Category Archives: Jeremy Heighway
Billionaires’ commitment to lifting a growing underclass out of poverty is just a bedtime story that helps the super-wealthy sleep. These champion a scheme whose prime result will be their profit.
After reflections on automation, Helen Razer says sarcastically: “UBI is a policy gift that Musk and so many others in the C-suites of Silicon Valley offer us as part of their vision of a sustainable economic future.
UBI, says Facebook’s Zuckerberg and eBay’s Omidyar, is the patch for the economic problems of everyday people”.
Some points made in her article:
“It’s just peachy for him and his businesses, as it means his consumers will have more income to spend on his goods. (Not that he cares about money, of course. It’s all about innovation!) . . .” – the mildest of the snide expressions punctuating the article
UBI is ‘something they wish to impose on states and nations – on us . . . a hack that may well benefit its Silicon Valley advocates in the short-term, but compound income and social inequality for the rest of us for decades”.
The idea that an identical sum is paid by the state to all citizens as a right and not as a form of welfare or reward is one, we’re told, whose time has come: “This thing stands a real chance of being passed into national economic policy”.
Helen points out that UBI now has fans from the left, the right, and, in the form of Canadian prime minister (‘and poster-boy for photogenic progressivism’) Justin Trudeau, the absolute center . . . The fact that this prescription can come from both former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis stands to some as proof of its inherent theoretical strength. If an “erratic Marxist,” a neoconservative, and the guy who wants to send us all to Mars can agree, then partisan consensus for policy enactment is likely. It looks like a centrist solution.
She believes that UBI inserted into our current economic software is likely to raise prices on many everyday goods: “There is no way to guarantee that landlords or merchants will not raise prices to reflect the moderate gain in income. If you’re already well-to-do, a price increase in the residential rental market or at the supermarket is of no great consequence to you. On low earners, it’s likely to have a significant effect”. And ends:
“UBI evokes a sort of realist utopia. It is certain, for a time, to safeguard the interests of a powerful few. But in the long-term, it is likely to diminish the purchasing power of the many. A true social dividend would not be a small state stipend whose terms are set by the billionaires of Silicon Valley”.
WMNEG’s Jeremy Heighway, on receiving this link, commented on Helen Razer’s approach, ‘belittling‘ Musk and ends: “As it stands, I would much rather talk to Musk than Razer about issues of what I once coined “perishable work and lasting work”, in which the effects of work are at very different timescales for different professions. Bus drivers and builders may both be under threat from deep AI and 3-D robotic printing, respectively, snatching away jobs but presumably still leaving profitable companies and owners in place, but it seems to me that we haven’t even looked at how differently these jobs could be viewed in current concepts of sustainability, the structuring of societies, etc”.
I guess I move along the margins. I think about whether our new Anthropocene epoch (eons, eras, periods, epochs, ages) should actually signal a change higher up the order. We currently say that a new period, the Quaternary, started 2.6 million years ago, but we may need to draw attention more towards right now instead . . .
The bigger the mess we make, the more significant the geological markers will be. At the time of writing this paragraph we have not yet entered the Trump Age, but others have made films with titles such as “The Age of Stupid” or have begun to say that we are now living in a post-truth era.
There is also the new degrowth movement in town, calling for a massive sea-change in how we live on this planet of ours. However, I’ve not seen anybody calling for this to be a new degrowth age or era, just that we need to massively change our ways. Such a change would surely usher in something worthy of at least being an age, though. Also, depending on what we do over a really short time scale geologically speaking, we do have the potential to inflict something as high up as a new period on our planet, in my opinion.
Or, we can save ourselves from naming and shaming ourselves with a new Anthropiary Period and get down to the business of taking up the Anthropocene, accept our culpability so far by nominating an Age of Stupid, and then moving on into an Age of Enlightenment. At least these phrases already exist – except for the Anthropiary Period one. But ok, maybe the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the largest and oldest constituent scientific body in the International Union of Geological Science) needs to wait a few years before declaring that we have come to our senses, or not.
So, what are the mechanisms that will enable a successful degrowth society the world over?
We have now developed our technologies to a point where we can harvest large amounts of energy from solar and wind power and even grow food with continuous output indoors and vertically if we want to.
We could break free from using fossil fuels within the next couple of decades if we chose to do so.
What is unclear, though, is what steady-state world we wish to create in other respects: quality of life, life expectancy, equalities and so on
The degrowth movement has been having varying problems even with its very name of late. It is so much more than literally degrowth, and in many areas almost all supporters would actually like to see a massive growth in better ways of behaving towards each other, towards animals and towards the planet. However, looking for a different name is problematic too. It is almost testimony to the power of television, especially in the UK, that people might feel slightly awkward about wanting to call themselves part of the Good Life Movement . . . Maybe there is no name which can satisfy what it really feels like, but I do like that the name is directed against an equally unclear mindset which seems to have growth, growth, growth as one of its underlying pillars.
When going up against people who believe in clear figures (even if they make no sense in the long run), I think we do need to be more than warm, but fuzzy. We need to have an understanding of the mechanisms which drive lots of people, and systems which perpetuate or preserve patterns of behaviour, even when these are unhelpful. We need to be able to propose alternative systems that will function well and gain support . . .
In essence, I would like to know more about the environmental and social cost/benefit factors of choosing a regional product over an imported one, for example. However, the price tag tells me almost nothing about the energy required to make the product, let alone about the social or environmental conditions surrounding the process.
For decades now there has been talk about internalising the externalities, i.e. that all products and services should cost the manufacturer a ‘true’ price for the product, which should then be reflected on the price tag. Environmentally speaking, this is also known as the polluter pays principle.
Do good and be penalised, do bad and benefit from it; this is a fundamental flaw in many of our systems
If what a company is doing is causing any kind of harm, then it (and the customers) should have to pay for it and not society at large. One consequence would be that companies which put in the effort to be clean would no longer be at a clear disadvantage over those that don’t.
But unfair imbalances are not only to be found in environmental matters. Companies which hire a lot of workers will pay higher national insurance contributions than companies which choose to automate their processes. As unemployment benefit is a part of national insurance, companies who hire fewer people end up paying less towards this, which increases the burden on companies which are actually providing more of the jobs.
For years, one of my philosophical questions to the world has been: Why do people follow loudmouths to the slaughterhouse and ignore the whispers of the wise?
While it is nice that more and more individuals (the degrowth movement) are trying to take a step back from harming others by finding alternative ways of doing things, it is often part of the very nature of being quiet-spoken and tender that they are ignored by the vast majority of people . . .
The (re)distribution of wealth and resources is a major sub-current in degrowth thinking, and one of the most promising approaches in my opinion is the Universal Basic Income (UBI) idea. I probably do not need to extol the (perceived?) virtues of this here; I too see a lot of positives in the concept.
I do think it will be necessary to introduce monetary measures which aim to protect the environment and society. I do not wish to see irresponsible consumption rise as a result of redistribution, nor do I wish to see mass unemployment become an even more “acceptable” condition if it is against what people actually want for their own lives. A responsibly planned UBI will thus have to incorporate or acknowledge other large system changes in my opinion. There is much more to this than eco-taxation, for example, and yet even this subject is hardly being mentioned by UBI groups. At best, eco-taxation is mentioned within the framework of financing mechanisms for an UBI, but I believe this is massively understating its relevance and importance.
We need more participant pays mechanisms, which will involve identifying and monetarising the use of resources and pollutants. [As an aside, no, CO2 is not a pollutant in the general sense of the word. Then again, neither is salt, but I don’t want salt to find its way into my coffee, thank you very much, nor for more than threshold amounts to enter freshwater streams and rivers].
We need to find new ways of evaluating the consumption of energy, for example, and of taking into account both the direct individual use of energy as well as the energy embedded in products and services. This could be done via types of taxation or a secondary tier of payments which incorporates energy quotas and energy accounts (e.g. TEQs). An UBI would play a big role in making sure that poorer people in society would not suffer from certain higher prices/taxation.
We also need to look very hard at what work is, the nature of employment and being employed, and the frameworks associated with this extremely important element of our lives. What will meaningful participation look like in future, sustainable, degrowth societies?
*Jeremy Heighway currently lives in Leipzig, was an active participant at the degrowth conference in 2014, and took part in the basic income GAP sessions. In his day job, Jeremy mostly does translations from German to English in the field of renewable energy. His paper may be read in full here.
In the Canadian Globe and Mail’s March article, Eric Reguly described basic income as:
“. . . a concept that has been around since Thomas More’s Utopia was published in the early 16th century. It was proposed by Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice, and tested during the 20th century in a few unlikely spots, including the town of Dauphin, Man. Martin Luther King, Jr., extolled the virtues of basic income, as did Milton Friedman, the American economist respected by Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.
“Basic income is being contemplated, or about to be launched in experimental forms. It would streamline bureaucracy if it replaced a tangle of means-tested welfare and support programs. It would, in theory, boost demand in the economy and give people the flexibility to hold out for, or train for, high-paying jobs instead being forced into menial labour to put food on the table. And for those unable, or unwilling, to train for a better job, it could make it worthwhile to take a low-paying one because any additional earnings would not be clawed back. It just might even trigger the development of a young entrepreneurial class”.
On August 25th, the Globe and Mail republished a Bloomberg news report that Finland is pushing ahead with a plan to test the effects of paying a basic income as it seeks to protect state finances and move more people into the labour market. Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, will carry out the experiment starting in 2017 and including 2,000 randomly selected welfare recipients. The level of basic income would be €560 a month ($816 Canadian), tax free and mandatory for those picked.
“The objective of the legislative proposal is to carry out a basic income experiment in order to assess whether basic income can be used to reform social security, specifically to reduce incentive traps relating to working,” the Social Affairs and Health Ministry said. The effect of a basic income will be assessed by comparing the participating group with a carefully matched control group.
However, Eric Reguly fears that basic income could become the equivalent of a monstrous form of quantitative easing aimed not at the financial markets, but at unskilled and semi-skilled workers: “Don’t worry about the robots, young man and young woman, here’s your guaranteed gruel ticket; now leave the privileged alone”.
He added that the right sees it as way to allow job destruction due to robotisation to happen more easily; the left sees it as protection ‘beefing up’ the welfare state and a tool to protect unskilled workers from automation-obsessed, job-killing corporations.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, will warm to news sent in June by WMNEG member Jeremy Heighway, after attending a UBI Hamburg conference which saw unconditional basic income as a route to a ‘degrowth society’.
The idea of a basic income is gaining ground, for a variety of reasons. In June BI was the subject of a national referendum in Switzerland and there is serious interest in the proposal in several other places, including Ontario, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. There will be great interest in the findings of the Finnish pilot project.
Note: The first ever Nordic conference on Basic Income Pilots, will take place in Christiansborg, the Danish parliament building in the centre of Copenhagen, on September 22-23, 2016
Conference: Universal Basic Income Network in Hamburg
Pathways of thought: common and uncommon ground, aims and direction when it comes to the environment: Jeremy Heighway
Looking at the aims of the conference page, it says very clearly: “A basic income is therefore a route to a degrowth society, however, a basic income does not necessarily start the ecological transformation that is so urgently needed,” and continues, “… addressing this … needs to be thoroughly incorporated into any implementation of a basic income and its accompanying measures.”
The tracks appear to go cold right there, however, as a shift is made towards four other areas of discussion, none of which intrinsically address ecological transformation. It is perfectly possible for a supporter of a basic income to ignore ecological transformation; to some extent it is even possible to be in favour of increased consumption.
The degrowth movement is a mindset; the basic income is a mechanism. This provides a possible clash from the outset, based on the question of what you hope to achieve and how.
On the societal side I think there is quite a good overlap and it is a great idea to get the movements working together. But opportunities can be missed if two groups do not also look hard at what is not automatically going to be addressed if you work together.
One huge area is, as stated above, ecological transformation. My proposal looks at eco-taxation and suggests that all increased revenue be returned to everyone evenly in the form of a basic income. However, I do not believe it would be able to help finance the true basic living-cost foundation much. It is certainly much more of an easy attachment to a basic income than a direct source of finance. Strangely, it is almost something which degrowth supporters need to be vigorous about from an environmental benefit perspective and argue for with basic income supporters.
The semi-sideline nature is maybe one reason why basic income supporters have not been very supportive of this idea so far: if it doesn’t do much to actually finance the true basic income, why complicate matters and potentially alienate people along the way with an unpopular taxation device?
Now it’s your time dear degrowth supporters: why do environmental concerns need to be considered again? And, dear basic income supporters, you can actually gain some firm supporters and new friends if you take up this idea – “… addressing this … needs to be thoroughly incorporated into any implementation of a basic income and its accompanying measures”, remember these stated aims of the conference?
Jeremy Heighway currently lives in Leipzig, was an active participant at the degrowth conference in 2014, and took part in the basic income GAP sessions. He also wrote a stirring paper on infrastructures for a parallel GAP. In his day job, Jeremy mostly does translations from German to English in the field of renewable energy.