Robots could mean leisure

Guardian letters: November 2015, June 2016, July 2016, June 2017July 2017 and June 2109 (Chris Hughes).

Rolling post begun February 2016, last updated June 2019

Image: Futurama

According to a 2015 newspaper report, Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast the increasing use of robotics, and warned that this would exacerbate social inequity. Perhaps they were really more worried about unrest than inequity.

The Social Credit movement addressed this issue 100 years ago, saying that increased automation should mean increased leisure. However, this would need a radical reform of the banking system, so that a national dividend income can be paid to all.

This income, paid regardless of whether and how much people work, would be linked to national productivity and should be enough to live comfortably. The income wouldn’t be a gift. It’s money owed in lieu of the underpayed contribution by many generations to the current general wealth.


Original illustration: Elizabeth Webbe from The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn

Redistribution by taking the wealth of the super-rich might be a Good Thing, but it isn’t needed to fund this. If governments fulfil their responsibility to control the money supply, they can end the debt economy and pay the income by issuing, yes, social credit (which can also fund infrastructure projects and social services such as health and education).

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Amazingly, the world has caught up with me. I thought the idea was languishing in the archives of Social Credit, and that the UK Green Party’s sickly citizens’ income had been strangled at birth by its mean anti-scrounger nannies, but, hallelujah, it’s been reborn (in the 1980s – who knew?) as the currently trending idea UBI (Universal – or Unconditional – Basic Income).

I think there’s a problem with ‘basic‘. The income should be more than basic – it should be comfortable. But it’s good that the, er, basic idea has a new lease of life.

There’s a Social Credit response to UBI. They say the income should be basic – plus a share of the economy’s productivity. (However, my understanding is that the Social Credit national dividend doesn’t actually guarantee a basic income, but is entirely dependent on the performance of the economy.)

For UBI see, for example:
🔸Campaign groups Basic Income UK and BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network). BIEN has a good history of UBI (although its section on Social Credit doesn’t explain that SC’s national dividend is funded by government-issued credit, not by taxation).
🔸An informative Guardian article

Some relevant books:
🔸Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek (pronounced ‘Sirnichek’, I think) and Alex Williams
🔸Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman
🔸The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing
🔸Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) can justify capitalism by Philippe Van Parijs

Some related ideas:
🔸helicopter money
🔸people’s quantitative easing.

June 2016 – still trending:
An excellent Guardian article by Philip Oltermann reports a poll finding: 68% of people across Europe would vote for UBI. Also, Switzerland is about to vote on a proposed unconditional national basic income of £1,750 a month. That’s more like it. But another poll shows 60% of the Swiss against it. The problem is, UBI advocates don’t seem to understand the funding solution (control the money supply), and witter about funding it by tax, which obviously puts people off.

Missing the point – the watered-down version trudges on

An interesting but flawed report on UBI by economists Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley published by leftish campaign group Compass is to get a high-profile launch by Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell. The report proposes an income of £70 a week funded by tax increases. Readers will search in vain for ‘money supply’ or ‘social credit’.

I asked the report’s authors about this. Stewart Lansley said they considered including funding options, but decided that anything radical would detract from the their central idea – that UBI would be feasible within existing institutional arrangements. Hmm. There’s a danger that the new UBI baby is being strangled – as was the Greens’ citizens’ income – by Nanny Normal. With something like this, you have to – as the Guardian says (see below) – dream big.

UBI proponents need to understand that their dismal basic income isn’t enough – and that a universal income big enough to replace wages (Universal Big Income?) can only be sustainably funded by the government issuing social credit. To be fair, there are different approaches in the UBI movement. For instance, BIEN co-founder Guy Standing argues for a social dividend funded by income from publicly owned assets. Not as good as social credit – but better than basic income funded by tax.

Straw man burns – quite a week for UBI
🔸The Swiss, as predicted, turned down the generous but unfunded UBI proposal (77% against).
🔸The Grauniad weighed in with an editorial on UBI (it’s OK to dream big, but proceed with caution).
🔸Reporting on McDonnell’s launch of the Compass report, the Guardian said that Labour is considering the idea of a UBI.
🔸The Guardian had a Saturday sum-it-all-up above-the-fold letters section on UBI which included – ahem – one from me (Chris Hughes) about funding UBI.

imageTwo out of five ain’t bad | The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2016

Of the five printed letters, two were supportive of UBI. LSE economist Ian Gough (against – it’ll drain the energies of the left) said pithily of the Compass proposal, ‘Thus a powerful new tax engine will pull along a tiny cart (a partial and inadequate basic income). Why bother?‘ Quite.

Progressive alliance could implement UBI
The Brexit result of the UK referendum on whether to leave or stay in the EU surprised nearly all commentators and pollsters. (However, see my prophetic post, The east European elephant, about the danger of ignoring the views of poor whites – Guy Standing’s ‘precariat‘, perhaps.) In the post-referendum political turmoil, Labour MPs tried and failed to remove leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn (elected in 2015 with huge support from Labour members). This brings the new progressive movement into focus. If Labour splits, there could be some interesting reorganisation. But as (anti-Corbyn) Labour veteran and former leader Neil Kinnock said recently, realignnent without proportional representation is fragmentation. There’d need to be (as someone else has probably said) a pre-election progressive pact with one item on the agenda: enact PR, then hold a second general election. It’d be a happy coincidence of party self-interest (sustainable survival) and political principle (improving democracy). That way, the political landscape can open up; new political eco-systems can develop; existing institutional arrangements can be changed; and the government can control the money supply and fund a Universal Big Income. Bingo! (UBIngo!)

Update: January 2017

Labour didn’t split. However, it’s lost so much support, it might need an alliance. But it probably won’t be a progressive one. Oh well.

Meanwhile, Finland has launched a two-year experimental scheme to pay the unemployed an unconditional £475 a month. It’s basic, but it’s not UBI. But it’s the first unconditional state income for the unemployed in Europe. Which is something. Better than nothing.

Since then, nothing much, I’d say…

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