by Serban V.C. Enache
I’ve written in the past about Universal Basic Income, and readers of this website know that I don’t support UBI if it’s not paired with legislation aimed at capturing economic rent. Since John McDonnell said that Labour is supporting a UBI scheme, many voices were raised in opposition, even among the Left, and the Job Guarantee was invoked as a substitute. I will focus on economic arguments and will try to be brief.
These are some of the criticisms I’ve seen: “UBI is inflationary” – “UBI gives people more money to spend, but doesn’t increase production, unlike the Job Guarantee” – “A Job Guarantee is an opportunity for many, but an obligation for none” – “UBI doesn’t create employment; it leaves the private sector as the sole job creator” – “Workers won’t benefit from UBI, capitalists will, because UBI will allow them to pay workers less.”
Firstly, let’s analyze the assumptions, because if we can’t agree on the premise, we’re just wasting our time talking to each other.
“Workers won’t benefit from UBI, capitalists will, because UBI will allow them to pay workers less.”
Giving everyone a fast and non-bureaucratic safety net allows workers to organize better. Better collective effort = strikes are easier to pull off and maintain for longer. The argument that a UBI will allow capitalists to pay their employees less is the same argument fiscal conservatives make against minimum wage laws and unemployment checks; that this safety net is bad for business and bad for workers’ motivation. Again, in and of itself, UBI would directly increase labor’s bargaining power. To what extent? It depends on a bunch of factors…
“A Job Guarantee is an opportunity for many, but an obligation for none”
The same is true for UBI. Supporters of UBI and Job Guarantee should also have a plan to contain both legal and illegal immigration; because any of these two programs would explode the aforementioned, ditto for Medicare For All. And I know liberals and lefties don’t like this, but the difference between a territory and a country is borders – and the way to enforce those borders is through staff, technology, and barriers – BARRIERS – just like you need barriers on sidewalks to prevent drivers from parking there. And no, you don’t get off the hook because you love immigrants, when you support political parties that sabotage and destroy foreign countries, creating those refugees and economic migrants in the first place.
“UBI gives people more money to spend, but doesn’t increase production, unlike the Job Guarantee”
In what sectors will the Job Guarantee introduce the unemployed? I always ask this because it’s important. Without a proper answer to this, you don’t know how well the Job Guarantee will act as a price anchor. If people in the Job Guarantee are put to produce things like food, fuel, and electricity, then yes, that particular Job Guarantee scheme is a solid price stabilizer program. If you put people in the Job Guarantee to fix swings in the park, shine railings, read stories to blind kids, play the guitar for old folks in asylums, help elders afflicted with mental illness and the like, then that scheme will have next to no impact on price stabilization, even though it provides humane social services. As for the demand boost from UBI, I’m sure it won’t cause firms to say – hmm, higher orders this month, I still have tons of unused capacity, but instead of making these machine tools produce more cans and calling up folks I previously let go due to weak demand so I can service all these orders at a profit, I’m just going to keep production level as is and just increase my markup. Please, spare me this logic. Firms that will take this improbable decision will lose market share to those firms who will adjust output instead of prices. If people in the West are worried about this, then they should draw attention to weak anti-cartel legislation and or weak enforcement of these laws.
“UBI doesn’t create employment; it leaves the private sector as the sole job creator”
These type of points are just worthless rhetoric. No, it doesn’t leave the private sector as the sole job creator. The private sector is never the sole job creator. In fact, it can’t be.
As for the “UBI is inflationary” concerns… if you do an analysis on UBI with the marginalist point of view on currency value in mind, yes, UBI will be inflationary. But this point of view is fallacious, because at the margin, some people, many people, are already getting an income without a formal job attached to it. According to the marginalist lens, there should already be hyperinflation or at least high inflation caused by traditional unemployment checks and food stamps. If you’re a die-hard Minskyite and like to call food stamps “funny money printing,” like Minsky did back in his day, you’re free to do so, but that doesn’t make your argument correct.
One more observation… If economists, orthodox and heterodox alike, are worried that UBI will cause both demand side and cost-push inflation [people just becoming lazy], half of that fear doesn’t square away with their insistence that UBI will subsidize bad jobs. If under a UBI people are more willing to accept poorly paying jobs and or poorer working conditions, then firms won’t experience cost pressures.
Let’s look at a country that actually implemented UBI nationwide, let’s look at Iran. According to this working paper from 2017 on the effect of unconditional cash transfers on the labor supply, there were no extraordinary results. Iran’s UBI was implemented in 2011 as a necessity to the drastic cuts to gas and bread subsidies made by Ahmadinejad in late 2010; the Government argued that the subsidies benefited the rich disproportionately. The UBI was set at 29 percent of median household income, about 1.50 US dollars extra per head of household, per day. In the US, that threshold would be over 16,000 dollars per year, well above the standard scheme of 1 grant per month proposed by the likes of Andrew Yang.
Despite reports in local press that the poor were leaving their jobs to spend the extra money, the investigators found no such evidence. Of the individuals employed in 2010, 88.5 percent remained employed, 4.5 percent lost or quit their jobs and 7 percent became inactive in 2011. Of the unemployed, 26.3 percent got jobs in 2011, approximately the same number as those who lost their jobs in 2011. For those engaged in housework in 2010, 3.2 percent found employment in 2011, fewer than those who left their jobs for housework. UBI had a good impact on Iran’s service sector, in which many firms have a difficult time obtaining bank credit. Some examples of workers in the service industry are housekeepers, teachers and deliverymen. In fact, their weekly hours increased by roughly 36 minutes. The only bad effect on labor supply was folks between the ages of 20 and 29. However, this age group had a weak connection with the labor market well before the UBI was implemented; because Iranians can opt to enroll in tertiary and graduate education. In spite of all this, Iranian public reaction to the UBI program has been largely negative. So Corbyn and McDonnell might think twice about it… “As more oil exporting countries decide to remove energy subsidies, or for political economy reasons decide to transfer a part of their oil wealth unconditionally to their citizens,” the authors wrote, “the question of how such transfers affect the incentive of their citizens in working and acquiring skills become more important.”
So the problem isn’t UBI itself, the problem is that UBI won’t do what its advocates and detractors claim it will. The effect after the reform is passed is gonna be near zero. The macro-economic effect will leave the Government deficit the same, plus minus 1 percent of GDP or slightly more [aka. errors in projection]. If the reform will have good or bad effects, the effects will be very small. Iran’s been on UBI since 2011 [and the country didn’t fall apart, nor did it become a utopia for workers and consumers – and let’s remember the trade sanctions they are under; extra proof that UBI alone is not a doomsday scenario].
As for me, I support UBI as a theoretical, and I’ve laid down my view in the past on how to make it work. Those politicians and political factions currently advocating UBI are controlled opposition; they want to “pay for it” with VAT [a regressive tax], they want to leave land rents privatized [not to mention patents], and want to leave the asset side of banks undisciplined [free predatory lending with smokes and mirrors]. The benefits of UBI, if it produces any in net terms, will get eroded by landlords and money lenders. The Job Guarantee isn’t immune from this either. And I wish the MMT academics would give more thought to this, instead of advocating a cubic meter property tax [which doesn’t distinguish between buildings and land, giving it thus regressive, perverse effects], and instead of ignoring one of the gravest sins in the economics profession, that of equating Land with Capital. It’s not sufficient to have full employment if the Natural Commons remain at the mercy of the few. Why further tolerate this millennia-old tumor on the back of Mankind?
Derek McDaniel wrote about BIG & inflation this last September. His article is much shorter than mine, and I encourage readers to see what he was to say.