I once worked in a call centre where a few of the interviewers would be regularly rostered to do phone surveys about female incontinence products. Asking strangers whether they lost a teaspoon, a tablespoon or more in volume per occasion is a tough gig. Then again, the horror of the role was somewhat less visceral than that experienced by a worker I’d once represented who had to manually slit the throats of chickens at a poultry factory. At Centrelink he had listed his occupation as ‘killer’.
What strikes me about a dirty job isn’t that it needs doing – it’s that someone has to do it to get by. There’s no other choice for them. And it’s getting more difficult to find a job to make a living off. In the midst of a (still) growing economy 2.1 million Australians are unemployed or underemployed, Ford and SPC Ardmona (to name but a few corporates) are laying off thousands of jobs, Adecco chief Patrick De Maeseneire is calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, and in the tech community there’s a raging debate about when (not if) robots will replace most jobs we know of today. For labour market entrants facing an economy with 40 percent of us in insecure work, the choices (for those aside from a lucky few) are largely between waiting to be notified of shifts via text message, rolling short-term contracts in the public sector, or studying for years and years to end up in the same trap anyway. And that’s all before the economy really tanks.
This shouldn’t be our legacy. Australia is one of the richest countries in a world that has never been richer. Our GDP is on track to reach AUD$73,123.05 per capita this year. That we live with poverty, insecurity and economic anxiety is a matter of political choice not necessity. We create enough value for everyone to have a basic living income. That’s why I’d like to propose every citizen, every permanent resident, receive a basic income of AUD$30,000 per year. No exceptions. No means testing. A universal minimum income.
Imagine the creativity, innovation and enterprise that would be unleashed if every citizen were guaranteed a living. Universal income provides the material basis for a fuller development of human potential. Social enterprises, cooperatives and small businesses could be started without participants worrying where the next pay cheque would come from. Artists and musicians could focus on their work. More of us would be freed to volunteer our time for the public good. Some workers would no longer be faced with the unenviable position of having to choose between supporting their families and degrading their local environment. And all of us would have the option to pursue further education. Universal income won’t solve all our problems but it puts us in a stronger position from which to start to solve them.
Collectively we create enough value for everyone to receive a universal income. Would the payment, however, of a universal income damage the very process of creating that value? The answer to that question depends on whether there would still be sufficient labour market participation to make the economy work.
Ask yourself this; would you still be prepared to work if you had a guaranteed income of $30,000? Now ask yourself another question; do you trust others to keep working? It’s my bet that many of you would want to keep working in some way, shape or form but feel somewhat dubious of what others would do. The labour market participation objection is really code for ‘I don’t trust others to keep working’, particularly when it comes to those unpleasant but necessary (and generally low paid) jobs that involve feeding us and cleaning up after us. A universal income would most likely raise labour costs for unpleasant jobs. For some jobs, workers would finally receive fair compensation for what they do. For others it would speed up an automation process that is already coming.
A universal income, in other words, would drive productivity growth and innovation across many fields. All while guaranteeing consumer demand. True prosperity and progress never came from cutting margins here and there but rather from radically new ways of doing business.