Thursday, June 7, 2018

UBI vs. JG: Communist Revolution Editiion

I like to talk a lot of shit. I've been talking a lot of shit lately on the Job Guarantee (JG) proposals relative to Universal Basic Income (UBI) in tweets and comments here and there. Since I generally grow bored of conversations on the internet fairly quickly, relatively few people have actually heard anything resembling my full argument in favor of UBI over a JG. So here I am, finding new ways to procrastinate my dissertation work.

The discussion here, I hope, will equip supporters of UBI and the JG with a more holistic understanding of both from the perspective of long-term revolutionary goals. As an anarcho-communist, I view both proposals (technically three proposals, more on that later) through the lens of which can best situate the working class to seize the means of production to establish a decentralized communist production and distribution network.

Setting the Limits of the Discussion

Before I begin, I would like to list the directions in which this discussion will not go. This is very important since all sides of the JG-UBI debate (that is pro-JG, pro-UBI, and anti-both) have been constructing various straw persons and concern trolls to assert the dubiousness of alternative positions. Thus, there are a few lines of argumentation which, at least for this discussion, would be out of bounds to avoid the disingenuous.

First, in considering each proposal, I am assuming a maximalist implementation without right-wing cooptation as the benchmark of comparison. Many on the JG side have drawn comparisons between UBI as conceived by the left and the Negative Income Tax of Milton Friedman as evidence of UBI being fundamentally right-wing. Relatively few have made the just-as-valid-but-no-less-disingenuous comparison between a JG and various fascist jobs proposals. In both cases, the right-wing concern comes with stabilizing the economy for the sake of the smooth operation of the state (however defined) rather than the benefit of the working class. Thus, the right-wing bizarro UBI's tend to be meager while their bizarro JG's tend to be underpaying (if they pay at all).

While it may be a worthwhile discussion to have whether the eventuality of right-wing recuperation of JG or UBI is more dangerous (and I do have my opinions on this), that subject is simply not at discussion here. Instead, this conversation will attempt good-faith assumptions of maximum implementation that for the JG looks like living wage jobs for all residents and citizens and for the UBI looks like a living basic income for all residents and citizens.

Second, I am taking for granted that both a JG and a UBI would provide provide social benefit without driving the economy into hyperinflation. There are those who claim that a UBI will have a comparatively higher rate of inflation than a JG. This is based largely on an appeal to Say's Identity which states the nominal value of goods sold in the economy (supply) is equivalent to the amount of money circulating in the economy over the period of observation (demand). The reasoning assumes a significant difference between a UBI which directly creates no productive activity and a JG which does so exclusively. The rub here is that by and large JG programs would be unlikely to create goods and services for sale in high enough proportion for its inflation impact to be significantly different than a UBI.

There are of course major exceptions to these assumptions. Such a model is a fundamentally closed circuit model. That is, the domestic economy is considered to be monetarily and productively autarkic. Thus, such assumptions would be safe for countries who are relatively immune to financial market reprisals. In other words, countries with high foreign direct investment or foreign-owned sovereign debt are unlikely to benefit from a JG or UBI so long as financial brokers consider such policies fiscally irresponsible. For practical purposes, a JG or UBI proposal will be assessed here only for countries such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, but not countries like Argentina, Thailand, or Greece.

The discussion here is limited ultimately to how the material administration of these policies would stand to position the working class to seize the means of production. It takes for granted the stated outcomes of proponents of these plans and assesses those outcomes along in terms of their ability to leverage revolutionary goals.

Epistemology of Political Revolution

One of the more dubious campaign slogans of the 2016 campaign was Bernie Sanders' call for "political revolution." As far as anyone could tell, it was merely an appeal to implement bread and butter social democratic policies. No one was quite capable of parsing exactly what part of his program constituted revolution. That said, a successful campaign on his part relative to Hillary or Trump would have signaled a sea change in how US citizens conceptualize policy. Unfortunately, it turned out that most US voters value austerity and racism.

That said, any bold new policy direction requires a significant change in how those within systems of power think about the possibilities and limits of human social relationships and their bureaucratic administration. Both a JG and a UBI would require a significant shift in conventional and colloquial economic wisdom in order to be politically viable.

The UBI would require a fundamental reconceptualization of the link between work and livelihood -- namely, that the link is unnecessary. A UBI requires giving money unequivocally to every citizen and resident of a country. Such a policy cannot be viable unless both mass political opinion and that of key power holders adopt such a perspective.

As revolutionary praxis, therefore, the UBI sets politics on a course to eliminate labor altogether as jobs can be automated without as strident resistance from workers. At the same time, it gives the broad working class (i.e., including the unemployed and those outside of the formal labor market) a single, unified policy target with which to engage in struggle against the capitalist class.

A JG on the other hand, would require a reconceptualization of who deserves economically fulfilling work -- namely, everyone. A JG requires giving every resident and citizen a job who applies for one. Such a policy cannot be viable unless both mass political opinion and that of key power holders abandon a commitment to the labor aristocracy.

As revolutionary praxis, therefore, the JG only gets us to the point of ensuring universal employment. While it does ensure a stable livelihood for able workers (more on that later), it maintains the fundamental epistemic connection between formal labor and social value. Certainly, such a program can leverage such a perspective to expand the bounds of what constitutes labor.

Compared to a JG, a UBI is wholly bolder as a perspective shift. Where a JG maintains, and in fact doubles down on, the prevailing system of wage labor, the UBI subverts it by virtue of directly and unapologetically increasing the proportion of income not generated from either labor or rent/profit. If we are to acknowledge the near-infinite multiplicity of non-market labor, a UBI will ostensibly cover all of those while simultaneously eliminating the privileging of paid labor or returns to ownership as a/the source of social esteem.

Materiality of Administration

A second point of contention I identify is that of administration. This point has largely come those to the right of JG advocates as part of the "a JG is impossible" package. As previously stated, we are assuming that both a JG and a UBI are administratively viable. That is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is what the necessary administrative limitations built into either program mean for the broad working class.

Unlike with a UBI, the JG privileges waged income over non-waged by design. What is guaranteed is not a minimum standard of living per se, but rather guaranteed waged labor sufficient to get one there. In my view, this will significantly disadvantage two groups relative to a UBI: the disabled and the rural poor.

Under a UBI, the process for receiving benefits as a disabled person is relatively straightforward: you are entitled to them. For a JG program, such is not the case. There are those in the JG camp (and this in my estimation constitutes a majority) who say that those who are disabled will be given work commensurate with their skills, and those unable to work will receive something akin to a UBI anyway (less the universal part). Even still, this puts an unnecessary burden on the disabled to apply for exemptions and/or hope that work requiring their relatively narrow set of skills doesn't require significant travel.

A similar situation arises for the rural poor. At this point it is useful to distinguish between two forms of JG administration, the federal job guarantee (FJG) and the social entrepreneurship job guaranteed (SEJG). The former is a federally managed program that would create jobs where the rates of unemployment are the highest. The latter is a federally funded, locally managed program that would create jobs on the basis of local non-profits creating them. The SEJG, in my view, is more fraught with problems than the former.

The SEJG presumes that localities will have a local elite or other local capital resources sufficient to start non-profits, co-ops, etc. (collectively known as 'social entrepreneurship ventures). It is only after the founding of these institutions that wages (and perhaps to a degree, capital costs) are subsidized through local administrative boards that are federally funded. Such a situation is especially ripe for corruption.

One of the disadvantages of the public works programs of the New Deal was its compromised state-based administration. Such administration by the states led to southern states underrepresenting the qualifications of Black applicants putting them in menial work for substandard pay. Where a JG program promises a living wage across the board, such discrimination can easily manifest in what types of jobs applicants are given. Sure a local food bank and a local waste disposal non-profit might pay the same wage, but it's far from the same work.

At the same time, both a FJG and an SEJG run into the problem of remote rural locations. In all likelihood sparsely populated locales are not going to be able to maintain but a very few JG programs successfully without outside administration and labor. Such a situation stands to actually suck money out of the local economy as locals are employed by out-of-town capital holders.

In sum, a JG program stands to benefit the already existing middle class - those with incomes and wealth sufficient to devote time to administering local projects that other people ultimately fill the subsidized wage jobs for. Further, the normativity of deserved employment over deserved livelihood will disadvantage those with disabilities who will have to apply for exemptions and/or wait for a job meeting a narrower set of qualifications. Ultimately, these JG gaps will have to be filled by something akin to a UBI.

On the other hand, the UBI decisively shifts the income distribution away from inequality. By being universal, it necessarily increases the incomes of those with less wealth in greater proportion to those with more of it. It allows individuals and groups of individuals to start their own operations outside of the purview of the capitalist state.

Time Is Too Expensive

My primary reason for advocating a UBI over a JG is what it means for workers and their time. In my view, a JG makes unemployment voluntary while a UBI makes employment voluntary. I will explain the subtle but important difference in this final section.

A JG requires that a person work for an income. There will inevitably exceptions to this, but by and large this is the general M.O. of the JG advocates. As a result, a person's livelihood under a JG is fundamentally tethered to some manner of coerced labor. Moreover, this labor must be considered by an administrative body to be socially necessary. That is, whereas one might want to devote their labor to art or political organizing, one's options are limited by the paid work available.

A UBI, on the other hand, subverts this. Rather than making the option of non-work voluntary by guaranteeing a job, a UBI makes work itself optional by guaranteeing an income regardless of a job. This income can subsidize any manner of work that might not find compensation on the formal labor market. Further, this income could also subsidize the sorts of social entrepreneurship ventures without relying on the prior wealth of the start-up crew.

And whereas a UBI balances the playing field of who gets to work for themselves, it also means that workers can afford free time. This is why I often refer to the UBI as the Universal Basic Strike Fund. Unlike with a JG, a UBI affords workers (all workers) an income subsidy sufficient to shorten their work week. With this free time, they can better engage in concerted activity. They can afford to take the time off for union meetings, tenant's rights workshops, etc. that stand to increase quality of life through collective struggle and collective accrual of political power.

It is impossible to build a revolution if all of your time belongs to the boss. The JG keeps us in that paradigm while the UBI liberates us from it. Neither program will get us to revolution on their own. No reform of the liberal state will. However, a UBI shifts the material conditions decisively in favor of the workers in a way the JG simply can't.