Camilla Harris

Britain is reaching a breaking point. The UN has just released a report damning the UK’s austerity measures, labelling them as a breach in human rights obligations. The IMF, previously one of neoliberalism’s biggest advocates, has admitted that the system may well have been ‘oversold’. The Brexit referendum result has highlighted the millions of British people who feel neglected by our current system, who are longing for a change. To top it all off, we are teetering on the edge of a technological revolution and we are not at all prepared for what is to come.

It has become clear over the last few weeks that our current system is failing. But in a hopeless situation where unjustness may seem to prevail, there is one policy that I believe has the potential to change everything.

What is the universal basic income?

A universal basic income, also known as a basic income guarantee, is an unconditional income given to all individuals in society, regardless of work or income status. It guarantees the public a basic standard of living through a regular payment from the government. The amount received could be paid weekly, monthly, or yearly, and the appropriate amount would be determined by policymakers, but should be at least enough to ensure nobody falls below the poverty line.

Why do we need one?

The basic income is by no means a new idea, but has been picking up steam recently as the deficiencies of our current system becomes increasingly obvious. Combine this with a future of full-automation, and suddenly the basic income goes from a drastic ideological pipe-dream, to a policy vital for society’s survival.

The failings of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism – characterised by promoting competition and decreasing the role of the state through deregulation, privatisation and fiscal austerity - is failing for low and middle income families, for the environment, for just about everybody who isn’t rich or a corporation. The benefits that we saw from free trade and free-market capitalism are now paling in comparison to the undeniable soaring inequality and decreasing social mobility we are experiencing. Cuts in regulations are hurting working people and creating a world where the corporation rules supreme. Austerity has been shown to have a “disproportionate adverse impact”[1] on disadvantaged and marginalised groups, while corporations and the super wealthy are given tax cut after tax cut, with no evidence whatsoever that the policies are even working to cut national debt.

We are now living in a country where more and more waged workers rely on foodbanks to provide sustenance for the family, where income insecurity caused by precarious work such as zero-hour contracts means families cannot plan ahead, never sure they will have enough money for rent or their children’s necessities. People are struggling to make ends meet, and harsh benefit sanctions make asking for help a dehumanising and stressful experience, with changes to benefits especially harming children[2]. Something has got to be done. A universal basic income would be an easily implementable and manageable system, which would help ensure the most vulnerable people in society do not slip further into poverty, providing security for all.

The robot revolution

Professionals are becoming simultaneously excited and apprehensive about the huge changes they expect to be seeing soon in the technology markets and beyond. Separate developments in technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, sensors, materials and the use of big data are coming together to create robots with the mobility, dexterity and intelligence to work seamlessly alongside – or in place of – humans. The effects are expected to be felt in all areas of our lives, as both consumers and producers. But why does this mean we need a basic income?

As robots become increasingly capable, the amount and variety of jobs they can do is increasing. Experts Carl Frey and Michael Osborne[3] estimate that 35% of UK jobs are susceptible to automation. As finding, and staying in, employment becomes increasingly difficult, society’s safety net must be increased.

As well as outright replacing jobs, technology is changing the way the job market works through new networks and increasing the mobility of workers. We are seeing the rise of the ‘gig economy’, whereby people are increasingly hired per project, on short-term contracts, or as freelancers. As work becomes increasingly unstable[4], people will be entering and leaving the workforce at a higher frequency, and income instability will be high. Our current benefit system is not equipped to deal with the coming-and-going gig economy: a universal basic income will simplify everything.

Technological advances are also extremely likely to exacerbate the trend of rising inequality through various channels: As technology becomes increasingly more important than labour in production, the benefits of productivity increases will go to capital owners rather than workers, which is likely to stagnate or depress low-end wages, as has already been happening for the last decade[5]. As technology becomes more complex and replaces certain jobs, the remaining jobs and new jobs typically require higher skill and education levels, often unattainable to disadvantaged groups. Nowadays, an innovative digital idea can make a small amount of entrepreneurs incredibly wealthy, whilst providing a comparatively tiny amount of jobs to wider society. Lastly, new technologies are increasingly replacing typically middle-class jobs, causing a polarisation in the economy between the have’s and the have nots.

We therefore see the benefits of new technologies accruing to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, whilst people who already struggle to gain skills, employment and income will struggle more as competition for low-skilled jobs increases. A solid system for redistribution of wealth is increasingly necessary and the basic income would do just that.

So it sounds like we might need a universal basic income at some point pretty soon. But is the policy feasible? I will discuss some of the pros and cons of the system in my next blog.

[1] UN Report: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=1059&Lang=en

[2] UN report

[3] http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/reports/Citi_GPS_Technology_Work_2.pdf

[4]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/303335/the_future_of_work_key_findings_edit.pdf

[5] http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/reports/Citi_GPS_Technology_Work.pdf