EDITORIAL: As not all human activities are deemed «profitable» despite potential social or environmental good, what are the options to solve this problem?

Truls Lie
Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief
Published date: September 5, 2019

Now that September has arrived, and many are on their way back to work, let me present some arguments in favour of basic income.

Citizen basic income – which has occasionally been suggested by various political parties on the left – can be a solution to assist the poor and those in need, but also those who find themselves unemployed while contributing to society in other ways without getting paid. Not all human activities are «profitable».

Unfortunately, both the Labour Organizations and the parties on the right remain conservative, valuing traditional paid labour over all else. In their book about citizen basic income (Borgerlønn – ideen som endrer spillet), Ingeborg Eliassen and Sven Egil Omdal are critical of conservative parties who want to «strengthen the work-policy». Also, the politicians of the Labour Party, whose leaders, like Hadia Tajik, tell the authors how important it is to fulfill one’s duty: «going to work at nine in the morning shouldn’t be seen as a burden.» She is also skeptical toward technology, «as they will change our work-life.» And the leader of the Labour Union Hans-Christian Gabrielsen is negative to the idea of citizen wages, as it «touches on one of the deepest values of the labour movement: Working should be beneficial.»

Not all human activities are «profitable».

The point is that the traditional paid labour that Solberg, Tajik and Gabrielsen emphasizes, can prove to be out of synch with automatic technologies and new values.

Production capacity

Why, indeed, should wage labour remain so central? Karl Marx criticized traditional wage labour 160 years ago, as he understood the significance of mechanical automation. Marx writes that «…work hours, on which current wealth is based, is a poor basis compared to this new [automated machines and systems] created by big industry itself. […] the work hours stop and must stop being the unit of measure.»1

And 15 years ago, in A Grammar of the Multitude, the Italian philosopher Paul Virno problematized the division between paid and unpaid labour – between traditional industrial labour and working people in the new knowledge society. As Virno points out in accordance with Marx, abstract (and scientific) knowledge has become «no less than the decisive production force», where traditional and physically repetitive work only makes for a part.

For example, today the world has collected a collective knowledge which entrepreneurs, programmers, investors, and others draw on when new products and services are created. The Norwegian economist Kalle Moene also mentions these more invisible social values we all have contributed to – which provides the foundation for the success of techno-entrepreneurs and investors.

More and more economists argue that most of the economic growth the world has experienced the last decades is less a result of the physical work we invest, rather being the result of everything the generations before us have invested in research, education and the development of increasingly effective machines. (according to the book by Omdal and Eliassen).

Unfortunately, the politicians’ insistence on «productive» work – on increasing gross domestic product (GDP) – has led to a situation where instead of benefiting of 100 years of economic growth through more spare time, we have changed the whole profit for increased consumption. As the anarchist David Graeber has described, we have ended up with a series of bullshit jobs, making products that no one really needs.

we have changed the whole profit for increased consumption.

Welfare

Innovatively, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern no longer wants to measure the national productivity in GDP, but wants to govern based on a «budget of well-being». She criticizes GDP and growth for being a poor yardstick for good living conditions. Consequently, New Zealand’s budget is directed towards mental health, reduced child poverty, minorities, reduced CO2-emissions as well as digitalization efforts. The society is measured by 61 parameters – everything from loneliness, trust with the politicians, and equal access to water resources.

Such budgeting is something entirely new. But the authorities of the kingdom of Bhutan launched their «Gross National Happiness», which became a more important measure than BNP – to be included in the constitution at a later point. Today, the UN also publishes their World Happiness Report, apparently based on point 22 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): «Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security […] and is entitled to the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.»

Negative tax

The book Citizen Basic Income (Borgerlønn) takes care to also present objections to an unchecked guaranteed income. Like how people might lose their motivation to work But why can’t a rich country like Norway work toward citizen basic income, simplifying its enormous bureaucratic apparatus of control such as pensions, parental leave and state support. As a society, Norway could be breaking a new path, rather than riding the old carousel of work and exhaustion.

At the same time, universal citizen basic income without restrictions is probably naïve and hardly sustainable in the long run. Providing generous social benefits can easily double state expenditure – and debs – just like Emmanuel Macron’s predecessor François Hollande experienced. The crucial point should be the long – term productive capacity – with creative force, appreciated difference, individual freedom, community, mental development and a minimum of material welfare. Instead of universal citizen basic income, you could introduce «negative taxes», where those who earn enough pay taxes and those who earn close to a determined «minimum wage» 1000 euros per month has been suggested), get a gradual compensation – which could be automated through algorithms by the tax authorities. As a negative tax, the citizen basic income will be adjusted relative to the recipient’s needs.

Italy, for example, has now introduced «citizen’s income» which will provide 2,7 million people with a negative tax or basic income – of about 5000 Euro per year. This will be available for families earning less than 9360 Euros and who make themselves available for work. At the launch of this initiative, the authorities were surprised that far less people than expected grasped the opportunity.

To share

But how to finance the citizen basic income? It can be through resource rent or a basic rate of interest on historical common investments and the planetary resources. In Norway, hydrological power plants pay 33% basic interest tax in addition to business tax. Oil companies pay 55% surtax to be allowed to extract the values that millions of years of geological evolution has stored at the bottom of the sea. And the fish farms who also are polluting should also pay rent of some kind. We can acquire basic rent from the use of natural resources, minerals, land for construction, or even the air for mobile networks. If more parties both nationally and with international solidarity were mentally prepared to share to a larger extent, they could contribute to the common treasury of citizen basic income.

Are Norwegians ready to consider that oil and fish aren’t altogether «Norwegian»? I would here remind you of the anarchist slogan «Property is theft!» – for who owns the water, the atmosphere, the wind, and the sun?

«Property is theft!»

Such basic interest rates could also benefit idealists, altruists or creative people who forgo a life led by profit, and instead chose «unprofitable» careers. As is also is mentioned by Omdal and Eliassen.
And what about all the freelancers in the world (In the US half the people rely on such work to some extent) and those whose work is taken over by automation and new technologies. Or those who don’t happen to be private inheritors to overpriced properties?

Isn’t it time to listen to Marx and politicize the significance of new technologies and increased diversity? It is time to introduce policies where the many who are active but unsalaried or who do not have access to work are met by solidary and support in the form of citizen wages.


1 Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, Chapter «notes about machines», 1858, my translation.


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