Universal Basic Income is the policy that an innovative society needs

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Friday, 15 January 2016

Australia currently has a Prime Minister who claims he wants to create an innovative nation. I lost sight of how innovative we truly are whilst driving through the smog haze caused by the coal fired electricity generators around Yallourn in Victoria and similar monstrosities in the Upper Hunter in New South Wales. Our previous Prime Minister thought wind turbines an eyesore but at least you can see them clearly in the absence of choking smog.

We used to ride on the sheep’s back until the wool market collapsed. Then we put our trust in extractive industries, particularly coal, other hydrocarbons and iron ore, but the price we are getting for them has gone through the floor. Prices do not appear likely to recover in the foreseeable future.

We have a well-developed tax avoidance industry propping up the big end of town and giant multinationals, which appear to believe that tax on profits is something that bears no relation to their operations. When we create an innovation we are often too mean to develop it here and happily let it go overseas to find risk capital and a new home.

Along with New Zealand we once had the most advanced universal social welfare and generous industrial protections in the world, which European observers described at the time as “Socialism without doctrine”. But that was over a century ago.

Since the mid 1980s we have turned away from generous universal social protections and towards loading onerous obligations upon those who apply for working age social security. We have made their lives increasingly unbearable by extensive means testing. “Reciprocity” and “mutual obligation” have been the catch cries of Labor and Coalition governments respectively.

Tristram Hunt, a British MP, writing in the Guardian about the English Labour Party’s continuing obsession with the Blair/Brown governments, but with equal relevance to the Australian Labor Party’s preoccupation with the Hawke/Keating governments suggests we need to develop a:

socialism that embraces technology and modernity and sees the function of the state as supporting and empowering citizens in an age of insecurity.

The quickening pace of globalisation, changes to the labour market, the rise of robots and supercomputers, and the urgent need for social security reform are here to stay. And we need credible answers, which embody our values, to all these challenges.

Another Guardian writer John O’Farrell writing about the current Dutch pilots of universal basic income (UBI) makes the point that a UBI is about to be paid in Utrecht and 19 other municipalities in the Netherlands:

Everyone will get about £150 a week, whether working or not. The unemployed won’t find themselves penalised for finding work, and the hope is that the state will spend less money snooping on benefit claimants, moving on the homeless or locking up those driven to crime.

The idea is so refreshingly contrary to the petty conditionality that is killing the welfare state that it began to fill me with optimism that there may be a few people lying in this political gutter still looking at the stars. Once upon a time, universality was the underpinning principle of welfare. Every mother got child benefit; every child got free school milk, until that was snatched away …

In Namibia and India pilot programs have demonstrated that people who are guaranteed a non-conditional minimum survival payment are far more productive, less criminal, more innovative, more inclined to send their children to school and health clinics than those without such a guarantee.

Finland is preparing to run a series of pilot programs to test whether universal basic incomes are an appropriate way to proceed in that country. They are employing a number of university-based institutes to run evidence- based experiments.

In Australia the Jenny Macklins, Tony Abbotts, Mal Broughs and other self-justifying politicians claim to have utilised evidence-based social policies to promote the Intervention in the Northern Territory, income support tied to compulsory school attendance, the need to cutback the universality of the income support system, workfare and other attacks on the less fortunate in this country.

Their claim to have evidence for their policies is nonsense. Julia Gillard’s justification for imposing increased obligations on unemployed people because of “The simple dignity that work brings” still jars in my ears. Some forms of employment do increase dignity but many of the jobs that the precariat are forced to take in order to avoid social security sanctions are belittling.

An innovative society is not one where multinational conglomerates pay large amounts to those they consider the best scientists to work on inventions for the armament, chemical, electronic and pharmaceutical industries: that is a failed late capitalist model.

An innovative society is one in which all citizens are provided with the financial resources necessary to have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Irrespective of whether they aim to work towards civic improvement, a healthier environment, ecological sustainability, more efficient production or even just an improved life style. Real innovation can only occur in the context of a static growth model of development.

Along the way some will choose to leave jobs in call centres in order to set up a pie shop or such like, others will increase their education, still others will fulfil their creative potential. People will be freed to take on caring responsibilities. Others will remain in the employment they had before a UBI was put in place.

The options of individual choice are limitless – what is limited is that we live in a world with finite resources, a world which can only handle a limited amount of pollution and one in which the population needs to be stabilised or even decreased if we are to avoid impending ecological and humanitarian catastrophes.

This is the sort of innovative society where a UBI is a necessity rather than an option. It is imperative because only a universal income guarantee can provide every permanent resident sufficient income to live in austere comfort. It is paid to each individual without demanding anything in return. It puts an income floor under every individual permanent resident without imposing an income ceiling.

Jenni Mays, Greg Marston and I have just completed editing a collection of articles entitled Basic Income in Australia and New Zealand: Perspectives from the Neoliberal Frontier, which Palgrave Macmillian will release in March. In the preface of the book Professor Guy Standing writes:

Many Australians and New Zealanders receive pocket money as children from their parents. Some receive vast fortunes through inheritance, or receive land or other property that way, without doing a day’s work or labor for it. Yet such lucky people tend to be at the forefront of opposition to providing everybody with a basic income on the grounds that it would be “something for nothing.” If they are against providing a basic income, they should in all consistency be against pocket money and inheritance.

I would encourage all who want to understand our income security options to read this book because “knowledge is power” – but then again “ignorance is bliss”.