Ian Goldin is Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford. He recently wrote an article in the Financial Times in which he gives a brief description of how technology is replacing human labour, making it harder for people to earn a living from paid employment. He then goes on to list five reasons why universal basic income isn’t a solution to this growing problem of technological unemployment.
You might hope that the combination of an Oxford professor and the FT would provide compelling arguments that are worthy of serious debate. Sadly no.
Professor Goldin’s reasons for rejecting UBI are so unreasonable that you suspect he has decided in advance that he doesn’t like the idea and then grabbed at whatever arguments popped into his head to support his prejudice.
His first objection is that UBI is financially irresponsible, unaffordable, requiring higher taxes or reallocation of resources from things like healthcare and education.
This is astonishing. Here we have an Oxford professor who appears to be ignorant of how money actually works, and ignorant of the distinction between money and resources: the difference between finance and physics.
The resources that are required to run a healthcare or education system are physical. The primary resource is people. Without the brain and muscle power of builders, technicians, teachers, nurses, cleaners, doctors, administrators, etc. there are no hospitals, no schools, no healthcare, no education.
Money is merely the tool that we use to activate these people, to allow them to put their brains and muscles to good use. And there is no limit to the amount of money that we can create and distribute in order to make these things happen.
So the first of Professor Goldin’s reasons against UBI is wholly unreasonable. We can fund a full UBI without raising taxes or inflating the deficit or diverting resources away from healthcare and education. Yes, we will need to modify our financial and fiscal systems to make UBI work, but they’re already in desperate need of reform and there are many ways to incorporate UBI into a reformed system.
His second objection to UBI is that it will lead to higher inequality and poverty.
It pains me to use the word “ignorant” again, but there’s no avoiding it.
Let’s take poverty first. A UBI set around the level of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard will give everyone significantly more spending money than current subsistence welfare payments and state pensions. More money. If you are poor you know the value of more money. Even an Oxford professor telling you that the extra cash in your pocket has made you poorer isn’t going to change your mind.
As for higher inequality, this ignores two of the most liberating features of a full UBI, features that are glaringly obvious to anyone who has given any serious thought to the concept.
The first is emancipation from wage slavery. With UBI everyone has the freedom to pick and choose what work to do and what payment to accept for that work. This levels the playing field between employers and employees. It gives everyone the same advantage as someone who is wealthy, who has enough money in the bank to wait until they find a job that they want to do rather than have to take the first one that comes along. More equality, not less.
The second liberating feature of UBI is that it buys us time to do things other than earn money. With UBI we can study, spend time with our children and our old folk, learn new skills, and we can start businesses without the burden of paying ourselves a wage while we get the enterprise up and running. All of the things that are listed in the preceding sentence are taken for granted by people who are wealthy but are out of reach of people who are not. UBI absolutely reduces inequality of opportunity by virtue of buying time for all of us.
The third objection that Professor Goldin has to UBI is that it will undermine social cohesion. According to his logic “rewarding people for staying at home is what lies behind social decay.”
Well, if this is true we’d better round up the home-makers and the carers, the stay-at-home mums and dads, the artists and craftspeople, the musicians and the authors, the gardeners and the thinkers, everyone with a private income who prefers to sit on the sofa and read a book, and all of those wealthy ladies and gents whose only excursion out of doors is to go for lunch. We’d better round up the lot of them and march them down to the job centre before they all get hooked on smack and destroy the fabric of our society.
There’s more. He goes on to say that “crime, drugs, broken families and other socially destructive outcomes are more likely in places with high unemployment”. This infers that it’s being stuck at home that’s the problem with unemployment. You don’t think, Professor Goldin, that the demoralisation of the long-term unemployed in communities where unemployment is rife might have something to do with poverty, with lack of money to participate, with lack of investment in the community? You don’t think that conditional welfare payments might have something to do with it? Enforced pauperism? That being chivvied and bullied to do whatever underpaid drudgery is on offer by unscrupulous employers might be part of the problem? No? You’re certain that people choosing to sit at home is the cause of social decay?
The fourth objection is that UBI undermines incentives to participate. This one is an absolute steamer.
It appears to be based on the assumption that as soon as we are given enough money to meet our basic needs there is no incentive to earn any more. If this is true then every employer who is paying anyone more than the value of a full UBI (e.g. £1,000/month) is wasting their money, which is clearly nonsense. If you disagree, professor, I’m sure Oxford university will be delighted when you return the portion of your salary that you so clearly believe is superfluous.
If we follow the logic of this argument we should outlaw all unearned income. If getting money for nothing stops us from participating in society, in the economy, then we’d better make dividends and interest illegal. We’d better ban pensions and increase capital gains tax and inheritance tax to 100%.
Or maybe his objection is based on the assumption that we’re all born lazy and will only get off our backsides and do something useful if we’re threatened with starvation. Again, this is a ludicrous idea. Our communities are thick with people who spend big chunks of their lives doing things for others without being paid a penny for their efforts. And I have yet to meet anyone who is good at their job who is doing it only for the money. I know a lot of people of outstanding intellect and talent who have spent their lives doing work that is very poorly paid because they enjoy it, instead of pursuing a lucrative career doing something less fulfilling. UBI will help more people to follow this route.
The fifth reason is another gem: “UBI offers a panacea to corporate and political leaders, postponing a discussion about the future of jobs.”
Eh? The assumption here appears to be that the world is directed by corporate and political leaders and the rest of us should just sit quietly and wait for them to tell us what’s going to happen next, how they are going to manage the challenges of technological unemployment, inequality, and all the rest of it.
Sorry to disappoint you, professor, but we’re already of the opinion that the great and the good aren’t really up to the job. And this gets to the nub of the problem that UBI can help us to solve.
Our collective ability to participate meaningfully in the productive economy – to do useful stuff for the common good – is limited by the concentration of economic power in the hands of a tiny corporate and political elite.
It is very hard to initiate any productive activity in our economy unless you have access to time and money. Time is the key thing. Trying to innovate, inspire, activate something new whilst going to work to earn a living is extremely difficult.
This means that most of our talent is permanently unavailable, locked into service as employees, never allowed to initiate, develop, direct, and flourish.
Instead we rely on a small pool of people who have access to the wealth and influence that’s required to make things happen. Our ability to progress is limited by the imaginations and proclivities of this tiny sub-set of humanity.
UBI can change this. It can release the creative power of millions of minds. It can make innovation affordable by removing a huge chunk of the wage bill for any new venture. Instead of waiting for direction from an elite that rarely rises above mediocre in it’s handling of our affairs UBI gives all of us the freedom to participate in the business of finding better ways of doing things.
This, and the elimination of absolute poverty, and emancipation from wage slavery, and an excuse to reform our ridiculous financial system.
Are you blind to all this Professor Goldin? Or do you see yourself as one of the elite and don’t like the idea of losing all that lovely status and power?