UBI: Good for workers (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 8)

Underlying the work ethic, reciprocity, and exploitation objections are two questionable presumptions: that UBI is somehow bad for workers and that there is a recognizable dichotomy between “workers” and “UBI recipients.”

My book, Universal Basic Income Essential Knowledge, shows that a modest UBI system is a direct net benefit to nearly 50% of households, and a more generous plan extends direct benefits to 70%. Even if we think of “work” only as making money, the vast majority of UBI’s net beneficiaries are workers, retired workers, underage children of workers, caregiving dependents of workers, and so on.

If the UBI system I’ve described somehow “exploits” workers, it is not the vast majority of workers; it is not the most vulnerable portion of workers; it would have to be some portion of the 30 percent most advantaged, most privileged, and highest paid workers who also tend to have the best working conditions, benefits, and autonomy on the job.

Some people in that top 30% of workers will enjoy the net benefits of UBI for part of their lives—usually, the part when they most need help. UBI was there when they were in school, temporarily disabled, or unemployed; when they were taking time out to care for children or sick relatives or just taking time off to enjoy life before resuming their career; when they were working but not yet making as much money as they are now; when they were children of low-income parents.

So far, I’ve mentioned only direct benefits. The indirect benefits of the added leverage UBI gives all workers in the marketplace are likely to extend even farther—possibly to everyone who holds a job. It will give them more power in both individual and collective bargaining.

The worst thing you can do to a worker is to put them in a position where they have to work for somebody else to survive. As argued above, the more a worker needs a job, the lower their wages are likely to be and the more vulnerable they are to sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, disrespect, and all forms of exploitation.

The number of workers who benefit from UBI increases again as one considers what portion of a person’s life must they work to qualify as a “worker?” Most people who live entirely off UBI at any given time will have worked significant portions of their lives. They might choose to take time off for training, education, to care for children or relatives in need, to escape harassment or violence from an employer or spouse, to find a better job than the one they have, to attempt to start a business, or just to enjoy life temporarily.

The number of workers who benefit from UBI increases still more if one questions the dubious assumption that work should be understood as time spent making money. Many things that don’t make money contribute much more to society than money-making activities—e.g., care work, volunteer work, and just being a friend to someone who needs one.

Considering all these observations, the fraction of workers who do not benefit from UBI might be extremely small and very privileged. It would be made up of people who have never lived in low-income families (even as children); people who never wanted to take months off work or who were wealthy enough to self-finance their own sabbatical; people who had enough private income to sustain them while raising children, going through training, education, or unemployment.

That is, workers who are net-contributors over their entire lives are probably the most privileged, highest-income workers. It is doubtful that many UBI net beneficiaries are able to get the kind of jobs that would put them in this category. It’s doubtful that most UBI beneficiaries would turn down such attractive jobs if they could get them. And it is extremely unlikely that net-contributing workers would be better off if all UBI net beneficiaries suddenly became ready, willing, and able to compete for these highly paid jobs. Although there would be productivity gains for the economy as a whole, the most direct effect would be a steep decline in wages for the people who hold highly paid jobs now.

One could concede that the UBI plans under discussion would be an enormous benefit for the majority of workers relative to the status quo, but suggest that there could be some other plan that would leave out the true noncontributors, save the money it gives to them, and benefit workers even more than they benefit under UBI.

Once again, I’d like to see the plan. I’m skeptical because UBI gives workers power and flexibility in a way conditional programs can’t and because it saves the enormous expense of determining who is and is not “contributing” or “truly needy” at any given moment. Because your plan maintains the market vulnerability of workers who have no choice but to take a job, you’ll have to make up for that vulnerability with a whole set of market regulations. Unless you have an infallible plan, you will fail to identify all contributors, and the costs to these workers and their children will be enormous. Some authority will have to decide how many hours in a week, how many weeks in a year, and how many years in a life counts as a sufficient contribution. Your plan will have to find some way to keep the children of nonworkers from suffering along with their noncontributing parents. If your plan actually does save money after the expense of determining who is and is not contributing and compensating all the children, it will have to deliver the benefit of that savings to workers in a way that they would prefer to what they could have chosen for themselves under a UBI plan. I don’t think you can do it.

If you really want to help workers, concede power to them and respect their choices.

The problem with all these efforts to portray UBI as somehow bad for or against workers is that workers and UBI beneficiaries are all part of the same group. They are the people who might be available to work if employers make attractive offers. If workers are exploited by employers, they cannot simply choose to become employers, nor in the absence of some universal policy like UBI, can they remove themselves from the exploitative situation. If workers believe they’re being exploited by nonworkers under a UBI system, they are free to become nonworkers and remove themselves from the exploitative situation. UBI gives no advantages to anyone that it does not also offer to everyone.

We need to free ourselves from the inflated fear that the least advantaged people are somehow taking advantage of everyone else. Throughout the history of our country—and every other country I know of—it has been the strong who have taken advantage of the weak. It has been the upper class who have taken advantage of the middle and lower classes. Holding vulnerable people to work conditions makes all that exploitation easier.

Maybe it’s time we stopped erring on the side of making sure the weak can’t take advantage of the strong and decide that from now on; we’ll err on the side of making sure the strong cannot take advantage of the weak. We will ask as little as possible of the weak, and by doing that, we’ll force ourselves to make them very good offers when we want their contribution.

Note, my book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge, covers this issue more extensively, and it compares the effect of UBI on workers to the effects on works of two work-conditional programs: the Participation Income and the Federal Job Guarantee.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of the posts in this series were written with the intention of going into my forthcoming book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge for MIT Press, and many, if not most, of the ideas presented here, did make it into the book, but the publisher suggests I soften the wording and some of the arguments, because as is, in this version of it, “the anti-UBI crowd seems like a bunch of mustache-twirling robber barons,” and she rightly thought that the antagonistic stance would be less convincing than more confrontational one here. So, for the book, I made those changes, but I liked what was left out as well. I thought there must be a place for it. And I decided that place was on my blog. I refer everyone to the book because it has a different approach; because it benefits from peer review, copyediting, and more extensive proofreading; and because it has important ideas that aren’t here. Also, many of the arguments here are developed more fully in other books and articles of mine, most of which you can find on my website: www.widerquist.com.

Karl Widerquist, Karl@Widerquist.com

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