As is so often the case, one of my students has sent a very interesting link, that sparks a dialogue about economic choices our society faces. In this case, the link is to a video describing a (European) proposal for providing all (EU) citizens with a guaranteed basic income. You can see the video here.
The proposal is interesting. The first concern that arises is what will happen to productivity. Will people still want to work, when their work isn’t tied to their incomes? Will a country that adopts this approach become an impoverished (at least as far as income) land of poets? And will the highly productive people who want to work, to earn more income above the basic income, be willing to share those gains with those who aren’t working or are working in low productivity jobs? It does seem that we have a tremendous amount of wealth, our societies are rich enough to provide everyone a basic income…but we GOT that rich by having lots of incentives to create wealth: those who created it got to keep it. (To varying degrees some did that on the backs of others… but a lot of it was legitimate wealth creation nonetheless).
Another angle, consistent with a lot of the ideas of degrowth, is simply that we are working too many hours..The video makes the point that our productivity has gone so far up that people rightly fear losing their jobs…millions already have, over the years. But I’d say the solution to that is to work fewer hours…that might cut in to productivity a little bit, but it might not. If we had two COA economists, each of us working 30 hours a week (because I often work 60 hours a week), there would be some increased administrative overhead costs…but the two economists working for 30 hours each would be fresh all the time and collectively have much more expertise and ideas than I alone could possible have. So, instead of guaranteeing a basic income, you greatly increase the job availability (two economists get hired at COA instead of one; each economist gets paid less than the 60-hour-a-week single economist, but enough on which to live)…and people have enough time off to become poets, great parents, and/or contributing members of their communities, etc. The market still sends signals indicating which kinds of work are needed, and people can still get rich, tho it might be a bit harder. I think this would be a better solution than “pay me and I’ll go be a [bad] poet.”
You cannot separate either the basic income proposal or my job sharing proposal from norms (New Institutional Economics, of course)….our social norms would need to change considerably. I think the norms necessary for for a shorter work week would be easier to move toward (because we already have shortened the work week a tad…just not nearly enough, given productivity gains) relative to the norms necessary to make a basic income a human right (give me something for doing “nothing”…”nothing” in quotation marks because it’s really wrong to say that poetry and parenting is “nothing”…but those norms persist). For either proposal, however, we need to keep pushing the ideas, to have them “on the shelf,” becoming normalized and ready to go when we’re ready for some change.