Can a Universal Basic Income rid the world of bullshit jobs?

This piece was originally published on Patreon.

In his best-selling book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, professor David Graeber makes the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a means to move away from the wage labour system.

Perhaps it is my cultural background — I am the product of two, very hard-working Jewish / Catholic parents both with an insanely Protestant work ethic — but the idea that we are moving into an age of post-employment is a little terrifying to me.

As I look around even my local community, I see so many different areas of the economy that are poorly served or simply non-existent. Surely, there must be enough meaningful ones to replace the bullshit ones?

So, I caught up with Graeber to ask him a couple of questions, namely: why a UBI and not a job guarantee?

“I mean there’s enough meaningful work, right?,” says Professor Graeber.

“But does it have to be organised into jobs? To me the difference between the job guarantee and the UBI is simply who’s going to decide how the labor is allocated.”

“I don’t have a problem with the jobs guarantee as a supplement to a Basic Income. But one of the interesting things is who the burden is on.”

Who gets to create jobs?

Graeber credits prolific Twitter user @rattlecans who recently made the very valid point that when governments or industry talk about job guarantees, they always assume they’re going to be the ones deciding who should do what.

“So if a job guarantee was based on, ‘I’m trained as a chemist, find me a job as a chemist’. Well, sure,” he says. “Nobody would object. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to be what they are talking about.”

The anthropologist says it is telling why so many in the professional managerial class love of the concept of a job guarantee and are suspicious of a basic income.

“They fantasise that once work becomes completely automated, workers of the world will just sit around getting drunk, playing darts and fighting all day,” he says.

“Because they don’t trust people. Because they have no imagination about what people are like.”

As an anthropologist, Graeber says he is keenly aware that people, even with only two-or-three hours of actual work a day, can come up with of all sorts of interesting things to do with the rest of their time, if you give them enough time to work on it.

“It’s a vicious circle,” he says. “We imagine people can’t think of things to do.”

The 30-year war on community

With regards to the concept of work and how it is organised, Graeber says there has been a 30-year war against community relations: People don’t know their neighbours. They wouldn’t even know how to begin forming groups together to address local, regional or federal problems.

“So if there’s a problem like the canal needs cleaning or something, in a functional community where everybody has a basic income, people can get together to clean the canal, for example,” he says.

“But you could make the argument that this will be harder in societies where people are really atomised. On the other hand, all you need is one or two people with initiative on a UBI to dedicate themselves to these things.

“To some degree the The Works Progress Administration, some of those examples, they did actually pay people to do things that people came up with locally.”

(The WPA was a public works agency that grew out of the New Deal which employed millions of people in public works programs like infrastructure, construction, roads, teaching and literacy).

“That’s one of the reasons everybody always pulls that example out,” he says. “But that’s a little different than what they’re talking about.

A jobs guarantee that, like: ‘if you are unemployed and come to me with a project, I guarantee I will fund it’, well that would be ok. Who would object to that? We need a post office. Ok, we’ll hire you all to build a post office. But I haven’t seen a proposal that looks like that.”

Does your job matter? The pay probably sucks

In his book and in a recent presentation to the Bank of England, Graeber outlined that, particularly in Britain, but also in the United States and other parts of the world, austerity policies have been most punishing on those with the most socially useful occupations.

This is particularly the case in health, education, and care industries, but also police, transit workers and others, while private sector resources appear to have been distributed upwards to the administrative and executive sector.

The obvious question this leads me to is: would a UBI reflate the value of meaningful work that pays poorly? (Like, journalism, say…?).

“Well that’s a good question,” he says.

“I think it would definitely inflate the value of trash collection.

“I imagine journalists would manage to get paid exactly the same as what they are paid now, but on top of a UBI. That is what I am guessing would happen.”

The danger is we might end up getting paid less…

“The thing is, if you have UBI, what you’re validating is the people,” says Graeber.

“So there’s an assumption you start at, which is that everybody is valuable, that is why you have a living allowance.”

Graeber says that the effect a UBI would have on different types of work is an interesting question morally.

“I think the moral advantage of saying that your existence and your freedom is the ultimate value, that is going to more than compensate for other discrepancies,” he says.

“The whole thing about a UBI, is that there is no structure to say who gets it. There’s no minimal requirement for annoying people deciding whether you get it or not.”

How much should a UBI pay?

So, how much would each member of the public need to receive in order to rid the world of bullshit jobs? And does the anthropologist really expect the governments of today to shell out that kind of money?

“Well, first of all, governments are already shelling out that kind of money,” says Graeber. “They’re just doing it in really stupid, bad ways.

“Take even Quantitative Easing. They calculated recently that spending per person in Europe is like €6000 a year or something. They could have just given it to them. I mean, that’s not enough, but it’s a good start.

“Obviously you can make the argument that one reason it wasn’t inflationary is because people sat on it anyway. Whereas, if they gave it to people, they’d spend it, but that would also stimulate the economy. I think with QE they were trying to create inflation and failed.

“Inflation is harder to create than you think.”

But, the ‘where do we get the money’ argument, that comes from a broad misunderstanding of money, what it is and where it comes from, the anthropologist says.

“They, (the government), can make it up, (issue the currency),” he says.

The question is: what would be the larger effects?”

Graeber’s UBI proposal is a transitional demand.

“It would be the kind of thing which would move us maximally in the direction of moving away from the wage labour system,” he says.

Change the tax code

In the meantime, governments ought to be changing their tax codes to address the casualisation of the work force.

“One of the British Labour party’s platforms is to change the tax code to make it easier for self employed people,” says Graeber.

“More than half of the money I make on my books is taken away from me. But if I were a parasitic investor, it would be like 7%. Instead, it’s like 55%, if you’re actually producing something and you’re not somebody’s slave.

“I kind of like the French tax system. It’s still not that bad, but back in the ’80s, it was entirely value-added, but it was negative on stuff they thought were necessities: wine, bread and meat, basically,” he said.

“Most groceries aren’t taxed. Things considered a human right are subsidised. And if you buy a Maserati, it’s like 300%. Because you want to boast about how much you paid for your Maserati.”