2011-05-11

unconditional basic income

The digital revolutionOpen-source. Giveaways. Creative Commons. Crowdsourcing. Volunteer work. Cognitive surplus. McJobs. Senior experts. Temporary employment. Freelancing. Interim Management. Do you still get paid for your work, or do you already produce for free, or almost for free - or earn your money with Google AdSense?

Employment figures for the Netheralands;
Dark blue: unemployed share of age group;
Medium blue: employed share of age group;
Light blue: non-employed share of age group
Left side: men; right side: women (in thousands).
Source: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS)

While I value the blessings of Web 2.0, Social Media, and other modern technology that define or at least shape my and other people's lives to a great extent, I also see a lack in concepts to still make sufficient money for a living. In the Euro Zone and North America, official unemployment rates range between 5 and 15%. An unemployment rate, however, doesn't reflect the real part of the population that is without a job; it only reflects the part of the population which is able and willing to have a job, but doesn't have one, and is registered with an employment agency - which excludes children, students, and seniors, as well as disabled people or people who choose not to work. For countries like the Netherlands, where a lot of women still prefer to be stay-at-home mothers instead of doing paid work, and where less than half of the women above the age of 55 and only 2/3 of women between 45 and 55 have a paid job, the rate of de facto unemployed people among the 16-65 year-olds is somewhere closer to 30-40%.

So, where do these people get their money from? A lot of them are part of a couple where the other half is the breadwinner - particularly the women. Those above 55 may have opted for early retirement, getting reduced retirement benefits, but being free to do whatever they want to do with their time. The younger ones are mostly participating in some kind of education, maybe getting financial support from their parents, living on student loans, or doing precarious work on the side to keep their chins above the ever-rising water level. But still: between 5 and 15% live on unemployment benefits or other kinds of social security.

The digital revolution and its blessings which come in form of free products and free services are rather counterproductive in that respect. More and more creative workers who need to make a living too are forced to give away their products or services for little money because the market demands it - after all, there's so much free stuff out there that your rates automatically will drop, because otherwise the client will use that stock photo for €17.50 or a Creative Commons-licensed photo from Flickr for free, which is often as good as what you could produce tailor-made. Or you do great work for an organization in a job that you really love, yet, the organization refuses to give you a permanent contract, because that would mean that they couldn't fire you all that easily, should they get into financial trouble (or should the next management consultant come in who tells them that it's their first and foremost task to reduce headcount).

All the talk about creating added value on a voluntary basis: Great stuff. I'm all for it. I loved reading Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, where he analyzes the fruitful teaming-up of an increase in free time with facilitated opportunities for production, sharing and collaboration. I love people who contribute to Wikipedia, who do fundraising for a good cause, I admire those who work on improving the Apache webserver or any other open source project, who put their photos on Flickr for everybody to enjoy them, who put their art out in public space, I love all the bloggers and the citizen journalists and the whole bunch of people who put their skills into services which conduce to the greater good, instead of just earning heaps of money. However, those people need to live from something, too. Something needs to pay their bills, and it's not gonna be the community which uses their services for free: Even though attempts have been made to remunerate the people who share their content (Getty Images on Flickr, Flattr, and other micro-payment mechanisms), hardly anyone can actually live from the royalties they earn from these. And all the people who actually have talent and experience and might even have paid for an education in the respective areas get constantly undercut by ambitious amateurs.

Karl Marx, the bloody genius, already forecast at the beginning of the industrial revolution that the need for unskilled labor would decrease due to automatized production. Back in the 1970s, German high-school students were advised to study teaching and sign up for a teaching career, because it was forecast that due to an increase in productivity, work times would drop considerably in the next decades, cutting 40-hour work weeks into half for the most part of the population, while the individual incomes were forecast to stay the same - which would then open up new opportunities for life-long learning, where teachers are required. How wrong they were: Productivity did increase at an unprecedented pace; work hours, however, stayed almost the same for those with a job, but left others without one, so that a labor and monetary concentration took place where few earn a lot, and many earn nothing. The additional income created by the productivity gains was not pumped back into the cycle of earning and spending, but was instead used to increase the wealth of those who owned the means of production, while the decreasing group of those who have a job need to finance those who don't have one by their taxes and social security fees.

So what's the solution? The logical step would be to guarantee everybody a basic income, unconditionally. Slash the unemployment benefits. Strike the retirement benefits. Cut the disability benefits. Withdraw the student loans. Just give every grown-up person a basic income, of, say, €1,000, which covers their basic needs, like the monthly rent, the utilities bill, Internet, health insurance, food, and clothes. If they want to earn more, they are free to get an additional paid job - if not, they can just use their their time to make art, travel (albeit on a low budget), or even hang out in front of the TV set and drink themselves into a stupor instead of lining up at the unemployment agency - or do community services, participate in crowdsourced developments for free, create content which isn't paid for, or take over other tasks serving the greater good of society. There have been financial models from economists, sociologists, and management scholars, particularly in Switzerland and some EU countries which calculate that such a model would, in effect, be less expensive for the state than the current model of benefits an their control: It will make a huge apparatus of bureaucrats obsolete (unemployment agencies, retirement benefits agencies, student loan facilities, etc.). It will decrease the crime rates. It will bring down the real possibility of creating civil wars over resource scarcity. Most certainly, it would be more relaxed for the employees (or, non-employees), than it is right now, where a growing part of the working population, including almost all of the 15% with temporary contracts, have to worry about layoffs. And seriously: I would still go to work, probably even in the same job which I have today, and with no less hours than now. I would do that because I enjoy the work, and because I think it serves a good purpose which I want to support. The German Facebook Page Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen (unconditional basic income) which asks their readers 'What would you work if your income was taken care of?' now has more than 48,000 members, and counting. 

In spite of the logical consequence of productivity gains, population growth, and an increase in opportunities to contribute your work for free, it ain't gonna happen though. I just started reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and it makes, again, painfully clear that the belief in free markets is way too strong to be put aside anywhere outside of, say, Cuba or North Korea. The free market shock doctrine, implemented by the financial corporate elite as well as most Western governments in numerous countries all over the world in times of crises, has created oligarchies of unprecedented magnitude in most countries and regions. They welcome high unemployment rates, because that increases competition on the labor market. They have no interest in full employment, because that would put the employees, not the employers, in a position to choose. Those are the people with power, not the politicians, who, sadly, have been degraded to corporate cronies, held hostage by outrageous campaign donations and their own hunger for power, which is never truly their power, but only the power of those who have catapulted them into office by showering them with big dollars to finance their campaigns.

Oh well. At least we can dream, right?


1 comment:

  1. thank you, a very good one. 1st of June - The Day of The RIGHT TO BE LAZY and demand the unconditional basic income!

    ReplyDelete