The universal problem with Labor’s universal basic income

Labor’s universal basic income is extremely flawed, as they’ve missed the fundamental points. Instead of using it to replace the welfare system wholesale, an intelligent tax solution will see us take the next step.

 

 

Dear Chris Bowen,

I have, for the last month, been thinking about your comments regarding the idea of a Universal Basic Income, and about how I might reply to your concerns that the UBI would not achieve what its proponents suggest it will.

In short, I believe you have misunderstood the basic tenets of a UBI.

Further, I believe it is time for the Labor Party to re-evaluate its position on how it is that Australians gain dignity.

You see, we are in a time when there just are not enough jobs available for the people who are fit for work. Not only that but not all those who are fit for a job have any desire to perform the jobs that are currently available. For some, this means not applying for a job as a cleaner. Why would an artist want to waste creative time cleaning toilets? This is a job that we should no longer have to perform anymore as machines are more than capable of performing it. Cleaning toilets awards no dignity. Current levels of welfare payments, and the punitive manner in which these payments are distributed, or taken away, certainly do not add to it. Not only that, but the amount of each payment does nothing to lift a person in need above the poverty line.

Neither LNP nor ALP governments have changed this fact. This, of course, is deliberate and forms part of the punitive nature of the administration of payments. Governments do not wish to pay anybody a welfare payment if they can possibly not pay it.

As we move further into this age of the machine/robot, greater and greater numbers of jobs will disappear. As they do, Labor’s staunch belief in the ideal of full employment becomes less and less tenable. It is time to begin reevaluating the premise on which the belief was formed, reimagining it for a new age, one that looks nothing like the industrial one in which it was first imagined.

This is where a Universal Income fits into the narrative. It is the belief that there are more possibilities for human dignity than those contained in work alone. After all, if this were not the case there would have been no point in the union movements of the past winning the eight hours work, eight hours rest and recreation, eight hours sleep concessions of the nineteenth century.

 

In the future, Labor’s staunch belief in full employment becomes less and less tenable. It is time to begin reevaluating the premise on which the belief was formed, reimagining it for a new age, one that looks nothing like the industrial one in which it was first imagined.

 

I have already mentioned the artist, for whom the 8/8/8 formula is a travesty. What good is it to have a job when attending to that job means the giving over of one’s energy and brain work to a boss? Not only that, but because that person cannot afford, on the wages of a cleaner, to live near to where they work, they must give part of either their eight hours of sleep or recreation in the pursuit of moving to the place where their labour is required.

For many, especially in large cities, this can mean up to four hours of travel every day. That person not only cannot earn money during this time, but they are required to pay rent for the seat they occupy on the train if there is a seat on which they can sit.

The UBI has a place in this person’s life. The UBI means that this person is not forced to meet the requirements of their unseen boss, is not forced to travel for demeaning work is not forced to pay to attend a job that takes away from their creative energies, and a UBI means that they are able to spend their time in the pursuit of production that has its own benefits to our society.

But that is not the be-all and end-all of the UBI, by any stretch.

For the person whose dignity and self-worth is in the trade they learned, in the laying of bricks, for instance, the UBI offers the worker the very thing that the unions work tirelessly to provide: leverage in wage and conditions negotiations.

Imagine a worker being able to sit with a prospective boss, in a position to say to that boss something like, “I don’t need to work for you because of the UBI. But boss, I want to work with you. Let’s negotiate.”

That worker has tangible power in that negotiation. The boss understands that the worker is motivated to work, and also can know that the worker is motivated to work for them. The boss must take into account the fact that no worker needs a job, so that if a worker wants a job, they are more valuable to the boss than ten who don’t want to be there. In this idea lies the power that workers and unions have striven to achieve over generations.

As for the financial nuts and bolts of a UBI, there are a number of ways in which it can, and has, been implemented in order to not place an undue strain on the economy. The work of Peter Whiteford, which you have quoted, is flawed if it simply takes the current amount of money paid in benefits and distributes it across the entire population.

 

The work of robots could be taxed. This idea comes from the fact that a company must pay according to the number of people they replace with technology.

 

One idea put to pay for a UBI is that of a graduated taxation system that would apply to every dollar earned in paid work. Such a system would be tailored so that, by the time a person’s earnings reached a certain threshold, they would effectively be repaying their own UBI back in tax. Thus your assertion, that a UBI is a non-means tested welfare payment to the rich, is based on a fallacy. It is not as if the rich would not repay their payments. It is that the rich and the poor alike would have a choice about the income they earned, what work they did to secure it, and the amount of their time they devoted to the pursuit of it. Why should it be only for the rich that there is a choice in the number of recreation hours taken each day? Why should the poor not have an income that lifts them out of poverty entirely?

One area of saving, for a government that introduced a UBI, would be in the administrative machine that oversees the current welfare system. Savings in this area would be huge as the burden on those receiving payments would be lifted, almost entirely, leaving no need for the current departments to exist in their current form.

You have already mentioned the unfairness of the current taxation system, so any manner in which the system seeks to recoup UBI monies must be more equitable than the system it replaces. Corporate taxes must be garnished from companies that currently do not repay our society according to the wealth our society bestows on them. Mining companies must be made to pay fairly for the resources they take from our lands.

Another idea is that the work of robots could be taxed. This idea comes from the fact that the company must pay according to the number of people it is replacing with technology. In this, a robot that does the work of five cleaners in a shopping centre would pay less tax than a robot that takes the jobs of twenty factory workers.

What we must not do is to leave the onus for paying taxes on the people who can least afford it. What we must do, instead, is to redistribute the money within our society in a more fair and equitable manner. I strongly believe that the implementation of a Universal Basic Income can, and should, be foundational for the Labor Party going into the next election. This is a discussion about values. For a long time, I have adhered to the values of the Labor Party, and the union movement as a whole. However, I have seen
that the ideals on which these movements were built no longer suit the society in which we wish to live.

Just as the 8/8/8 was the best that we could hope for in circumstances where children were working 18 hour days, six or seven days a week, we now have a new hope: that those who wish to create, to innovate, to dream, can afford to do just that, for it is those who have the time, the energy, and the income who invent, create, and add worth to the lives of us all.

We owe it to every Australian to at least have the discussion.

Husband, father, cyclist, teacher and writer. Andrew has lived in every mainland State, went to 8 schools in 3 of them, completed a BA (which took him 10 years) with double majors in English, and a Grad Dip (which only took him one year). Andrew is interested in Philosophy as a way of living a well-examined life, Epicurean thought as a way of enjoying more of it, and the essay as a way of expressing it to others.

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