Supporting a Basic Income Guarantee on Incentive Grounds

Sometimes supporters of a basic income guarantee (BIG) argue for the policy on the grounds that it would increase “incentives to work”. This conclusion follows from standard neoclassical labor-supply analysis. Irrespective of the correctness or otherwise of the argument – and, if correct, it probably does have some utility as a negator of frequent neoliberal claims to the contrary – it is important to keep in mind obvious limitations of the argument and to go well beyond it. Two limitations, in particular, spring to mind.

First, in making this argument, advocates of a BIG are not actually showing that the program would increase incentives to *work* but rather that it would increase incentives to *get a job*. In other words, they are implicitly accepting the neoliberal frame that work equals job and no work occurs outside a job. They are accepting this frame even if only for the sake of argument.

Going along with this framing involves an implicit acceptance, for example, that we should actively incentivize parents to take a job rather than be home parents, and indirectly incentivize expanded commodification of child rearing. After all, parenting, unless carried out in a childcare center or as part of a paid position, is not a job. So, according to the logic of many BIG opponents, it can’t be real work. Maybe, on balance, a trend away from home parenting is a good thing. Or maybe not. But, either way, it’s not clear that we need a policy actively working to that end. Or, at the very least, it is not clear that commodification of child rearing is the overriding motive for a BIG.

Parenting, of course, is just one example of work that occurs outside a job, albeit one with wide applicability across the community. There are many other activities outside the workplace that are socially productive and, indeed, take a lot of work, even though not within a job. There are also potential individual or small-enterprise productive undertakings that might go ahead once people were assured of a basic income in the event of setbacks or failure.

The insistence that work does not equal job – and that free time does not equal leisure but rather a combination of productiveness and leisure – might well face resistance from many, but it is not as if it would face universal opposition, or more opposition than the incentives argument for a BIG. The incentives argument probably runs counter to the intuition of most people, other than economists. (Not that this counts against its possible correctness.) Nor is the argument that work is broader than a job without a potentially receptive audience. It is likely to be palatable, for starters, to anyone outside the labor force who nonetheless happens to be directly engaged in socially beneficial work. Some among their partners, friends and families might also be receptive.

Second, even if the incentives argument were directed at incentivizing work, not jobs, it is not clear that supporters of a BIG should necessarily want to incentivize work over leisure. For many people, an increase in leisure and reduction in work would be highly desirable, and would become more of an option under a BIG, just as there are some who would greatly benefit from the opportunity to work more and spend less time in leisure.

Above all, what a BIG promises is the option of more free time. This time could be employed partly productively and partly in leisure. At times, leisure is at the same time productive. It is not clear that we need to incentivize more work or more leisure but rather enable greater opportunity for individuals to shape their own lives, both in production and leisure, whether individually or in voluntary combination with others.

Regular readers will be aware that my own preference is for a combined ‘job or income guarantee‘ (JIG). Opportunity would be maximized by such a combination. Nobody would be denied a job if desired. And nobody would have to accept a job to survive. In a sense, all time would be free under these circumstances – certainly freer than is currently the case. Even if a person chose to accept a guaranteed job, this would be a decision made freely in preference to viable alternatives.

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5 thoughts on “Supporting a Basic Income Guarantee on Incentive Grounds

  1. Agree 100%.

    I would not want to draw a BIG my entire life — when I was a young man I took my career goals very seriously.

    But now that I am getting old, now that my career job was offshored, and now that all I have to look forward to is low paying not-so-great work until I can collect SS, hell yes I would take a BIG if one were offered.

    I would not sit on the couch, I would finish building my house, I would write a book or three, blog, do research, exercise, and spend more time with family and friends.

    It’s not that I am opposed to work but the job market sucks and a JG-style minimum wage grunt job holds no appeal at my age. Now if some WPA-type program offered a skilled job at close to prevailing wages, that might be different.

  2. “Above all, what a BIG promises is the option of more free time.”

    And that is, unfortunately, all it can be – a promise. It can’t work on its own because other people won’t let it stay in place. Every ‘give people money’ system that has been put in place tends to get weakened or removed by political pressure.

    Ultimately the implicit job in BIG – “spend the money I’m given” – is seen by the rest of society as insufficient recompense for the real goods and services *they* created and are required to share with those not contributing to its production.

    It not as simple as saying that other activities are valuable. Society has to accept in the majority that they are valuable enough to be considered a ‘job’. And that requires marketing and PR skills. How else would we consider derivatives trading, tax consultancy and ‘life skills coaching’ jobs, given they are all intrinsically worthless activities that add nothing of value to output.

    In a human society you do have to demonstrate your worth to others – if you want to remain part of that society and share in that society’s production output. The ‘get a job’ thing is a proxy for that requirement. We’ve come to a group think that capitalist job = worthy activity, plus a bunch of other stuff that is ‘obviously’ worthy (nurses, doctors, firefighters, etc), and a bunch of people that are ‘obviously’ worthy of support (kids, the elderly and the clearly disabled).

    So I don’t see it as a framing argument. It’s a “yes you do have to consider what others are likely to think when you do things” argument. Individual freedom is fundamentally limited by the freedoms of others. You need their patronage to be able to do anything. You can’t go beyond that without oppressing them, and that leads to a revolt against your actions.

    It’s a major challenge to get the definition of ‘job’ widened enough to allow full employment – and I’m sure there are societies on Earth that will be incapable of achieving full employment because of their refusal to accept, say, parenting as a ‘job’.

    You will never get it widened to ‘do whatever you feel like doing as long as you spend the money’ – certainly not within the foreseeable future.

    Unfortunately we have to work with people as they are. Hence the focus on a Job Guarantee, and Income support for those that are ‘obviously’ worth of that support. And then hopefully you can just give the others income support anyway under the heading of ‘humanitarian assistance’ – possibly via some convoluted and confusing back tax arrangement with charities that is pure realpolitik.

  3. I cannot see any clear advantage in thinking of a human being in terms of ‘work’ or a ‘job’; ‘leisure’ or ‘social production’. Nor do we have ‘free time’.

    Everything in the universe has a job of some type; we just haven’t figured out what the human one is – so we make stuff up.

    Every species on the planet whether animal, plant, or mineral has an integral role to play; as an entity or group. A lion knows exactly how to be a lion and plays his part in a living environment. His ‘success’ is measured in his ability to be a lion: – you don’t see lions prancing down the street wearing funny clothes, hats and haircuts, pretending to be important. Our problem is we don’t know what a human is meant to do; we don’t know how to be human and consequentially, we don’t function as a group – we are ‘unsuccessful’. Hence the ills of men are visited upon the world and each other, and our penchant for screwing everything up is Royale. It took billions of years to evolve a human, out of dust – and we have such a lack of imagination and are so deficient in appreciation and understanding we manacle them to conveyor belts and give them a phoney ‘social status’ (designed to inflate the bosses ego)! Man, if that is your trip you are an idiot! The ones who let humans starve to death or use them as cannon fodder are even more than deranged.

    Thus, the people that organise all of the suffering are obviously not successful, nor human. Some of them act more like demons and furies, tormentors – in human terms they are murderous, possibly evil, thugs. Nor have I heard of some Fabled Tablet that says humans should turn the planet into a war zone or factory; and hate each other for no reason, other than the dreams they have in their minds which is not reason. What I have heard, that makes sense to me, is the greatest thing that any human being can ever achieve, is to be human. Not build a society or develop technology; be human! Why people advise to set our own behaviour and responses to accommodate the hypnotic chants of humans turned into robots, and the lying ideation of their stupid masters is beyond me?

    I don’t even know why everybody gets so obsessed with the political-economy? It doesn’t seem to help one little bit in becoming human. I agree people should be conscious of how $money is used as a strait-jacket, but could be used to minister to the species and the whole planet. And capitalism could work as a distribution system if there were not greed. But to evaporate greed you need the fire inside that makes you human.

    I think we should claim back our lives. I think we have become lost in this non-entity called ‘society’; so much so we no longer see a human being. To me, most of the conversations that go on distract from our central reality. We came here for seventy short laps around the Sun, to find out what it means to be alive, and be a successful human. Not measured by the arbitrary benchmarks of some society, but measured by the human heart. It took billions of years to produce You, and You are unique – after seventy laps you will be gone, forever. To be fulfilled, to have your heart filled with so much joy in being alive, in the sheer exuberance of existing (or at least to try), your moment in the Sun – so that appreciation fills your heart and you have nothing left to say but a big Thank you, despite the idiocy of what happens in this world. And to realise – all you ever needed for that task came packed with you. Actually – without pointing a finger – the humdrum of the world and inanity of the political economy bores me sh*tless!! I get absolutely tired of watching that movie because it is so repetitious and predictable; its central themes are greed, stupidity and ego – none of which are of interest. Only people are real; but they have lost themselves, sacrificed themselves to the little g.o.d. they worship – ‘society’. The mantra is ‘Fix the Society, Fix the Society’ Fix the Society’ when it is the human being that needs fixing; that needs to awaken, and become human. People look at little children and smile – simply because they are human. Does anyone smile at society?

    Every time Peter writes something about a JIG it just reads to me like he wants to become more human. People want to feel more content and believe that may be possible if they could only ‘Fix the Society’. Sorry – but that is a wrong assumption. Any distribution system would work just fine if it wasn’t for greed. If we were really in love with life, respected life, we wouldn’t even need money; just dharma would do. Circumstances on the outside can only change when on the inside people discover kindness, and begin to understand what it actually means to be human; are proud to be a human being. What the human consciousness holds in the heart – that is evolution. That’s my take. Making it real for me, in my life – that’s a full time job. And it’s a beautiful job, guaranteed to deliver. Because this is a public forum I have posted this as one pov.

    Give it a few thousand years and the society of today will be laughed at as the rather dangerous and crazy game of demented children – on the way to growing up into real humans (sorry have been watching the series ‘Real Humans’ on tv)! It’s absolutely hilarious because the people think that the hubots are going to take over – man, they already have!! WE are sooooo programmed …….!

  4. ‘getting a job’ is a bit limiting of a sight. I believe that people appreciate a compensation for their efforts that is not merely an emotional one, sometimes.

    A basic income allows to work on any project with any self set schedule, and collect donations or sell goodies/premium service/etc. for a profit. I don’t see the problem with doing something for intrinsic value and for a profit, at the same time.

    It sounds quite strange to me to assume, that we could organize a society without even a token of gratitude. I see that a basic income potentially could make everything free, at least basic versions of products, but keeping money as a token of appreciation is sensible, if you ask me.

    I agree when you say “For many people, an increase in leisure and reduction in work would be highly desirable, and would become more of an option under a BIG, just as there are some who would greatly benefit from the opportunity to work more and spend less time in leisure.”

    With the note, that people know for themselves how much they should work. Having the option to get money as a feedback system is a valuable component to this.

    Also the reference to a job guarantee comes out of nowhere and I do not understand why guaranteeing ‘jobs’, dependent employment, is the way to go, in this context.

    I’m more in favor of giving people the option to supply their labor to the free market, the people with the money, in any creative or innovative way they envision. And giving people the money, first. Surely this’d need greater levels of redistribution of cash, but I take that over greater state redistribution of opportunity and cash at the same time. We won’t get around more monetary redistribution.

    edit: also on the note of incentives, I wouldn’t find it strange that at some point, children would get a full basic income as well, and could pay their parents as they see fit. It’s a bit of a mental stretch, surely, but as citizens they should get the same baseline relevance on the market!

    if, and only if, we can make robots and algorithms for us to decide on every single resource allocation, production, service supply, I could envision to not give people a regular check to express their share of things that are traded on the market. since there would be no market. But as long as there’s a market, everyone should have a say on what the market is supposed to provide. that’s done with money.

    Reducing the amount of things supplied from the market slowly, might be the way to go, if we want to go there. I’m all for decent public water supply and streets and a lot of other things. As long as every citizen has a direct say in these matters. If they are things not of their concern, maybe they should be on the market, not a public good. If they are things of public concern, everyone has an opinion worth taking into account in a direct vote.

  5. In addition to my comment above (hope you don’t mind me doing a litlle promotion of the Peace agenda Peter):

    As a contribution to International Peace Day, TPRF is offering Citizens of the Earth, featuring the words of its founder, Prem Rawat: “The time has come that every citizen of planet earth needs to take responsibility for the benefit of all mankind.”

    Peace for People 2014: Citizens of the Earth [1m:43s video]

    To celebrate the UN International Day of Peace, Prem Rawat will be speaking in Melbourne, Australia on Sunday 21 September at the Melbourne Town Hall. To request an invitation: Prem Rawat in Melbourne

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