So, what do we do when the economy stops?
For a world that has been marching to the relentless beat of the market for centuries, we’ve never had a shock quite like this one. Many of us can’t work, and those who can are being asked not to in order to claim support. If we want to avoid total collapse, people need money in their pockets fast.
The UK government’s current coronavirus strategy is to provide people with wage subsidies – matching 80 percent of their monthly earnings, and calculating the same for the self-employed based on their last three years of tax returns. As many have pointed out, the implications of this strategy are bewildering. What if you only went freelance last year? What if you can’t wait until June for a payout? The scheme is both too complicated, and not complicated enough; too many people fall through the gaps.
Increasing numbers of people are calling for a Universal Basic Income (UBI): an unconditional cash transfer paid to every citizen once a month, for as long as the crisis continues. A UBI, they say, is the only policy measure that will ensure protection for everyone, while giving the economy the fuel it needs.
The popularity of a UBI has been growing steadily in recent years. It made it into the Green Party’s manifesto in 2015 and, had Labour won the most recent general election, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was committed to piloting it in various parts of the UK. Successful trials have already taken place in Finland, India and Canada. Former Democrat presidential hopeful Andrew Yang stood on a basic income platform, promising to pay every American adult $1,000 a month if he won the election.
It’s based on the premise that just like healthcare or housing, everybody is entitled to basic economic security. Long-term champions suggest it would boost wellness, stabilise the economy and can even encourage employment. And you can probably predict the objections: why do rich people need it? Won’t it stop people from working? And how much will it cost?
While there are rebuttals to all of these concerns, the idea of a UBI was treated as the ultimate fantasy: free money. Until a pandemic swept across the world that is, and the fantasy suddenly became the sensible option.
Professor Guy Standing has been advocating, piloting and writing about UBI for the best part of 30 years. He says, in all that time the policy has never seemed so feasible. In his most recent book, Battling Eight Giants, he argues that a basic income is the best tool for weakening the new evils of modern life, from debt to inequality to ecological disaster.
Coronavirus, he believes, has made this suddenly obvious to everyone. “People who’ve been attacking [UBI] for years are suddenly saying it’s the only thing to do,” he says, “I feel some of them should write to me with apologies!”
Globally the tide is certainly turning in UBI’s favour. Gyeonggi Province in South Korea have announced they will pay every citizen 100,000 won in April, Hong Kong are offering a one-off payment of HK$10,000, while the US Congress is currently debating an immediate payout to every family in America. As the UK continues to grapple with its ineffectual approach of delayed wage subsidies, the once-radical UBI is gradually becoming the logical, mainstream step to take.
“The real need is to give people security, which will give them resilience against the pandemic,” Standing says. “It’s not a panacea; it’s got to be introduced alongside other things, but it will at least declare: ‘We are all in this together’.”
Daniel Susskind, an economist and one-time policy advisor to David Cameron and Gordon Brown, has just published a book called A World Without Work, in which he explores various coping mechanisms for the gradual displacement of work due to automation. He’d previously been skeptical of UBI as the answer, seeing it as an “imperfect solution to a problem we don’t yet face”. He has since changed his mind.
“All the thoughts I had about UBI being something we didn’t need to engage with in the 2020s... I think those concerns are being put to one side,” he explains over the phone. “It strikes me that a temporary UBI is, administratively, the quickest way to relieve the financial pressures many people are now under.”
In a recent column for the Financial Times, he suggested giving every person in the UK £1,000 a month for a few months. “The point of picking the number was to show that even if you gave people that much, even if you gave £1,000 a month to everyone in the country for a few months, the cost would still be in a similar ballpark to the bailout during the financial crisis,” he continues. “Only this time, rather than bailing out the banks we’d be bailing out people and small businesses, which is quite compelling.”
That’s all well and good, but how do you get a Conservative government to agree to something as radical as a basic income? Despite increasing pressure from MPs and Lords, economists and analysts, not to mention popular support, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has ruled it out, leaning on the simplistic objection that too many people who don’t need it would receive it.
Guy Standing remains optimistic that the obviousness of UBI as a solution, versus the chaos of any alternative, will see it realised.“I think it’s going to be down to those of us supporting it to put virtual pressure on our politicians,” he says, “but I’m quietly confident.”
The question is then whether adopting a UBI as part of a “wartime economy” would convince people of its benefits long-term. Promoters of the policy believe it offers economic stability in good times and bad. While the cost would be considerable, there are plenty of options – adjust tax rates on top earners, create a carbon tax, cut defence spending. If it has the impact many think it will, UBI may be a difficult thing to take away again once adopted.
Standing believes the fallout from coronavirus will make it more essential than ever. “Inequality is growing, debt will be explosive, precarity will rise, stress, of course, will grow,” he says. “You’ve got to have policies that cut through that… weaken the giants.”
Susskind also believes the government will struggle to recede back to free market conservatism after this. “I think it’s far bigger than a UBI,” he says, “I think it’s more about the role of the state in the future, and how we protect one another from the sorts of shocks we’ve seen in the past few weeks.”
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.