Reply to Maytree foundation brief: Would a universal basic income reduce poverty?

Lately the Maytree foundation came out with a brief which appears to reject the income guarantees concept, but in a somewhat ambiguous way. I had thought that Maytree was supporting a Basic Income/Guaranteed Living Income. However, this report, written by Noah Zon, needs to be read between the lines.

It seems to be responding to the provincial initiative for a Basic Income pilot, rather than the broader concept of an Income Guarantee. This leads to a Basic problem with the Basic Income movement; they cannot get it that the concept by itself is way too broad. It can be taken to mean a wide array of very different policies with very different aims, some of them quite menacing to the working and under classes, and to society at large.

Thus, the Health and Strength Action Group has desired to respond to the Maytree report, but has been unsure about exactly what it wants to say. The suggestion that Maytree is getting leaned on by its funders may have some truth to it. Zon seems a bit ambiguous about the concept; often arguing against himself.

HSAG has already produced a letter to Maytree, making most of the same criticisms of its attitude toward BI that I would make. We know that the BI movement is at present not very coherent, but what we need is constructive criticism, not an ideological position. Yes, we know that present social programs are inadequate. But they will not be fixed with just a little more money. They were bad policy to begin with. They have been around for half a century with no change despite great criticism their obvious dysfunctionality.

Zon repeats the old argument that a Canada wide BI plan would be unaffordable. He prices it at $300 billion. He ignores that present income maintenance programs cost $160 billion. He also ignores just how much money is taken out of the system by tax giveaways, dodges, and hidden subsidies. If all the misguided giveaways to corporations and wealth in the past thirty years were reversed, there would be plenty of money for an income guarantee.

standing  income guarantees up straight

Rather than repeat what has been said, I will take a response to the Maytree report to the next level. This will complement, not replicate, what is already said. This is; to do what the BI movement has failed to do; lay out what is or should be being advocated. I am going to go back to classic income guarantees rhetoric, from the Robert Theobald generation. This was all before the BIEN people appeared and started this “go nowhere” debate about philosophical “reciprocity”.

Yes, here is the rub; income guarantee movements fail to first of all define the problem they are trying to solve. They tend to be made up of people who fetishize debate and tend to get lost in debate. Thus the present BI movement seems to be for everything and nothing, and thus goes nowhere.

There is no point in advocating for it in industrial age terms, as BIEN and BICN try to do. A Guaranteed Living Income is to be advocated in the terms of the “post industrial” age. The concept as it was originally articulated by the best of the “post modern” thinkers, was not presented as a solution for industrial age problems. It is a way of making the post industrial age work, by relearning the things humankind forgot during the horrors of the industrial age.

If you want to do some reading on it, you can plow through the heavy philosophical thinkers such as Boudreiu or Baudrillard, but the more “popular” authors such as David Graeber or Jeremy Rifkin will be more useful. The object of an Income Guarantee is to restore the dignity and security of the person lost during the age of capitalism. This passing age is an aberration in history. Through out history, in any civilization, the obligation of society was to insure to all its members a means of living which did not put them at a disadvantage with their peers. The only exceptions were slaves and outcastes.

The sound arguments for income guarantees all start from this premise. It is usually stated as “free people do not rent themselves out” or “free people do not sell themselves for wages”. They usually notice that this was the accepted wisdom until the industrial age. In most societies, wage workers were considered contemptible. To build their system, the emergent capitalist class had to break down resistance over generations, to get people convinced that if you would not accept being a “wage slave” then you were a “bum”.

its about “rights”, stupids!

Some poverty elimination advocacy groups are focussed now on the ‘human rights” approach; they are framing their pitches around it. That is also the right approach for any sort of income guarantees advocate. To advocate for something, you should never take the “shotgun” approach; making every possible argument for it, treating them all equally. Some will be weaker, and can be taken out of context to discredit the entire object being advocated for.

You should always find the core reason for something, and argue from that. All other reasons for a Basic Income should be secondary to it and flow from it. The right to security and dignity of the person is the pole star that keeps the income guarantee ship on course and gives us the strongest possible argument.

Who is going to argue against security and dignity of the person? Advocates for “work” will try to flip the issue upside down, but this is a dishonest argument easily flipped back right side up. Work that does not even pay enough to survive on does not build character. Being dependant on a boss who can fire you at any time for any reason or no reason does not make dignity. Having no control of your own time even when not on the job, and having to comply with any order no matter how senseless or abusive, does not make freedom.

Freedom and dignity of the person requires a basic autonomy of the person. Persons must have the right and the means to live without doing anything at all, except what interests or benefits them. This requires an income adequate to live on; a partial income does not serve the purpose.


The arguments against this will be faux economic and “ethical”. The economy would collapse if it had to carry such a large number of people who add nothing to the total wealth. And, why should some people have to work harder so others can do nothing?

The argument against both of these lines is systemic. About 60% to 80% of the work being done for pay is “make work”. That is, doing something which would make no difference if it were not being done. It has been like this in all societies all down history, due to the need of any system for redundancy. That is, for the surplus energy in the system with which to be able to maintain and run itself.

The real problem in any system is what to do with its surplus energy. A plant casts seeds. A machine throws off heat. A company might turn the surplus into expanding the business or into paying dividends. Primitive societies hold potlatches and other gift exchanging arrangements. Advanced economies can use up surplus energy on growth, on war and imperial expansion, or on increased leisure. In the present world, the first two options are becoming non viable.

Another aspect to this is what Marxists call the “organic composition of capital”. Contrary to popular belief, Marx never had a “labor theory of value”. The Liberal economists like Ricardo did, but it is wrong. Labor has always been only one part of the cost of producing something and steadily declines as a ratio as technology progresses. But more importantly, the total cost of making anything is approaching zero.

Thus, the idea that everyone should be employed full time, or that the total wealth of a society is effected by someone not being employed always has been ridiculous. As capitalism declines into post capitalism, this becomes obvious. Thus, the claim that someone refusing to work forces others to work harder becomes increasingly ridiculous. This also makes absurd the “reciprocity problem” imagined by the moral philosophers who founded BIEN.

That is the core argument for a Guaranteed Living Income. Flowing from it are the two outrider issues; the need for a deep democracy, and for a steady state economy. They make a perfect triad, with GLI enabling people to participate in a democracy, and solving the effective demand problem in post industrial economies. A strong democracy insures that the economy is run for the benefit of the public, not shareholders.

Now, I invite the Maytree foundation to take another look at the income guarantees concept from this perspective, and see if it makes more sense this time around.

As well, when I get some more time, I will lay out what a valid income guarantee proposal would look like, based on these principles. Then, Maytree, we will have something to actually discuss. Tr