Basic Income

When it comes to the concept of guaranteed basic income (a great site to find out more about this is http://basicincome.org/), there’s a fairly common argument about ‘moral hazard’ – how it’s going to make everyone lazy and nobody will participate in the workforce.

I can’t avoid the following thought: Of course many people wouldn’t want to participate in the mainstream workforce exactly as it is now, if instead they could opt out and still maintain a comparable quality of life. I think it’s likely that many of the people who work in the service/retail industry, or who do hard labour, would never keep doing that if they could get paid a livable amount and not do the back-breaking / soul-sucking work they’re used to doing. They’d spend their time with family or doing hobbies or taking courses or volunteering or working on their favourite artistic/creative projects, probably. And I think it’s likely that eventually they’d branch out into new hobbies/areas of study/volunteer work/apprenticeships to the extent that they’d gain the new skills or know-how to start a new kind of career that they like better and that uses their talents a lot better than retail or hard labour.

(Faced with this reality, we have to ask the question: who the hell will do the hard and/or ‘grunt’ labour? Cashiers’ jobs – just as an example – already seem to be in danger of being replaced with self-checkouts, but somebody has to clean the toilets, and as far as I know, nobody likes doing that work. Right now, whoever is most exploited or dis-empowered ends up having to do that kind of work. Maybe the reality is that in a society where the current ‘lowest classes’ merge with what we currently might call ‘lower-middle’, we’d all have to take turns doing some very undesirable but necessary work on an alternating weekly or seasonal basis or something. Maybe there’d be more EDs and CEOs taking a turn to clean a bathroom in the office once in a while. And maybe all the nail salons – which currently create highly undesirable, dangerous, yet completely UN-necessary work – would close down, and who needs them anyway!

I’m not sure what we’d do about the many kinds of necessary work that require expertise and training and commitment to that particular occupation – and therefore can’t be distributed or shared among professionals who specialize in another kind of work – but which for whatever reason are undesirable. Many jobs in the service sector and certain trades probably fall in that category…perhaps these jobs can be re-imagined or re-structured in some fashion that makes them more desirable and makes the workers better off so that the positions aren’t left vacant. We need to ask and investigate [probably by talking to the workers themselves]: is it really the nature of this work that makes it undesirable, or is it something to do with current trends in particular industries, or part of the culture of that kind of work, etc. Construction and other trades might be very appealing work IF workers were adequately protected, given reasonable working hours and time off, if adequate safety measures were put in place, and if the workplace and broader culture didn’t demean the workers.

What I do know is that as long as there are jobs that are undesirable to [all] workers, but deemed necessary by society, society will find ways to dis-empower and exploit people in order to coerce them into these positions. The only alternatives to this are to re-examine the necessity of those jobs – are these jobs REALLY necessary for a healthy society, or can we re-structure society a bit so that they become unnecessary – or to ‘fix’ the jobs so that they are no longer undesirable to workers, or to distribute the jobs somehow in an egalitarian fashion so that an underclass doesn’t develop. Maybe there are other alternatives too. A free market based solution would suggest that the wages would just get higher and higher until the work became worth doing – it would still be lousy work, but it would pay so well that somebody would want to do it. There are limits to the effectiveness of this solution of course; the labour might become so expensive that the work just wouldn’t be economical anymore. And until/unless guaranteed income becomes the rule in ALL countries and areas of the world, there will always be outsourcing…)

Some of us more privileged folks who work at coordinating programs and services for the community, or who do research, or who teach, or who work for or run businesses, might keep right on working the same job as we did before. However, I think that with guaranteed income as a backup security net, we might be more willing to fight for reasonable working hours and benefits where applicable. That is, we’d be less scared of losing our jobs, and more willing to take risks when it comes to being our own advocates and promoting our own best interests in the workplace.

Those of us who like having a lot of money and aren’t happy with just the guaranteed income would be adverse to the basic (minimum) option, and instead continue to work the more ‘high-power’ jobs and make the big bucks. BUT, maybe, just maybe, some people who had been stuck in the so-called rat race for a long time would ‘convert’ and come around to the idea that maybe you can be happy and less stressed with a basic living stipend and a less demanding job along with some personal projects and hobbies. Maybe they’d take a risk and try a job they never would have seen themselves in before, and wind up as teachers or something. Who knows.

Anyway, this is all quite rosy, but it’s a kind of optimistic alternative or counter to the ‘moral hazard’ objection, which is just as laden with assumptions and biases (of a different kind). Time will tell regarding what the reality really looks like. They’re putting guaranteed income to the test in parts of India and in some European countries.

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