Thu 18 Jan, 2018

Brian Finlay

I am happy to read more positive coverage of Universal Basic Income (UBI) especially links with the current state of the economy and work as a solution to our problems. I write about this topic as it has had a huge amount of coverage mostly positive, apart from The Times writer Kenny Farquharson who labelled UBI as ‘state pocket money’, in most papers and political blogs. In the contemporary employment market people are experiencing issues such as: the gig economy; poor pay; precarious and numerical flexibility; casual nature of employment; growing inequality between the richest in society and the poorest; low power experienced in the employment relationship by the employee and a ‘job for life’ being something of the past. These all suggest that a State payment to cover the costs of shelter, and other basics like heating and food, is needed more than ever.

As well as the changing nature of work, in terms of precarious working practices and poor pay, the growing threat of job automation could become more prominent in years to come. Many people may have experienced redundancies because of automation or the job they once done no longer exists because a machine now carries out that task in an organisation. This is more prominent and overt in the service sector, with the likes of self-scan tills, but behind the scenes in offices and the civil service; administrative roles and middle management have be replaced by machines. This could mean, with further automation, the overall amount of jobs available could reduce but most importantly profit margins for large corporations could increase even further. The cost of buying and maintaining computer equipment to carry out production or admin tasks is a lot less due to higher levels of productivity as a machine doesn’t need time off; no wages to be paid; no sickness or absenteeism from a machine and finally a machine can be updated with no training costs, which could explain it’s popularity for investment from senior management in organisations.

What automation is also doing is deskilling jobs, as middle management analysis, administrative tasks or specialist production can be done by a computer, and this is facilitating job polarisation. This concept is where a large number of highly skilled jobs are created at the top of the labour market and masses of low skilled, generally low paid with high levels of controlled repetitive tasks, at the bottom of the labour market. These are generally jobs paying poverty pay and have precarious zero hour contracts attached to them.

This commonly creates the idea of ‘disconnected capitalism’ (Thompson, 2013*) which is preventing the wealth from above trickling down to the working class. This completely refutes the ideological so called ‘benefits’ of capitalism and these lies are commonly part of the ‘free market cheerleaders chants’ for continuing this distractive political model of low regulation; which in reality it is failing our economy. The top 1% would continue to get richer with automation and job deskilling as this is a profitable way to run an organisation and keeps the control over employees closely with senior management.

The Scottish Government now has the welfare powers it needs to roll out UBI across the nation. The annual bill for UBI could take formats in different ways by adopting different models of payment and amounts paid to citizens weekly. After doing a wide amount of reading in this area I have discovered models that would cost the same as the current welfare spending. What makes UBI such a sensible idea to be adopted by the Scottish Government is it stimulates our economy in one of the levers we have complete devolved responsibility for. All other significant levers such as business taxation, financial sector management and huge costs such as defence are reserved to Westminster. We also cannot legislate on working practices like zero hour contracts or the value of the level of pay for the National Minimum Wage.

By introducing UBI to Scotland it would allow us to make steps forward to tackling inequality and poverty. It will also remove complex processes for claiming state welfare benefits and end the callous threat of sanctions whilst people are on Job Seekers Allowance. The only benefit that would remain, from most of the models and proposals I have studied, would be disability benefits and that could be redesigned with dignity at the heart. The payments would be for an adult individual, over 16, and a half payment would be made to the parent of a child, with no plans to cap it at two like the notorious Tory family welfare cap and rape clause. This would pull thousands of children immediately out of poverty and start to create some form of ‘level playing field’ for all by providing the basics to live and survive.

Without further devolution of powers, such as worker rights and employment law, we would be offering an alternative to the negative effects of precarious work and giving these workers on zero hour contracts some guarantee of what their ‘pay packet’ will be on a weekly or monthly basis. In order to partly fund UBI, in an ideal world where Scotland could alter business taxation, it should be intervening and transferring the wealth and profit to the citizens in that country via high taxation. There has been much speculation on how to best achieve this but perhaps through a business tax levy to help capture some of the additional profit produced from machines and distributing it fairly.

In my opinion, I can only see a positive future for Scotland under UBI and I am keen to see the trials going ahead sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see if, like other studies in the past and from the some Scandinavian countries more recently, mental health quality improves amongst the participants and if the intake of toxins, like alcohol and cigarettes, reduce; counter to right wing scaremongering and assumptions the world over. We have the devolved powers and the political will, with the Scottish Green Party always supporting this ideologically and now broad support in the SNP and Scottish Labour, to make this a success. So lets lead the way in progressive caring fiscal political policy and show we can do it our own way; to pave the progressive way to independence.


* Thompson, P. (2013). Disconnected Capitalism: Or Why Employers Can't Keep Their Side of the Bargain. Work, employment and society, 17(2), pp.359-378

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