Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Missing Public Discussions: Universal Basic Income

Jeez, I just spent the better part of my "free" time over the last 13 days trying to get a line on the world economy, with an effort to shed light on the Unistat economy. I'm tempted to say to others who might want to wade in these deeps: hic sunt dracones (supposedly found on old maps of the uncharted world, especially the oceans: "there be dragons"), or a simple caveat lector. It's not a pretty sight. It's a bit much, for me at least. But once my first immersion was over and I made it to dry land, I felt I'd learned a lot.

Number one: I am appallingly ignorant. No matter how much time I put into this inchoate project, I'm going to be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the data. And well a topic of this sort should be: too complex. We must sketch out better and better maps for ourselves.

Well, in the so-called "first world," a lot of us look screwed. Maybe. Suffice: Things Look Sorta Bleak.
So anyway, one area I delved into was the perennial idea of providing all citizens with a basic income. This is a very old idea, and the history I'm connecting has "conservative" economists being "for" various versions of it. We'd think they would be the ones who hated the idea, but not so. I hope to get to them in some future blog-gush.

I've had my sights on a Belgian philosopher and political economist named Phillipe Van Parijs ever since I saw him talk while surfing around You Tube one night. He's probably the Main Man right now as far as UBI, or Universal Basic Income.

                                 Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, b.1952

Van Parijs comes from a left-libertarian political stance, and his main argument for UBI is based on freedom, what he calls "real freedom." In the articles and interviews and sections of books I've culled so far, he welcomes a robust public discussion on the topic, and one gets the feeling he could "win" if enough people were able to hear him answer the numerous objections to such an idea.

The particulars of the UBI idea had my head swimming, especially how it might be funded. Because the old saw that "the devil is in the details" has never seemed so apt.

Van Parijs says that if we guarantee everyone a basic income, an individual can refuse grueling work, pursue their creative aspirations (and who knows what wealth that might spin out?), and extricate themselves from abusive relationships. From an economics viewpoint, he has persuasive arguments that UBI would ease labor market problems (in which in the US a problem is low-wage work and increasing unemployment, but in Europe high unemployment).

A very basic difference between continental Western Europe and the US, was that Marx was never taken seriously in the US. I am not a Marxist, and I think there are very many problems with the various Marxisms, but as a mode of critique of capitalism, the Unistatians have missed out, in my opinion. And therefore, when I say that, yes, the jobs have all gone to India, China, Latin America...and Lenin said they would, I often get a weird sideways glance. But he did say that. He said it a long time ago. With State Capitalism, the jobs eventually will leave. And in order to break out of this all-too-deterministic nightmare, you need good ideas and a way to talk about them. It seems to me there are plenty of good ideas, but we are Missing Public Discussions about them...

I do not see the UBI popping up with any sort of regularity on Unistat corporate TV or radio "news" in the near future. (More truthfully, I'd probably jump out of my shoes if I hear it brought up once, in a serious way. And I hope I'm not driving when it happens.) So we can still talk about it on this Internet dealio, until they pry my cold, dead, etc...

Anyone out there have any takes on UBI and related ideas? This is but one of many Missing Public Discussions I will be yammering about periodically...

Here's an interview with Van Parijs from 1986. He's been at it for awhile, aye. I think most of the ideas still hold.

A fairly pithy article from a 2000 issue of Boston Review discusses the UBI idea w/o overt emphasis on Van Parijs.

A progressive blogger named Ben Wallace picks out quotes from PVP's 2000 book on UBI here.

I wanted to make sure you had enough to read; I care about you. I hope you know that!


Sue Howard said...

My kind of good read! In most cases when I've tried to discuss Basic Income with normals, the reflexive certainties of "far too utopian", "wishful thinking", "you're living in cuckooland", etc, appear. And it *seems* like good-quality certainty, on the face of it.

Which is why I like Van Parijs - he seems able to reframe Basic Income to look more practical and "realistic" than, say, existing welfare systems.

In a way I see it happening already - in modest forms (in Europe at least). In the UK we have "tax credits" - basically an acknowledgement (by government & big business) that the existing job "market" and welfare system leave millions of people (most of them "employed") far below the poverty line - which surely isn't good for business.

What I'd like to see: some easily understood measure of the total "wealth" of a society/nation - so that people can appreciate the vast, staggering amount of wealth available (somewhere!) relative to 20yrs, 50yrs ago. I mean, the way some people talk, anyone would think the planet had run out of money or something.

A couple of useful sites, with updates on progress (wrt Basic Income) in various countries:-


michael said...

Ha! When I finished typing that piece I gave it a quick glance for howling typos, saw none, and pressed send, saying to myself, "I hope Sue Howard likes this stuff..."


I had a feeling you'd be all over this. Thanks for the links.

You mention talking to the "normals." I currently see the problem of getting people who would seem to truly benefit from UBI ideas to listen, not just hear these idea, but listen. There seem to be, in Lakoff and Feldman's neurobiology of metaphors and neural circuits: ideas instantiated in neural circuits (that, even though I'm barely paying the rent) tax breaks for the wealthy mean "more jobs"...that sort of nonsense: nevertheless it's physically instantiated in neural circuitry in the brain. (Poor Unistatians have heard this idea 9000 times on the radio or TV, it must be true.) When a similar but competing idea tries to enter the brain, the existing neural circuitry for those kinds of ideas would INHIBIT the new idea. It's an uphill battle, and unfortunately, what open people up to new ideas is shock and heavy stress.

And there's no guarantee that, once opened to the utterly new, they will go with the non-fascist dictator.

Sue Howard said...

Michael wrote: "Van Parijs says that if we guarantee everyone a basic income, they can refuse grueling work, pursue their creative aspirations (and who knows what wealth that might spin out?)"

Here's a bit more on that rationale for Basic Income - for those who dislike "welfare":

'The Basic Income concept makes good bait to dangle in economic conversations. The uninitiated, taking the bait, will argue that it would remove the incentive to work, and nurture an idle underclass. In fact, compared to the existing welfare system, Basic Income provides a strong financial incentive for creative and productive activity. With Basic Income it's more financially rewarding to move from unemployment into a job – because you keep your Basic Income payments, whereas you would lose your dole. Many common types of work – eg low-paid casual, part-time or self-employed work – increase your disposable income under a Basic Income scheme, whereas the income from such work is subtracted from your dole under the current system. Many worthwhile activities – adult education, voluntary work, starting a business, etc – are penalised or even criminalised under the current welfare system, because they interfere with the condition of "continuous availability for work." Most wealth-creating activity begins modestly, perhaps not generating enough for a person to survive on at first. Basic Income nurtures such activity, whereas the welfare system aborts it.'

(Bluffer's guide to
revolutionary economics)

michael said...

Terrific! I'll look for the Bluffer's Guide.

When I read about ideas like this, I think of Wilhelm Reich, who insisted his Work Democracy was inherent in the human species: we deeply desire to work at something that give us a deep involvement and meaning in the world. And we want love to be as free as possible. Those two things. Wow. What a sicko, how "immoral" to want those two things.

But yea: most - but not all - of us really want to work at something that engages us creatively in some way. Or so I assert, rhetorically.

Sue Howard said...

And, best of all, it doesn't persecute those who enjoy the pleasures of idleness (whether creative or not).

In the UK, tax credits are now available to the "self-employed", as well as to the "employed". I benefit from this (equiv to around $90 per week), and the government doesn't care that a lot of my self-employment involves what looks like idleness. As long as I'm not on the "unemployed" stats, they don't care since it doesn't reflect badly on them. It's like exploiting loopholes in the conventional framing.

michael said...

Your info sheds light on the profound inequities in the US, which has, in effect, outrageously generous welfare benefits for already well-off people, while the working poor have almost nothing to fall back on.

The history of "leisure" seems instructive here: for most of the last 2000 yrs, the educated class considered "leisure" time as the time when you are human in its fullest sense. That was the time when you were not an instrument for some economic cause. Slacking, if done well, can lead to some Big Ideas. Puttering around the house, tinkering with this and that: that's when you can let your mind wander, and creativity starts to flow. "Leisure," in the US, at least, has been semantically damaged by the commercial class: it's about a reclining chair, about a pina colada in the swimming pool, an expensive vacation to some tropical climate, or even time to go shopping for a bunch of crud to fill the void in your mental life.

We need to take stabs at reclaiming idleness and leisure as worthwhile pursuits. Karl Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, wrote The Right To Be Lazy, early 20th c: it's an early statement. "Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy," Lafargue quoting the German poet Lessing. Yes, but: W. Reich's anarchistic Work Democracy: most of us will want to reproduce ourselves in work, not-alienated work...

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've been interested in the concept of the basic income guarantee for awhile now, so I was excited to read this blog post, and to read the interview with, and article by, Philippe Van Parijs, who I admit I had never heard of until now. Thank you very much for taking the time to post this, and to Sue Howard for her comments and links.

Michael writes, "the US, which has, in effect, outrageously generous welfare benefits for already well-off people, while the working poor have almost nothing to fall back on."

Well,yes and no. In fact, a very large number of people who work for Wal-Mart (a reasonable definition of "the working poor," except for people who hold management positions draw food stamps and receive government medical care. A basic income guarantee would make it easier to work for Walmart and make a modest living (still hardly a good one) and would be more honest about the situation.

michael said...

Excellent point about Wal-Mart, Tom. Yes, as I delve deeply into Van Parijs and his arguments, he says the same thing - not mentioning Wal-Mart, so far as I've noticed - and especially your point about "more honest about the situation" seems to line up in tone, sentiment and analysis with much of what I've read from Van Parijs so far.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I was surprised to see him use the word "libertarianism." His version of it seems more akin to Robert Anton Wilson's ideas that the usual "libertariarism" in the U.S.