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A Universal Basic Income will work

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A Universal Basic Income would provide security for the unemployed while seeking a job (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Remembering how the Government assisted those in need decades ago, it's apparent that the only barrier to a working UBI is capitalism, writes Mike Dowson.

ONTARIO? Kenya? Finland? How about Adelaide, 1980.

An officer of the Commonwealth Employment Service ushered me to a meeting space. We looked quite similar — young, long hair, casual clothes. I could’ve been interviewing him.

He studied my application form. I was applying for the dole again. Paid gigs were a bit scarce. On a whim, I asked about the job boards. He looked up.

“Seriously?”

 

“Well, I thought, if there’s anything…”

 

“You’re a muso, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I saw your band. Interesting material. Love the singer.”

 

“Thanks.”

We smiled at each other for a moment.

“Well, you’re welcome to look, but the boards are pretty crap.”

I decided to take his advice and skip it.

A few months later, I transitioned from full-time performing artist to full-time music student. I swapped one agency’s form for another. The Government now paid me to study, rather than develop my arts independently.

I was far from alone. Across the country, young people – and some not-so-young – accepted these expressions of public largesse to start new careers, pursue their passions, or simply explore the world.

Good jobs – the kind with healthy workplaces, benign bosses and adequate pay – were hard to find. Not so hard as today, after decades of neoliberalism. But the fact is that technology had already been reducing the need for productive work for almost a century.

The difference was we didn’t think then the solution was to torture the unemployed. And we certainly didn’t see that as an opportunity for private profiteers to raid the public purse. Most of us subscribed to the charmingly old-fashioned notion that it was up to governments and businesses to create jobs and if they didn’t, the powerless and penniless couldn’t do much about it.

Governments could, however, provide us with enough to live on, so we would go away and stop bothering important people with real jobs like marketing junk food to kids, destroying the environment and hiding money from the tax office. Some of us referred to it as our “arts grant”.

This was the time before the banks, developers and real estate industry persuaded our political parties to turn the Australian housing market into a giant Ponzi scheme. Inner city suburbs were still affordable for people on low incomes.

Consequently, our cities were culturally vibrant. I don’t mean full of empty spectacle for the cameras of foreign tourists or bussed-in punters queuing for insipid corporate-sponsored entertainment. I mean full of young writers, poets, painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, dancers, comedians and artisans, making a cultural expression that was of its time and place and mattered to people. Most eventually graduated to paid employment. A few became household names.

Governments still saw tertiary education as a form of public investment in the nation. It wasn’t yet a program for fleecing the emerging middle classes in China and India and consigning our own youth to debt slavery. Similarly, living wasn’t yet so expensive that every post-pubescent member of a poor family needed to find menial work while we fudged the national statistics to hide the fact. Family members often looked after children, the sick and the aged. So we didn’t need huge profit-making industries to do that.

Of course, there was no shortage of grouches foretelling of collapse under the burden of wasteful social services. Business lobbyists cried that the poor needed “incentives”, not “welfare”. “Incentives” was business jargon for enforced hardship, so people who still had jobs would be frightened into accepting lower wages.

Then, as now, the rich insisted they were the ones who did useful things with money, so they should get more of it. We didn’t yet know that meant hiding it in tax havens and funding political parties to rig the system. The poor, they said, only waste money.

Their certainty about this was providential. They were busy transforming the pubs and clubs where people like me performed into gambling dens. Soon there would be no singers to listen to. Instead, there would be screens covered in sports betting and battalions of twinkling Daleks festively burbling nursery tunes while they consumed grandma’s pension, as if the Wiggles had been commissioned to write the muzak for hell.

In fact, unbeknown to us, the Australia we had grown up in was about to disappear.

Along with a massive influx of immigrants, the decades following saw the monetising of care, creativity and leisure and the partial privatisation of health, education and public utilities. That’s where much of our “growth” came from. The things we had to do and those we loved to do were turned into cash cows for businesses and we had to work more so we could pay for them.

As a friend observed, a highwayman puts a gun to your head and steals everything once before he scarpers. Favoured corporations get to keep the gun there indefinitely.

When they hear these stories, young people’s eyes often widen in amazement. They can’t imagine how it was possible to have so much and then to lose it. But really, neither is inexplicable.

A high living standard without much work is natural in a technologically-advanced liberal democracy as richly endowed as ours was. Bought politicians and colonisation of our public discourse is what it took to end it. Michel Bauwens from the P2P Foundation points out that the most powerful human forces are now beyond the reach of democracy, in the globalised Badlands that exist outside nation-states and that’s where the trouble came from.

As social democracy withered and inequality rose, people began to see life as a race, with the nation’s wealth naturally going to the victors and tough luck for those left behind. Younger members of our population have never known anything else.

Australians incline toward justice and fairness. And we eschew meanness, narrow-mindedness and cruelty. But recent history shows we may tolerate these defects in public policy if the powerful can convince us our security and prosperity demand it. In fact, the reverse is true, as our declining fortunes demonstrate. People will wake up eventually and when they do a UBI won’t look so strange.

Some complain that it would turn us ordinary folk into couch potatoes. Others say it would be a massive impost on the public purse that leads to runaway inflation. Neither is necessarily true. Why would we be so foolish as to simply add a UBI to the dysfunctional system we have?

We must fix our broken tax system and sectors like housing and insurance. It’s only a short step further to a UBI. The evidence supports it. As does my experience.

This is not a critique of a Government Job Guarantee. I like that idea, too. There’s so much to be done requiring capital backing which the private sector simply doesn’t care for. In my view, a JG and a UBI work better together.

A UBI gives people the freedom to follow their lights and helps to ensure only quality jobs are provided by the JG. This, in turn, helps to keep private employers honest.

I remind misanthropes that most of us aren’t like the indolent rich. Give us a chance and we’ll do something good with it.

Mike Dowson is a private management consultant. 

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