Will Basic Income Fix Our Ailing Body Politic?

George_Dutch.jpgBy George Dutch

George Dutch is a career counselor in Ottawa, Ontario and curator of the online magazine, UnDone, devoted to exploring the intersect between technology and work.

Algorithms are a silent killer of jobs. According to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking and other luminaries, these mathematical calculations will continue leaking into the vital organs of our economic system through computers and robots until they cause a massive hemorrhage in the labour market.

Social analysts have called for preventative treatments to avoid a calamity of economic insecurity and social unrest. A social dividend as some form of Basic Income (BI) is now being tested in various jurisdictions around the world (including three Ontario cities) to evaluate its potential for inoculating citizens against mass unemployment, income inequalities and the destruction of the middle class.

Certain chronic ailments, such as high blood pressure, are often controlled with medication but cured through lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise. BI might better control certain social problems but it also provides us with an opportunity for decoupling wages from work—a prospect that requires a mental shift in individuals as well as a structural shift in the way society reproduces itself through everyday practices.

As a career counsellor in private practice for the past 25 years, I have heard stories from thousands of individuals that attest to ‘wage slavery’ (for the precariat) or ‘golden handcuffs’ (for the salariat) as the main reasons for staying in jobs we dislike—because we have to pay our mortgages and provide for our loved ones. We hardly question a way of life that is organized in its most simplistic form around our potential to get a good education, secure a stable job, purchase a house, grow a family, and follow a life script of working and buying as a reward for what often amounts to personal sacrifice and suffering in the workplace.

This individual work ethic combined with an institutional framework of bureaucratic capitalism has, since WWII, shaped a dominant social order of conformity, regularity and predictability that stands for common sense: this is how life is best lived. But that social order is unravelling as significant social, economic and technological forces disrupt or destroy the opportunity for millions to realize their potential. The industrial economy has given way to a service economy that puts downward pressure on wages, moves millions of workers from permanent to precarious jobs, and exacerbates many social ills, including work-related depression, drug use, family breakdown, homelessness, and poverty.

If you could be paid for work that you love to do…would you take it? What a radical idea! Re-defining ‘work’ is the kind of thinking that might help us break the tenacious link between work and wages. Some of the most important work in the world is unpaid labour, such as child rearing. Some of the least important work in the world is the highest paid (except, perhaps, to less than 1% of citizens), such as advising on tax avoidance. Basic Income may help us restore some equity to this ‘dis-ease.’

It won’t be easy. While we say good riddance to the routine, dirty, dangerous and boring tasks now being replaced quickly by robots and automation, it may be more difficult to deal with the decline of middle class careers as cognitive tasks of increasing complexity (e.g., medical surgeries, mutual funds investment, public administration) meet the same fate—allowing for some delays as governments use mechanisms to quarantine the algorithmic contagion made visible through disruptors like Uber and Airbnb.

If jobs disappear over the next few decades and are replaced by only a fraction of new jobs, what will people do? Proponents of BI say they will be free and healthy to do what they love. Can we imagine a society where our basic needs for housing, food, clothing, and transportation are covered by a new commons of cooperation funded by shared wealth, with special regard for equitable access, use, and stewardship of our economy?

Work previously unpaid could be covered by a BI. Can you see yourself being paid for childcare or eldercare, or writing a movie script, or inventing gadgets in your garage, or designing beautiful gardens, or making music, or volunteering for a humanitarian cause, or beekeeping, or taking the time you need to develop a brilliant idea into a business?

If most people no longer need a job in order to live, they can live in order to do work that energizes rather than drains them while adding value to our social fabric, as opposed to the current system that is organized around plundering, privatizing and monetizing our common wealth.

So, as we argue about the means for fixing our ailing body politic, let’s take time now to imagine different ends, like the one that replaces wages for work with value for work. Basic income is an excellent way to start this kind of healthy conversation.