Think the ideas behind a universal income are new? Think again…

There has been a lot of talk about the possibilities offered to our fractured societies by Basic Universal Income.

Appealing both to the left (who believe it can cut poverty and inequality) and, more recently, to the right (as a possible way to a leaner, less bureaucratic welfare system), UBI looks all the more attractive amid warnings that automation could threaten up to a third of current jobs in the west within 20 years. Other basic income schemes are now being tested from Ontario to rural Kenya, and Glasgow to Barcelona.

The logic behind a basic income is outrageous to a culture stupified by the logic of Thatcherite and Blairite neo-liberalism to the point where it seems almost offensive. Giving people money for nothing? It seems like an insult to money itself. A new kind of blasphemy. Check out the opposition from all sorts of angles;

Until you start to look at the gathering evidence. It seems that if you lift people away from the pressure to scratch out survival, and modify the broken contract between the haves and the have-nots, all sorts of both intended and unintended benefts can unfold.

I find it impossible not to feel a historical twinge as I think about these issues. The post war social contract known as the ‘Welfare State’ in the UK emerged in the post-war surge of working class empowerment, and from the Beveridge Report, which along with many other factors, was concerned with the previous corrosion of punitive and damaging means tested unemployment benefits, designed to shame people back into work. Those that could not work might have benefited from parish welfare funds but largely they were condemned and finished. The injustice of these arrangements was to be banished forever, or so we thought.

Beveridge’s report was based on eight principles. I am going to replicate them in full here, not because they are historical oddities, but because they seem just as relevant now as they did back then, and may remind us just how far we have slipped from this high tide of ethics and morality.

Beveridge might have been outraged by the idea of a universal basic income- for him, the saving grace was WORK. But universality, and a resistance to means testing whenever possible dominated the political agenda.

I would love to know what his response to the new economic realities would have been…


The contributory principle: Beveridge neatly asserted that ‘benefit in return for contributions, rather than free allowances from the State, is what the people of Britain desire’ and it’s hard to argue that the sentiment has changed much seventy years later. Today politicians use ugly terms like ‘something for something’ to capture the same spirit. For the left the contributory principle matters because it binds people into supporting decent welfare provision by presenting entitlements as earned rights. But it also contains a risk – that the contribution bar will be set too high and many who need help will not receive it. For example, the recent reforms to the State Pension system aimed to update contribution rules so they no longer exclude many women from full pensions.
Universalism: Beveridge and many since have sometimes elided universal non-means-tested provision with contribution, but they need not be the same. For example Beveridge argued for contributory payments for retirement pensions and out-of-work insurance but he also proposed non-contributory Family Allowances for everyone with children. The argument for such in-work payments remain unchanged from the time Beveridge wrote: ‘if children’s allowances are given only when earnings are interrupted and are not given during earning also, two evils are unavoidable. First, a substantial measure of acute want will remain among the lower paid workers as the accompaniment of large families. Second, in all such cases, income will be greater during unemployment or other interruptions of work than during work.’ Today Child Benefit remains but we also have tax credits and soon universal credit to overcome poverty and earnings ‘traps’ with payments continuing well up the earnings distribution – progressive universalism, as Gordon Brown called it. Today many on the left worry that removing Child Benefit even from very high paid families could undermine solidarity for child-focused welfare.
Adequacy: Beveridge found that welfare provision where ‘benefits amount to less than subsistence’ was one cause of the giant of ‘want’. His insurance scheme was therefore designed to ‘guarantee the income needs for subsistence in all normal cases’. This principle is being rediscovered in the design of the state pension. The 2012 Queen’s Speech included a bill to introduce a higher flat-rate state pension for all future retirees, paid at a level in line with contemporary measures of ‘adequate’ income (this Liberal Democrat policy accelerates a plan introduced by Labour in government). Gordon Brown’s tax credit system aimed to do the same for families with children, albeit on a means-tested basis. But this principle has been totally abandoned when it comes to people before retirement without children. After decades where we have indexed the main out-of-work benefits to inflation rather than earnings they are totally inadequate to lead a normal, healthy lifestyle.
Hypothecationof a sort: Beveridge built on previous insurance schemes by presenting contributions as hypothecated for the provision of welfare provision (though not necessarily to specific contributory allowances). But he did not support a ring-fenced system where inputs and outputs should match. Originally the taxpayer was expected to pay a large share as well as individuals and employers. Perhaps more importantly, his proposals embodied what can be called ‘soft’ hypothecation: the introduction of improved provision came hand-in-hand with the announcement of revenue-raising measures. Even this form of hypothecation has traditionally been resisted by the Treasury, but was famously employed by Gordon Brown in 2002 to raise National Insurance to improve the NHS (following the work of the Fabian Commission on Taxation and Citizenship). Today, the principle of matching new spending programmes to revenue streams needs to be revived, simply because there is no prospect of new welfare provision from general taxation. The best example is the funding of social care, where the parties are in deadlock over the best funding source for spending reforms almost everyone supports.
Conditionality: An ugly word for an old idea, that social security entitlement should be dependent on your current actions not just past contributions. Beveridge said unemployment benefit ‘will normally be subject to a condition of attendance at a work or training centre after a certain period’ while disability benefit would be paid ‘subject to acceptance of suitable medical treatment or vocational training’. In our collective memory the left has forgotten that the idea of conditions for support does not just trace its lineage to the Work House but also to the mutual insurance fund. Over the last decade the reintroduction of conditionality with respect to disability benefits was initially greeted with opposition in principle, but this has been slowly displaced by concern with fair implementation based on people’s personal circumstances.
Longevity: Population ageing and the rapid growth in the pensioner population are often presented as novel policy challenges. But the Report anticipated our contemporary debates, recognising that ‘persons past the age that is now regarded as the end of working life will be a much larger proportion of the whole community than at any time in the past [making] it necessary to seek ways of postponing the age of retirement from work rather than of hastening it’. Beveridge understood that state pension provision ‘represents the largest and most rapidly growing element in any social insurance scheme’ so the fact that we today spend two-fifths of all welfare on state pensions should not be seen as shocking or novel. Beveridge proposed that the pension age be a minimum age of retirement but wanted to see pension rates ‘increased above the basic rate if retirement is postponed’ – an idea reintroduced by Labour’s pension reforms, but seldom taken-up in practice. The raising of the pension age may be regrettable for all sorts of reasons, but we can hardly suggest it is a betrayal of the Beveridge settlement, given that male life expectancy at 65 has roughly doubled since 1943.
Private provision: A key dimension of Beneridge that many on the left have forgotten is the report’s keen endorsement of personal saving and insurance as an addition to good public welfare. In outlining its key principles the report argued that ‘the State in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility ; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.’ This principle was a key consideration in the design of Labour reforms such as the Child Trust Fund and the Savings Gateway (both scrapped by the coalition), the new state pension and the recent proposals for social care advanced by Andrew Dilnot.
Housing costs: A final salutary thought. Beveridge was unable to resolve ‘the problem of rent’ and come up with a fair way of supporting people with housing costs under a contributory, universal system. The costs of housing were and are so variable that any flat-rate subsidy would either cause real hardship or give some money they had no need for. Beveridge wrote ‘in this as in other respects, the framing of a satisfactory scheme of social security depends on the solution of other problems of economic and social organisation’; problems familiar today like high unemployment, falling earnings, inadequate housing supply and huge regional dispaprities. Housing benefit remains the ultimate economic ‘stabiliser’ patching-up the failings of our unequal society. Its rapidly rising cost is a reflection of our economic failure not the failings of the people who need to rely on it.

World poverty is decreasing, (says the World Bank). Lets look at the evidence…

I have been thinking for a while about the exchange between a CEO and Rutger Bregman at Davos last month- the video is dynamite and can be seen here.

The CEO sort of made the point that people like Bregman should stop banging on about tax and inequality because, after all, world poverty is rapidly decreasing. The implication then is that global capitalism is working to advance the cause of the global poor. Give people a factory to work at, or a hotel room to clean, and they will no longer starve.

The World Bank agrees, even though the reduction in poverty seems to be slowing.

The evidence is strong. Take this report from Politifact for example. They were fact checking this claim by U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Gayle Smith.

“I think everyone in the room knows that this is a moment of extraordinary progress. Over the last 30 years, extreme poverty has been cut in half. Boys and girls are enrolling in primary school at nearly equal rates, and there are half as many children out of school today as there were 15 years ago,” Smith said in a speech on Capitol Hill.

They concluded that


Smith said, “Over the last 30 years, extreme poverty has been cut in half.”
By World Bank figures, Smith actually understated the reduction. We’ve cut extreme poverty by 58 percent using the 2008 definition of extreme poverty, and 74.1 percent by the 2015 definition.
While we don’t quibble with Smith using that metric, our research shows that there are other ways of determining poverty, and those different ways show different declines. Moreover, defining poverty is not an exact science, experts say.
Because of those caveats, we rate Smith’s claim Mostly True.


The message emerging from the world’s major economic foundations ( the World Bank, the IMF etc) appears to be this;

Things are getting better. Climate change will be a challenge (See below), and there are a few areas where poverty stubbornly remains and is difficult to deal with (mainly in Africa) but on the whole, global capitalism has reduced poverty to a level unknown in human history.

It’s all good news then? Bill Gates certainly thinks so- he tweeted this graphic at Davos;

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Just in case you were starting to feel warm and comforted, I am afraid it takes but a second of examination of these stats for a whole raft of questions to emerge. 

The first problem is the tool used to measure extreme, or absolute, poverty, which was set back in 1990 by the World Bank at a figure of $1 a day (now rising to $1.90 a day, adjusted for inflation.)  There are all sorts of problems with this figure. What does it mean, when the costs of living vary so much from place to place? National poverty lines vary even within countries after all, let alone globally. 

Secondly, this analysis ignores inequality and the brutalising, alienating nature of relative poverty- being measured by society as ‘wanting’ and ‘worth-less’. It has been strongly argued that inequality creates vast sickness in both those who have and those who have not. (Check out The Spirit Level book for a full analysis.)

Thirdly, even if you use the $1.90 figure, what about those just above the line?

Fourthly, the improvements described are rarely broken down into where in the world the improvements have been made. If you take China out of the figures, then measure again over the last four decades there seems to have been very little change- 60% of people remain in poverty. 

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The next problem is that the World Bank analysis is based on one solution to world poverty- economic growth. This solution gives it a major problem- how to keep the economy growing without killing the planet;

 

There is another question about how this all works for the global economic system…

Who benefits most from lifting people above $1.90? Could it be Global capitalism? Think about the debate in the UK right now about low paid, insecure jobs. Working people are undeniably poorer than they were, but levels of employment have gone UP. 

This is starkly highlighted in the infographic that Bill Gates tweeted- it suggests that in 1820, global absolute poverty was at 94%. Think about that. What on earth does that mean? Jason Hickel, writing in the Guardian, said this in response;


What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.


Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.


In other words, Roser’s graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.

Finally, I think again of my own situation. I am poor by any measure of income within the UK- not at the dollar-a-day level, but in terms of relative poverty. If we use a financial measure, that is. The fact is, I have a house, I have land. I have skills and assets. I can grow food, keep chickens. I am largely unmolested by government or oppressive regimes. I have time to think and create and write.

The World Bank can keep it’s dollars.

How to change the world…

We seem to be faced with a world dominated by epic challenges which we (the most intelligent species ever to walk the planet) are both inflicting upon ourselves and are victimised by at the same time. Mass extinction, poverty, inequality, climate change, the rise of narrow minded populism that breeds hate and division.

Is change possible, without disaster, crisis, or violent revolution? Can we ever release the energy of what William James called ‘the moral equivalent of war’?It seems to me, as often pondered about on this blog, that we are desperate for a new narrative.

A narrative of hope- one that connects our intellect to our sense of decency. (A place that used to be taken in our culture by faith)

An economic narrative that no longer makes people subordinate to profit, or the life of the planet subordinate to ‘economic growth’.

A political narrative that rejects nationalism, borders, me-firstism, empire building/empire nostalagising. One that is prepared to engage with new ideas, no just defend old ones.

A life-style narrative that rejects the pursuit of stuff to fill the vacuum left by emptiness and pointlessness.

Narratives like this, of course, are dangerous- not just to elites. They can result in all sorts of unforeseen negative consequences, because they often both arise from and create, instability. Think of the great ideological clashes of the 20th C. Did they create the circumstances that led to war, or did they emerge from it? Either way, should this mean that we resist new ideas and refuse to dream of how things can be better? Do we stick with our current narrative? I would argue that increasingly, this is simply not an option.

So where are these new narratives?

If we were to choose one dominant idea that might be said to dominate our culture at present it is this one: individualism. We are all individual consumers with our individual consumer rights living in our individual boxes driving our individual cars. It is not surprising then that the narrative of change is often framed as an individual choice too. We can make different consumer choices- softer ones. We can recycle our stuff, grow a bit of our veg, make do with a bit less excess.

I am perhaps an embodiment of this narrative. I chose to go from a £50K pa salary down to living from odds and sods and planting my own poly tunnels. I might not change the world, but at least I can feel smug as everything else goes to shit.

And that is the point. Of course individual decisions are important, but only if they are collectivised. Only if we establish a mass movement of individuals will significant change be possible.

So once again, where are the narratives that will create this mass movement? Our political parties have become stalemated by a Brexit debate that entirely misses the point- like all binary in/out yes/no referendums are bound to when faced with issues that are so nuanced that they can mean whatever we want them to mean.

But the narratives are there, if you look for them.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in order to deal with inequality, both globally and nationally, we have to talk about tax. We have to talk about wages and we have to talk about poverty. We can not just blame poor people any more, we have to look at the actual causes and sustaining factors of poverty.

We have to look at how rich people stay rich. We have to examine how wealth impacts health. We have to look at the private education system in the UK.

We have to understand the impact of unequal trade on the poorest people in the poorest countries in the world.

We have to call out those who cry ‘fake news’ at anyone who mentions the uncomfortable desperate realities of climate change.

But understanding will only take us so far. We easily get stuck on defining what is wrong – we have to then decide what we are going to do to address the wrong we have discovered.

I think we have to start by talking about ideas- treasuring them, trying them out. We have to start a mass movement towards change by allowing voices who are proposing alternatives to be heard above all the other noise. So, to add my small piece to this, here are a couple of clips featuring Rutger Bregman, the young Dutch historian who wrote a book called Utopia for Realists.

The first clip is doing the rounds on FB- you may have already seen it. (Thanks to Andrew Hill for pointing me towards it!) The second is an interview with Owen Jones about the book.

Artists and wellbeing. Time to embrace imperfection…

Here is my contention; being an artist can have a serious impact on your mental health.

There is a compulsion that drives people who are creative to create. Those of us who find space, finance and time to pursue this compulsion are truly blessed. We are living the dream, right?

But our art, whatever the medium, is a fickle thing. As soon as we think we have it, it flies away. Sometimes it seems that what we are seeking is always just beyond reach.

There are obvious reasons for this, to do with the nature of art, its indefinable qualities and the value we place upon it. How do we know that what we are creating is good? And even if it is good, why is it not better?

Perhaps it is about recognition- but this is dangerous. Few will be honest to our faces.

Perhaps we need to rely on people we trust?

But these people will typically be our peers- making their own art. Art that will be different to ours. Better.

Perhaps then it is about commercial success- the degree to which people buy what we make. But that too is a fools game, for the commercial world has many rules of success that have nothing to do with excellence, or depth of meaning.

Even those who have known a measure of success (however we measure it) tend to be riven with doubts about their ability to repeat it. If a potter has made the perfect pot, a musician the sweetest song, a painter a picture that brings people to tears, the expectancy of everyone is that they will simply do it again. They will have no idea that for each piece of perfection, there have been a hundred pieces that have been mediocre. We start to believe that lightening struck, but can not strike twice.

I think that art arises from unfulfilled yearning. From a longing for encounters with something deeper, something more meaningful, perhaps something beautiful. For many of us, there is a deep satisfaction discovered in process- in the shaping of our raw material. For some too, there is orgiastic release in performance, but ultimately, once the work is done, we have to return to the ordinary mess of our ordinary lives, which are occupied not just by the me-centric nature of creativity, but have to embrace the compromise of community.

If these words are resonating with you, then perhaps you are my sister, my brother, in the family of Almost. Almost finished. Almost good. Almost satisfied.

Perhaps though, as a new year unfolds, it is time to show our artistic selves a little of the compassion we might offer to others. I wrote the list below to myself, and for the rest of the Almosts.

No piece of art is ever perfect. We will all fail more than we succeed.

An unfinished piece is not a piece at all.

What value have the opinions of others anyway? If art is truly great, it will divide opinion almost by definition.

Create first from your heart and soul. It might not be the way to riches, but it is your only truth.

Fear kills creativity. I don’t mean performance anxiety, I mean fear of failure. They are not the same thing.

Money fears are particularly destructive. How much do you need, really?

Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. It is the human condition, so get over it. You are not an art robot.

Do it anyway, because what else is there?

Rather than hoping for encouragement, find others to encourage. Regard this as penance for your own self-centredness. Let this create connection.

Collaborate when you can, but don’t be afraid to say no.

There are lots of things more important than art- even though it might not seem like it at times.

Art is not bigger than God for example.

But God can be found in art.

Crisis. Migrants massing at our borders. Fear ye!

I am wasting my time right? The only people who will read this already agree with me. Those that don’t won’t.

So I will write this for my own sake. It might be therapeutic. I only wish I could do more.

The BBC has reported two ‘crises’ over the Christmas period. The first of these was the ‘drone crisis’. The other was the ‘migrant crisis’. It struck me that there was a strange synergy between the two- the language used. The fear of the faceless inhuman other. The popular perception of an infringement on our ‘rights’ to continue with our small-island Britishness with no disruption.

The implication is clear. Migrants are not people- not people like us, anyway, so pull up the drawbridge. Build a wall.

It is too crowded here.

We are dealing with austerity; our NHS and our benefits system is already stretched to breaking point.

It was logical then, when faced with small boats landing scores (not thousands, as are landing elsewhere in Europe) of desperate souls on our beaches, for our Home Secretary to come home for holiday and shout ‘Crisis’. (The same Home Secretary whose family had also been migrants, during a time when conditions were less ‘hostile’.)

Next we had to listen to him wringing his hands with the most twisted piece of logic ever spewed on to a TV screen. Should we deploy more patrol ships to drive them off our shores, or would this attract more migrants because they would feel ‘safer’?

They aren’t like us, remember?

Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they have more compassion than that displayed by our government. One day we will look back in shame.

So, as a tiny, probably pointless act of resistance, I write this, and also offer you this song, in the faint hope that we remember that people are the same on the inside,

no matter the pigmentation of their skin,

or what accent flavours their almost-perfect English,

or what name they give to god.

The Great Spirit who made everything and holds everything together…

Dear friends, may this new year bring blessing.

It has already to me. Yesterday was a day full of people, late into the night. There were dear friends who were NOT there, and they were missed, but still we had music, dancing (we actually managed some ceilidh dancing in out living room!) and conversations late into the small hours of the new year.

Earlier we spend half a day with Yvonne and Raine, talking of art and how we might connect to something deeper. Both are already doing a pretty good job of this- Raine through her art- check out her lovely website here – and Yvonne through her music (her latest sublime offering- a collaboration with poet Stuart Henderson is a out now!) In our conversation, I was reminded of the power of objects, because we talked about something Michaela made.

It is one of my favourite objects. We call him Bird.

Bird is the last of his kind.

I love this creature, with his big feet and his jaunty beak. In case you think I am overstating, let me tell you more..

I remember an album, years ago, by the Mountain Goats, about a bird who was the last of his kind. The song I remember may or may not be this one, that is not important, but what is important is the meaning it carries. The song describes how the bird feels the rain falling and remembers the people he has loved and who have loved him so he decides that “I wont be afraid of anything ever again'”

Every time I look at Bird, I think of this. I hear the song. It makes me think that those of us who are outsiders, and look forward into the next year from the fringes of things, half hidden in case of exposure, need never be afraid ever again.

Because the Great Spirit who made everything

and holds everything together

is in us.

We, like Bird, are sacred.

So, let Birds everywhere shout

Hallelujah

TFT Christmas card, 2018…

Dear friends, another Christmas is upon us. I offer you a picture I snapped in the summer of the youngest member of my family, asleep on his grandmother’s knee. Another beautiful child who emerged this year into our beautiful world. How we worry about the world they are inheriting.

But today, let us remember that at the centre of everything, there is light.

Christingle

Not what we get, or what we give

Not even those things we smugly eschew

Not carol or tree or tinsel or plastic star

Not a table groaning with far too much

Not the food bank

Not tiny Tim

Not snow or the absence of snow

Not a fat man in a red felt suit

Not movies about ‘true spirit’

(that somehow avoid all mention of Christ)

It is a moment shared

A song that soars

A hope that deepens

It is a belief that at the end of everything

(despite all evidence to the contrary)

Goodness wins, and

Love remains.