Elon Musk

Universal basic income isn’t likely to disappear off the policy agenda any time soon. That’s not because it’s some “leftie nonsense” as some in the media would suggest — even though the Greens in both the UK and Australia have adopted it. Quite the opposite — UBI is a neoliberal solution to a particularly neoliberal problem.

As New Daily‘s Rob Burgess has noted, one of the early spruikers of UBI was, famously, Milton Friedman, who called it a “negative income tax”. Friedman also wanted a road pricing scheme in which roads would be painted with radioactive paint and each car would be equipped with Geiger counter to measure the distance it travelled, so Friedman’s tendency to devise Rube Goldberg machine-style solutions to policy problems should be enough to warn us of the flaws of UBI.

But its neoliberal origins go beyond Friedman, and are surprisingly supported by the left. Advocacy for UBI from both the Left — as per Richard Di Natale last week — and the Right (billionaire libertarian tech entrepreneurs from the US, whom we might denote as the Silicon Right) is justified by the belief that automation will destroy a vast proportion of jobs in coming decades, putting a substantial proportion of the workforce permanently out of work. Such arguments usually rely on a round of implausible studies in the last couple of years that purport to show 30-40% of jobs in Western economies at risk from robots. This sort of thing is great for attracting headlines; it’s much rarer for the researchers who point out the gaping flaws in this stuff (often peddled by that most pestilential form of consultant, the “futurist”) to get a run.

As Crikey has noted previously, in fact our current problem is that, far from running out of jobs, we still need to import tens of thousands of workers a year to fill gaps in our services industries. But for plenty of the “robots will take our jobs” types, service industry jobs aren’t real jobs; their understanding of jobs is shaped by the gendered workforce of yesteryear, in which manufacturing and muscle jobs were the real thing, not female-dominated professions like teaching, health care and child care.

Basing the case for UBI on the decline of employment a risky bet that this time, unlike throughout our entire economic history, it will be different and automation won’t lead to new jobs that we can’t even conceive of yet. But it’s also fundamentally a neoliberal answer to a neoliberal problem; the fact that the Silicon Right advocates it should signal this. The tech sector has been highly effective at forcing down wages and preventing workers from engaging in collective bargaining — Amazon has repeatedly defeated attempts by its employees to unionise; there’s evidence the arrival of an Amazon facility forces wages down. Apple has also defeated an attempt to unionise its retail store employees; Intel brought in a non-union contractor after cafeteria workers voted to unionise; Tesla (Elon Musk has been a prominent UBI advocate) sacked workers who tried to unionise.

Relentless wage suppression has a cost. There’s the public shame that your workers have to live in garages because you don’t pay them enough. And the consequences for consumer demand of refusing to pay people a decent salary. UBI is fix for that: instead of Elon Musk paying Tesla workers a decent salary, or Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook allowing workers to unionise so they can bargain more effectively for wage rises, shift the burden of ensuring employees have a decent income off shareholders and onto taxpayers. What could be more pro-business than governments relieving business of the burden of ensuring employees can actually survive?

UBI, as a policy tool, is also fundamentally individualist in a way that particularly appeals to neoliberals. Poverty, strangely, isn’t merely about money. It’s about a myriad of factors that include the home environment, access to education and healthcare, proximity to infrastructure and community and relationships. Handing someone a basic income when they lack the skill to manage their finances, if they’re severely affected by chronic disease or disability, suffer domestic violence or lack access to support services, may not lead to any improvement in their standard of living.

When an industry shutters, or a regional area is disproportionately affected by economic change, we don’t hand out cheques, we provide for retraining and other assistance designed to help workers gain skills they can use in other jobs. UBI is a moral bribe — take this handout, and society has discharged its responsibility to you, regardless of what happens to you now.

But for the moment, it seems, many on the left are incapable of creative thinking about the economy, and remain happy to let their neoliberal opponents guide the debate.