Daydreaming about a universal basic income

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Like any other bill-fearing American I daydream about winning the lottery or earning a universal basic income via a mixture of tax hikes, tax deduction eliminations, and social dividends from a sovereign wealth fund. So it’s probably not a surprise that I’ve greatly enjoyed the most recent foray of Prominent Blog Land into “the world’s simplest plan to end poverty,” i.e., guaranteed basic income —universal or otherwise.

(For a background primer on this idea you should probably just start with the link above. For the purpose of brevity imagine something along the lines of universal Social Security — i.e., you get a monthly income for being a human resident of the country. Acronyms will be used, like UBI [universal basic income] and BIG [basic income guarantee]. These are indeed two separate things, and I credit Mike Konczal for the latter. Given that most folks seem to be discussing the idea of a guarantee that isn’t exactly universal, using the umbrella term of BIG seems more helpful).

There are few, if any, really, problems of national distribution, jobs, or wages that I don’t seem to internally respond with something along the lines of “Crap, dude, a UBI would really help with that.” So the top 20 percent is earning half of the national income? Then perhaps there should be some type of BIG for the rest of us — especially for the bottom tenth, whose income has barely budged since 1967. This is either the power behind it’s simplicity, or my inability to get off a policy-horse that won’t buck my thoughts while rehearsing the script “Is there anything else I can get for you ma’am, did you know our red-pepper hummus is bogo this week?” Either way, as a layman typer-of-words, it is what it is, so I go with it. I abide.

For instance, I was reading this interesting piece from last month on the emerging workforce behind high-tech instant delivery services and at the end I thought “These jobs could really be something unique if we had a UBI or some type of basic income guarantee to shore up some of the inherent income instability.” I would probably even enjoy working one of these…if I also happened to have enough income to live and help support my family.

A similar thought came to mind when this Washington Post piece popped up on my Twitter feed the other day on the Uber-like service for home cleaning. The business, Homejoy, is pretty convenient for customers (they don’t have to interact with cleaners, which I guess is a problem for some folks), but also provides for the type of convenient flexibility that any low-wage worker would love to have (being able to work around a child’s school schedule, for instance, is often worth it’s weight in consideration along with wages and benefits). But as the reporter notes, that convenience has drawbacks for the worker:

That’s the tradeoff in moving toward independent contracting in the service economy, where people order services online just as they would order batteries or a pair of shoes. Homejoy is pitched toward younger people with disposable income who may feel awkward about using domestic help; clients don’t have to interact with the cleaner if they don’t want to, which makes it feel as though they’re ordering a product, not human labor.

The question for Walker and thousands like him is: Can these new kinds of jobs support the type of life they might have lived with the old ones?

The short answer is no, at least not as they currently exist. Workers for Homejoy and similar businesses are independent contractors, left to their own devices in a labor market where worker-plurality in a business is still the only one most associated with job security. These jobs don’t typically offer traditional benefits and most (to my understanding) don’t come with workplace protections the rest of us take for granted. To the extent that there is increased flexibility for workers, it also doesn’t necessarily preclude the inherent imbalance of power within most low-end workplaces, as Sarah L. Jaffe notes:

Now, TaskRabbit has changed its rules. Attempting to capitalize on the explosion in the so-called “gig economy” and set itself apart from the ever-growing competition, TaskRabbit this month has begun using a new algorithm to match workers with clients, who then contact a given worker to see if she is available, and the worker has 30 minutes to accept or reject the bid.

The taskers are not pleased.

“One of the big draws to TaskRabbit in the first place was flexibility – now, I lose out on work not because somebody underbids me but because I decided to have a life that day or get work done,” Sally Mercedes, who used to regularly use the site, wrote me in an email on Tuesday.

These are the jobs, at least in urban zones trying to capture that Silicon Value cultural economic magic, of the new economy. It’s the “sharing economy” for consumers and the “gig economy” for workers. And, oddly enough, it works a lot like the old economy in primarily benefiting the former and not the latter.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and in a form that would benefit not only gig workers but for those of us still grinding it away for stagnating pay in traditional over-the-counter service. That’s where a BIG comes into play, something more radical than Fight for 15 (no offense, and, more power to you in the meantime), and an altogether reactionary move against an hourglass economy. It would fight the historic decoupling of productivity gains from income growth for most workers with decoupling precarity from the whims of a social structure greater than any one person. A BIG wouldn’t obviate the need for many the requirement to do productive work, but rather give many the freedom to actually do what you love — or at least do less of what you hate. In a grander sense it would also give “every citizen a share in economic power, just as a vote gives every citizen a share in political power.

But damn, yeah, it’s a dream. Of course that’s all that winning the lottery is either for most folks and that’s a time-honored working class tradition. So at least allow me, mercy please, the chance to throw one more hopeless muttering about a UBI while chucking hot tub-temp chicken grease into a dumpster for a treading-water wage.

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7 responses to “Daydreaming about a universal basic income

  1. Reblogged this on Casey Jaywork and commented:
    Obviously social justice Lefties want a Basic Income because of, you know, justice. But business conservatives should also consider the idea: with a basic income (not a luxurious income–we’re talking rent, groceries, and bus fare here) to cushion their potential failures, individuals could experiment more with new, innovative business models. Whether it’s the entrepreneur who wants to launch a potentially game-changing communication device or the single dad who wants to quit McDonald’s to pursue musical theater, a person who knows that failure won’t automatically lead to homelessness and ruin will be more willing to take the risks that lead to innovation (or, to put it in wonk terms, actors become less risk-averse when they have a reliable revenue stream; liquidity will kill you quick, if you don’t have enough capital to stay afloat).

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