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Leon Paternoster

Head of digital and marketing at Suffolk Libraries

Basic income, realism and wasteful pessimism

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Just over four years ago – and we should pause to reflect on how the time passes – I wrote a few (very enthusiastic) posts on a political idea that was gaining traction on the left and in web/tech circles; namely, Univeral Basic Income (UBI).

If you’re unaware the concept’s very simple. Instead of doling out complex, means tested benefits, the state would pay every citizen a regular amount regardless of their employment status. In one fell swoop, we’d eradicate a punitive state bureaucracy and free ourselves from wage slavery and the fear of being restructured out of our job.

It sounds great, and these are, of course, noble aims. However, as the idea has become more mainstream it has, unsurprisingly, attracted more scrutiny and expert criticism. The UK’s main UBI proponent published data that showed how calamitous it would be to the poorest fifth of the UK. It’s also a not particularly efficient way to tackle poverty. Here’s Daniel Zamora’s analysis of Compass’s modified, even more moderate UBI proposals:

Despite the fiscal effort that would go into implementing the new system — 6.5 percent of GDP, or nearly twice the share of GDP that the US currently spends on its military — the results are rather disappointing. Child poverty shrinks from 16 to 9 percent, but for working-age people it decreases less than 2 points (13.9 to 12 percent), and among pensioners it declines only 1 point (14.9 to 14.1 percent). The considerable sum of money mobilized has only a modest effect on poverty and doesn’t specifically benefit those who need it most. The Case Against a Basic Income

There are evidently better ways to make poor people less poor. However, what strikes me most now about the idea of UBI is how weak and passive it seems. A lot has happened since 2013. Back then the Tories and their philosophy of austerity were impregnable – in 2015 they’d go on to win an outright parliamentary majority against an apparently radical Labour offer from Ed Miliband. In this context, UBI seems hopeful, replete with possibilities.

But the 2017 election showed us that austerity, and its attendant ideas of a deserving poor, work as a means to an end and suspicion of the disabled, isn’t permanent. The idea that hard work necessarily leads to a comfortable home has been exposed as the laughable lie it always was.

People suffer because of a lack of stable, adequately paid jobs, while the things we need for a basic quality of life – housing, transport, heating, food – have become more and more expensive, commodified and precarious. UBI offers no response to these problems. Instead, at best it removes some of the viciousness from the system.

Finally, it strikes me just how unfortunate those of us in our 40s have been politically. We grew up under Thatcher and Major while our parents sold their council homes and bought British Gas shares. Our only response was what turned out to be a frighteningly easy to dismantle, piddling plaster over Thatcher’s extremes. And then we worked under the aegis of austerity, and the dreaded work restructure. Perhaps UBI represents the best we could come up with. But it’s not the best we can offer the future.