Four (more) arguments against real-world basic income

With the Ontario Liberals rolling out their basic income pilot project to much fanfare this week, it’s an opportune time to dive into the debates around BI once again.

1 Political aspects of unemployment

A few weeks ago I attended a debate on basic income and the left in Toronto hosted by The Leap. During the debate, the proponents of BI returned again and again to those who are outside the labour force. This focus is important. Welfare in Ontario and elsewhere is equivalent to poverty. And those outside the labour market are central to the current plans for basic income, which are more replacements for welfare rather than the kind of universal schemes argued for by some on the left. What BI fans forget is that even those outside the labor force have important functions under capitalism. While there was much said about people who can’t for various reasons participate in the labour market, there was scant attention to their position within our economic system.

A number, primarily women, are “outside the labour force” but performing the invisible, difficult, unpaid labour that makes the system tick: childcare, housework, non-market food production. Their work is valuable for society but needs to remain unpaid as long as it isn’t done for profit. The other part of those of working age but outside the labour force are key in a different way. They are a reminder that those of us don’t have any wealth have to work for a wage to survive…or else. John Clarke, who has been consistently critical of neoliberal BI schemes, made the point early in the debate that unemployment, poverty and homelessness have a political function in capitalism: they are part of the apparatus of economic coercion. People become examples for others: “Don’t want to end up on the streets/in dire poverty/…? Better get to work.”

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Beware of basic income

Wouldn’t it be great to get a cheque every month just for being you? This is the sweet, fuzzy vision the Ontario and federal Liberals, are counting on to sell their latest idea, a basic income. Just this year, the Ontario government laid the groundwork for a pilot project to test the idea. Any actual large-scale program is far off into the future, however, and that’s a good thing. We need to take a hard look at the idea, especially in Liberal clothing.

Pie-in-the-sky or slap-in-the-face?

A basic income is exactly what it sounds like: a monthly cheque provided to every person by the government with no strings attached. A recent Ontario poll suggests the idea has broad support: 41% of Ontarians support it compared with 33% who oppose. Yet when people are asked whether they think a basic income is a good idea, they are never asked what they would be prepared to lose to get it. The point isn’t that basic income is pie-in-the-sky. It’s just that it could be implemented as a slap-in-the-face.

Basic-Income-posters

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Nope, Alberta still needs to raise the minimum wage

Last night, Andrew Coyne published a column in which he champions introducing a minimum income over raising the minimum wage as a radical policy suggestion for Alberta’s new NDP government. Coyne couches the column in his typical pseudo-contrarianism. Here he is supposedly advocating socialism…gasp! In reality, however, Coyne gets it backwards: a minimum income in Alberta today would almost certainly be a dangerous neoliberal measure. It’s raising the minimum wage that can help open more space for progressive politics.

First, the basics. The $15 minimum wage was a key promise of the NDP campaign and increasingly being adopted across North America. A minimum income is a theoretical idea that’s never really been implemented and would essentially guarantee every citizen some basic level of cash income. As Coyne notes, it but remains mildly popular across the political spectrum; it was recently floated as a proposal by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Coyne argues for the superiority of a minimum income as being solely focused on poverty reduction and redistribution, at the same time criticizing the minimum wage as too interventionist. As usual on the right, Coyne couches his opposition to hiking the minimum wage with an appeal to Economics 101: if the price of labour (the wage) goes up, the quantity demanded (employment) will go down. Simple: don’t mess with the market! (more…)

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Re-making markets with unpaid internships

From political proposals to street protests, unpaid internships have been making news in Canada. Rightfully so, as there is a litany of problems with unpaid internships. For individuals, unpaid internships can not only be a form of outright wage theft, they also help entrench class-based privilege that allows some the luxury of forgo income in exchange for work experience. Unpaid internships also distort the labour market and contribute to lower participation and higher unemployment, especially among young workers. For firms, of course, unpaid internships offer some real cost savings. There could, however, be another reason why unpaid internships are popular: they help remake the terms of the labour market itself. (more…)

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The political aspects of the minimum wage

Discussion of the minimum wage can easily slide into a technocratic back-and-forth that ignores the vital political aspect at play. We can see this in much of the response to the report just released by the Ontario government’s Minimum Wage Advisory Panel (MWAP). Andrew Coyne, for example, once again argues that a basic income is a better solution to poverty than increases in the minimum wage. The question, however, should not be one of which single tool is best for fighting poverty, but how we can build the most effective toolkit, one that also puts political power into the hands of the poor. Poverty is multi-faceted and, while low-wage work is only one potential aspect of being poor, the minimum wage has effects beyond providing much-needed higher incomes. (more…)

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