Possible Futures

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The following is a report on a talk held on 14.02.2015 by the London Futurists. David Jenkins and Barb Jacobson spoke for around 50 minutes, followed by just over an hour of discussion. Comments and questions were wide-ranging, and spread along a great many different political, social and economic spectra. This is an attempt to condense that discussion for possible *future* use.

 

The opening talks had significant overlap, referring more to moral argument and the functions a UBI would likely/hopefully perform, than to any detailed specification of where the money is to come from. I began with a shopping list of the various moral arguments for rendering a basic income unconditional. They were, briefly as follows: Declaration of ethical intent; providing people with the opportunity to do whatever it is they want to do; recognition of alternative economic contributions; simplifying bureaucracy; adaptation to current economic climate; securing a ‘protected position’ for individuals; potential to disrupt unjust practices.

These themes were continued by Barb alongside more detailed description of the enforcement of conditionality, exploring the possibilities for funding a UBI

1. Shock absorber or transformation?

The pace of technological change is reaching something like a tipping point. A recent report by the Oxford Martin Program  has put at least 70% at medium-high risk of replacement by technology in the next 15 years. Other analysts put the figure all the way up to 80%. Whatever the precise figure, there seemed to be a general consensus in the room that these kinds of changes were leading to qualitative changes in the economy that demanded some reaction at the level of political and social organisation. Differences emerged, however, in terms of both the extent and intention of that reaction.

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two camps on the issue – or at least two points along which people line up on a spectrum. At one end, there are those who regard the current economic system as providing a template, broadly correct, of organising the economy. A UBI would act as a way of, potentially, introducing some shock absorbers into a system that is no longer able to function according to the old patterns of employment. There is also, I should say, a school of thought that need not adopt this view, but which sees the 20-30% of the labour market the remains as capable of expanding to provide enough opportunity for the population at large.

At the other end, are the views that regard UBI as offering a certain transformative potential. Environmental degradation, materialism, militarism (both historical and contemporary), the countless immiseration upon which the system currently depends is not something that can be purged from the system without a more radical overhaul of that system. Consequently, UBI is a means of transitioning to the kind of society where such things are, if not eliminated, at least dramatically reduced. The pace of technological change provides the social and economic conditions within which such change is made possible.

This is a familiar line, one that has occurred across a great many periods of change. In reality, they are not altogether distinct from one another: The role of shock-absorber could itself morph into something more transformatory as time wore on, generating the kinds of effects and imperatives that could help put a halter on those realities alluded to above.

Finally on this issue of how radical transformation that is needed is the question of changes at the level of ‘consciousness’. There were some voices in the room who suggested that it is within our priorities and sense of the good life, our understanding of our relationships both to each other and the world, that needs transforming. For example, the very idea that work per se  is something we should seek to preserve was described as a potentially pernicious imperative that needed to be resisted.

Irrespective of that spectrum though, something that did seem to be fundamentally agreed upon was the need to accept the pace of technological change as a reality demanding a response.

2. Predicting the unforeseeable

In light of there only be partial pilot schemes available for our study, the issue of what can and cannot be predicted or known as a consequence of introducing a UBI is crucially limited. It is surely right that pilot schemes of some variety would be a necessary stepping stone in the gradual introduction of UBI especially in light of concerns with, for example, immigration and inflation.

These are necessary to prove the work-ability of the model, which is ultimately an important part of any moral argument – ought implies can (though current ‘cans’ are always subject to at least a degree of change).

However, this idea of work-ability points to an interesting aspect of basic income. By starting from UBI as a demand we set, a declaration of ethical intention – that everyone deserves the means to live – from which we are pretty hard moved, then it poses a challenge to anyone confronting this intention to do one of two things: Either refute it at a moral level – people do not deserve those means – or at the level of feasibility.

But the question of feasibility is itself loaded with moral dimensions. Some of this range from the rather banal: UBI won’t work because consumers are no longer incentivised to be efficient with their consumption. First, the income is not enough that total inattention to questions of efficiency is likely to be an option. Second, there is a further moral (environmental) dimension to consuming efficiently as well, and there is evidence to suggest increased incomes will qualitatively send consumption in this direction.

Bracketing other questions like inflation, there remain more important questions – for example, affordability: We cannot afford it because capital will fly away from our states, or people will refuse to allow greater taxes levied against their wealth/income. Now this sets a challenge to those (corporations; individuals) who would threaten flight: Are your demands moral? Is what you describe as unworkable or impractical actually the consequence of something akin to an overripe concern with your own consumption, or greed or the absence of solidarity? UBI as a demand thereby performs the neat trick of twisting so-called feasibility issues into questions of morality and ethics which have to be answered in those terms.

3. How change occurs: The role of the state

Something I found interesting was the vision of what kinds of force bring change to the world. Personally, I see UBI as being part of the traditions of struggle we have seen demonstrated through the labour, civil and welfare rights movements. Within these movements, the pragmatic and the ideal have always gone in hand-in-hand: Each smaller action guided by a larger ideal of what is ultimately being intended: Voting rights were to be gained so that destinies, both individual and collective, could be decided and a real, more substantive equality could be achieved – something for which the vote itself is but one part among many.

At some point during the talk, someone mentioned that transformative, radical change has only ever had bad consequences. I have to say, empirically speaking, this doesn’t really hold water – unless the establishment of welfare rights, worker rights and the ending of apartheid in a great many places across the globe are not allowed to be weighed against, I am assuming, the Terror following the French Revolution? Certainly those various accomplishments were long, drawn-out struggles that required the correct economic, social and institutional conditions to hold before they could be effectively carried through, but for all this contingency they were far from being piecemeal or tepid.

The alternative, as was also apparent at the meeting, was that the policy can essentially be whispered into the ears of government who, convinced the idea is a good one with broad support across the various social, economic and political constituencies will necessarily introduce the policy in its most appropriate form. I think these different visions of power are an important distinction, but again not hard and fast. However, I think it is important to act guardedly when it comes to how the state might like to see something like UBI implemented, given the many ways in which its effects could be dampened – reducing the amount; pulling away other public services; failing to introduce price caps on housing; refusing to introduce new taxes, etc.

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