A Response to the Basic Income FAQ – In Five Parts (5/5)

(Nick’s Notes: You can find the previous post here, parts 1, 2 and 3 are there)

But is job killing necessarily bad?

Another post that comes close to the sort of objections I have about the universal basic income (UBI) is Santens post about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). One thing I want to point out before I even respond to the meat of the article is that I don’t support the TPP and so even if Santrens is right that we need a UBI to pass “stuff like” the TPP that’s not a particularly good reason for me to support the UBI. Just for the record, most of my opposition to the TPP comes from the fact that it’s protectionist and laden with intellectual property legislation that is harmful to individual freedom.

Regardless, I agree with the takeaway from Santens here:

American unions rallied together for a show of power after years of losing members and political influence. They garnered enough Democratic votes to shoot down their own president, Barack Obama.

Sunday’s New York Times explained how this coalition came together. The feature pointed out that the unions threatened Democrats who voted for the bill with loss of funding and support. Money talks louder in politics than sound policy.

Whether or not you view this news as something to celebrate or something to lament, there’s an important lesson here to learn for those who would most benefit from a treaty like this.

People are afraid of losing their jobs.

I admit when the TPP was really prominent as a point of discussion (around 2013) I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the jobs aspect of it. The IP elements and the protectionist elements were enough for me to oppose it and the fact that it was an agreement among multiple governments made it objectionable on principle. And besides that, I hadn’t started thinking about work as critically as I do these days. I didn’t even start Abolish Work till 2014!

Regardless, I think it’s the case that a lot of opposition to these sorts of policies are (rightly or not) about the prospects of folks losing their jobs. And people are right to be worried about that in an economy that’s becoming increasingly automated, relies on economic gate keeping and often requires privileges many marginalized folks can’t afford.

As long as work is directly linked to income, this will always hold true.

So if you want to do something that somehow threatens jobs domestically, be it an international trade agreement, or the outright replacement of human labor with machine labor, you’re going to want to remove the biggest obstacle, and that obstacle is simply fear of poverty.

I agree that the fear of poverty is one of the biggest obstacles. I’m not sure if it’s the only one but it depends on how widely we cast our net with definitions. Does poverty involve just not having enough money to have a home? To barely able to get by? To only meet our basic needs but nothing more? How poor is too poor?

Next, Santens talks a bit about NAFTA (which I wasn’t exactly politically active during) and the actual costs of that legislation on the US vs. the perception of what it was going to be:

Remember when Ross Perot made the claim that TPP’s older cousin – the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – would result in a “giant sucking sound” as companies closed up shop in the US to re-open in Mexico where they would have lower costs of labor?

It doesn’t even really matter at this point if he was right or not, because that accurately described – and to this day describes – the biggest fear of such agreements.

“Will I lose my job because of this? What will happen to me?”

That’s the fear.

Santens main point with this article is that, right or wrong, these fears wouldn’t be as present if the poor could live off a UBI. There’d be fewer barriers between legislation like NAFTA or the TPP being passed if everyone was getting by on a UBI. Primarily because no one would be concerned about losing their jobs now that they had a reliable safety net.

I understand the argument and think it makes sense, but I’m also against the trade agreements Santens is discussing and it seems like he is too or is at least skeptical of those that have been tried recently. So I’m not exactly sure what Santens is leaving the door open for except for policies he doesn’t actually agree with.


On the one hand, [NAFTA] greatly increased trade overall and was good for business.

The real advantage for the United States has been in services. American exports of services to Canada and Mexico tripled from $27 billion in 1993 to $82 billion in 2011, resulting in a trade surplus of roughly $30 billion.

On the other hand, although it created jobs in some states, it definitely eliminated them in others:

Some states have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, particularly Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The Economic Policy Institute, a research group supported by unions, released a report in 2011 saying U.S. workers have seen nearly 700,000 jobs go to Mexican competitors.

I’m no expert on trade but I want to comment on the second part.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that the US lost out to Mexico. If the elimination of a job went nowhere and no value was recouped anywhere, then that strikes me as an obviously bad thing. But having those jobs go elsewhere and (ideally) done with better wages and conditions (not suggesting that is the actual case) would be a good thing.

Of course, NAFTA was widely supported by corporations as Santens points out:

Twenty years after NAFTA became the law of the land, Dean Baker effectively summarized the winners and losers in his contribution to the debate in the New York Times.

… one of the main purposes of the agreement was to make U.S. firms feel confident that they could locate operations in Mexico without having to fear that their factories could be nationalized or that Mexico would impose restrictions on repatriating profits. This encouraged firms to take advantage of lower cost labor in Mexico, and many did.

This can produce economic gains; they just don’t go to ordinary workers.

The lower cost of labor translates to some extent into lower prices and to some extent into higher corporate profits. The latter might be good news for shareholders and top management, but is not beneficial to most workers. Lower prices are helpful to workers as consumers, but are not likely to offset the impact on wages.

So the “ideal” situation I mentioned above seems unlikely, to say the least. There’s no “free competition” going on here, just corporations aided by the state and some of them are getting advantages over others. And those that get the advantages are better able to set the terms of the economic landscape that workers exist in, whether they like it or not.

So what’s a stock portfolio-owning American to do? Reducing trade barriers is great for business but not for workers, and workers are the ones with all the votes. Meanwhile, unions want to protect jobs, because the more union jobs, the more union dues.

So anything that stands to eliminate union jobs, despite whether or not those jobs should even exist, is going to be fought tooth and nail by unions with the full support of their members.

This is a great point and something I have thought about: Do unions have good incentives to support a UBI?

As far as I can tell, it’s not a question that Santens has specifically addressed on his FAQ and I’d actually be super interested to see Santens answer this question. So there you go, if Santens (or anyone else) doesn’t take anything from this series of critiques, I hope we can all at least ponder about whether unions would have good reason to support the UBI. Because it doesn’t seem like they would, given what Santens is saying here.

But if that’s true, then wouldn’t that make the UBI harder to implement? I mean, if the working class (or at least a large portion supposedly representing it) doesn’t support the UBI, wouldn’t that speak to something wrong about the UBI? Maybe, maybe not. I’m partially thinking out loud here and will admit I’m not the biggest fan of contemporary unions.

I’m not against the concept of unions per se’ but I prefer my unions radical and anarchic, which are sadly in short supply these days. These days we more often have unions that try to get the most amount of privileges from the government, who create another layer of business based bureaucracy by having union representatives and bosses, etc. Compulsory dues and an ethic of putting the issues of the working class before any other class of people also worries me.

Going back to Santens he lays out one possible idea of sneaking in free trade legislation but says it’s foolhardy in the age of having “the world in their pockets”.

So instead he suggests:

In this 21st century of globalized labor and growing automation, the fear of losing one’s job needs to be eliminated for both globalization and technology to create positive instead of negative outcomes.

This can be accomplished by simply making sure that when anyone no longer has a job, for any reason, their incomes only fall to $1,000 per month instead of $0 because everyone always gets it.

It’s as simple as that.

I agree that this fear needs to be eliminated and that social safety nets are important.

But is the UBI the best way to accomplish those goals?

As I’ve tired to make clear in this series, it’s not so simple to me. More generally anything that is called “simple” in the area of political science I often turn a skeptical eye towards. Social policies that affect millions of people’s lives are almost never simple and anyone who tells you otherwise should be treated with due skepticism.

Create an income floor with a universal basic income, and suddenly people look at losing their jobs entirely differently. In fact, they may even be happy about it. If the loss of a job results in someone being free to take a bit of vacation, or retire early, or encourages them to go back to school or find a better job or even make their own job, then the fear of job loss is gone. It’s no longer a barrier. It’s not a barrier to trade agreements. It’s not a barrier to automation. It’s not a barrier to human progress.

I see what Santens is saying here and I don’t think he’d be wrong if the UBI  was actually practical. But putting aside the idea of whether it would be or not, there are other things besides jobs to be concerned about with trade legislation that’s often billed as “free trade”. Often that legislation tries to reinforce corporate privilege through policies that protect their business interests (as Santens himself points out) and reinforce current copyright laws (as I’ve pointed out).

So even if Santens is right about the jobs aspect, there’s a lot more to think about than just that. I think Santens is correct that this is one of the big concerns that people have, but I doubt it’s the only concern. And so even if we solved this issue, we could still expect resistance from lower class folks, especially now that they have more time on their hand.

On the other hand, perhaps that’s a good thing.

So if we want to remove barriers to international trade, and barriers to the replacement by machines of human labor itself, we’re going to need to recognize that fear is one of these barriers, and then remove it as soon as possible with universal basic income.

I agree that fear is one of these barriers but I think the fear is more general than just a narrow one of losing our jobs. I don’t doubt it’s one of the big fears, as I’ve said, but I also don’t think the UBI would solve these issues entirely.

The next bit is my favorite:

(Also, let’s stop pretending that intellectual property laws have anything at all to do with open markets and greater innovation. The only appearance IP laws should make in international trade agreements is getting rid of them.)

Heck yeah to this.

TL;DR: TPP is one of the answers to the question, “Why should the rich support UBI?”

This is where Santens loses me.

I understand that the UBI would make trade legislation that benefits businesses but harms workers more palatable to the population. But why would we depend on the good graces of the rich in the first place? Why would we think that they’d suddenly turn around and realize that the interests of the marginalized may also interest them? Why would we want businesses to benefit in the ways that NAFTA and TPP had them benefit?

This part at the end is mostly why I’m responding to Santens to begin with. He thinks the UBI would make otherwise terrible legislation a lot more acceptable to many people when it mostly benefits the rich. But the legislation he’s using as examples (NAFTA and TPP) would be terrible by Santens own criteria even if they didn’t involve the fear of job loss.

At the end of this article I just shrug and don’t see anymore than before why the rich would support the UBI. It might help their businesses be more privileged under government, but as I said, why would we want that to begin with? If we’re opposed to trade legislation that unfairly privileges some businesses over the others, then why help that?

I imagine Santens wants trade legislation of a different sort under a UBI but if so, what? It’s not clear to me what the alternative is to the NAFTA and TPP. Has there ever been anything like what Santens would like to see from trade legislation? As far as I saw in this article, he didn’t cite anything or any article about it either.

So no, I don’t want anyone to pass the TPP (and I don’t think Santens does either?) and I don’t want the UBI.

And especially not a UBI that would aid things like TPP.

Conclusion/Parting Words

The parts that most interested me about Santens posts were parts that were basic (no pun intended) and that came close to addressing concerns that I had. But in the end I’ll admit none of Santens answers really grapple with my exact problems with it. Again, that’s not surprising given he’s not responding to anarchist criticisms for the most part.

It’s not like I blame him for that. He’s likely not dealing with many anarchists relative to how many conservatives and liberals are talking to him about his ideas. It’d probably be odd then to dedicate an entire section or two discussing why an anarchist critique of the UBI is misguided. Especially since most anarchists are either against the UBI, weakly for it or don’t have a strong opinion on it. Most anarchists I know consider the UBI superior to the current welfare state but also don’t spend a lot of time defending it, talking about it or researching how to implement it.

That’s probably because we tend to see more benefit in mutual aid and direct action.

That’s unsurprising given the UBI is mostly seen as a government program that’s aimed at helping the poor (and according to Santens, the rich as well). Historically, those sorts of programs don’t work too well for the poor (as Santens himself points out numerous times) and in fact usually work for the benefit of the rich in some way.

I think the bottom line is that Santens overestimates the ability of the state to act as a tool for individuals. And I think he underestimates how symbiotic the relationship is between business interests and the state and how deeply this connection runs. Both  of these things result in him giving a much higher probability than is warranted for the UBI happening in the US. Again, I’m not arguing against the UBI outside of the US, maybe that’ll happen and maybe it won’t.

But from my experiences living in the US, observing this government, knowing what I know and reading what I’ve read and talking to those who I’ve talked to, I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon. And I know I’ve been minimal with my own propositions about what we should do instead. I’ve vaguely mentioned mutual aid within communities and building organizations and institutions based around that instead of relying on the government.

More concretely then I’d like things like mutual aid “orders” that network and collaborate based on membership that is diverse and inclusive. I’d like to see more things like the Black Panthers Party food program that helped many poor people of color within their communities which was largely self-organized and self-sufficient. I’d like to see activist organizations like Food Not Bombs become more prominent and help get free food to those who need it.

Notably I don’t have a program for any of this. I have certain actions I’d like to see based on a given set of ethics that supports individual liberty, equality of authority and solidarity. But I don’t think any of this has to be done through any sort of centralized policy done by a top-down organization and certainly not a corporation or a government.

This is a great thing because it means the approach I want to take is letting a thousand flowers bloom. I want many people to try different things within their communities, instead of focusing on national politics that is nearly impossible to influence in any major way. But that also makes the process intensely messy and I can’t say I have a unified idea of what I want out of the world or how I want to get there. On the other hand that’s also a more realistic idea of how progress and works as opposed to this notion that the government is going to cause great change from the top down.

That said, obviously UBI folks don’t think the social change is going to come from nowhere. They believe that political change will reflect a broader cultural shift that we can make by doing smaller things in our lives. What those things involve depends on the political affiliations of the UBI proponent in question and what their idea of a UBI constitutes

All of which makes it hard to criticize the UBI in some hard and fast way. It’s probably one of the best aspects of the UBI even if it makes it more difficult to coherently criticize as a program. I appreciate ideas and movements that have a diversity of applications, whether I agree with them on the whole or not. It’s similar to Occupy Wall St. and how there was no central message but the platform was the message, so to speak.

I’ve said it before but the UBI is best seen as a rhetorical technique to highlight unjust practices in the current system and ideas about to move past it. But even its application there is rather limited and often hindered by the liberal biases many of its proponents who minimize its radical potential. Because the real potential in the UBI is there, but it’s not going to happen as a liberal policy from the US government. It’s more likely going to happen horizontally and within communities.

For all of my sympathy with the UBI I’m more often than not disappointed and flummoxed by the rise of its advocacy within the anti-work crowd. I think it’s the lack of anarchic spirit in the anti-work movement and one that’s more interested in social reform that ultimately bleeds over to the realm of the government. And as an anarchist that’s something that I think is not only a lost cause, but harmful to the movement as a whole.

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