UBI gets the city press, but the bush wants a JG scheme

UBI continues to capture the imagination of people searching for ways that the status quo could be improved. As I’ve argued before, UBI is superficially a good idea, but ultimately will fail to produce the outcome its proponents suggest.

A perfect example is Tim Dunlop’s ‘Something big has to change’: could Australia afford a universal basic income? that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian. In arguing the pros and cons, he hits the problem on the head:

Although at first blush, UBI sounds like some idealistic, leftwing idea, the reality is it has long had support in rightwing politics and economics. Richard Nixon nearly introduced a type of basic income when he was the US president, while Milton Friedman – one of the most influential champions of “free” markets and small government – promoted a basic income scheme known as a negative income tax. Even today, right-of-centre organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute argue for the introduction of such a scheme.

This rightwing pedigree makes many on the left suspicious of UBI, and former union head Tim Lyons speaks for many when he says he is “deeply unconvinced by the push for a universal basic income”.

What the left fear, not without some justification, is that instead of UBI being used as a supplement to other forms of service provision, it would be used to replace them. Citizens would then be forced to use their UBI to buy health, education and pension services from private providers. This sort of rightwing UBI would simply be a transfer of public wealth to private businesses, a further marketisation of democratic society.

Of course, a UBI needn’t work that way, but such concerns mean the design and implementation of a scheme – the politics – are as important as the economics.

It needn’t work that way, but you know that’s what will happen. The demonisation of the unemployed as the architects of their own penury, refusing to work and just bludging off the taxpayer are neoliberal mythology that has become very hard to shake.

The problem with the UBI is that it does not directly solve the problem of unemployment. Yes, additional spending power at the lowest echelons will lead to increased sales and therefore might result in more workers being hired. But it can just as easily lead to price increases for the more inelastic products and services, as demand increases but supply cannot meet it. A good example of this is dental services, something that the poor are known to skimp on due to cost. There aren’t too many unemployed dentists that can be brought into “production” to meet an increased demand for their services if there is suddenly more disposable income that could buy it. The natural outcome will be a rise in price for dentistry.

And it strikes me as fanciful that giving everyone a living wage is going to somehow lead to some nirvana where we all just do charitable works and produce creative output, as people allegedly have their basic needs met by the UBI and can spend their time doing other worthwhile things. This argument is often linked to the rise of the machines – that robots are going to do all the work anyway, and there won’t be any need for jobs.

Well, for a very narrow definition of the word ‘job’, maybe. Automation has been happening since the industrial revolution, and there are always new jobs to replace old ones. I’m not sure why we simultaneously panic about automation and the ageing population issue: the idea that there won’t be enough workers to support the retired. Surely one offsets the other to some extent?

The Job Guarantee Concept.

If you’re going for radical change, a Job Guarantee scheme is a far better solution than UBI. Most advocates of a JG recommend that it be federally funded and locally administered. So that the local community can make the determinations on what services they require.

Put it this way. If you said to your local council: “here’s a standing army of people that the federal government will pay the wages for as long as you can put them to doing meaningful work, what services could they perform to improve your area?” Look around – what could be done to improve the amenities, functions and services in your area if there were people available to do them? Pretty much anything that would be considered socially “good” but won’t ever be done by the private sector because there’s not a quid in it would be a candidate for JG programme.

A JG scheme sets a minimum price for labour, and effectively buys all excess labour off the bottom. It is not competing with the private sector for labour, it is just mopping up the excess labour that the private sector cannot employ. As a result it’s not inherently inflationary (beyond some adjustment to its initial implementation – the likes of 7-11 might get a rude shock when no-one is prepared to work for less than the minimum wage offered by the JG scheme). Like the Wool Board, it buys excess when it exists so it can be released when demand returns, to smooth out the effects of the business cycle.

And of course there’s no coercion here. If you really are a bludger, you’re likely to stay in your current circumstances. On the other hand, if you don’t have a job but you do want to work, JG employment will be given to you. In the best possible scheme, a job that makes use of your existing skills, or trains you in new skills. Ultimately it keeps you job-ready, and employable, for when a better paid private sector opportunity comes along.

None of this is my idea, far brighter minds than I have been developing the JG scheme for years. The Centre of Full Employment and Equity and the work of Dr Bill Mitchell is largely the home of this concept, and there’s no shortage of research material available. Including costing, which shows such a scheme could be implemented for less than what a UBI would cost.

But it was very interesting to hear ABC PM yesterday, and in particular the segment Aboriginal groups call for alternative employment model. Unfortunately the ABC has cut their transcription of news stories, so the piece is only available as audio. (Another example of a socially good job that someone could be doing!) There is also a related article here.

The crux of the story is that rather than penalising or “breaching” the unemployed in aboriginal communities who are expected to travel vast distances to work for the dole, the local community has no end of useful things those people could be doing in their own area, and are calling on the federal government to allow them to find work for their unemployed community members. Breaching them (denying them welfare) is leading to greater hardship, and increased property crime. What this community is asking for is the Job Guarantee Programme!