Once, during a long shift at our customer service job, my colleague and I bemoaned the near impossibility of making decent money from our creative passions. The prevalence of contract and freelance work, and the toxic culture of “payment by exposure” are dispiriting.
Some suggest a universal basic income (UBI) would help. A regular, generous and unconditional pay cheque promises a stable platform to hone one’s passions, without needing to work menial jobs to make ends meet. Giving arts-lovers more time to read, watch and listen would also lift demand for artistic products. After all, liberation from the daily grind prompted a flourishing artistic life in Ancient Rome (excluding the slaves of course).
Alas, we should not quit our day jobs. Not only is UBI unlikely to be implemented, it could do workers more harm than good, particularly creative workers. Indeed, UBI seems more of a capitulation to the precarity of the modern labour market than a solution to them.
As a young university graduate, I’ve experienced first-hand the bleak seagulls-to-chip paradigm of the modern labour market. Employers now expect years of experience for entry-level positions, meaning young people must undertake mostly-unpaid internships to gain skills and experience. With a middle-class family and a well-paid casual job, I can afford to volunteer. Yet for many working-class kids, volunteering means impoverishment. Particularly, creatives are increasingly paid in “exposure”, or told to be grateful for the fleeting opportunity to do what they love.
On one hand, a UBI could alleviate material deprivation by supplementing unpaid work. Yet the fundamental issue remains — the work is still unpaid. In fact, UBI has the potential to exacerbate underpayment, by outsourcing the moral responsibility for workers’ subsistence from employers to governments. Employers could be emboldened to extract more value from them for smaller recompense.
Furthermore, the enormous cost of a UBI could constrain the government’s ability to intervene in markets and invest in public goods. With governments hamstrung by a lack of revenue, the private sector may usurp larger swaths of increasingly privatised public goods. Often perceived as a luxury or afterthought, the arts could suffer in such a scenario. The moral burden of sustaining the nation’s cultural life could transfer from governments to individuals. Creatives could subsist, but with few possibilities for exposure and growth.
UBI advocates’ response to such criticism is usually that kinks can be ironed out along the way. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says, “move fast and break things”, clean the mess up later. The current imperative is to disrupt the status quo. After Zuckerberg’s recent grilling before the US Congress, we can see where such recklessness leads. If UBI is to be taken seriously, advocates must not shirk genuine critiques, particularly those of fellow progressives. Particularly, we must not sacrifice the wellbeing and opportunities of working people in our rush to tech utopia.
UBI certainly may help, but only as a small part of a wider agenda. Many trials show positive results, yet some show negligible benefits. Whether any of these results can be extrapolated is doubtful. Much depends on the model and context, and other complimentary reforms.
Yet for many UBI advocates, its simplicity is its strength. Hence its attractiveness in Silicon Valley — it sidesteps the nuanced evaluation of politics and culture, and instead proposes a Shiny New Thing™. Wealthy “futurists” plough on undeterred by risks they aren’t exposed to. An ambivalence towards the messy task of disentangling complex economic and social inequities does a disservice to those UBI purports to help.
Making welfare transfers less conditional and more generous is imperative. Opening a conversation on the adequacy of welfare payments is useful, yet proposing silver bullets is not. Much like globalisation and trade, UBI could be done well or terribly, and the rapid deterioration of our social and cultural fabric under neoliberalism should stand as a warning — embark on doctrinal utopias carefully or not at all.
For now, age-old concerns need tending to — better industrial protections, pay rises, and more funding for public goods. Investing in opportunities for creative young people would be a good place to start.
Benjamin Clark is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.