Universal Basic Income

John Lanchester has written an interesting piece in the latest London Review of Books on what he calls a Good New Idea – an unconditional payment to every citizen, usually called Universal Basic Income.  Lanchester is an excellent exponent of economic issues, and does a good job with UBI (though he fails to mention a more recent report from Guy Standing, and that the Labour Party has recently said it would include in its next manifesto a commitment to piloting UBI in some form).

UBI, as Lanchester observes, appeals to both left and right on the political spectrum.  Its universality appeals to the form, with the power to raise poorer people’s spending power and, crucially, to enhance their security and stability.  For the latter it reduces state intervention massively.

When writing The Paula Principle I was attracted to the idea of a UBI (or Citizens Income, as it is also called) because of the possibilities it offers for changing our sense of what careers might look like, and therefore enable women’s competences to be properly valued.  I waded through Malcom Torry’s very technical exposition, which puts great emphasis on the savings we could get by eliminating all the costs of conditionality (including, incidentally, thousands of civil service jobs involved in administering it), and read a number of other reports, including Guy Standing’s UBI And How We can Make it Happen, which is probably the best single exposition of the case for.

The attractions from a PP viewpoint are strong.  Women tend to move in and out of employment far more than men, and such movements are heavily penalised in our current system.  For lower-paid people especially, the ‘system’, if such it can be called, is often highly punitive, making it not worthwhile to take work.  Above all, it punishes people who depart from a standard – male – pattern of a continuous career.  Some argue that UBI would make it more likely that women would be confined to domestic work, and I accept that as a possible negative outcome.  But overall the way UBI breaks down the boundaries of formal employment seems to me more likely to help women build the careers that their qualifications merit.  Crucially, it would make it easier for men to move in and out of formal paid employment – and this is exactly what is needed to undermine the effects of the PP.

In the end, though, I declared myself in the book to be attracted by the idea rather than a true believer, and I remain to be fully convinced.  I don’t think the issue of cultural attitudes to ‘freeloading’ can be simply waved away, and there is a particular issue about how it would affect migration patterns.  I am, though, definitely glad to see the debate continuing through organisations such as ippr and the RSA.  The relevance to careers is high.

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