UBI – is it a GREEN issue?
UBI is usually referred to as the Universal Basic Income, but I rather like its alternative title of Unconditional Basic Income. It sounds more liberal and, indeed, actually Liberal, in the freedom it renders for its intended recipients – that is EVERYBODY.
Some politicians, even some economists, seem to treat UBI as an alternative form of unemployment benefit, just to be paid to those not fortunate enough to be in paid employment for whatever reason. However, as a potential `game-changer` in political and economic terms, Unconditional Basic Income actually has to be treated as a basic income for everybody. How each individual person treats her or his basic income is truly a Liberal matter, an intrinsic freedom of choice, provided, of course, that your choice does not infringe upon another person`s right to choose.
I can already hear a chorus of “noooo`s” emanating from people of a conservative tendency who will immediately assume it means higher taxes and a slightly quieter chorus of “yaay`s” from those on the left who may see it as a Marxist thing of “to each according to their needs”. Please bear with me for a while as I attempt to make not only a Liberal argument FOR Unconditional Basic Income, but also a Green case for UBI, as part of the economic changes needed to begin to hold off the Climate Catastrophe we are currently facing.
This is a Blog post, so it will not be long enough to go into fine details in all aspects of the topic, so I shall have to declare a number of basic assumptions we all need to share in order to pursue my argument. Of course, if you do not accept these basic assumptions with me then the rest of the argument will logically fail, so here they are:
1 Climate Change is already with us and will get much worse if we do not act soon.
2 We may already be close to tipping points that will act as strong positive feedback loops to make Climate Change worse anyway
3 Population pressure globally and resource constraints mean that we need to stop using growth in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the best measure of economic success in a world where Sustainable Development should now be the overarching goal
4 Sustainable development is “economic development that is conducted without depletion of natural resources” and the UN`s sustainable development goals SDGs provide a valuable guide as to what we need to achieve.
5 Although the argument for UBI is global, we can only really discuss it here in a UK context in a meaningful political sense.
“It`s the Rich what gets the pleasure. It`s the Poor what gets the pain…”
I used to play rugby and one of the songs we used to sing on the bus to and from the game, included the line used as a heading to this paragraph, followed by the line “It`s the same the whole world over. Ain`t it all a bloody shame!?” I suppose I should declare that as a further assumption, but it is actually the introduction to a technical issue that is at the heart of how UBI could really begin to ease the pain.
“Seigniorage” is defined as – the profit made by a government by issuing currency, especially the difference between the face value of coins and notes and their production costs. Clearly not much seigniorage in making a five pence piece, but quite a lot when making a twenty-pound note or a fifty-pound note. The trick to understanding the implications of this technical issue is to remember the historical derivation of the word. Seigniorage used to be “a thing claimed by a sovereign or feudal superior as a prerogative” – or in plain English – “It`s the Rich what gets the pleasure…”
Governments do not say a whole lot about Seigniorage, but the present system worldwide means that the Central Banks that produce the money have control of this stuff and it gets handed out from the central banks to the commercial banks who then pass some of it on to their big business customers and, of course, to their already incredibly wealthy personal clients. “It`s the Rich what gets the pleasure…”
If we were to change this system as part of the introduction of an Unconditional Basic Income the seigniorage would be reallocated to individuals, free, then, to choose how it should be spent.
Automation and employment
Ever since I was a teenager reading science fiction (and remember I am now 71 as I write this!) I have been apprised of the advancement of technology at an ever-increasing rate which “would mean everyone would have to work less and have much more free-time to spend doing what they wanted”. Unfortunately, the politicians must not have been reading the same books as me and have never devised an appropriate economic system for ensuring businesses, and the owners of those businesses, would fairly share out the great economic benefits of automation.
It is one of the problems of unfettered capitalism, the serious unfettering of which started under Mrs Thatcher, that the profits of automation accrued mostly to the owners of the capital, rather than the workforce or yet the community. It should be remembered that we all stand on the shoulders of those that went before, as Isaac Newton famously said about his own remarkable discoveries and learned writings. So the riches of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg would not have accrued to them without the technological advancements of previous generations, at least some part of which was due to educational advancements made by the common wealth of the community.
Of course, Mark Zuckerberg (and the rest) deserves some reward for his original thinking and development of his Facebook idea and its introduction to the world but at the age of 34 is it entirely reasonable as a basis of our economy that he has apparently accrued a net worth of around $67 billion without somehow being charged an appropriate “fee” for the access he has had to the Common Wealth of the world? My thesis is that the economic system should be much more redistributive and that an Unconditional Basic Income should be very much part of that redistributive process.
Is UBI a Green issue?
If you have followed me this far with my argument, and accept that change is necessary, let me now ask my original question. Is having an Unconditional Basic Income a Green Issue? – or, putting it another way, can UBI contribute to saving the planet`s biosphere from mankind`s depredation and despoliation.
Perhaps you can guess that my answer to this largely rhetorical question is “YES”, but let me try and explain why I think that is the case. Please recall I am arguing that it is part of a whole approach which moves away from GDP growth towards a circular economy, based upon sustainable development goals. In such a new economic environment there will exist many who would feel strongly that they would prefer to ensure our survival and that of the biosphere, rather than continuing with the largely competitive pressures of a consumerist life. Once you can be sure that you would not suffer penury by opting out of the rat race, such a move would hold much greater appeal to many people.
This is not just an idle hope on my part, it is actually a reflection of the behaviour of many, perhaps most, retired people whose pensions are sufficiently above poverty levels. Some prefer to use their time to take longer holidays, some for creative and artistic purposes, many for greater family interactions and so on, but there is a huge volunteer force of pensioners involved with the National Trust for example, or the RSPB nature reserves, or any number of environmental good causes, including many small-scale community-based initiatives.
With UBI, the scope of many volunteer-based projects could be expanded very significantly and, indeed, it would be a very liberal (and Liberal) idea to support such schemes with public funds, too, in order to encourage specifically environmentally desirable projects for example. There was a recent thread on Facebook, for example, discussing the benefits of rewilding the British uplands which could benefit significantly by additional volunteer force planting trees and maintaining footpaths and so on. But that is just one example – we also heard at the GLD conference in Nottingham in May of this year, about city based local food growing projects, all of which are based upon volunteer forces to some extent. These could be extended and scaled up, providing much more opportunity for fresh vegetables to be grown and used locally, saving many “food-miles” and benefitting air pollution as well as population healthy eating options.
I hope to submit an amendment to the wealth resolution at the Brighton Conference next month introducing the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income as part of the multiplicity of means to redistribute wealth in our nation (and perhaps across the world eventually) so if you are at the conference, please help me to explain seigniorage to the assembled delegates!
“It`s the Rich what gets the pleasure…aint it all a bloody shame!?