There are clever people who make algorithms for the financial services sector. Remember those crumbs that used to fall from the rich man’s table? They’re all accounted for now. Every last one, down to the tiniest minuscule crumb that you can’t even see. They get collected by the algorithms and go right back to the rich man’s table, neatly making redundant the entire concept of trickle-down economics, the main plank of the argument for leaving the wealthy tax-free.
A Bill came before the Irish Senate to make it illegal for employers to pilfer worker’s tips. Apparently, employers in the service industries are inclined to claim the worker’s tips as their own. The Bill is called the Protection of Employee’s Tips Bill, but might more accurately be called the Prevention of Pilfering Employers Bill. There doesn’t seem to be an argument justifying this pilfering of tips by employers, apart from basic raw power, and the only way to stop it, since moral arguments seem to have no effect, is to legislate and make the practise illegal.
Which leads me to the concept of wealth re-distribution and the most talked-about concept in that area in recent times, the often maligned but increasingly popular UBI or Universal Basic Income, or Money-For Nothing as some like to frame it, all the better to create conflict and divisiveness on the outdated old-testament moral concept of work or die.
I first came across the concept of UBI when reading about Martin Luther King Jr. It seems this was going to be his next big campaign at the time of his murder. The last chapter of his 1967 book “Where Do Go From Here?” is devoted to the concept of what he called a Guaranteed Income. He had come to the conclusion that many of the injustices he had been campaigning about were symptoms of poverty, and that the way to deal with them all at one fell swoop was to deal directly with poverty. And since poverty exists where money doesn’t, surprise, surprise, the solution to poverty seemed to be the application of money in places where money was strikingly absent. With such application, related features of poverty such as crime, violence, cops and robbers’ interactions, hunger, despair, homelessness, drug addiction and so on, might be alleviated. Might indeed be considerably alleviated, if not entirely eradicated.
Think about that for a moment. How many American movies are about people doing something desperate for money? America, the world leader in capitalist-inspired social injustice. America, where dying for want of routine medical intervention because you don’t have the bucks to hand, is seen as normal and justified.
One of the main objections many people have to UBI is the idea that society’s ne’er do wells would be getting paid for doing nothing. This moral anomaly is solved by making the payment universal. Everyone gets it. Which brings us to the next major obstacle to the acceptance of the concept of a UBI. The idea of people getting money for “nothing”.
This is where the entire idea breaks down for many people. People who are of the belief, it seems, that life is supposed to be hard, even to the point of impossible. That starvation is everyone’s rightful inheritance here at the back end of 10,000 years of accumulated human progress and ingenuity inherited by the present generations.
These days no one has to go testing wild berries and fungi to see which ones are poisonous. Someone already did that and paid the cost and we now benefit. However, there are other ideas which seem not to have been put to bed, historically speaking. For instance, the out-dated feudal idea that the lord of the land, essentially the biggest bloke, gets to keep all the goodies and everyone has to slave away for his benefit because hard work is “good for you” and because if you don’t, the biggest bloke will bash you up and steal your tips.
This particular caveman-like social contract would of course be broken by the introduction of a universal basic income which, in its essence, is the right not to starve to death in abject destitution in a capitalist system rigged over generations to benefit the wealthy few. This is the system that conservatives pursue and protect the world over, and its sell-ability depends fundamentally, but usually very quietly, on the belief that people without money or assets are undeserving of life.
It’s not my intention to make a big socialist/capitalist game out of this, because that is not what this is about, though the conservatives are always quick to insist that this is exactly what it is about. But this really isn’t about socialism. It is about recognizing and accepting, morally, that everyone alive today, without exception, is a legitimate heir to the accumulated wealth of the Human project. The payment of a universal basic income is a recognition of this basic truth, one that is strenuously overlooked and fudged, generation after generation, by the powerful.
Yet, tax breaks, which are almost always aimed at the wealthy on the basis of the mythical trickle-down economics effect, are essentially money for nothing.
Here in Ireland we have selective tax breaks for companies with assets over €10m, a system that facilitates international investors, aka vulture funds, who are helpfully classified as tax-free charities and who buy up properties in arrears and evict the tenants into hotels paid for by the tax-payer, making private hoteliers rich on public monies. The vulture funds then re-rent or re-sell the vacated properties at inflated prices. This wonderful system has produced 10,000 homeless people in just a few years and the whole thing is justified by the Irish prime minster who is ideologically opposed to the concept of social housing, declaring angrily to “socialists” in parliament that there is no such thing as a “free” house. He was subsequently corrected on this in a UN report which said that housing is a human right.
Someone said, I think it was Bernie Sanders or maybe MLK, that capitalism or rugged individualism exists for the workers and the poor, while socialism exists for the wealthy. The wealthy get all the social perks: the tax- breaks, the medical, the time off, the leisure that is the reward of the accumulated wealth of the Human project, while the poor pay for this in suffering and hunger and homelessness and war.
Steal Me A River
In Chile, the corporate avocado growers who supply European markets and are now moving into China, steal Chilean rivers to feed their avocados. The avocado is apparently a notoriously thirsty item, claiming up to 7 times more water than potatoes. The companies divert the rivers and hoard the diverted water in huge pools that were built with a three-quarter investment of public money, on the assumption I guess that if the big company are doing well, everyone is doing well. There are those mythical crumbs again, reaching no one. On the contrary, in Chile, the people’s wells are drying up and their gardens are dying. Water is so scarce that they can’t afford to wash themselves in summer, while the government provide drinking water, the provision of which is again paid by the public. And all this on the basis that somehow some of this investment will trickle back down into the local economy. It never does. The only trickling such profits ever seem to do is into the vast economic black-holes of offshore bank vaults.
One of the unintended effects of the stealing of the rivers in Chile is that it messes up the rains, so that there is even less water. And because avocados themselves are so water absorbent, the mass growing of them and then shipping of them to Europe and China, translates into the effective exportation of Chile’s water to the far side of the world, for the sake of private profit, for companies whose owners are subsidized by public monies. Desertification is inevitable, and when that happens the poor will suffer and the rich will move on to find some other people’s water to steal.
This is a really glaring example of the way modern capitalism works. And it is in recognition of this that UBI has been seriously looked at as a possible solution to growing destitution and environmental destruction. However, to protect the sensibilities of the wealthy and their most ardent supporters - many of whom are poor and struggling, but with “dreams” that their hard work will one day translate into wealth - the argument for basic income has been made very, very carefully by its advocates. Has been delivered politely in a reasonable manner, and one of the main planks of the argument put forward is the suggestion that Artificial Intelligence will claim so many jobs that a basic income will become necessary.
This is true up to a point, but it is only partly true, because the main reason for the necessity for a UBI is that late-stage capitalism is eating everything in its path. The model of growth, expansion and consumption that it is based upon has run its course and must now, to realize its profits, appropriate everything it can lay its greedy paws on. Like stealing a river to feed an avocado crop, while the government provide the people with drinking water.
Into this scenario steps the concept of UBI, basically a living support for the increasingly expanding less-well-off, and the main obstacle to the idea is that it is perceived as money for “doing nothing”. The counter argument to this is underpinned by the belief that work is noble. Work, for many people, perhaps for most people, stopped being noble a long time ago, if it ever was noble since the industrial revolution. There’s nothing noble about work where your wages are reduced, your hours lengthened, your toilet breaks timed and limited, and your tips pilfered by the boss. What’s noble about that? That’s more like a mugging. The only possible noble gesture in such a scenario is a strike.
Work Or Die
Work or die, says the old testament, which, in real terms, in today’s world, might be more exactly translated to, agree to be exploited or die. In the latest UBI experiment in Finland no conclusive findings jumped out except that the people involved had developed a greater sense of well-being. But this finding was considered relatively immaterial. When did anyone ever care about the well-being of the insignificant? But this is exactly the effect that MLK saw as being valuable towards alleviating and even solving poverty’s social symptoms of race tensions, crime, drug addiction and so on. That a guaranteed income would be an invaluable contribution to the social good, or an enhancement of social benefits, as Adam Smith would put it, and would lead to an improvement in everybody’s quality of life.
And here we hit a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first, the drug addict or the environment that may have spawned the drug addict? Your read of this conundrum will mostly define your politics.
But given that, what are we to make of the opioid epidemic in the US, which appears to have been deliberately unleashed by a private pharmaceutical company to create dependent “customers”, much like drug pushers in Dublin in the 80s used to give out free heroin at the school gates?
What are we to make of those middle-class drug addicts in the US who inadvertently developed a habit by taking painkillers they believed to be safe, since they were sanctioned by a credible medical authority? Is their addiction caused by a personality defect, or was it caused by something in the environment? Well, it’s clearly something in the environment: in this case a big, greedy, corporate entity literally feeding off the health and well-being of ordinary people.
Similarly, can anyone be certain really, regardless of their political views, that poverty doesn’t give rise to drug addiction? And if it does, along with the litany of other social ills identified by MLK and others, surely, if you’re going to give out “free” public money to address such social symptoms as drug addiction and crime, and you keep giving that free public money to vast private companies and corporations, why not apply some of that money to where it is obviously most needed?
Then there is the argument saying that the disparity between rich and poor would be exactly the same with a UBI, so why bother? The poor will always be with us. But this is a false argument, because while a basic income might allow you to invest something in improving your situation, an income of nothing gives you nothing to invest in improving your situation, leaving you stagnant and at the mercy of a system that rewards wealth and penalises poverty.
The end-game of that situation is the plot of yet another American movie about desperadoes with guns out to make a killing, when in fact, for most of these desperadoes, enough to get by would most likely be enough to deter their hopeless crimes and the subsequent costs of the industry of policing and incarceration that rises up in response. But then again, these “industries” are the real clue as to the inevitable direction of capitalism, and why UBI is resisted by conservatives. Because there is profit in exploitation, and when it comes right down to it, exploitation of people and resources is the only real trick that capitalism knows. In that respect it is as antiquated and stupidly mean and bullish as the pilfering employer with his fist in the tips jar.
So, what’s the difference between UBI and welfare? Welfare is policed and the entire subtext is public shaming. The opportunities to be flexible in working practises are restrictive, and the overall effect is a cramping of people’s natural sense of movement and self-respect. Welfare is divisive too, creating haves and have-nots, casting a class of people as social “burdens” and is ultimately destructive of social cohesion. Welfare drives home the work-or-die doctrine with no recognition of the prevailing character of the current system. In this respect, the entire concept of social welfare as it is currently delivered is also anachronistic in nature, as the capitalist system that creates the need for welfare is anachronistic in nature. For social benefits to accrue in the present circumstances, and for realistic options to be taken to protect the environment, capitalism in its current form basically needs a long holiday.
In the excellent BBC documentary “Drowning in Plastic” the presenter Liz Bonnin spoke to a fisherman who realized that he was over-fishing the grounds, but explained that he had no option but to keep going, because there were so many people dependent on him: his own family; his employees and their families, along with various businesses like restaurants, and their employees.
So here was someone who knew he was doing damage to the natural resource through over-exploitation, and yet he couldn’t stop because stopping would have an adverse knock-on effect on so many other people. This little story, buried in the documentary as to be almost unnoticed, is a perfect illustration of the need for a basic income to help offset the destructive inevitability of the logic of consumerist capitalism.
Less growth is more, and to sustain these new realities, a universal basic income is the only realistic investment towards ensuring a future for Humanity’s children.
MLK and Basic Income https://bit.ly/2HWz7L7
Full Employment Not the Way Forward https://bit.ly/2CJ9qu4
Finland Basic Income https://bit.ly/2HWzx49
Money Algorithms https://bit.ly/2uC3uyl
In Defence of Degrowth https://bit.ly/2JQKfeS
The Stolen River https://bit.ly/2rn895k
Drowning in Plastic https://bit.ly/2NO3ggw
Stealing Tips https://bit.ly/2OzpF1o
The Pilfering Employer Bill https://bit.ly/2YDZLOI