Reinventing work for the future

We have a crisis of work. The secure, well-paid jobs of the past - many of them in manufacturing - are disappearing. What is replacing them is insecurity and uncertainty. Low-paid, part-time, temporary and seasonal work. The "feast or famine" of self-employment. The so-called "sharing economy", where people rent out their possessions for a pittance. The "gig economy", where people are paid performance by performance - or piece by piece. "Piecework", we used to call it. Perhaps we should rediscover this name.

Piecework has been the lot of most humans throughout history. Secure full-time jobs for wages have existed for less than a hundred years. And they were never available to everyone. In the post-war "golden age" of manufacturing to which many would like to return, most men had secure full-time jobs - but women did not. My father left school at 16 and went to work for an insurance company. He stayed with that company for his entire working life, finally retiring at 65. But my mother had a succession of part-time, low-paid jobs. Her educational level was higher than my father's, but her jobs were menial and insecure, while his was intellectual and secure. 

I have inhabited the "gig economy" for over thirty years. I listen with some amusement to the complaints of those for whom this is a wholly new way of working, since musicians and artists have always lived from performance to performance, and I have been a professional musician for half my life.  But even in my banking career, I often worked on short-term contracts, and on the odd occasion when I was employed, my job often lasted no longer than a contract. And now, as a freelance writer, I'm doing piecework.

I know what income insecurity feels like. I have experienced the embarrassment of having to borrow money from friends and family to pay essential bills, because payment for work done three months ago still has not arrived. I know how difficult it is to feed your family when you have less than £5 left in the bank and no prospect of extending your overdraft. I live with the ignominy of a wrecked credit rating because I was forced to default on a debt when a promised payment failed to arrive. True, I earn more than my mother ever did, and probably more than the majority of what Guy Standing calls the "precariat". But the problem is not the amount you earn. It is the mismatch between uncertain income and certain outgoings. 

When income is uncertain, but outgoings are certain, constant worry about where the money will come from to pay the bills eats away at the mind, destroying creativity and turning the intellect to porridge. It undermines relationships and erodes happiness. Ultimately, it wrecks physical and mental health. And yet we seem intent upon increasing income insecurity in the name of "efficiency". 

In the "dual labour markets" of Japan and southern European countries, older men have secure, skilled, well-paid jobs for life, while women and younger men have insecure, low-paid, low-skilled jobs. But in America and Britain, where labour markets are more deregulated, this distinction is fast disappearing as manufacturing jobs are outsourced to developing countries and routine skilled jobs are automated away. The labour market "reforms" beloved of institutions such as the IMF level the playing field for insecure workers not by making them more secure, but by destroying the security of those in employment. 

The scream of outrage from America's white working/middle class that led to the election of Donald Trump is to a large extent about the disappearance of men's secure, well-paid jobs and the erosion of comfortable middle-class lifestyles. And the scream is as much from women as men. Even today, despite the advancement of women's equality, many women depend on their men for financial support, especially when the children are young. They can cope with their own income insecurity if their menfolk have steady wages. Life is very tough for families when neither women nor men have certainty of income. 

Many people want to restore the secure waged jobs of the past - to resurrect manufacturing and bring back mining. So, Donald Trump promises to rescue the American coal industry. "I love those people", he cries. But just as the Luddites were wrong in the nineteenth century, those who want to turn back the clock are wrong now. Holding back technological progress by preserving the jobs and the industries of the past only creates the illusion of security - and it is not sustainable. Just as the prehistoric inhabitants of Doggerland were unable to stem the rising tide that would eventually inundate those lands, forcing the people to leave, so the tide of technology will eventually swamp all barriers. 

Robots will indeed take many of our jobs. Mind-numbing, repetitive jobs. There is a lot of that sort of work around, and we seem to like forcing people into jobs like this rather than allowing them to look for - or create - work that better suits their skills and abilities. But manufacturing no longer needs armies of drone workers on production lines, all doing the same thing day in, day out. Robots can do this far better than humans.  It is economically inefficient for humans to do jobs that could be better done by machines, and it is a shocking waste of human talent. People excel at activities that involve communication, imagination and problem-solving. They add more value to society - though not necessarily in monetary terms - in their spare time than they ever do at work. So bring on the robots, and let the humans go to the pub. That's where new ideas are generated, new connections made, new enterprises started. 

Other industries will be superseded. Renewable energy sources, for example, are fast replacing fossil fuels: Trump's beloved coal industry is already obsolete, and apart from those who work in that industry, few will regret its passing. Mining is a dangerous, dirty and degrading industry which has killed thousands of people. Why do we want to preserve an industry like this, just because it has historically provided secure jobs for men?

To my mind, the real issue here is not what jobs people do, but how they can have the security they so desperately need. If we are to embrace technological change, we need to take seriously people's need for a financial "anchor", a rock, a safe place, an income which will ensure that they can survive regardless of the work they do.  

Security of income does not have to come from work. Indeed, as work becomes ever more uncertain and insecure, more and more people will need some other sort of anchor. For the elderly, this is a state pension - yet the right to that is being eroded. For younger people, it is various forms of in-work benefits - yet the right to those, too, is being undermined. We are progressively shredding the safety net that provides people with some protection from instability of income. 

No attempt is being made to quantify the cost of the damage to health, wellbeing and relationships caused by rising insecurity. But those whose relationships break down under financial stress end up in the divorce courts, and for many - particularly women - that means material poverty and a life on benefits. Those whose health is wrecked by overwork end up in doctors' surgeries or hospitals: many find themselves living on sickness and disability benefits with the support of long-term prescription drugs. And those whose mental health is undermined by constant worry may end up in prison, since chronic underfunding of mental health services means that the prison service has become the backstop for the mentally ill. All of this adds up to increased costs for health and social services, not to mention the prison service, the police and the courts. 

Our crisis of work is causing a crisis of welfare. But all we see is the welfare crisis, and we try to solve it by inventing ever more draconian ways of forcing people into unsuitable and insecure work, rather than by addressing the root cause of the problem: disappearing traditional jobs and growing income uncertainty.

By implementing a universal basic income, we can end the necessity of human drudgery and the wasteful mismatching of people to jobs. We can restore security to the millions who live with uncertainty. 

Universal basic income should not be seen as welfare. By itself, it is inadequate to meet all needs: for example, the very disabled need more support than a universal basic income can provide and are less able to top up their income with work.  Other measures are needed as well to ensure that those who are marginalised by their inability to work are properly supported. Rather, we should see universal basic income as the foundation on which everything else is built - the level below which no-one will ever have to fall. By solving the problem of income insecurity with a universal basic income, we can end this costly and damaging epidemic of distress. 

Providing everyone with a basic income would also help to end the fear of technology that is holding back progress. We do not know what the jobs or the industries of the future will look like. But if we go about this the right way, there could be an explosion of productivity and entrepreneurial activity when humans are freed from drudgery. Universal basic income not only clears the path for robots to take over the jobs that humans don't want to do (and are not particularly good at), it also supports those who want to take the risk of trying out something new. People will be more willing to start new enterprises if they know that they will not lose everything if it all goes horribly wrong. The great businesses of the future will be born out of this explosion of experimentation, and they will create products and services we cannot yet imagine.

The way to prosperity is to invest - not only in robots, but in humans too. If we invest in robots but leave humans to scrape an uncertain living from increasingly insecure and poorly paid jobs, it would hardly be surprising if humans rebelled against the robots and their owners. But setting up such unhealthy competition would be destructive both of robots and humans. We don't want robot wars - we want robot colleagues.

I am amazed when people say we cannot afford universal basic income. To my mind, we cannot afford not to have it. The challenge of technology demands a fundamental reordering of society - a new social contract. By explicitly breaking the link between work and survival, we can free up humans to embrace this wonderful opportunity to reinvent work in our own image.

When we are no longer afraid of losing our prosperity, we can look forward to an exciting future, fully using the creativity and ingenuity that is the birthright of all humans and working productively in happy collaboration with our robot colleagues. 

This piece is a shorter version of my presentation at the Meaning Conference on Thursday 16th November. A video of the presentation itself will be on YouTube in due course. I will post a link here when it is available. 

Related reading:

The wastefulness of automation - Pieria

Image from NBC News. 


  1. Yep, agreed.

    IMHO Citizens Basic Income funded largely by Land Value Tax (plus taxes on other natural 'gifts'/monopolies such as Radio Spectrum etc) is the only way forward.

    That way when one does create/contribute and perhaps 'earns' as a result one gets to keep the totality of the value of that most basic of individual 'property'.

  2. Excellent essay. Thanks. In the US the basic income should be provided by the Social Security Administration. It should supply $36,000 per year per citizen from birth to death. It should be called the Social Security Lifetime Supplement (SSLS). $2,000 per month can be spent for any legal purpose. $1,000 per month will go into an account that accumulates at interest until the citizen reaches age 18. At that point the citizen can use the accumulated money, over $200,000 for purposes that are non-inflationary, that contribute to a comfortable life worth living for the citizen-including retirement. For example the money can be spent for higher education, building or buying a home, starting a business, starting a family, and the like. The SSLS will continue, and the money on deposit will begin to rebuild and continue to be available for purposes that contribute to the welfare of the citizen and for the common good.

    There is a lot more involved in such a system such as Universal Payments so that the ordinary bills of life will automatically be paid on behalf of the citizen and deducted from his account. There should be a Universal identification/payment card (call it UniKey) that will be used as a debit card and as a device for communicating with government and Internet systems. There will be skills training programs that are similar to existing programs called "Vocational Agriculture" or "Ag." Lending money at interest will be outlawed. A new form of corporation will be created which will focus on accumulation of profits for distribution as dividends to employee/shareholders. The supply of money for funding these efforts (11T in current dollars added to annual citizen income) is infinite. We, over here in the good old USA, have discovered that we have an unlimited supply of money—the Rocky Mountains are made of pure gold. All we need to do is implement the distribution system. We have decided to leave the gold untouched except in case of a national emergency. We will simply issue certificates (electronic) to each citizen that will reflect her share of the gold. We will have a few sin taxes, and we will have a method for draining excess money from our system, but overall we will live tax-free lives. There is more, but I'm sure you are far ahead of me in defining such a system. It is called, "Democrato-Capitalism," and it works for the common good.

  3. It would never work in the UK. Not ever.

    With a guaranteed income the finance companies would simply issue more debt into the housing market, which would send the already expensive house prices further up into the stratosphere.

    "People excel at activities that involve communication, imagination and problem-solving."

    Some people, sure.

    But how many would simply vegetate in front of the TV, YouTube and Facebook? There are a lot of "I can't be arsed" people about.

    But anyway, it would be impossible to get this one through parliament. Already we are being told that the "triple lock" state pension is unaffordable.

    And how would the world's exporters view the idea that the British are getting free money to buy the produce of their hard labour? I suspect that the value of the GBP would take a massive fall into the abyss.

    There is no free lunch to be found here.

    1. I think we should ponder deeply on exactly what the problem is with "can't be arsed". Whose problem is it? Why is it a problem and to whom does it cause difficulty?
      If the effect of a UBI is to discover that half the population thinks that the employment on offer is a waste of their time or beneath their dignity, would they be wrong?

    2. I have pondered.

      It has taken me down several interesting alleyways. But I always arrive back at the question, will the rest of the population be prepared to tolerate the concept of supporting the 50% of potential workers and their familes that have voluntarily opted out of working?

      Economists and governments will certainly hate the idea, as humans are seen as resources, to be exploited with maximum output squeezed from each of us. And the maximum must increase every year.

      We need to keep on economically growing. It is fundamental to the economic universe. Accepting and planning for falling gdp is seen as total anathema. Japan should be doing this due to their demographics, but they are still on the "need 2% inflation for growth" path.

    3. Why do you assume large numbers of people would opt out of working? This is a BASIC income. It's not intended to give a cmfortabe lifestyle. For that, people need to work.

      The available evidence (eg from the Manitoba experiment) is that those who opt out of working do so to study, or to care for children or elderly relatives. There is no increase in simple idleness.

    4. Richard

      Why do you assume other workers will be supporting a Basic Income? If it was introduced along with a comprehensive LVT and a corresponding reduction in all the other taxes on output and employment (VAT, NI, income tax) then it could be sold as a 'citizen's dividend'. In which case most people would support it (apart from the usual suspects - i.e. landowners and banks).

  4. Richard, I think the system would replace the existing complex benefits system, so the free lunch would be just a different one to that available now. Yes, there would be the lazy ones that vegetate: the level of the basic income would have to be set at a low enough level to discourage this, but at a high enough level to enable reasonable subsistence. I'd also suggest that the universal basic income should be implemented worldwide; this unfortunately in today's world would be impossible. If it's not implemented worldwide, then businesses still have the ability to outsource labour to where it is cheap/exploitative.

  5. Interesting read, thank you. Jaron Lanier has written a very interesting book on technology and future workforce issues (though I don't remember him proposing UBI in there). "Who owns the Future". MartinT

  6. Good to see you agreeing that 'jobs' are an historical anomaly that are dying out (except in the public sector where competition from reality appears not to apply).

    Yet nothing from you on what the state should be doing to help people live flexible lives based around selling their skills and ideas. Surely there has to be huge scope in scaling back regulations and processes to make the lot of the everyday individual skill-seller as easy as possible.

    Recent moves to try to force Uber and Airbnb to 'fit' into existing formal legal categories look like exactly the wrong way to go. It's those categories themselves invented in utterly different conditions that are now the problem, not the creative churning throwing up completely new networked ways of doing things

    1. I'm betting Charles is a person of a position who benefits from *using* Uber and Deliveroo rather than working for them as one if its "self employed partners".

    2. Charles,

      This is a blogpost about the impact of automation on jobs and the need for a universal basic income as a labour market stabiliser. It is not a polemic about the evils of regulation and the joys of free trade. It would have been completely inappropriate to discuss this here, or indeed in the presentation at the Meaning conference on which this piece is based.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I can see the appeal of basic income, especially from the perspective of well-educated and resourced liberals (I class myself there). However I am going to say again that I favour a job-guarantee approach. And you can say that they are not mutually exclusive but I feel compared side-by-side a JG is simply more effective at tackling the practical problem as outlined.
    I get very concerned when I see Silicon Valley tech monopolists calling for a UBI. For them and their ilk it is guaranteed additional revenue stream from which to rent-seek. Individuals wanting to top-up their UBI with work will still be faced with poor quality exploitative jobs, since UBI does not provide incentive for employers to eliminate menial work, there will potentially be a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands. In contrast a JG approach, by giving people active roles and skills, makes available labour more scarce and creates a floor below which job quality and pay is not going to fall. It's also potentially an incredibly effect counter cyclical tool as the JG job pool can expand and contract on the basis of how well the private sector is doing. This is then genuine incentive for industry to automate away drudgery labour. (In any case I believe the "robots will take our jobs" is massively over sold. This argument has cropped up every other generation or so since the agricultural revolution when 80% of people worked the land. The nature of work has always changed with technology but it is really class and power struggles that shape what people are doing with their time and how they are rewarded for it.)
    UBI sits very nicely in the liberal utopia but in the here and now I think a significant section of the population is better off with organised roles in which they can be provided skills. That's not to say a JG cannot be flexible enough for people to start their own small businesses (more as you might view UBI). Roles can also be steered towards creative endeavour (the nice to have stuff) if that is what society desires. I think it's also an easier sell politically than UBI (and NOT as reduced to workfare!)

  8. I agree with the UBI concept but I have another idea, another proposal that could go farther and I have not heard of it anywhere, maybe because it's a stupid idea but worth saying since good ideas come by brainstorming through bad ideas. But let's get to the beef: since the future world will be overwhelmingly labored by robots, what about regulating the property of robots. In spite of letting companies own thousands or millions of robots, thus creating a world with few rich owners and billions of UBI subsistence-level humans (or scavengers if UBI is not introduced), we could otherwise restraint the ownership of robots to humans only (no companies) and with a max and reduced number of robots per capita. In that way, most of the people would own at least a robot (and a wage), some would own the max number of robots (like earning 2-3 wages at the same time) via saving and investing, and others would own their max number of robots and a company. No restraint to become millionaire or billionaire. The basics of our market system would be in place anyway. Robots would be equivalent to humans on a wage basis and we could go back to more prosperous times of high labor level. The ones who now work for a living (or can't work) could avoid the current progressive marginalization while the ones who want to progress, invest and work hard would do the same as today. All people would decently live on a working wage (actually working or having a robot that works for them). And if not everyone can fall in the lot, dropouts could be saved by a UBI program tailored for them only, like we have unemployment programs. I don't know if it's viable but I hope anyway that the UBI discussions, now and in the future, remains rational and practical and avoids ethical and emotional strings. And, yes, if someone uses the adjective "lazy" in his/her comment, I think that's not rational.

  9. Interesting piece. But I think it's the CONCEPT of "people having something for nothing" that will stand in the way of a universal income. Can't you see the Daily Mail and the Telegraph headlines in the UK, and whatever the equivalent is in the US? There will be the usual bull rush to gore the idea to death and trample it down. And as for all the innumerable websites who will say the same thing to their followers....! Actually I'm starting to feel the real problem is that we are moving towards being ungovernable by democratic agreement and so major realignments like this would actually be impossible. I have no idea what the answer is to too much information & the flight to the echo chamber - but I think we're going to have to find one.

  10. Whatever but the truth is that we sure need decent unemployments

  11. We all get something for nothing. For those out of work it's called benefits or pensions. For those in work it's called a tax allowance. Politicians have made much in recent years of how much they've increased the allowance (but not the national insurance disregard) but as a result the tax burden now falls mainly on middle incomes. Tax allowances are no use to someone earning less than the tax allowance, an increasing number in these gig economy/piece rate days, while benefiting more those on higher incomes at least up to £100k.

    Replacing most benefits and all tax/NI allowances with a basic income is not only a civilising thing to do, realising the duty of care a government should have for the citizen and voter, but also releases people from the deathly grip of the state which we see so devastatingly in Ken Loach's recent film and which leads to so many mental health problems. Until such time as the housing crisis is solved (if ever), we would still need some support there and some people who are severely disabled would also need help but I believe that most other benefits could be abolished, maybe over a short transition time.

    All sorts of self help, creative industries, back room coding, dog walking, caring and other benefits could ensue. Some may lie back on the sofa and watch reality TV all day but I don't believe that this would last long or would be common and anyway is a small price to pay for solving not only the devastation caused by the DWP but also the imminent lack of real work that robots will lead to.

    And if robots do all the work, make all the gadgets, just who will buy the products if there are poverty wages and no spare cash?

    For all those reasons, basic income is inevitable. The first country to implement it comprehensively will be the winner not only in the happiness stakes but, I believe, economically because people's creativity and humanity is what separates us from robots.

    I like the general thrust of Anthony Painter's post last December on the RSA website.

  12. Excellent piece, Frances.

    The problem of course is that the super-rich will fight against UBI or similar measures which benefit the whole of humanity through technology, because such measures would dilute their power.

    I don't see most of the British tabloid press (owned by far-right billionaires) being supportive of UBI, and since they and their wealthy pals have politicians in their pockets too, they will put a stop to it. Likewise in the US with certain powerful networks which exist to convince Americans that what is good for rich people is good for them.

    I fear the reality is more likely to be a return to Victorian wealth inequality.

  13. One of the main struggles in life is the battle against ennui. Most of us are bored in work, even in roles that are - ostensibly - intellectually 'stimulating'. There are many who would rather be bored in the orderly conditions provided by work than in the potentially disorderly and demoralizing conditions of the home. Of course, some people might use a guaranteed income in productive and useful ways; many, however, lacking that discipline and having doubtful self-worth, might find their lives becoming increasingly unhappy, chaotic and self-destructive (which would, in turn, be a problem for the state). Many on the political right sense this, and are well aware of the disciplinary benefits of being in regular employment or having to struggle to find such employment; the most compelling arguments against a guaranteed income have more to do with potential threats to public order than anxieties about the cost. Although the late Andrew Glyn argued (in 'Capitalism Unleashed' OUP, 2006) that the guaranteed income should be in the form of a single payment, there is a strong probability that certain interest groups will plead that their allowance be made higher than the standard, which might also compromise the credibility of the system and lead to the sort of complexities it is presumably projected to eliminate.

    I think that the introduction of a guaranteed income would only be worthwhile if it were allied with programmes designed to stimulate people both intellectually and morally (for instance, by requiring the mass media to improve the quality of its content) and - still more significantly - controlling population growth so that the surplus labour is diminished and there is less downward pressure on the wages of those still in work. Thus one form of state intrusion might beget others.

    Finally, a guaranteed income will only be of any use to people if the cost of essentials moderates. Whilst we have relatively cheap food, water and clothing and, to a lesser degree, energy, the cost of shelter is now wildly irrational, chiefly (in the UK) as a function of 53 years of compounded untaxed capital gains bearing down upon younger generations (following the abolition of Schedule A in 1963). A guaranteed income will probably be futile if this very serious evil is not confronted (i.e., that Schedule A, or something akin to it, is restored), since it would still leave many people in a dire position unless it were pitched at a high (unaffordable) level; in default of that, it would simply become housing benefit under another name - i.e., a lavish form of subsidy to the rentier class.

    1. If employment stability remains a problem even with a UBI, then the obvious thing to do is to partner it with a job guarantee scheme. Another commenter has suggested this already, although he seems to think it would work as an alternative to UBI, which I dispute - if JG is not partnered with something like a UBI, it becomes workfare at the margin.

      The whole point about UBI is that it is UNIVERSAL and BASIC. If special interest groups are paid more, it is not universal. If it is set too high, it is not basic. UBI is not a panacea: some marginalised groups will need additional support, but this should not take the form of increasing their UBI. UBI can't replace all welfare.

      I don't agree with your Malthusian argument that UBI requires measures to limit population growth. We don't have a surplus of labour. In some sectors, we have a shortage. If low wages remain a problem when people are able to refuse work, there may be a need for intervention to support wages: this could take the form of a job guarantee scheme, the remuneration for which would act as a wage floor. But remember that the existence of a UBI, assuming no coercion to work, would tend to tighten the labour market anyway. At the margin there may be people who take advantage of UBI to have larger families, but this effect is likely to be small.

      I find your argument that the masses will need "programmes to stimulate people both intellectually and morally" patronising in the extreme. And I don't agree with political control of the media.

      I agree that UBI cannot solve our housing problem. Nor should it. We won't fix our housing problem until we stop regarding property as an investment asset, and return it to its primary function - the provision of the basic survival need of shelter.

    2. #3 What looms over all this discussion is Keynes’ familiar arguments in ‘The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’. Whilst his belief in the salvific properties of compound interest has not come to pass (and certainly not in current circumstances) he was accurate in warning of the danger that humans will be rendered obsolete by technology. The question in 1930 was whether compound interest would net people a sufficient competence to off-set the potentially disastrous consequences of human obsolescence in the workplace. This has not worked, so we must now rely on taxation to provide such an off-set and keep people in food and warmth (if not in shelter). I have looked at my copy of Essays in Persuasion from my set of Sraffa. Keynes noted:

      ‘… for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’ He goes on: ‘it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.’ He earlier remarks ‘I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades’, warning that it might cause a ‘nervous break-down’. His solution is that we must abandon a ‘purposive’ existence for something higher and better: ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.’ The influence of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica is palpable; by ‘the good and the useful’ I assume Keynes meant concentrating on good works (like his Congregationalist mother) or on the arts (like many of his friends, who were also much influenced by Moore) or the sciences.

      As to my admittedly egregious Malthusian remarks, Keynes went on to state:

      ‘The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things-our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.’

      The control of population is presumably of some importance if the strains resulting from a world without [much] work are not to become acute and destabilising. I do appreciate that some sectors are suffering from severe skills shortages, but am not certain that defeats the point that – in the aggregate – there are too many people chasing too few opportunities that will allow them an adequate means of subsistence, even if they have the benefit of a guaranteed income and even if UBI would tend to tighten the labour market. Again, the more people there are on UBI, the more the affluent will be tempted to strike against it; the application of universality to many benefits after 1945 did not, at length, eliminate the risk of the rich withdrawing their support from much of the welfare state, as they did to some extent after 1979.

      So if a universal guaranteed income is Keynes’ compound interest under another name, it might work more satisfactorily and retain at least the truculent support of those required to finance it if it is allied with policies that help people cope with an excess of free time. I grant that point may be ‘patronising in the extreme’, but at least I hope I was not being original in making it.

  14. #1 Many thanks for your chastening remarks. I agree with other comments that your piece is excellent (and I should add that I think that your blog is one of the best things going at present).

    If I recall many of the right-leaning proponents of UBI have thought it is only tenable if it replaces all existing benefits. Glyn (definitely not of the right) suggested that it replace almost all existing benefits and that it be set at a relatively austere level (pp. 180-83 of Capitalism Unleashed). This is why I felt it necessary to write something about the cost of housing – since if UBI were adopted in order to replace most forms of welfare (what government would not want to extinguish its housing benefit liabilities?) much of it would either end up in the pockets of landlords or mortgagees and/or being basic it would be insufficient to allow its recipients to satisfy the demands of landlords or mortgagees, resulting in a potential spike in homelessness. I completely agree that people need to think of housing chiefly as accommodation rather than as an investment, but suspect that they will never do so when the gains derived from owner occupation remain untaxed whilst almost everything else is taxed fairly heavily. More particularly, there is no likelihood of taxation of residential property being reformed on more equitable lines until the number of struggling tenants supersedes (and out-votes) the number of defensive/entitled owner occupiers (or would-be owner occupiers), which could still take more than a generation (if ever) and will be far too late for most of those currently deciding whether to forego a pension or secure housing (comparatively few of those aged below 50 and lacking access to a DB scheme being able to afford both). To strike at the ‘unearned increment’ would be to assault the solvency of the banks (for whom residential mortgages are such a great part of the loan book) and, by extension, the financial wherewithal of the state. My fear is that the positive effects of UBI will be compromised very largely, if not completely, unless the cost of housing is reduced, whether via taxation and/or the revival of rent controls (perhaps along the lines of the Rent Act 1977).

  15. An obvious problem, which has presumably been solved: the incentive for people (women/families) to add to increase their UBI just by having children. Humans obviously have plenty of incentive for initiating that process anyway; and in many/most societies, having children increases a person's social status. Anybody who takes parenting seriously knows that you'll spend an awful lot of time & money on a child; but there ARE people who don't take that awesome responsibility seriously.

    Presumably, a new child's UBI would be administered by the child's parent(s). Many people (here in the US, at least) already think that others are already making babies largely to get free money from the government. The concern can easily be stated as "Why should I work and pay taxes that just get turned over to Them?" Often, "them" means people with skin browner than the speaker's, but the concern cannot just be dismissed as racist; it must be answered.

    - elkern

  16. here you go..

  17. Taking more from the producers of goods and services to provide a basic income to those who don't want to produce something of value to trade (i.e. "pursue more meaningful work") is immoral and undermines the real economy and price signals. We sustain ourselves by meeting each other's needs. That is the basis of any economy. Tampering with that is unwise.

  18. The market values the labor and goods others demand not what you want to produce. Circumventing this will cause huge mismatches in what people want and need to survive and what is produced. This idea will lead to more poverty not its alleviation.


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