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From rentier capitalism to pandemic slump: the basic income imperative

COVID-19 has ushered in a global economic slump, which may lead to a global depression. But is the coronavirus just the trigger for a financial crisis that was waiting to happen?

Globalisation and the economic policies of recent decades have produced a fragile system best described as rentier capitalism, characterised by a global class structure with rapidly growing precariat, and an increasingly deteriorating income distribution system.

The increasing public support for a basic income as an economic right suggests an alternative way out of the pandemic slump – so what does basic income involve? And what are the social risks of ignoring or delaying a basic income?

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LISA ADKINS 

Hello, welcome to the Sydney Ideas event on the basic income imperative, as well as covering key questions such as what basic income is, and how it works. This event aims to understand how and why our current pandemic conditions have ignited a new wave of support for basic income. Thank you so much for joining us.

My name is Lisa Adkins, and I'm Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences here at the University of Sydney, and I'm your host and moderator today.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging that wherever we are in Australia today, we are on Aboriginal land, sovereignty over which has never been ceded. The University of Sydney sits on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I'd like to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Our event today features two speakers who are extremely prominent in the current Basic Income debate. The first is Professor Guy Standing who is our keynote speaker. Guy is an economist and Professorial Research Associate at SOAS at the University of London. He is also a fellow of the British Academy of Social Sciences, and the Royal Society of Arts, as well as being the Co-founder and Honorary Co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network. Guy has previously held professorships at SOAS, Bath and Monash universities. His many books include the 'The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class'; 'The Corruption of Capitalism'; 'Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen'; and 'Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth'.

Most impressively, from my point of view, he has also recently collaborated with Massive Attack in a music video based on his most recent book, 'Battling Eight Giants: Basic Income Now'.

 

LISA ADKINS  

Guy's respondent today is Professor Greg Marston. Greg is Deputy Executive Dean in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland. Greg's research sits at the interface of social policy and sociology, and he's an expert on the Australian welfare state. His books include 'The Australian Welfare State'; 'Work and the Welfare State'; and 'Risk, Responsibility and the Australian Welfare State'. Greg is also a member of the Basic Income Earth Network, and he's the representative for Australia.

 

LISA ADKINS 

So without further ado, I'd like to hand over to Guy. Thank you, Guy.

 

GUY STANDING 

Oh, good evening, everybody. I wish I were in Sydney rather than virtually in Sydney. I'm speaking from Italy. I want to begin by saying that COVID and the pandemic slump we're experiencing was an accident waiting to happen. The economic system that broke within the last 40 years is incredibly fragile, and I'll come back to that later. And I want to begin by saying that basic income is often misunderstood. And therefore I think it's important to spend a minute defining it.

 

GUY STANDING 

A basic income would be a modest regular payment to every individual who's the usual resident of Australia or whichever country we're talking about; would be paid individually; and equally to everybody. For each woman and each man would receive the basic income, regardless of work status, regardless of gender, or marital status, and whatever. It's paid unconditionally in behavioural terms. In other words, you don't have to do particular things in order to receive it or not do other things. And it's non-withdrawable.

 

GUY STANDING 

When you pay a basic income, it could be on different levels – come back to that, perhaps – but the essence of it is to provide a basic of security and enable people to at least be able to survive in extremes, if they didn't have any other income. Of course, it's perfectly compatible with earned income of any type. And it's important to realise that it avoids means testing. Means testing always creates poverty traps, exclusion errors, stigma; and we know from countless research projects, that this is the case in every part of the world. It's important to realise too, that there would be supplements for those with disabilities or extra costs of living, because the intention is to give everybody a material base that is equal. And of course, you could claw back from the wealthy. So the objection that why should we pay wealthy people, you could claw back from by taxation in some way. But the important thing is to give it as a right rather than charity. And it's much more efficient and much more equitable to give the money and then tax back from the wealthy. So that's the definition.

 

GUY STANDING 

Now, the reasoning I've always given for a basic income [is] fundamentally ethical. It's a matter, first of all, of justice, common justice. If we allow for the private inheritance of private wealth, and we should think of the public wealth which has been generated by generations before us. And these have just been referred to that. But not only Aborigines, but many generations of settlers as well. And we don't know who has contributed more or less. So in a sense, it's a matter of saying that we should have a dividend from the public wealth that's been generated. And after all, we allow private inheritance, which is a lot of something for nothing for a minority. So in a sense, this common justice principle is important.

 

GUY STANDING 

It's also a matter of intergenerational justice and religious justice. If you're a religious, you can say, as Pope Francis has recently said, in endorsing basic income, that the earth is a shared phenomenon. And in addition, we are given by God unequal talents, and in a sense, a basic income would be a compensation for those who have less at times. And it's also a matter of enhancing freedom. Everybody says they believe in freedom, but you can't be free if you're chronically poor, or insecure, and enhancing the freedom to say no, at fundamental freedom – it's an important ability of a basic income, and we found that in numerous pilots around the world.

 

GUY STANDING 

It's also a matter of liberal freedom. Liberal freedom can be defined as the freedom to be moral. It can't be moral, if the government is telling you what to do. Or if you are so insecure, you just have to do what anybody tells you. So it enhances liberal freedom. And then it also enhances republican freedom; I developed that, in my books, that were mentioned at the beginning. The sense of republican freedom is the freedom to take your own decisions without having to ask permission from others. A woman is not free, if she has to ask her husband, if she can do something. She is only free if she can make that decision herself.

 

GUY STANDING 

The third ethical justification is that it would by definition, almost, give people a sense of basic security. Basic security is a human need. It is a public good, and it is a superior public good in the sense that the more people who have basic security, the greater the value to each and one of us; each and every one of us. And I think that the importance of that, which I'll come to in a moment in a different context, is that if you don't have basic security, your mental bandwidth shrinks. The capacity to be rational, shrinks. It is unfair of us to be expecting people who are chronically insecure, to be making good rational decisions. It's just not a human condition. So alongside these ethical reasons, which I've always found very strong, and I've developed them, as I said, at length, with reference to the past and philosophers through the ages – we now have the pandemic slump.

 

GUY STANDING 

The pandemic slump is the end of a period that began in the 1980s with neoliberalism, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Mont Pelerin Society and so on, – which ushered in a period period of liberalising markets, opening up to the world and liberalising finance, first and foremost. What we've experienced in the last 40 years is a gradual change from that, into what I've called rentier capitalism. The more and more of the income is flowing to the owners of assets – potential real assets, physical assets, and intellectual property, rather than production and labour.

 

GUY STANDING 

Every country has seen an incredible growth of financialisation that didn't come through the Great Britain. Financial assets now comprise over 1,000% of GDP national income. In most other OECD countries, it's well over 500%. And this means that basically more and more of the income is going to the financers, who are not actually producing goods and services that most of us want. And financialisation has also gone with the growth of income flowing to the owners of patents and copyright and so on. Again, it's faulting the market economy.

 

GUY STANDING 

Now, to cut a long story short, what has happened is that a new global class structure has emerged with rentier capitalism, with a plutocracy at the top of multi-billionaires. It's extraordinary that the billionaires in the United States have increased their wealth and income this year since the pandemic struck by about a third. It's the case with the plutocracy in other parts of the world. But further down the system, you have a growing precariat. People living bits and pieces, lives insecure without occupational narrative to give to their lives, losing rights and feeling that they are supplicants. This is the critical part of being in the precariat. You don't have rights. You have to rely on discretionary judgments by bureaucrats, by landlords, by parents or by others, in order to get by. And this growth of the precariat has been a global phenomenon. Millions and millions of people have been shrinking into the precariat. And it's not all negative, because they're looking for a different lifestyle, a different way of developing, a different combination of types of work, and so on. So we shouldn't say that everything in the precariat should be reversed. On the contrary, it is actually a harbinger of things to come.

 

GUY STANDING 

And in my latest book, I've taken the theme of the precariat and the theme of rentier capitalism. So the argument that it has generated eight modern giants, that were threatening the good society; threatening the road to a good society; blocking that road. And the image of a giants was drawn from a famous report of 1942 by William Beveridge, who said, at that time, "it is a time for revolutions, not patching." What he meant was that the inequalities and insecurities had grown to such an extent that there was a need for a new social compact. And his five giants at the time he talked about were, ignorance, disease, squalor, want, and lack of housing, basically. And he ushered in a period where the welfare states developed, and Greg is an expert on that, maybe he'll come back to that. But when I looked at it, basically I said there are eight modern giants that are coming up. And they are fundamentally different from what Beveridge was talking about.

 

GUY STANDING 

The first of the eight giants is inequality. We have grotesque levels of inequality today. And inequality of wealth is much greater than inequality of income. People concentrate on income inequality, but what has been happening is more and more of the income has gone to wealth holders so that wealth, as a multiple of income, has increased dramatically; and more and more of the wealth is inherited wealth. So you have a situation where the wealth inequality and income inequality are literally exploding, and unless we have a mechanism for reducing it, that will continue and the basic income won't cure alll inequality, but it would help reduce inequality.

 

GUY STANDING 

The second giant is insecurity. The incredible growth of insecurities in the last 40 years is a global pandemic. And the insecurity goes with an increase in uncertainty for which you cannot have a social insurance or national insurance, because you don't know the probabilities of being hit. And you don't know how to recover. More and more evidence is accumulating, that people can be hit by a shock, and not be able to recover because the capacity to do so has been eroded. Again, to deal with insecurity, we need a base. We need an anchor of a new income distribution system.

 

GUY STANDING 

That leads to the third giant, which is much greater than the last time we had a global pandemic, which was in 1918-1920 with the Spanish flu. Today, we have huge private debt. Everybody concentrates on government debt, but actually private debt is much, much greater than at any time in history. And rentier capitalism depends on people being in debt. Because, if you have a precariat, and if you have high levels of debt, you only need a small shock in order to tip people into homelessness, destitution, bankruptcy, and into the fourth giant.

 

GUY STANDING 

The fourth giant is stress. We have, and had it long before the pandemic struck, a pandemic of stress. And the stress comes from lives of insecurity, inequality with debt, and the precarity, that is the fifth giant. And people who have stress are liable to have social illnesses, those famous preconditions, and be much more susceptible to being hit by any flu or virus that comes along. We have learned that in this pandemic, as if we needed to because the evidence has been out there for a long time. But stress is something that is being treated by drugs and therapies; it is actually due to the way people have to live. And therefore a much more effective way would be to give people the basic security so that they don't have a high probability of those social illnesses, leading to suicides and all of those demands on health services, that would actually be a beneficial development. But no government has a strategy for dealing with insecurity and the pandemic of stress.

 

GUY STANDING 

The fifth giant is precarity, the feeling that we are losing rights. The precariat feel they don't have social rights, they don't have economic rights, they don't have cultural rights, they don't have political rights. And that sense of precarity contributes to the other the strength of the other giants.

 

GUY STANDING 

The sixth giant, being very brief on this, is the threat of the robots. I don't believe that automation and AI are going to make us all redundant. I think we have plenty of things to do. But what is undeniable is that more and more, it is contributing to the inequality and the insecurity and the disruption where many people are experiencing.

 

GUY STANDING 

And the seventh giant is one that I believe will tip millions more into supporting basic income. And that is the threat of extinction. We now know with this pandemic, which is already the sixth pandemic of this century, that the threat of extinction is not just to nature. It's also to ourselves, the way we live the way we've interacted with nature, the way we've pursued rapid economic growth is creating conditions for the spread of viruses and other things that are going to hit us. We need to slow down. We need to realise that we need high carbon taxes and taxes on bump public pads. But the trouble with those taxes is that they are regressive. They by themselves they would increase inequality because the poor would be paying a higher percentage of their income in income taxes. And the only way to make them popular and acceptable is the guarantee that the revenue raised from those taxes have recycled to people as part of basic income.

 

GUY STANDING 

The idea of a basic income would also encourage us to do forms of work that are now being called "essential" – care, voluntary work, community work – which currently under our old income distribution system, are unremunerated, unrecognised, and undervalued.

 

GUY STANDING 

And that leads to the eighth and final giant. We have, due to via an insecurity, a terrifying re-growth of neo-fascist populism in the world. Anybody who doesn't believe that, should listen to a couple of the speeches of Donald Trump. He's playing on the fears and insecurities of the uneducated part of the precariat, above all. And if we don't change our income distribution system, we will soon find more neofascist populists. And we will all be threatened by that growth.

 

GUY STANDING 

And there is one final lesson I want to emphasise, which is that we are learning through this pandemic, something that is really part of the human condition since humanity began. And that is, that the resilience of society and the resilience of every one of us, depends, and will depend, on the resilience of the most insecure and vulnerable parts of our population. If, the measures taken by governments leave out large numbers of people, we will have a rumbling on of second wave, third waves, and other pandemics in front of us. We need a new income distribution system that is consistent with a market society or consistent with any other political system that you might desire. Many income distribution system must have an anchor of a basic income. And that is why I say that now, it is an economic imperative, as well as an ethical one. Thank you very much.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thank you very much Guy. And I'd now like to hand over to Greg for his response.

Thanks very much Lisa, and thanks Guy. When Guy announced the connection with Massive Attack, as Lisa said, we were very impressed. But Guy also said that he didn't know who Massive Attack were so he said that that didn't make him very cool. But Guy is the one person I know whose name is a grammatically correct sentence, so I think that's also pretty cool, Guy. And we can we can use that in all sorts of ways in terms of, you know, your upstanding talk, and let's be standing for Guy. But we're all sitting here on Zoom as it's not the best place to have a forum, but we will persist.

So I've got about five minutes to give my localised reply to Guy and I guess there's kind of two ways I can make that response. One is to say, you know, to Guy – enough of your high minded idealism, that's not how we do things down here in Australia. We prefer rugged individualism or Tweet a meme to keep them keen, when it comes to how ordinary Australians in the daily struggle for dignity and economic security in the face of an increasingly uncertain world. So that would be one response.

 

GREG MARSTON 

Alternatively, I could say thanks for giving us the inspiration to think big, and I think, in for reminding us of the sovereign nation that we once were and could be again. Because Australians have always been bold in the social reforms, particularly at the start of the last century, when it came to social and political rights. And lots of what we now regard as the mark of a decent society, were once considered dangerous ideas, and they were fiercely opposed such radical proposals as the age care pension or universal health care. And now these are, of course, part of our social fabric. Given we in the midst of the pandemic, as Guy has mentioned, and everyone is very aware of, there is of course, a small window of opportunity to be bold and refuse business as usual, to use the pandemic as a portal to a preferable future. And this is generally how we've done things with big developments in the welfare state. Mostly, they're exogenous external shocks of wars or depression and so this really is an opportunity to move away from incrementalism.

 

GREG MARSTON 

But in making the case as to why UBI is at least worth considering, I think it's always better to begin with why it would be desirable. Why would we want to do this? And I think that's a better starting spot than whether it's affordable. And I've been in lots of rooms with economists who debate this in a very disinterested way. No insult, they're intended to your profession, Guy.

Besides which, if you think about affordability, it's really a value statement. I mean, there's lots of things that we do in this country when we design them, such as spending $200 billion on increasing Australian defence capability, which was announced in the midst of this pandemic. So it is about deciding what the goal is and then generally we'll work out how to get there.

 

GREG MARSTON 

So in terms of this desirability in Australia, there are a few arguments, as Guy's made very compelling arguments around the ethical statements of also which have relevance to Australia. Social Justice argument is particularly strong when you look at the way in which the Newstart rate has been, but keeping people in poverty, not enabling them to move out – it keeps them in that position.

 

GREG MARSTON 

There's also the temporal justice argument which Guy has made previously in which others like Bob [Robert] Goodin in this country have made in respect to the importance of tertiary time – time allowing us to spend on other pursuits, not just mere survival or a bare existence, and time in that way, is a matter of justice because that discretionary time is distributed very unevenly. In our society, it's particularly single parents who are doing double shifts, as well as surviving on low incomes that have very little discretionary time.

 

GREG MARSTON 

There's also the libertarian argument, which supports small government doing away with some of the welfare bureaucracy, which in Australia, is also relevant given that we've got a highly complex social security system that at least for people worse of age tends to be designed to deter, rather than to assist.

 

GREG MARSTON 

There is a more Marxist argument around alienation, which is again, relevant here with a deteriorating labour market, which was weak going into the pandemic, in terms of the paradox of our employment and underemployment, and that a lot of the increase in jobs has been casual and part time work. So that increases and voices what Guy has said and that argument is very relevant to the Australian labour market. It's also worth remembering here that UBI is not anti-work. It's an economic floor, not a ceiling. And all the experiments tend to show that people continue to engage in paid employment or they take up education.

 

GREG MARSTON 

But the resilience argument which Guy came to, I think, is possibly the one that's most relevant Australian context, given that we're prone to natural disasters from drought to bushfires, and now, of course, the worldwide pandemic with COVID, and the recession. I think the resilience argument is important because it enables people to be in a good position to weather the external shocks that come from economic and these disasters, the natural ones. They have a regular income they can rely on to stay on their feet. And this resilience has a community and economic effect as money stays in the local economy. And if we also had a UBI, we wouldn't need to scramble every time. There's a new crisis to design these imperfect schemes, schemes that intentionally are about whole sections of society be they migrants, artists, or dare I say, university workers in the case of JobKeeper.

 

GREG MARSTON 

So in this year, we've had JobKeeper, we've got JobSeeker, JobCreator, and now with this highly questionable announcement about the gas-led recovery, I'm just waiting for the government spin doctors to come out for a claim with a headline, that we're now cooking with gas, as they talk up the associated employment gains with a new JobBaker; I hope they don't actually use that.

 

GREG MARSTON 

If I just finish with a few comments on feasibility, because these are some of the questions that have already come through. And it's important to think about implementation, obviously, if you're a policy person. In terms of technical feasibility, there's some good modelling in Australia that's been done by Miranda Stewart and others around me – how we could afford a modest universal basic income, with a mix of carefully calibrated income tax reforms, and cashing out some of the tax benefits that primarily float to high income earners. I think it's important remembering that our welfare state distributes not just cash, but also tax expenditures, and they don't tend to go to low income earners.

 

GREG MARSTON 

We could also begin with the stepping stone approach in terms of feasibility focusing on populations that struggle with transitions like young people in school or older Australians that face discrimination in the labour market. This approach would emphasise the unconditional rather than the universal, and you could potentially roll out coverage to other groups once you demonstrate to people that the cultural fears around reciprocity and so on, are not warranted.

 

GREG MARSTON 

I think the hardest nut to crack down in terms of feasibility is political, and this requires bottom-up and top-down support; the same way that the campaign to raise the rate for Newstart included groups like the Business Council of Australia. And we know at the top, leaders of the major parties in this country continue to speak against basic income when asked but we also know their branches who are putting forward motions to debate these issues at international conferences and we could take the lead from Canada which is again at moment debating these on; in within the parties. Locally, I guess we've got the Greens who are showing their support, most recently with New South Wales MP Abigail Boyd's proposal for a universal wellbeing payment, and I encourage you to have a look at the website.

 

GREG MARSTON 

In terms of bottom-up support, information, education, is a good place to start. And obviously the general awareness around what a UBI is, has massively increased in Australia over the past five years in part response to some issues Guy raised around automation, but there is much more awareness than they used to be. Also, I think we need people who've been on trial schemes to stand up and share this story, the art sector is important here. Next week, we would have hosted the 20th Basic Income Earth Network Congress in Brisbane. Obviously COVID scuttled those plans. But at the Congress, we would have launched an international photographic exhibition called, 'Humans of UBI', taking the lead from Humans of New York, by Canadian photographer Jessie Golem who herself was on a UBI trial, which was callously cut short by a conservative government in Canada. And I think we should never underestimate the power of images and stories, obviously in the movement, any movement for social change. This exhibition will now be launched next year when the Congress moves to Scotland and other countries that's trialling basic income. So I think it's high time Australia join the party on these demonstration projects. We have wasted tens of millions of dollars here trialling harmful and ineffective conditional welfare policies, most recently with the counterproductive cashless debit cards. So maybe it's time to trial some schemes that are proven to be effective in rich and poor countries alike.

 

GREG MARSTON 

We certainly have to give up on the enduring myth that poverty is a problem of bad character or poor personal choices. Poverty is a problem of insufficient cash. As Guy said, people have a right to economic security, security, dignity and real freedom, regardless of employment status, gender, age, abilities, or race. Thank you.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks so much, Greg. There are heaps of questions coming and one is actually about Australia, and which leads directly on from Greg's interventions there. So maybe I'll start with that question. What do you think the impact of COVID-19 would have been on Australian society, if we had a guaranteed basic income in place when the pandemic began?

 

GREG MARSTON 

Yeah, I think that we would have not had the winners and the losers as we did. I mean, obviously, the coronavirus supplement, you know, effectively doubled the Newstart rate. And that's been shown to be in really advantageous for households, just by things that they weren't able to afford, not to have to make a choice between food on the table and medicines, or being able to buy warm clothes. So that says two things to us that we obviously need the rate that's generous enough to make a difference. But we also have designed these schemes, unfortunately, in ways that didn't cover everyone that needed that. So I think, had we had in place, we have had those that have been on the supplement and those that haven't.

 

GUY STANDING 

Had there been a basic income in place, then it would have been possible for the government to have raised the amount being paid during this emergency and therefore reduce the extent of impoverishment that was bound to take place with the pandemic hitting the whole of society. And it would have been a way of reducing the growth of inequality. We're going to see that, when the evidence is all collected, that during the pandemic, there will have been huge increases in income inequality. And more and more people in the lower end of the income spectrum will be susceptible not only to more illnesses, and therefore more susceptibility to be hit by the pandemic, but to chronic debt and all the deaths of this will come from that. So a basic income would have given that sense of resilience to Australia, or to Britain or wherever. And I think that even the lessons in the United States, where heaven knows they've made a mess. But the one good thing that they've done was under the Cares Act, they provided at an early stage, a sort of basic income, not ideal; but it was one that has lowered the increase in poverty and inequality in the US, the evidence is already accumulate. So I think to have a basic income would have been resilience enormously.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks, Guy and Greg. So moving on to another very popular question. Would Basic Income be preferable to a government strategy pursuing full employment? And if so, why?

 

GREG MARSTON 

This is one of Guy's favourite topics.

 

GUY STANDING 

Yeah, it certainly is. And I've written an extensive appendix in my new book, saying why basic income is preferable to a jobs guarantee or things like that. One thing we've got to escape from is the jobs fetish. Every neoliberal government whenever there's a problem: Jobs, jobs, jobs, becomes the fetish. We've got to realise that most people in the precariat have lousy jobs, insecure jobs, jobs that don't provide an adequate income, either because the wage rates or fluctuating incomes without access to non-wage benefits. And, you know, guaranteeing full employment won't necessarily alter the income distribution system. You can guarantee full employment if you drive down wages and if you have onerous working conditions. Do we want that? I hope not.

 

GUY STANDING 

I think a basic income would enable people to spend more of their time doing types of work and education and developing themselves that they wish to do. And I believe that that is a better way forward. I don't believe creating more and more bullshit jobs, as the late David Graeber called them, is an answer to a sensible question. I believe in work. And one of the things that is so important to realise, and backing up something that Greg said, which I should have said, which is that the pilots that have been done around the world, in which I've been involved – you're listening to someone who has a crazy habit of being involved in doing pilots in different countries – all of them, and I'll repeat that, all of them, have shown either an increase in work, or no reduction in work. Different methodologies, different countries, different designs have shown, in fact, that work actually is increased, and it's more productive, and it's more collaborative, the work that takes place.

 

GUY STANDING 

It is a middle class, myth and prejudice, that if you gave people a basic income, they would become lazy and sit back and take to drink and drugs. It's just not the case. It actually incentivises people. The worse thing about Australian means-tested social assistance is that it is an active disincentive, through taking low wage jobs, because you lose benefits just when you need them to help you acclimatise to a different type of life. So to me, a basic income, removes the poverty trap. It increases the incentive and gives people more confidence to take risks. End of subject.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks so much. So both of you, obviously have mentioned neoliberalism in your talks and your interventions, and there's a really interesting question from Kelly, who says that they worry about neoliberal governments using BI as an excuse to further privatise services, such as health and education, which could drive greater inequality. What are your thoughts on this? And I imagine that both of you would have interesting things to say about that.

 

GREG MARSTON 

Yeah, I'll just go quickly on that. I mean, I think that that's the difference really, between a kind of a right and a left libertarian argument in favour of UBI. And, you know, the left libertarian argument would be to say that we want to increase people's freedoms and freedom from unwarranted state interference, but that they don't want to see the dismantling of the welfare state. Whereas a right libertarian would say, this would be in line with the neoliberal argument is that you cash out all of those social welfare services and give it to people in the form of a basic income so that they can spend it on the market. I think that would be a terrible idea, in terms of the way we know that markets discriminate; it would be no different with health and education services.

 

GUY STANDING 

Yeah, I mean, I think there are many ways of answering this particular question. First is the counterfactual, which is, under neoliberal governments, they have been privatising services and that hasn't been because of the basic income, okay. The fact is, without a basic income, people don't stand up and fight for other things in society. They feel vulnerable, they feel weak, and they don't bargain. The second way of looking at it is to say: Look, you can't win a game of golf with only one club, or you can't bat for a century with only one shot. Basically, a basic income is not a panacea. It's a component of a new progressive strategy in the reality of the 21st century and that, I think, means that yes, we have to fight for good public services. We have to fight for that, we have to fight to preserve our national health service or whatever it might be. But then is this different from fighting to have basic security for everybody. And I think these are quite different things. And we should realise that privatisation has been going on and on and on, partly because people are vulnerable and don't fight to preserve the things that we need.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks, Guy. And that leads really nicely actually to one of the further questions, which is, what other changes are needed alongside basic income to wrestle with the other eight giants that you've discussed?

 

GUY STANDING 

Yeah, I'd like to answer that by saying, I've always argued that there are two meta-securities to primary human needs. One, is access to resources in order to have the assurance of subsistence, and the other is voice. We all need individual and collective voice to strengthen our bargaining positions. Otherwise, we're all vulnerable. If you take away the ability to bargain, and you're vulnerable. And what we did in our Indian pilots, is we divided communities into those where they had an organisation representing people to bargain with people in positions of power, and one set of areas where they didn't have that extra voice involvement. And in certain respects, the positive effects of basic income was strong in those areas where they had an organisation that could represent them. And they were stronger relative to the past when those organisations were operating without a basic income, and relative to other areas where there was a basic income without voice. You saw improvements in schooling, you saw improvements in women's status, you saw improvements in economic output, and multiplier effects in the community, the income multiplier effects, and I think that that is essential now that we have a new set of organisations that are representing people as people, not just as labourers, not just as workers. The unions have got to transform themselves. But we need some sort of unions, in order for us to have a good society.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Shaun, in the audience, has asked Guy, for you to say a little bit more about your – "the new politics of time". Could you say a bit about the relationship between how BI might reconfigure leisure?

 

GUY STANDING 

I haven't planted this question, but I wish I had, because it's my current thrilling – something thrilling me about this subject. I've always argued that we need to reconceptualise what we mean by work. I think one of the tragedies of the past hundred years or so, is that all work that is not labour has disappeared from legal rhetoric, from statistics, from textbooks, and so on. So the work that women does – do – more than any other care work, that doesn't get counted as work, which is sexist and ridiculous, and contributes to continuing inequalities, inequities, gender-based and otherwise. We need to realise that all forms of work should be accepted with equal status, and equal protection, and so on. But the the issue of leisure is equally important. And I think that the giant of neofascist populism is making it even more important.

 

GUY STANDING 

It used to be in the ancient Greek times that you made a distinction between play and leisure as scholae, which was participating in the life of the polis, in the life of society. And the original basic income was given for participating in political life; you've got the basic income as a sort of compensation, way back in 450 BC, so it has a deep root.

 

GUY STANDING 

I think that we have had a thinning of democracy, because we have a thinning of leisure. More and more people are induced to have to do a lot more labour, a lot more work for labour, a lot of work for the state. If you're in the precariat, you have to spend a lot of time filling forms, queueing etc, etc. And the squeeze has been on real leisure – leisure of education, leisure of reflection and contemplation and participating as a citizen. As a consequence, we have, dare I say it, a dis-educated educated population. They have formal education. But many, many people don't have a rounded education that they know their culture, their history, their philosophy, their music. And they narrowly learn job pursuit schooling, human capital, where we need to find mechanisms to enable people to have real vision.

 

GUY STANDING 

I'm proposing, and the only condition I would tolerate as a condition for basic income, is that when you start receiving it, you sign a statement committing to participating in some sort of political life of your community – the moral condition, not a legal binding one, so if I don't do it, they still would get that. You want to encourage people to participate to vote. I know the Australian situation is different from many other countries. But in many, many countries, we're getting a minority of the electorate voting, and a minority of that getting the government. British Government, we've got a landslide election victory in December, but actually had only 29% of the electorate voting for it. Because people are disengaged. And we need to find mechanisms and basic income can help in this. Because it can enable people to say, I'm actually going to spend more time doing care or voluntary work or community work, or commoning, and more time in reflecting, learning, participating, and going to village meetings, or town meetings, or whatever it means. So for me, this is a part of regaining leisure. Sorry to give a long answer but for me, it's a very important issue about the politics of time.

 

GREG MARSTON 

Now, I think I've been emphasises that the new politics of time is really an old, an important debate as Guy said. But every time we've had a technological revolution, you know, we've talked about the increased capacity, leisure in this with John Maynard Keynes, was posited in a really important essay by Bertrand Russell in praise of idleness, you know, and this importance of making sure that we've got time for all of these activities. And I think the only thing I'd say about the pandemic is it did show us that when we have less sheduled lives that in some ways that releases us to think differently about what we do with our time. And again, that's some ways in which I think we ought to use that pandemic as an opportunity to rethink. And you know, there's lots of movements around this, of course, and slow food, the slow academy – all of the ways in which we could slow down what we do.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks, Greg, for those really interesting responses to that question. And thanks. I think it was Shaun for the great – proposing the question in the first place. There are a couple of technical questions around basic income. And, and I wonder if you how you would respond to this. So Alison, for example, has asked how would the level of basic income be set within different kind of welfare state settings? And I suspect you've both had experience of thinking that through in practical terms, so what would your response be to that?

 

GREG MARSTON 

I mean, I might just go quickly. I suppose in terms of the Australian case, and I guess the the highest mark in terms of the most expensive would be the socialised the rate at which the age pension is paid about $20 to $24,000 per adult, but that would double your social security bill. So you know, that's not a model scheme, but it's one that at least gets people closer in and out of poverty, unlike Newstart, which is much less,

 

GUY STANDING 

I want to answer this in a different way. One is to say that during a pandemic, or a slump that we're experiencing, we need an emergency basic income. If you like quantitative easing, for people that have been in terms of dollars into the financial markets, and the stock exchange is propping up finance, we need to be spending quite a high level of basic income. But that basic income might be higher than what we would expect to have in a more normal time, because I think you need about the financial capacity to pay.

 

GUY STANDING 

What I've proposed in my book 'Plunder of the Commons' is that every country should build up a commons capital fund, from which you pay out the dividends, through investing and build it up through levies like land value tax, equal taxes, and various other levees are and build that capacity, just as the Norwegians have done or the Alaska Permanent Fund has done, and so there are good examples.

 

GUY STANDING 

But to come back to your question, as Lisa, the last part of your question – what we found is that even a low basic income, where we paid in India or in Africa, we were paying something like 40% of subsistence. And then people said, well, surely that won't make a lot of difference? But if you're getting that amount, and you're getting it individually, when individuals or families have shocks, what tends to happen is that other individuals and families help out. And that really increases the resilience in society in the community. And it actually has a multiplier effect that raises incomes and production above what is actually being spent.

 

GUY STANDING 

I used to go to the villages where we're paying the basic income, and I say, why we're only paying this modest amount and yet, health is improving, nutrition is improving, child school attendance is improving, economic output is improving, the development of the community sanitation – they're all improving. This is bigger than the amount we're paying. But the the lesson I learned and I've developed it in the book, is the emancipatory value is greater than the money value. I think it's an important part of realising that, to be thinking of being on a road to giving basic income, the higher level, we want to build that capacity. But it's being on the road that's important.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Yeah. That makes complete sense to me, Guy. Thank you. And maybe a follow up question for for Greg. So one of our audience members has asked, have there been any trials or experiments in Australia? And if not, are there any plans for any such experiments?

 

GREG MARSTON 

Yeah, so it's a good question. There's the small scale experiment that the Brotherhood of St. Laurence ran in the 1970s. And of course, we've had variations of experiments, in particular, not called basic income, but in terms of some of the schemes in Indigenous communities in remote communities that Jon Altman's looked at and sort of made some equivalent arguments around basic income that are worth looking at, in that research. There's also been some proposals with local governments. But at this stage, none of those have actually got the financial support and haven't been implemented – so everyone out there wants to put their hand up, need to talk?

 

GUY STANDING 

And I'd like to, I would like to use that question to pay tribute to the late friend of Greg and myself, John Tomlinson, who long argued that there should be pilots in Indigenous Aborigine communities. And I think it would be a wonderful way of responding both to the pandemic and to the legacy of inequalities that we all know about in Australia, if there was a pilot launched in one of those communities to see how it would work mobilising private and public funds for that should not be beyond expectations at this period; it really shouldn't.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks. Thanks for that Guy. So we've got two minutes left. And I wonder if we could wrap up our conversation by asking both Guy and Greg to highlight what they see as a key point from our conversation, that either they're taking away from it, or they'd like our audience to take away from our conversation,

 

GREG MARSTON 

Right, I better go first, because I'm always short in my replies. So –

 

GUY STANDING 

Oh, yeah.

 

GREG MARSTON 

One of the things I'd say is that, as Guy's reminded us, you know, the job fetish. And I think that would be a real cultural barrier in Australia, because we do have a kind of organising principle of work, worth around paid work. And it's, you know, it's, I think, we would need to talk about that, whether that's the right principle for the 21st century.

 

GREG MARSTON 

I much prefer the terms like the worthwhile ethic to encompass all forms of work, and care of the environment and care of people. I think that's a much better ethic, for the 21st century, and I encourage everyone to think about that more critically, because it avoids all those binaries between unemployed and unemployed as well. And it looks at every contribution that makes the world go around and makes us good social citizens.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks Greg. How about you, Guy?

 

GUY STANDING 

Well, first point I want to make is that it is eminently affordable, and we haven't discussed that extensively. It's affordable in developing countries. It's affordable in rich countries like Australia. Governments give out huge subsidies, billions to middle income and upper income groups. We could easily afford it, and that argument, the back of the envelope figures that people toss out, are just not right.

 

GUY STANDING 

The second thing I think is that, I know because every single day I – since the beginning of the pandemic – I've been inundated with emails and media requests and so on. This is a wonderful period in one respect, which is there is a flourishing of experiments around the world. In Canada, in across the United States, with local authorities introducing different schemes in places like Stockton, in Scotland, in Finland, in Ireland, and in Italy. You're seeing many experiments that are moving the dial forward. And I think learning the lessons back is fantastic, and urging Australia to join that because Australia could be a pioneer. I really believe it.

 

LISA ADKINS 

Thanks very much Guy, and I suspect our audience members would agree with that. So that brings us to the close of this event and I'd like to thank Guy and Greg, for providing us with such thrilling contributions today to the Sydney Ideas environment.

 

ANNA BURNS 

Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more information head to sydney.edu.au/sydney-ideas. It's where you'll find the transcript for this podcast and our contact details if you'd like to get in touch with a question or feedback.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a new episode. Search for "Sydney Ideas" on Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud.

Finally, we want to acknowledge that this podcast was made in Sydney which sits on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. It is upon their ancestral lands at the University of Sydney is built.

The speakers

Guy is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London. An economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, he is a Fellow of the British Academy of Social Sciences, and the Royal Society of Arts, co-founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and member of the Progressive Economy Forum. In 2016-19, he was an economic adviser to Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell.

He was professor in SOAS, Bath and Monash Universities, and Director of the ILO’s Socio-Economic Security Programme. He has been a consultant for many international bodies, was Research Director for President Mandela’s Labour Market Policy Commission, and has designed several basic income pilots. His books include The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, published in 23 languages; The Corruption of Capitalism; Basic Income: And how we can make it happen; Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. He is co-author of Basic Income; A Transformative Policy for India. He has also recently collaborated with Massive Attack in a musical video based on his most recent book, Battling Eight Giants: Basic Income Now.  

Greg is Deputy Executive Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland. He has undertaken social research in a range of fields drawing on a variety of social science disciplines, including social policy, sociology, political economy, social work and policy studies. He has expertise in qualitative approaches to social inquiry and has used different methods to explore a range of contemporary issues, including: poverty and debt; refugee resettlement; housing and homelessness; income support; unemployment; the changing mixed economy of welfare; and the role of social policy and urban planning in addressing the climate change challenge.

Greg has led a number of Australian Research Council (ARC) projects over the past decade. He is a member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts and is also the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) representative in Australia. Prior to entering academia Greg worked with non-government organisations undertaking social policy and research at the state and national level. He is passionate about social justice issues and the role of education and research in contributing to social change, particularly the role of the social sciences and humanities in fostering the conditions for human flourishing, critical thinking, and well-functioning social and political institutions.

Lisa is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. Her home Department is Sociology and Social Policy. She is also an Academy of Finland Distinguished Professor (2015-19). She has previously held Chairs in Sociology at the University of Manchester and at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has served as a member of the Australian Research Council's College of Experts (Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences Panel), 2011-13.

Lisa’s contributions and interventions in the discipline of Sociology lie in the areas of economic sociology, social theory and feminist theory. Her recent research has focused on the restructuring of labour, money and time in the context of the growth of finance. A book based on this research –The Time of Money – was published in 2018 by Stanford University Press as part of the Currencies: New Thinking for Financial Times series. Along with Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings, she is currently Directing a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Strategic Research Theme on Asset Ownership and the New Inequality. This is one of six Faculty Strategic Research Themes collectively known as FutureFix. Lisa is also joint editor-in-chief of the journal Australian Feminist Studies (Routledge/Taylor&Francis).


Event image: Generation Grundeinkommen via flickr

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