The London Futurists take on Universal Basic Income from every possible angle

From  The Rules

The Alternative UK's Universal Basic Income advocate, Phil Teer, reports on everything from Star Trek economies to 19-week work years

London Futurists is a great use of a Saturday.  To have a space where economists, singulatarians and futurologists can come together to debate, dream, project and fantasise is truly wonderful - and David Wood (@dw2 on Twitter) deserves credit for making it happen.  

On Saturday, June 2nd's event, economist and long time basic income advocate Professor Guy Standing had the keynote.  Prof Joanne Bryson (@j2bryson) brought her expertise on AI and ethics to bear.  Steve Wells (@informingchoice) and Helena Calle (@Helena_Calle) of Future Publishing were the trend experts; Barb Jacobson singlehandedly met the brief for the day by offering a very useful "state of the nation" on the world of universal basic income (UBI), Tony Czarnecki did the scary singularity turn and Calum Chace (@cccalum) introduced us to the economic singularity.

Guy Standing is angry. His anger built through his speech until it focussed with laser-like intensity on its target: Universal Credit (UC).  It is a rightful anger.  Not righteous, but rightful - because UC has ruined thousands of lives and is continuing to ruin them.  People are sanctioned, have their benefits stopped or suspended - and are then plunged into the sort of abject poverty that finds them queuing at food banks to feed their kids. Standing is right to be angry.  

The problem with conditional benefits like UC is who gets to set the conditions - originally the “stoutly religious” former secretary of state for work and pensions Ian Duncan Smith. These conditions fall on those with little power at all. They take no account of the growth of the precariat (another of Standing's interests) and the gig economy.

Standing explains that they are best suited to a world of work which provides full time employment for all - which is not the world we live in.  They are imposed with all the self-righteousness of people who believe that the poor are feckless shirkers, needing to be forced to work, and should never be given any support unless they do something to earn it.

Maybe that is why UBI is more popular than welfare.  Barb Jacobson reveals the 2017 European Social Survey found that 53% supported UBI and only 30% supported the current system of welfare.

Calum Chace thinks UC is a good thing and that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a terrible idea. He quotes the economist John Kay who said, “either the basic income is impossibly low or the expenditure is impossibly high.”  

To say that extra money is too low to be meaningful suggests someone who has either never been poor or has forgotten what it was like.  When theory is divorced from reality in this way, it reminds me of Elvis Costello arguing that writing about music is like dancing to architecture.  It is absurd.  

When you have no money, every extra penny counts.  Earlier, Standing had cited a basic income test in India where the amount of money given out was only one third of subsistence income.  Recipients used the extra money to pay off debts and break their dependency on moneylenders.  Only a third of subsistence - and yet people’s lives got better.  

In a different vein, David Wood had pointed out that a modest UBI gets spent and spent again, so boosting the economy in a multiplier effect.  Even the lowest amount of money opens up possibilities.

Anyway, as Wells and Calle pointed out, the very concept of unemployment is not fit for purpose when 60% of the poor in the UK are in work.

Chace went on to argue that there was something better than basic income: a "Star Trek economy", whereby everything was free.  He offers the music industry as an example, where Spotify gives the music lover more music than they could ever own, for less than a £10 a month. He suggests cars could go the same way, with driverless, solar powered vehicles driving the cost of a cab ride towards zero.  Earlier, David Wood had suggested 3D printed houses, VR travel and VR education as ways that the cost of living could be reduced by technology.

This sounds a bit like the arguments Paul Mason lays out in Postcapitalism as evidence that we could be entering a new economic stage.  It doesn’t however stand up as a feasible alternative to basic income.  If things cost nothing then surely basic income can never be too low to be meaningful?

With tech giants like Spotify having billion-dollar market capitalisations but no profits to show for it, free is never going to be free.  Spotify has to work out how to monetise its audience.  When Facebook faced the same problem, it became an advertising company and gave its data to the likes of Cambridge Analytica.  Suddenly the cost of “free” was as high as our basic freedoms. A far greater cost than even the most generous of basic income proposals.

The future of work is going to include a lot of reskilling and this demands new ideas about education. PwC have predicted that 80% of jobs created in the future will demand graduate level qualifications.  For Wells and Calle, blockchain funding may be one answer, where good performance on an Open University course releases a voucher for the next one.  Companies could fund the training they need and degrees could be short and tailored to the specific job sought.  Those retraining will need support and UBI could provide that support.

The UBI movement needs anger like Standing's, because with it comes sharpness of insight.  For him, UBI is a matter of social justice.  All the wealth in our society began with the efforts of our ancestors and ultimately derives from the commons.  Those who accept private inheritance should also recognise social inheritance, says Standing, and further accept that the profits of common resources should be shared with all of society.  

Starting from that ethical point, UBI should be unconditional because conditions divide and exclude and allow dubious moralities to exert power. It should be basic because something is better than nothing - but it should increase as automation gets us to the point where work stops being an economic need and instead becomes an existential want.  Finally, it should be income because income creates independence, while alternatives like free utilities and free food, create dependence.

Freedom is in the London Futurists room today, but only here and there.  Like sunshine peeking through the clouds, we catch glimpses of freedom in between all the arguments around definitions and ethics.  Up where the sun shines, people are liberating themselves from debt, using the time freed up from hunting for "bullshit jobs" to do meaningful work; caring for others; helping build communities; staying on at school; not getting pregnant too young. Women free themselves from economic dependency on village elders, stop wearing veils and so find another level of freedom.

Freedom is the alternative narrative of UBI and it is the reason why so many love this utopian idea (including me). To be free to live a more adventurous and creative life is a wonderfully unifying common purpose.  I’d like to have seen more than the odd glimpse of it this Saturday. 

Finally, it seems that right now we only need to work 19 weeks in a year, to have the standard of living we would have had 100 years ago.  No-one does this - but then again no-one has sold this idea to anyone.  A modest lifestyle would lessen our dependence on work and our impact on the planet.  Imagine a world where everybody has the right to work only 19 weeks.  It could be quite a sunny place to be.