The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto

Simran Dhunna and David Bush have written an article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income) .

In two previous posts, I questioned Dhunna’s and Bush’s proposed solution to the problems which members of the working class face, namely an enhanced welfare capitalism (see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part Two: Oppressive Welfare Services). Now I will look at their criticisms of the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

I will endeavour to show that the authors of the article mainly create a straw concept of universal basic income (in order to criticize it all the more easily).

A Straw Minimal Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush assume that, firstly, there would be a minimal UBI and, secondly, that it would somehow be realized immediately and without a struggle–since some members of the class of employers and their representatives advocate a minimal basic income.

They write the following:

Some on the left look to basic income to complement workers struggles, but the ruling class looks to basic income to blunt class struggle. When the fight to raise the minimum wage was at its height in Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce countered calls to to raise the minimum wage by stating, “we support the Government’s piloting of a Basic Income, which we see as a more efficient and realistic means of ensuring Ontarians are given greater security.” The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues. The burden of payment would shift from the employing class to the rest of us.

Of course, the class of employers would try to minimize basic income–just as it tends nowadays to try to minimize expenditure on public services for the working class (and increase expenditures, if necessary, on services that serve to oppress the working class–such as the police). The authors assume magically that employers will in fact get their way–without a struggle. If, however, an organized movement for the realization of a robust basic income (not the minimal basic income that Dhunna and Bush assume) were to develop, aiming for all to obtain a relatively high standard of living without having to work for a particular employer, then there is little reason to believe that the basic income would be merely a “burden of payment from the employing class to the rest of us.” To pay for such a robust universal basic income would require making inroads on both the power of employers (since it would attack the economic dependence of workers on particular employers) and on their income (since funding would involve substantially increased taxes on corporations).

There is no warrant for their assumption that there could only be the realization of a minimalist universal basic income–as I indicated in my last post on this subject.

References to “class struggle” in their article sound radical, but they really do not aim to question those premises.

The Alaska Model of Basic Income

It is interesting that these Dhunna and Bush refer to experiments in UBI that hardly are robust as so-called evidence that UBI would not work:

Many of the basic income experiments piloted by local governments ended rather abruptly, either running out of money, or ending after a newly elected government without the political commitment to the project axed the program. These are not just unfortunate bumps in the road, but speak to the real political and economic inviability of basic income. As the report summarized, “there is no robust evidence relating to UBI defined as unconditional, regular cash payments to individuals regardless of income or status. The schemes have seldom lasted long enough to test viability over more than a few years.” Thus, there is “no evidence that any version of UBI can be affordable, inclusive, sufficient and sustainable at the same time.”

The longest and largest sustained experiment in basic income is Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend. Starting in the 1970s, the Alaskan government created a special state-run fund from a portion of oil revenues. Since 1982, the fund pays out a dividend to every permanent resident of Alaska (this annual amount has ranged from $1000 to 2000 per year in recent years). The newly elected governor of Alaska campaigned to increase the dividend, but this came at a cost. To pay for the increase, Governor Mike Dunleavy has pushed a series of cuts to the public university system, ferry service, and other public services. The economic crash in 2020 reduced the dividend payment to $992, and there is now a real question about whether the fund will be able to issue any dividends at all in the coming years

Here is what it says from one of the articles to which they refer above:

This year’s oil royalty check [for residents of Alaska] will be $992, one third of what is should have been under the statutory calculation, but all that the Alaska Legislature’s majority members could give, since they needed the rest of the Permanent Fund dividend dollars to pay for government programs.

If $992 is one third of what recipients normally received, then $2976 per year is what they normally received. If you divide that by 12 months, then you obtain $248 per month–hardly a robust level of basic income! Indeed, the yearly basic income in Alaska was usually less than this.

From Karl Widerquist (2012), “Exporting the Alaska Model to Alaska: How Big Could the Permanent Fund Be if the State Really Tried? And Can a Larger Fund Insulate an Oil Exporter from the End of the Boom?” in Exporting the Alaska Model Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World, page 173:

The most recent dividend was $1,174 in October 2011, and dividends have tended to be between $1000 and $2000 per person per year for the past 15 years.

Dividing $1000 and $2000 by 12 gives the low and high range of $83,33 per month to $166,66 per month. Using this model to refute the basic income model is grasping at straws.  Referring to such a basic income as if it were evidence of the infeasability of such a policy is illogical. It is an extremely weak counterexample, and yet they decided to include it in their “critique” of UBI. 

David Macdonald’s Study on Basic Income

The writers refer to David Macdonald’s estimate of a $29 billion federal fund required for one kind of scenario for a basic income. They write:

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible. But the basic costs show that UBI is, by any measure, a terrible use of resources to address inequality and poverty. As the CCPA’s David MacDonald noted in his study, the $29 billion spent on such a UBI scheme would achieve — at best — less than a 2 percent reduction in the poverty rate, which would “be quite wasteful” when considering the amount of money spent.

I assume that they are referring to the following scenario (from David Macdonald (2016), A Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income, page 21):

In Scenario 4, the government issues a $1,000 universal cheque in addition to offering all existing income support programs. In essence, this would be the 34th Canadian basic income program, and by providing support over and above what already exists, it would lower poverty rates across all age groups (see Table 6). An annual $1,000 cheque or bank transfer to all Canadians could either be taxed back at year’s end, or clawed back from existing programs.

Under this scenario, the overall poverty rate would fall two percentage points — taking 713,000 people out of poverty. The biggest impact would affect child poverty, which would drop three percentage points, from 10.9% to 7.9%. Adult poverty would drop from 11.8% to 9.9%. Seniors would see the smallest, though by no means insignificant, benefit under this scenar-

A $1000 cheque a year is, again, hardly a robust universal basic income–even if it were a top up to present income-enhancing schemes. Why do Dhunna and Bush fail to mention, once again, the wider context that shows how minimal such a scenario would be? Perhaps they want to create a straw model of basic income so that they can then proceed with their idealized solution to the problems that face the Canadian working class and community members face by proposing an expanded public service? Is this ethical? Is it honest?

Stereotypical Presentation of Those Who Advocate a Robust Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush say this

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible.

They present no evidence to show that those who advocate a robust universal basic income somehow “can solve all of our problems at once.” 

Bryant Sculos (2018), in  “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Volume 6, Issue 1, shows that their view finds an echo in other stereotypical criticisms of a robust UBI: 

Most of the critics of UBI treat its advocates as though they believe UBI would solve all or most socioeconomic problems, at least in the Global North. I have yet to come across any serious UBI advocate who takes such an expansive position.

Contradictory Conception of the Capitalist Government or Capitalist State: 

Dhunna and Bush argue, contradictorily, the following:  

Instead of ending poverty, UBI could in reality entrench low wages and precarious work, and reduce workers’ bargaining power. In part, this reflects an analysis that understands that the state’s role under capitalism is to create conditions of profitability for capitalists, such that workers are further pushed into the labour market [my emphasis].

They also have the following to say: 

Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws [my emphasis].

Of course, labour laws should be strengthened–but how does this come about except through–the capitalist state. They can argue for state intervention in the form of strengthened labour laws, but those who advocate for a robust UBI provided by the capitalist state cannot. Why is it that they can rely on the capitalist state whereas those who advocate for a robust universal basic income cannot?

In addition, as I have shown in a number of posts, labour laws (for example, relating to collective bargaining and management rights) may restrict the power of the class of employers but they in no way question the legitimacy of that power (see, for example, Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation and Oppression of Workers a Fair Contract?Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994). 

Why is it that Dhunna and Bush are silent on the limitations of labour laws and reliance on the capitalist state? Perhaps because they are biased towards reformist unions? Perhaps because they idealize unions and labour laws? 

I will let the reader figure out why Dhunna and Bush express such contradictions. Or why they propose the following: 

At the cost of $29 billion annually, we could have free transit in major cities ($10 billion), clean drinking water for every First Nation ($4.5 billion), eliminate tuition fees at all universities ($11 billion), and end homelessness ($4.5 billion). If we are spending $177 billion dollars a year (the cost of a negative income tax model to raise people to $21,810), we could have all of the above plus a universal pharmacare program, universal childcare, universal dental care, and begin to implement a robust public housing policy.  

Would not such policies be implemented–by the capitalist state? They criticize advocates of UBI for pressuring the capitalist state to provide for a universal level of income above the poverty line, but they rely on the capitalist state to provide free state services. What is sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

Furthermore, if the proposal for a robust universal basic income is used as an organizing tool and linked to the aim of abolishing the class power of employers and all classes, the issue of going beyond the capitalist state and indeed beyond capitalism arises–but that question never arises for Dhunna and Bush.

In a follow-up post, I will look at the one example which they provide that involves a more robust or ambitious UBI–the one referred to by the International Labour Organization.

An Implicit Assumption of a Zero-Sum Approach to Struggling Against the Class of Employers

Dhunna and Bush in the last quote above imply that improvements in the level of UBI will likely lead to reductions in services in other areas–a kind of zero-sum situation. However, reduction in social services have occurred over the years without the existence of UBI; there is no necessary connection between the two.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, the struggle for a robust universal basic income and the expansion of public services need not be mutually exclusive. The working class should struggle for both–all the while aiming to abolish the class power of employers and not just reform it, as Dhunna and Bush aim to do (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist).

Their implied zero-sum analysis in the following quote thus is also illogical:

The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues.

To claim that the “business community was in favour of basic income” is, again, true only on a minimalist assumption of a basic income–the “business community was in favour of [a minimalist version of” basic income–not a more robust version. The assumption for most of their article operates on this assumption so that they can easily refute such a model and provide their idealized version of the expansion of public services–their humanized version of capitalism, or humanized welfare capitalism (see my critique of that version in A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist).

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush assume a minimal universal basic income in order to provide superficial evidence against it. They stereotype the position of radical advocates of a universal basic income and have a contradictory conception of the nature of the capitalist government or state; they idealize labour laws and, implicitly, union as well as the provision of public services. In addition to these problems, they assume that there is necessarily a zero-sum situation facing the working class: either a (minimal) universal basic income or an expansion of public services. They exclude from consideration a simultaneous struggle for a robust universal basic income and an expansion of public services. Finally, they exclude any consideration of aiming to abolish the class power of employers and thereby the elimination of class exploitation and class oppression–once and for all. 

In a future post, I will look at their references to studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Public Service International (both international social-democratic labour organizations).

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