Monday, 19 September 2011

Why I support a UBI

You may be wondering, what is a UBI? UBI stands for Universal Basic Income, which is exactly what it sounds like: a guaranteed income for everyone at a level that allows them a basic standard of living, which can be padded by working for money. In my opinion, this extra income should have a higher tax burden on it than is now standard to support the system - others may argue that it can be done a different way.

Isn't this a lot like socialism? Yep, it is. I'm okay with that. I don't see why socialism is a dirty word. We're social creatures who live in societies, and we all benefit when standards of living are increased.

So, why is a UBI better than the current system? We already have benefits, after all. But those benefits don't actually cover everyone, and when they do, they're barely enough money to get by on, with prices rising much faster than benefit payments. Not to mention, our current system is based heavily on the idea that paid productive work is the benchmark we should be judging people on, and that what work is most important is based on the ideals of an entrenched system that devalues some very difficult jobs. This is why teachers are paid so little, school librarians get even less, and parents get nothing. Any job that is traditionally a woman's job automatically gets a massive paycut, simply because it is considered to be a woman's job. If we were to start over with none of those preconceived notions, who really thinks that teachers and nurses would be put into such shit working conditions? These are vital jobs - caring for the sick, instilling knowledge and the ability to analyse and assess into the next generation.

In this sort of environment, we also risk losing a lot of knowledge that isn't considered commercially viable. Not many people have the time to put into learning something that isn't going to help them earn money - in New Zealand this particularly applies to a lot of Maori traditions like carving and raranga (flax weaving), studying Maori oral history or pre-Cook science, interviewing elders about the stories they remember*, etc. This knowledge is valuable, but especially since Maori are disproportionately represented among the poor, it would be very easy for it to die out.

A lot of opponents to the idea of the UBI say that if we give out money for nothing, people won't work. This is categorically untrue. People do volunteer work as it is - quite a lot of it, in New Zealand. Other people really believe in what they do and value things other than income. How many people have taken or would take a job that pays less because they would enjoy it more? Many would have a job just for something to do, to keep them busy. And still more would simply want a bigger income than the UBI would provide, and so would work to earn it. Not to mention that the importance of work and productivity is a cultural one that wouldn't disappear overnight were a UBI to be introduced, so you also have the people who'll work because they wouldn't want to say they didn't work.

And then there's the jobs themselves. As we improve technology, everything becomes more efficient. We need far fewer people to do work that once would have required many. We also have a constantly growing population, and while that means more services have to be provided, as a company gets bigger they can streamline their operations to require fewer staff:customers than a smaller business would. Improved methods of transport and ordering aid this as well - you don't need a brick and mortar store in every town if your customer base is all shopping on the internet and having products sent to them, and you don't need a factory in every city if your product can be trucked down to your other stores without losing quality.

To cling to the idea that someone must work in a paid job to be a productive member of society is backwards. Free market capitalism does not value the things that people value. We would still have art, and literature, and entertainment - but we'd have much less of it... or rather, with a UBI, we'd have more of it. And in my eyes that can only be to the good.

*there is actually a show on Maori TV that is basically just talking to elders about their lives, and it's awesome.

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