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Universal Basic Income (UBI) - NOW!!

March 20, 2020 7:30 AM
By Keith Melton

The Case for Emergency Universal Basic Income: NOW Keith Melton (Keith Melton)

As I started writing this article my intention was to start from the general economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic and work my way towards my conclusion, but it was feeling too slow! So I am just going to dive in and say "NOW is the time to start with a Universal Basic Income (*UBI) and we can work out a more nuanced approach as we learn from experience"

Prime Minister`s Questions in Parliament on Wednesday saw Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in Westminster, ask Johnson about an Emergency UBI. And he appeared to get an undertaking from the Prime Minister that he would consider it. He was prepared to engage with what seems to be a cross-Party attempt to introduce an emergency form of UBI as part of the Government response to the economic crisis which is riding on the back of the pandemic.

Collateral Damage

One of the striking things that has come out of the current health crisis, and the worldwide responses trying to manage the health risks, is the potential collateral damage to the economy. The economic impact of draconian "lockdown" measures and "Social distancing" strategies is already being felt in many advanced economies. It is clear, however, that it is being felt more significantly by some people than by others.

The responses by financial ministers in different countries will differ, to a very large extent, upon the basis of their pre-dispositions on the political spectrum of economic philosophy. In the UK we have what has been categorised by some as an ultra-right-wing government.

However, this may be misleading, at least in view of the measures that were revealed in the very recent Budget, which were Keynesian in nature. Or, perhaps they just seemed Keynesian as a by-product of being populist, post-election, bribery. Maybe Dominic Cummings wanted to appease recently converted Conservative voters from deprived areas? (But let us leave such a discussion for another time - now is a time to be positive and generous spirited!)

QT on Thursday

Talking of generous-spiritedness, I watched Question Time last night (first time for ages - and only because I knew there would be no audience!) I actually found it very moving!! Yes, there was some `political disagreement`, but it was done with positive human spirit - and the apparent rapport between Andy Burnham and Matt Hancock - and, indeed the other guests - was a real pleasure to see. In fact, my eyes are moist now just thinking back to it - more of this spirit please.

The main area where there was a genuine difference of opinion (but even that was handled relatively calmly) was over the issue of where supporting funds should go. Which brings me back to my point.

Business First? (spoiler alert - "No"!)

It is the case that many financial ministers around the world seem to be persuaded of the need to pump money into the system to prevent total economic breakdown. For me, this raises two questions. The first is "where does this money come from?" But the more important question in my view is "where does it go?" So, let me look at the second question first.

The UK Chancellor`s view, earlier this week, was that the money should be made available to Businesses first, because they pay the wages of the people. However, my view is that the FIRST target, for OUR help as taxpayers, should be our communities. Therefore, the PEOPLE who make up these communities should have been the priority.

The key problem with the concentration upon Business (and the point was made by most of the Question Time panel) is that very large numbers of individuals now work in what is often called the "Gig Economy". In short, if those people don`t work, or cannot work, for some reason (perhaps because they are self-isolating; or their partner is self-isolating and they have been told they should stay at home, too, for at least 14 days - then probably they won`t get paid.)**

Alternatively, they may be employed, but the company for whom they work has told them that, if they take time off they will not get paid. Or, in a worst-case scenario they are laid off without any income. And the scary thing is that this has happened incredibly quickly and has probably already happened in the last few days to thousands, perhaps many hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, it sometimes is happening with a casual lack of care - https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeenshire/2087710/sacked-staff-left-homeless-after-north-hotel-orders-them-to-vacate-immediately/

Certainly, Facebook is full of discussion threads where many people are expressing concern at being left out in the cold, or on behalf of such folk. The Government has to get a handle on this very quickly, but OUR government appears to be lagging behind several (many?) other governments around the world. Yet they have made £330 billion available for loans to business.

Travel bans

The travel bans that governments are imposing, between countries and now, within countries as people are enjoined to "stay at home" have already had a huge impact on airlines and railways. Also people `voting with their feet` - and choosing not to put themselves at risk by traveling to dangerous foreign lands, or into, or between cities - has led to such massive reductions in customer numbers that airports have become plane parks and railways running with just a handful of passengers instead of bursting at the seams at peak times.

Thus, we are witnessing major calls for "significant government money for the Airline industry" to prevent airlines from going bankrupt. We are seeing major calls for loans and tax holidays to help improve cash-flow for the many businesses in the leisure market - pubs, theatres, cinemas and restaurants and hotels and so on.

It is, of course, right that the many smaller businesses need urgent help now, but it should have been the first priority of the Chancellor to look after the people, because people are "perishable" to a much greater extent than capital or buildings. So, interest or rent can be put off, but humans cannot manage very long without water or food.

What is certain is that this virus must make us review our priorities as a species. Polluting cruise ships and aeroplanes must be treated with lower priority than the survival and wellbeing of people. Universal Basic Income would be a way of re-establishing the importance of people in comparison to things.

Let me be clear - I am not saying we should do away with these things (for one thing, my wife is currently stuck in Brazil, which is now locked down, whilst I am stuck here, being advised by my government to stop at home!) But what I am saying is that we can manage with far fewer planes and ships and polluting journeys than we currently have - AND THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE FOR SUCH A CHANGE.

I have argued the case for UBI at greater length, including some answers as to where the money would come from, in my personal blog - https://keithmelton10.wordpress.com/2018/08/19/its-the-rich-what-gets-the-pleasure/ - if you would like to follow the argument as to why it should be the "green" thing to do.

But, right here, right now, it would be the "humane" thing to do. We can talk about the taxation system and how we manage it in the longer term. But, today, and I mean TODAY, Friday 20th March, the Government must act to save the economic lives of our communities as well as the healthful lives of our communities.

Keith Melton

Chair, Green Liberal Democrats

Friday 20th March, 2020

*PS For what it is worth I actually prefer the expression Unconditional Basic Income - it is actually a more Liberal interpretation of the U in UBI.

**PPS There is a petition to sign as well if you could spare a minute of your time "Nobody should lose their jobs because their kid`s school is closed" >>> https://www.megaphone.org.uk/petitions/coronavirus-nobody-should-lose-their-job-because-their-kids-school-is-closed