Overweening Generalist

Monday, November 18, 2013

Assault on Poverty: Universal Basic Income

Sometime in the next few months, the Swiss will vote on whether to give every citizen around $2800 a month, with no conditions attached. They have an initiative system where if you get 100,000 people to sign a petition, it must come up for a vote. The Swiss government is pissed because they have to deal with this; they think their welfare state is good enough. But enough Swiss citizens are alarmed at growing income inequality, an outdated welfare system and unemployment and underemployment and the specter of accelerating technological unemployment. As one of the main shakers behind this movement, Daniel Straub, said, "It is time to partly disconnect human labor and income.  We are living in a time where machines do a lot of the manual labor - that is great - we should be celebrating." And who was another one of the prime movers behind this in Switzerland? An artist named Enno Schmidt. Of all the artists I've known in Unistat - quite a lot - this seems like something so bountifully good they might start sorta thinking about believing in god maybe. (<-----That last sentence is as I have deliberated over; let's let it stand, if only for its ornate badness, hmmmkay?) I hope they get it done in Switzerland, and I hope we get something like it in Unistat. (If it passes, in heaven - or wherever he is - Orson Welles might add the UBI to the five hundred years of brotherly love and the cuckoo-clock, for there are already good reasons to suspect the UBI will add to artistic and inventive derring-do.)

Here's an interesting interview about UBI and Switzerland with John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The neoliberal austerity idea was and is a smashing failure in Europe, and that's a big reason why many groups are becoming interested in the UBI. Do we want Greece in our streets? I don't think so. As for Unistat, Schmitt points out that fascists (my word, not his) shut down the government because we were going to make sure every citizen had health coverage, while in Europe, far-right groups are extremely angry because austerity economics has cut into their health services, and so there's an immigrant backlash. I guess I'd trade Europe's fascists over ours, but now I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren't I? Indeed, Schmitt talks about the history of "welfare" in Unistat and how much of it is coded racism, which I think is true, and I think this pending debate will be won or lost on the fields of metaphors...

                       If we got UBI in Unistat I'd spend a lot of time learning how to write!

Speaking of which: George Lakoff has long said that capturing the "freedom" metaphor is one of the major games in Unistat politics. And perhaps the major thinker in the world on UBI is Philippe Van Parijs, who started thinking about the idea in the 1980s in Belgium, when he witnessed high unemployment accompanied by fast productive growth in the economy. As a Green he began playing with the idea among other sociological colleagues, and after awhile they began to realize it wasn't such a crazy idea after all, and began systematic work on it. He's often asked in interviews about the reception of the idea: technical aspects, administrative topics, and how to fund the idea. But he answers that the main objection people have when they first hear about it are moral ones, and demand a good answer. And I find him seductive when he talks about the idea of freedom and the UBI, which is, for him, the main reason why it should be done.

Van Parijs says that "the main moral objection was that basic income would be giving people something for nothing, and that it amounted to systematic legitimation of free riding on the part of the idlers at the expense of the hard workers. And so that forced me to spell out why, fundamentally, I thought this was such a good and fair idea." He calls on the concepts of "formal freedom" and "real freedom." Formal freedom, basically, says you have the right to do as you might wish. Real freedom includes formal freedom as a subset, but addresses the means that are required for you to do what you wish to do. If you find yourself daydreaming often that you'd really like to do this rather than that, but you can't afford to...you're probably a wage slave. You have much more formal freedom than real freedom. Obviously, other life conditions mitigate the argument that, say, even though you were an orphan till age 14 then ran away to the circus and never learned to read, that you want to own your own casino in Las Vegas and so you should be given enough guaranteed to do that. We need to stay in "reality" here, folks. Think of some real freedom ideas that seem within the realm of possibility for you; this is what Philippe Van Parijs wants. And so do you.

But right now you might be mired in formal freedom and not real freedom.

And doesn't that sorta just piss you off, especially when you look at the careers of people like these CEOs?

If you'd like to be able to quit your job and take care of a sick relative but can't afford it because you'd fall into poverty...you'd be able to if there was a UBI. And not only caring for others (which is real work, if unpaid), but you could afford to gain better training or retraining for your job with a UBI (if your current bosses don't fund your education, which in Unistat they are less and less likely to do). You can become more socially and politically active with a UBI. Young people will be less likely to leave their families for a job elsewhere if they had UBI. It's a boon to artists, would-be entrepreneurs, and other creative types. It's a massive boon to the ever-increasing precariate class.

In Van Parijs's and most of the pro-UBI thinkers I've studied, the income is unconditional. Bill Gates would get a check every month. So would that guy sleeping behind a dumpster at the liquor store. The libertarian Unistatian thinker Charles Murray - who hates welfare - is for it. He's thought about it and wants to end poverty for Unistatians by giving $10,000 to every fellow Unistatian over 21 who is a citizen and not in prison.

Back to Philippe Van Parijs: besides real freedom he was moved to pursue his UBI lines of thought by "A grand reflection about the fate of mankind and the way mankind should be heading." He also saw it in the spirit of socialism, but not by doing that whole takeover of the means of production stuff. In this, he saw UBI as an "attractive alternative to socialism."

Here are two videos by major world thinkers in UBI, the first an interview with Guy Standing. It's about 8 minutes long. He mentions the term "social dividend" which reminded me of some thinkers that influenced Ezra Pound and Robert Anton Wilson, particularly the engineer and economic thinker C.H. Douglas. We should receive a UBI, says Standing, due to the "social dividend from all the investments that previous generations have made." Standing also mentions Thomas Paine, who had this idea in the 18th century. Standing also talks about experiments and successes with UBI in selected areas of India, Africa, and Latin America, and mentions Lula's Brazil and the Bolsa Familia: 60 million on a version of UBI and a smashing success: increased work and productivity!:

And here's Philippe Van Parijs from what looks like earlier this year. It's 6 and a half minutes, and my favorite part takes off at 4:00, when he gets the question about "parasites" that would sit around and live off other people's work. Basically, 1.) you might not have a job but be doing useful work, like housekeeping or taking care of children, etc; 2.) some paid work is not useful, as for example making weapons; 3.) many highly paid jobs are being done by "free riders"! Wha? Yep: it's incorporated in their jobs: they've received massive gifts "from nature," they benefit from rapid technological advances that they themselves are not responsible for achieving, and they benefit from a highly organized society. This last reason reminds me of the spirit of the "social dividend." Van Parijs has spoken at length about this in other interviews.

We create reality by talking about it.

March 1997 interview with Philippe Van Parijs

July 2002 interview with Philippe Van Parijs

I'd previously spewed blog on the Universal Basic Income HERE and HERE.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I worry that the Swiss proposal will fail because it is absurdly generous. $2,800 a month amounts to $33,600 a year; can the Swiss really afford that? The $10,000 a year Charles Murray proposes sounds like it might be a little low. What do you see as the ideal figure?

Livable4All said...

No, universal livable income is not absurdly expensive. What is absurdly expensive is 1) the high costs of poverty on people and environment; and 2) the destructive costs of pursuing jobs and economic growth on the environment, and 3) the costs of stalling any social economic evolution due to 1 and 2.
Read more "The High Costs of Leaky Roof Society" http://www.livableincome.org/agliroof.htm

BIG11375 said...

Giving people enough money to live on obliterates poverty and frees everyone's entrepreneurial spirit. Easily funded by using current welfare and pension budgets and tax increases, either income based, consumption based it better still land value tax based

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting blog. I thought more about these sort of ideas back during G W Bush's first term when I read a number of books recommended by Bob Wilson. I've drifted into more "literary" reading over the past decade, and while I applaud the ideas you discuss, I don't see them manifesting in the US any time soon.

Speaking of time, in Bottom: On Shakespeare, Zukofksy compares Vico and J S Bach's dates and their overlap: Jun 23, 1668 - Jan 23, 1744, for Vico, and Mar 31, 1685 - Jul 28, 1750, for Bach. I'd never noticed those 23's for Vico before.

Sue Howard said...

Excellent post in a fascinating series. I remain very optimistic over UBI - it seems to have picked up a LOT of support in the last few years (some credit probably due to "social" media). And with about 99% of political "debate" now focused on finger-pointing and identifying the bad people/groups, I will take any sensible positive idea that I can. (Well, not any - it has to meet my need for indolence and basic comfort).

michael said...

@ Tom Jackson-

Some wonky types think the Swiss proposal will fail because it's too much also, but I've seen others who've explained how it could work. They're a fairly rich country.

Almost every person or group who favors the UBI emphasizes that each country has a unique situation already in place, which means the solution toward the UBI would be slightly different everywhere. This makes sense to me. Van Parijs says there will be no "big bang" implementation of UBI.

The challenge to us pro-UBI people is how to answer the "something for nothing"/"free rider"/"tragedy of the commons" moral objections...Van Parijs (or was it Standing?) tells people to experiment with first thinking about what they themselves would do with a guaranteed foundational income and bracket the Qs about "other people."

The other major challenge is to explain ways to fund it. (If you do the reading, there is no end to ideas put forth about this.)

One of the guesses put forth by a few about the prospects for Unistat: get a backdoor NIT going first, and ease into it. That makes sense to me, even though the NIT is all about conditionals.

One thing I love about this proposal is that it makes us think in terms of SYSTEMS. I've talked to people who've never heard of it but when I give a basic definition of what it is, they reject it as science fiction/utopian BS. I say to them: okay, but what would YOU do if you received $25K a year w/no conditions? They brighten up. Then - because most of my friends are struggling - I say, "wouldn't you spend a lot of it at businesses that are hurting because of the stagnant economy?" Yes: but they'd like to take jobs that they want to do but pay poorly now, realizing that they could then afford to do those jobs. Then I proffer: lots of people would NOT take those jobs because they didn't HAVE to work a crummy job that pays poorly...so wages might go up! Etc. The UBI proposal taxes our abilities to find out about systems and play with how they might interact.

Now: here's the main schism for Unistat as things move forward on this: liberals who want it emphasize values, dignity, and freedom...and would like to retain as much of the existing social safety net as possible, pointing out we're the richest country in the world with a GINI that's equal to banana republics. A coalition of Charles Murray-thinkers with the liberals could get it done at some point, but many of us have long ago seen the writing on the wall with the right wing of the Libertarians: they see UBI as a way to eventually privatize EVERYTHING. I see this as potentially worse than the crap sandwiches we have now. You'd end up spending all your UBI on necessities, and forget about 'real freedom."

That said, $18K/yr seems reasonable to me, and I will not go into the details of how I arrived at that number, as I've already typed too much..

michael said...


Thanks for pointing out the not-talked-about by corporate media/hidden aspects of "expense." This is part of what I meant about "systems thinking" in my response to Tom Jackson.

For a long time, one of the most wince-inducing phrases for me has been the economist's term "externalities." It's cold, bloodless semantic BS: it means pollution, poverty, cancers...we must think in terms of SYSTEMS. And the "environment" can be defined as ANYTHING or anywhere outside the boundaries of your own skin.

We can think of an internal environment also, and wouldn't a UBI go a long way to make your internal environment less charged with...stress hormones and adrenaline?

michael said...

@ BIG11375: the land value tax is one I see over and over as a way to partially fund UBI. This idea goes back to Henry George, although it can be tweaked.

Van Parijs likes a small tax on every electronic transaction. What do you think of this idea?

michael said...

Prof. Wagner-

I don't see it happening soon, either. I think we might have to amend the Constitution to get rid of Citizen's United and stop the fascist Business Criminal class from buying Congress. All elections should be publicly financed; this has seemed like a no-brainer to me for 20 yrs.

I don't think anything HUMAN will get done with the way it is now.

re: Zukofsky: I can't weigh in; I don't have those books, but I hope to acquire "A" for xmas, if I'm lucky. (With a UBI I'd have "A" the day it was implemented!)

michael said...

Sue Howard-

I'm right there with you. When I started looking outside the Unistat bubble, I saw how this idea had picked up enormous steam, esp in Europe, with the goddamned austerity the plutocrats forced on the actual workers.

As I read guys like Standing, apparently the UBI is wildly popular in parts of Latin America, Africa, India, and Cyprus is taking it seriously too.

The Ruling/Governing Class has to ask themselves: how much misery and poverty are they willing to put with in the face of...well, today the Unistat stock market broke a record: it went over 16,000 for the first time in history. Hooorayyyy for those who already have more than they can possibly spend! If they're worth anything close to their Advanced Educations they'll see the current situation is an absolute dead end...unless they have become so insular that The Poor/Those People are now the enemy and must be done away with ASAP in order for them to...who know what those assholes think. But we can get glimpses of it: Dick Cheney is still allowed on TV to tell us what a liar and failure Obama is; the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune...don't make anything, but the TAKE in as much as the bottom 40% of the country. Is this not obscene? If not, what IS obscene?


Eric Wagner said...

When did Zukofsky implement "A"? - Oops, I misunderstood. I hope Santa brings you "A" & I hope you enjoy it. I suspect you will. I saw my sole Peter Dale Scott book sitting on the bottom shelf of the Empress (my poetry bookshelf) this morning. If UBI happened...hm. I'd pay off a lot of bills and put some money in the bank. (I hear someone telling Stephen Dedalus, "Put thy money in thy purse.") I might quit one of my jobs...eventually.

On similar lines, I keep modifying my bucket list. (Man, I narcissistically avoid your blog topic and talk about myself.) For years it had one item: travel the Piero della Francesca Trail, visiting Rimini and Arezzo, and perhaps Sansepolcro and/or Urbino. Then I added visiting Paris again and reading Proust in French. Now I have an itch to see "Celine and Julie Go Boating." Now that last one I could do easily - buy a VHS tape of the film (which I might do if UBI happened). I keep waiting for Criterion to finally put out some Rivette on DVD. (And I hate studying grammar - I fear my laziness may prevent my ever really learning another language well enough to read a complicated novel in it.)

Psuke said...

A fabulous post!

I have been thinking about what a UBI might look like here, and some of the hurdles towards implementing it.

One of the majors ones might be the insanely divergent cost of living areas...by which horrible phrasing I mean, say, the cost of living in Boston, or San Francisco (or practically anywhere in the Bay Area), as compared to Lansing. Or Las Vegas, NM (no, the *other* Las Vegas...not Bugsy's). $2800 would barely give you money to sneeze in the former, but might be able to let one live like a king in the latter.

And, of course, there still is (as you say) the (idiot) argument that some people may sit around and do nothing! Horrors! As though such people could be any more parasitic than anyone in the current financial sector. Or the Tea Party backers.

Some guy said...

The proponents of UBI have the right idea, but they seem to me a tad short sighted. The economy has ways of adjusting around the UBI and nullifying it. In my country (Portugal), the state has leaned socialist for a long time: if you can name your circumstances, there's a subsidy for it (or used to, before austerity turned fashionable). The result, for lower middle to working class: jobs pay below the poverty line and you're expected to have a job AND collect subsidies; foregoing either isn't a choice. The UBI would do away with all the bureaucratic acrobatics our subsidies require of their beneficiaries, but I don't see how things would change beyond that. Prices would keep rising, and wages wouldn't have to go up accordingly because the UBI would be there to fill the gap -- which would also force everyone to get jobs. You would, in effect, be replacing wage slavery with wage slavery AND dependence on the state; meaning that if the state decided to change its policies all of a sudden, you'd be starving and homeless, regardless of your job situation -- which is what's happening in the austere version of Portugal as we speak, incidentally.

The current system isn't just broken; it's obsolete: what it offers in theory has nothing to do with our practical demands unless you buy into an intricate process of rationalization -- hence, for starters, the whole financial sector. If we are to solve the current problems, it would be simpler and, in the long run, more effective, to just restructure it entirely. (I actually believe restructuring it entirely is the ONLY solution but then we'd be entering a whole other discussion.)

Anonymous said...

I love the rhetoric around "work
ethic", most of the objectors have
never dirtied their hands with
any actvity more strenuous than a
coupon clip.
You can trace this crap all the way
back to the Greeks who considered
people who actually do real work
as akin to subhumans (banausic ?).

I think you've got the framing right
when you say get them to talk about
what they would do.
Trying to decide what others would
do is just fantasy mongering. It
only produces bullshit stories
a problem that occurs far too
often with humans. The Occupy
movement has the right idea here,
pay off peoples mortgages. What
they don't do is document what that
person did afterwards. The one
thing no one has mentioned is who
would really be screwed out of an
existence by UBI, no one would
dare ask for spare change or lay
around on the sidewalk or hang
on to a charity that preys on
the less fortunate to get their
own uplifting status. I read that
one of the benefits of Christian
Heaven was to be able to watch the
tormented in Hell undergoing an
eternal torture.

Once UBI kicked in there are no
more excuses, if you blew it on
drugs, booze, gambling it isn't
societies problem, it's your
problem and next time you'll have
to think about it because you
have no excuses left that anyone
will accept.

I'm sure the swindlers and con
artists from top to bottom of
human civilization would scheme to
pry as much of the UBI as they
could from the recipients, it's
how it works now, so no surprise
when there's no change in that

This isn't a utopia any more than
getting sick people off the street
by curing them creates a utopia.
Look what happened when the mad
utopian scheme to educate everyone
was tried, the cries that it was
a waste of time and money have
died down now but the unintended
benefits are all around us. If
you think the uneducated would
have struck down Jim Crow laws and
curbed the worst excesses of racism
I'll sell you a lease option on
a Hudson River Bridge cheap.

Read Proudhon, almost every one
of his mad anarchist schemes is
now practiced in some form or
another in society. Did humans
suddenly embrace it and start
calling themselves anarchists.

I think that the real problem is
that there has been far too little
work done in science on what human
behavior, nature, motivation
consists of, there are a lot of
outmoded and archaic answers that
fail when tested. Put yourself to
the test, what would you do if
UBI kicked in. Become a panhandler,
start a church, lay on the couch
all day, implement some idea you
haven't been able to afford, buy
the tools to make something new ?

I guarantee your answer won't be
to accept some bullshit stereotype
of the lazy, worthless human being
who isn't worth anything unless
beaten into action by circumstance.

Sue Howard said...

Stop press: Economist article on Basic Income - http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/11/government-guaranteed-basic-income

michael said...


Hundreds of articles have appeared in the past 10 months about the unaffordability of San Francisco after this 2nd Tech Boom. Also: Manhattan is only for "winners." There seem to be more people writing about Manhattan's expensiveness as a "problem" for the culture of NY than people writing about SF in that way. The nerds/geeks making all that money at FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, make up only 8% of all the jobs in SF, but they want to live there, because there's cool stuff going on. They want culture. The problem is that, just like the first dot.com boom, they drove up the rents, neighborhoods became more gentrified, and it drove out the bohos, weirdos, artists...but the nerds making $200k/yr at FB want to be "entertained" by...us? What to do?

One of the most annoying things about not making any money: I can't give any away to people who really need it...like people in the Philippines, or someone hungry here because the Republicans cut FOOD STAMPS back to $4/day.

michael said...

@Some Guy-

Good points. I remember a conversation I had with a friend about perceptions of time, money and sex: it seems whatever your "ordinary" standard/amount you're used to, you rise to that and always want just a bit more, because THEN you'll be truly happy. The key seems to be in not comparing yourself to your peers, but thinking about what YOU really want in life. Of all the luxurious items (cars/bling/clothes/houses, etc) that we're all *supposed* to want, I don't really care about any of that stuff. My money would go into *experience*...a main riff from almost all of the non-right-wing proponents of UBI emphasize that - if it was enough- you could afford to not work at McDonald's or Wal-Mart or some stultifying, soul-sucking job...unless you wanted to. And then they might offer better wages so they could attract workers back...

But really: you address my main fear about the possible implementation of the UBI anywhere: if the Governing/Business/Ruling Class do away with the entire social safety net (negligible in Unistat already!), they'll then do what they always wanted to do: privatize EVERYTHING. And then the UBI would still have people living under freeway overpasses and in parks, panhandling, etc.

I do think most people would do "jobs" under the UBI, only some wouldn't be paid all that well, or paid at all. They'd be doing work because they WANTED to do it.

I'm not sure about inflation either: one of the main reason even the Wall St Journal, The Economist, and a few "financial advisor" gurus say it's an idea that needs to be looked at is because the 1% have 60% of the wealth, and no one else has money to BUY stuff to keep the economy healthy. People would start buying, vendors would compete for this new market by lowering prices (maybe?), and it might be the opposite of what you're predicting.

I agree with you completely: if all we get out of it is wage slavery PLUS state dependence, this is to be avoided at all "costs." The "conservatives" who want the UBI seem to have "dependence on the state" as the main illness that the UBI would cure, so they seem to allies here, although the hardcore Privateers are to be resisted, as I see this, as of this date.

And of course you're right about the entire system being obsolete. And thanks for adding to the value of the OG by chiming in from Portugal!

michael said...


Yep: banausic. You're so right about the Greeks up to now. John Dewey had a long passage in his 1920 book Reconstruction In Philosophy in which he traced back to the Greeks this idea that the only people who know anything worthwhile were the ones who didn't do any manual labor at all; they talked about the Finer Things and the plumber or the guy who grew food or assembled machines and fixed gadgets? They didn't know anything. That's not knowledge! Dewey said: BULLSHIT: knowing how to do things technically, getting your hands dirty, tweaking and fixing things so the roads are work: that's valuable. That's creating wealth. These people are in the world, confronting problems, and solving them. We should honor their knowledge. This banausic idea goes on today, and I saw it in spades in the main mover behind the Great Books program, Mortimer Adler, when I read his autobiography.

To inherit wealth and then sit around and talk and write about the Eternal Verities = true knowledge; to actually get your hands dirty? = debased, has nothing to do with the True World of Forms.

Pretentions assholery!

I can never add to all your points because they're always good and copious and concise, and I'm prolix as all hell, evidence here.

But aye: the criminally usurious Pay Day Loan places would probably go out of biz with the UBI, eh? One of many examples any one of us could drum up with 10 sec's thought, and so expect these vultures to spend on rhetoric to tell us all why the UBI is communism, and exactly what Hitler would do, and can't you just see Benjamin Franklin crying in heaven?

I like how you touch on what I consider Philosophical Anthropology. And I agree: very few of us would sit around without one idea or some urge to get out and DO something interesting. TV and video games; pot and alcohol are fine for Monday and Tuesday, but for the rest of the week? Get the fuck out of the house and meet with people, talk, and get some sorta project going that will be creative, fun, and will help others. I think THAT's a lot closer to human being than the caricature repeated ad nauseum about needing biosurvival threats in order to get out and make a profit for some Koch-sucker.

michael said...

Sue Howard-

You're golden once again.

The most interesting bit, for me, was Prof Scanlon's paraphrasing of Adam Smith.

I think Adam Smith and Scanlon have a lot to add to the discussion, but it seems to me to be a "let's worry about that when we get to it" sorta deal.