one in five UK workers, over seven million people, are now in precarious employment according to this analysis of official figures by John Philpott. Since 2006, the numbers on zero-hours contracts has grown by three-quarters of a million are and over 200,000 more are working on temporary contracts. My own recent research has found that some two and a half million adults in the UK may be working for online platforms like Uber, Taskrabbit or Upwork at least once a month, with about 1.2 million people earning more than half their income from this kind of work. A growing proportion of the population is piecing together an income from multiple sources, in many cases making even the concept of a fixed occupation anomalous.

Large numbers of worker do not know, from one day – or even hour – to the next if and when they will next be working. Yet we still have an anachronistic benefit system based on the principle that any fit adult (and, under the current regime, many who are less than fit) must either be ‘in work’ or ‘seeking work’. The old Beveridgean welfare state model is, in short, bust. What is left of the old welfare safety net is fundamentally incompatible with a globalised just-in-time labour market in which workers are increasingly paid by the task.

The victims of these incompatibilities are among the most vulnerable in our society – forced to take any work that is going but often unable to claim benefit when none is available. They are caught between the rock of harsh sanctions regimes and the hard place of capricious and unreliable employers, often with no dependable source of income whatsoever. And the numbers of these people missed by the safety net keep growing. The use of food banks has increased more than forty-fold since 2008, the estimated  number of rough sleepers has risen by 55% since 2010 and the number of children in poverty rose from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million a year later – an increase of 200,000 in just one year. Something is clearly terribly wrong and the increasingly urgent question is how to fix it.

This is part of the problem to which the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) now presents itself as a solution to an expanding range of analysts. UBI is not only promoted as a way to update the benefit system to bring it into line with new labour market realities. It is also seen as a way to reward carers and others who carry out unpaid reproduction work in the home, to support artists, enable lifelong learning or give more autonomy to disabled people. This once-marginal idea is now seriously espoused in the UK by the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, some trade unions and sections of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Plaid Cymru. Further afield is also actively promoted (including setting up experimental schemes) in Finland, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and, at the neoliberal end of the spectrum, by high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

At the headline level, indeed, UBI can seem to represent some sort of magic bullet that will solve all these problems simultaneously, and is often promoted as such. But a closer examination of the various models proposed reveals considerable differences between them. If these are not recognised, attempts to operationalise it could lead at best to risks of unintended consequences and at worst deep political fissures that could even exacerbate some of the problems UBI is intended to address. Most attempts to model how UBI could be implemented in practice in the UK (for example by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Malcolm Torry and Gareth Morgan) have looked at it in what might be called a policy-neutral context, in which all other features of the economy and the tax system remain unaltered. But of course the reality is that any change in government policy that could lead to the introduction of UBI would be part of a much broader political upheaval that would transform many of these other features. Abstracting UBI from its broader setter in this way makes it harder to see such potential hazards.

For people who believe that the world’s sixth largest economy should be able to protect its citizens from penury, and are committed to (re)developing a welfare state that reduces social inequality and enhances choice and opportunity for its citizens, perhaps the time has now come for a serious debate, not just about the pros and cons of UBI in the abstract, but about which other policies it should be linked with to ensure that these objectives are met. This involves grappling with some difficult questions. Here I look at four of the risks that could arise if a UBI is introduced without such policy safeguards.

The risk of driving down wages

In the abstract, the relationship between a UBI and wage levels can be argued to be either positive or negative. Some argue, quite plausibly, that a guaranteed minimum income would enable people to be much choosier about which jobs they accept, giving them options to turn down really exploitative wage rates and perhaps even providing them with the equivalent of strike pay to enable them to negotiate more effectively with employers without their dependents suffering.

An alternative view draws on the experience of tax credits (and now, universal credit) to point out that providing an income top-up is, in effect, a subsidy to employers who pay below-subsistence wages. In 2015-2016, this subsidy was estimated at about £30 billion. Had this been paid out by employers as part of their wage bill then this would also have led to an increase in national insurance and tax revenues. These credits therefore represent a factor which, whether inadvertently or not, increase inequalities between those who rely on their wages for their livelihood and those who derive their incomes, directly or indirectly, from corporate profits.

If a UBI is not to exacerbate this state of affairs, it is imperative that it is linked to a high minimum wage and one, moreover, that can be linked to systems where workers are paid by the task, not just to hourly rates.

The risk of undermining collective bargaining for employer-provided benefits

An important argument against UBI comes from social democratic parties and trade unions, especially in parts of continental Europe with a strong tradition of sector-level bargaining, who argue that its introduction would undermine their efforts to make employers pay into schemes that provide negotiated benefits, such as pensions, health insurance or childcare. A UBI provided by the state would, they contend, shift the burden of paying for it from employers to the general taxpayer. As Richard Murphy has shown, ‘the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden’. This shift would therefore exacerbate inequalities, rather than reducing them, at a societal level.

To avoid this risk, it is therefore important that the introduction of UBI should be accompanied by measures that support trade unions’ abilities to bargain with employers at company and sector levels for benefits for their members, by protection for existing company pensions schemes and by other measures that ensure that employers continue to contribute their share of the cost, for instance through employers’ contributions to National Insurance.

The risk of undermining collectively-provided public services

By giving everyone cash, neoliberal models of UBI play along with the grain of an increasingly marketised economy in which services are individually purchased from private providers. There is therefore a risk that UBI could become a sort of glorified voucher system, undermining collectively provided public services that are designed by bodies democratically answerable to the communities they serve, under the guise of offering individual choice. Quite apart from the considerable risks that this poses to democracy, social cohesion and the quality of services, this could disadvantage individuals with special needs who require more expensive and/or specialised services than the average, exacerbating inequalities even while purporting to offer everybody the same.

It is therefore imperative that the introduction of a UBI should be embedded with policies that protect the scope and quality of public services and their collective and universal character.

The risk of creating racist definitions of citizenship

If a UBI is defined as a right of citizenship, then this raises the question of entitlement: who is, or is not, a citizen? And on what basis is their right to UBI established? A final serious risk associated with the introduction of UBI is that it could become linked to a narrow definition of citizenship from which some people (for example refugees, asylum-seekers or residents who do not hold UK passports) are excluded. In addition to the support this could give to racism and xenophobia this could also lead to a two-tier labour market in which people who are not entitled to UBI become an exploited underclass.

The introduction of UBI must therefore be integrated with humane and well-thought-out policies on immigration and citizenship, perhaps by linking entitlement to the place of residence, rather than nationality.

Conclusion

I have highlighted here what I see as four major challenges that need to be confronted if UBI is to be introduced as a genuinely progressive initiative that can restore some dignity and security to the most vulnerable members of our society, enable a flexible labour market to function in ways that avoid exploitation while encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity and reduce social inequality. In doing so, I do not wish to pour cold water on the very idea. On the contrary, I think that, at this moment in history, it is crucially important – so important that what is needed now is a debate, not about the abstract idea of a UBI, but about how it could be introduced in the real world in a way that is genuinely compatible with social-democratic and feminist ideals and starts to rebuild the train-wreck that is currently all we have left of the 20th century welfare state that so many people worked so hard to create.

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Stuck in the head

Whether it is because the synapses transmit more randomly to each other in an ageing brain or perhaps just because I am exposed to fewer auditory distractions, I have recently found that songs are getting stuck in my head for much longer than they used to. I hate that term ‘earworm’ with its implications of involuntary infestation by an alien parasite. These are not necessarily songs I dislike. They are, at least in the early stages, welcome guests.  In fact sometimes I think I hold them there to extract every last drop of emotional juice.

But how do they get there in the first place? Sometimes it’s  obvious. ‘Here comes the sun’ or ‘There she goes, just a-walking down the street’ can be triggered simply by one’s internal commentary on what is going on around one. ‘But she breaks just like a little girl’ or ‘Tell me why – I don’t like Mondays’ or ‘Leader of the pack’  might be summoned up by silent reflection on someone’s behaviour. Sometimes a bit more detective work is required to track down the source, especially when, as in dreams, some terrible pun is involved. A couple of years ago I found myself humming ‘Goodnight Irene’ at breakfast time, not having wished anyone goodnight for some time or having thought about anyone called Irene. Eventually I worked out that it was because a nerine bulb I had planted in a pot on my front steps in the expectation that it would have pink blooms had in fact produced flowers whose scimitar-like petals were such a pale shade that they were almost white, but I had decided I still liked it (not many plants come up with such grace and elegance so late in the summer). My poor befuddled brain was singing ‘Good white Nerine’ to me!

In a kind of do-it-yourself psychotherapy, a new musical arrival in the consciousness provides a good pretext for ferreting about in one’s memory – and in the broader culture – for associations both likely and unlikely.

Earlier this year, for several weeks, I was haunted by the Welsh song Myfanwy, beloved of male voice choirs and anyone else who is not too self-consciously modernist or afraid of their own inner sentimentalist to be melted by the beauty of a 19th century love song. I thought at first it might be sticking around in my head for so long because I didn’t know all the words, so I googled it and discovered not only the lyrics, with several different – mostly execrable – English translations, but also a number of different renditions on Youtube. I was particularly moved by two of these.

The first was by Cerys Matthews who, when she sings in Welsh, ceases to be the feisty rock chick she was in Catatonia and becomes a good little Sunday school girl, anxious to please the grownups. It is perhaps the childlike unaffectedness of her voice that is the secret of her charm as a singer (though I wouldn’t want to downgrade the intelligence and musical taste that makes her such a good DJ on Radio 6).

The other, even bigger, surprise was the version by John Cale, a more extreme example of the same phenomenon. I am used to associating this Very Bad Boy of Rock with the heroin-drenched performances of Velvet Underground or the over-the-top anguish of his version of Heartbreak Hotel (which I sometimes recommend to people as a cure for depression: hearing one’s despair so caricatured, so much on public display, so magnified, can induce a degree of detachment that makes it easier to bear, if not laugh at). But he sang Myfanwy on a Welsh TV show in 1992 with such simplicity and honesty and understatement that it is hard not to be moved to tears by it. One sees the child he must once have been in how he sings it, and the pain he must have experienced since then is not flaunted but forms part of the backdrop of his sensibility, giving his singing and piano-playing the quality that, thanks to African Americans, we call ‘soul’ in English, though the Welsh word is ‘hwyl’ (a word that also refers to fun and to the quality of inspiration that comes to preachers when they are on form).

It is hardly original to  suppose that singing the songs of childhood reconnects one to a world of innocence and since-dashed hope. But when that childhood was experienced through a different language this takes on an extra dimension of estrangement: for me, at least, and perhaps for these two singers too, it is a world from which the English-speaking adult self is permanently exiled and whose beauties can never be communicated to one’s English-speaking friends. It therefore becomes the focus of an extraordinarily intense nostalgia, or, as we say in Welsh, ‘hiraeth’.

So this song of lost love commemorates a double loss: of past loves and of communicable culture. It is also, of course, an exceptionally good (and reputedly autobiographical) love song. In the same spirit as the Righteous Brothers’  ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’, the poet narrator is made aware that his fiancee has gone off him by her irritability and failure to light up when he appears. He doesn’t want her hand without her heart, so releases her from the engagement, but, in the tear-jerking last line, after wishing her all possible joy in the future, he asks to take her hand one last time – just to say goodbye. And the tune is powerful enough to move you even if you don’t have a clue what the words mean.

At the moment, the song that I am waking up to every morning is ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. What’s that about? It is quite possible that the original trigger might have been one of the aphorisms embedded in it. To coin one memorable aphorism in a song is an achievement. In this one, Kris Kristofferson managed to generate three phrases that have embedded themselves in the consciousness of several generations, if you allow for the first breaking down into two halves: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ and ‘Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free’. Then later, we get ‘I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday’. My life is full of experiences that prompt such reflections and it would be no suprise to find that this was how it got there.

But the song has other resonances too, not just, I suspect, for me. Its protagonist is part of that long and ambivalent American tradition of itinerants: cowboys, hoboes, beatniks, hippies, whose representations have done so much to romanticise a particular model of commitment-phobic masculinity. It does so in a way, unthinkable in most other parts of the world, that successfully airbrushes class and race out of the story. His narrative is in the first person but he is described, as it were, from outside, by a middle class eye, with his faded jeans and dirty red bandanna (a traditional blues singer, surely, would see no need for those adjectives when describing his taken-for-granted clothing). Kristofferson (former Rhodes scholar, though he was) is careful to respect the vernacular (‘With them windscreen wipers slapping time’ would be ruined  if the  grammatically correct ‘those’ were to be substituted for ‘them’). When I looked up the lyrics (once again, in the hope that getting them right would exorcise the song from the top layer of my brain) and saw them in cold print for the first time, I found myself feeling quite schoolteacherish about the writing. How sloppy just to insert the word ‘Lord’ whenever a line needs an extra syllable to make it scan. How awkward to write ‘we finally sang up every song that driver knew’ when ‘we wound up singing every song that driver knew’ would work so much better.

But how supremely irrelevant such quibbles are when the song comes loaded with such a freight of meaning. Most people of my generation, I think, know the song from the versions sung by Janis Joplin and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, both powerful, soulful performers whose tragic lives came to an end much too early, in 1971 and 1973 respectively. I heard Pigpen sing it, more than once, on the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European tour, when I attended every concert I could get tickets for, three of them with a dear friend who also died tragically young. Sometimes it was Phil Lesh who took over the vocals with his reedy voice while Pigpen played harmonica but Pigpen’s voice was raunchier and bluesier and he had an extraordinary ability to rouse an audience and this was a song that brought us to our feet. But it is impossible to remember it without also hearing the heartbreaking sweetness of Jerry Garcia’s guitar in those soaring and unpredictable solos that took you somewhere different every time. I did not know then that Pigpen and Joplin had had an affair and remained friends till her death, so he must have had her in his thoughts when he sang it, or that he was already very ill from the liver disease that caused his death the following year, or that Joplin had also been in a relationship with Kristofferson, who encouraged her to make the recording we know so well which was released after she died (I hope, for his sake, not just for the royalties it would generate). So many currents of tragedy flowed through this song in that brief interval between those two deaths and it is impossible to hear it without this retrospective tinge.

For me, the song has yet another layer of association. I spent the summer of 1965 travelling around Greece with a Harvard-educated, guitar-toting American backpacker on his way back from India who embodied many of the qualities of its narrator. When I googled Kristofferson’s lyrics I also found his biography and discovered a series of remarkable parallels I hadn’t been aware of between him and my erstwhile companion. These two guys were both born in Texas, in the same year, both sons of army officers, both did military service before the Vietnam war and both (or at least the one I knew) prided themselves on being dropouts and saw this as a sort of badge of artistic integrity.

I am reminded of the ambivalent lure that the United States had for my generation. We hated what the CIA was doing in Latin America and the US army in Vietnam, but, boy, did we love rock and roll.

The romance of the road was somehow inextricably tied up with the glamour of America and seemed to offer not just an escape from responsibility but also from the more general binds of conventional gender and class relationships. It created a fantasy world in which it was possible to form a relationship on as-if-equal terms with anyone one encountered and, if it didn’t work out, just move on to the next town. Bobby McGee meditates on this, recognising that there is a cost, but, despite the tone of regret, the implication is that the subject has no other option than to live this way: if you want to be an artist, you have to be like Kerouac (or, as I wrote on my bedroom wall when I was about 15 ‘there’s no security like no security’).

Time to move on!