UBI proponent Hillary Clinton.

OFFICIAL DEFINITION

Universal basic income (UBI) is the unconditional distribution or guarantee of income by a state to its every citizen.

RAZER DEFINITION

UBI is a proposal for the above. Should you read or hear that UBI is not a proposal but a policy that has been trialled, don’t believe it. No. Not in Finland. Or Alaska. Or Silicon Valley. And not in England of the late 18th century, either. These trials were not of UBI. Unless we agree that the “U” in UBI does not signify “universal” but “unusually small sample size”.

As UBI remains a proposal, it is proposed differently by different authors. This is understandable, but also very annoying. UBI can mean whatever one thinker thinks it should, which makes it impossible to argue with or assess.

WHY IT MATTERS

However flawed, absurd, immoral or unworkable it might seem, UBI has many influential fans. It has powerful advocates in business and the emerging financial centre of Silicon Valley. Influential political figures throughout the West discuss it seriously. Hillary Rodham Clinton considered a UBI policy as part of her 2016 campaign and she has since mentioned it favourably.

Silicon Valley types love UBI. Image credit: Austin Diesel/Unsplash

It matters because many of us less influential persons simply do not have the money to buy things. This crisis of capitalism demands a solution and, at the time of writing, UBI is the one thing that large numbers of policymakers can agree upon.

WHO CARES?

Save for a few wholesome monks and some unwholesome preppers, every person requires money to ensure their survival. Ergo everyone cares, even if by instinct, about UBI, or any proposal for survival in an era of widespread insecure employment.

Shareholders and the C-suite folk who serve them care very much that we, the many, have enough cash to buy what they’re selling.

RELEVANT FACTS

  • UBI-ish measures have been discussed throughout the industrial age. E.g. Thomas Paine proposed a Citizen’s Dividend in the 18th century. Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax came to us in the 20th.
  • Western economies of the present have produced wealth inequality and poverty unseen since the Great Depression.
  • UBI has advocates of powerfully different persuasions. Zuckerberg, former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, Desmond Tutu and the bloke who invented the World Wide Web are all on board.

RAZER’S LAST WORD

The best that can be said for UBI is that its imposition would put an end to the costly bureaucratic indignities endured by persons who require welfare benefits.

The worst that can be said of it? “It’s loved by both Left and Right”, AKA “neither party has thought it through”. The UBI left believes that higher corporate taxes and increased social services needed to make UBI a functional reality will be accepted by the right. The UBI right believes it can pacify the masses with a few bucks.

The policy is preferable to its only current opponent the Job Guarantee (JG). JG is favoured by advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and not too different from the Keynesian and New Deal-era policy of full (male) employment.

UBI may stabilise some economies in the short term; just as neoliberalism and Keynesianism did. It may produce its intended shift: a mass is able to buy commodities sufficient to maintain a national economy. Even so, this shift will produce its tendencies, including:

  • transformation by wealthy citizens of UBI into capital;
  • use of UBI by impoverished citizens to increase capital of wealthy citizens;
  • greater exploitation of cheap labour; and
  • greater problems for and exploitation of non-citizens, including asylum seekers, other visa holders and undocumented peoples.

FURTHER READING

For: Utopia for Realists

Against: The False Promise of Universal Basic Income

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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