Former President Barack Obama has come out in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). But rather than being a 'game changer', a UBI would prop up the economic status quo and deepen social inequalities.

WHILE SPEAKING IN SOUTH AFRICA this week former President Barack Obama had some observations to make on the changing nature of work and expressed support for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) He said:

“Artificial intelligence is here, and it is accelerating. … And that is going to make the job of giving everybody work that is meaningful tougher...And the pace of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements. … So, we’re going to have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income.”

The proposal to implement a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has generated a lot of discussion among policy makers and economists for decades, concerning its practicality, feasibility and merit. In the 1980s the UBI was being promoted in New Zealand as the superior alternative to the shorter working week. (fun fact: the shorter week - or reduction in hours without loss of pay - was one of the original demands of the Fourth International, established in 1938.)

The idea of the UBI has been tossed around the New Zealand left for years and slowly made its way into mainstream thinking. It even got discussed at the Labour Party's Future of Work conference in 2016. But while there was some enthusiasm for it, the more conservative Grant Robertson prevented it from going anywhere near official Labour Party policy. That earned Robertson a rebuke from the conference's keynote speaker, Professor Guy Standing, who said that Labour was guilty of painting radical new policies as being 'in the distant future.'

The UBI is attractive because it appears to be a practical solution to the growing impact of automation on the job market. But is also has currency because it is seen as a counterweight to the dominant ideology that says our social worth is inextricably linked to our job (or lack of). The author of Bullshit Jobs , David Graeber, says that bullshit jobs have become the norm. They might be good for the bosses says Graeber, but they have next to no value for society or the people who have to do them. He says that such jobs need to be abolished and he is in favour of the UBI has a way of eliminating such jobs.

Michael Roberts: A UBI would lower value of labour power.
But when champions of neoliberalism like Barack Obama come out in favour of the UBI, then something kind of smells in the state of Denmark.

Obama claims that a UBI would reduce the "yawning disparities" in wealth, education, and security across different socioeconomic groups. But while the UBI might appear to be a humane solution to the ravages of neoliberalism it actually is a surrender to the dictates of the market. It claims to address the problem of economic and social inequality but leaves the fundamental power structures of capitalism intact.

Such a UBI, as Obama envisages it, would be little more than attempt at a poverty alleviation program - masquerading as something radical. And even its attempt to alleviate poverty is suspect if the UBI is not set at level that will provide a decent standard of living for everyone. The Labour Party, for example, was proposing an UBI of $211 a week or $11,000 a year. Gareth Morgan, of the now defunct Opportunities Party, proposed paying a UBI of $200 a week to everyone between the age of 18-24 years old. Neither proposals are exactly generous and could be described as the unemployment benefit plus a little bit extra.

The UBI would have to provide something more than just subsistence living and that is not being suggested by many of its supporters. So to suggest that the UBI would address the problem of economic inequality is false. In fact a low level of UBI would put further downward pressure on already low wage levels. And as economist Michael Roberts points out:

"paying each person a ‘basic’ income rather than wages and social benefits is seen as a way of ‘saving money’, reducing the size of the state and public services – in other words lowering the value of labour power and raising the rate of surplus value (in Marxist terms). It would be a ‘wage subsidy’ to employers with those workers who get no top-up in income from social benefits under pressure to accept wages no higher than the ‘basic income’ which would be much lower than their average salary.'

For some the UBI might be seen as a way of crafting a more humane capitalism and circumventing more radical or even socialist solutions. But, in the end, the UBI is just too basic and not radical enough.

The UBI actually abandons the idea of a radical change in property relations in favour of the state paying what amounts to a basic survival allowance. This is far from being transformative.


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