Why a Universal Basic Income Isn’t Gaining Traction
Corporate America has a saying that your company is either growing or going out of business. Today, we find ourselves in a culture where technology has evolved but we have not, where no middle ground exists, where we celebrate naked ambition to get to the top of the food chain, to become the biggest and baddest predator in the jungle.
If you want to survive, much less thrive in such an environment, you must play by the same rules. The indoctrination into this system, and the tacit acceptance of those parameters prevents the proposal of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) from gaining traction.
In the West, corporations are wholly profit driven, and any other objective of the company — if it exists at all — is viewed within the framework of an aside or an exception. There is a manifest destiny of capitalism where no sacred cow exists, anything and everything is subject to sacrifice to achieve “winning.” Everything else is dispensable, including workers. Not even the business itself is more important than profit, the investors will dismantle and destroy a thriving organization in the name of the bottom line.
To allow workers to walk away is at odds with this power structure and effectively places labor above profit as the ultimate decision-maker.
Often, humanitarian ideals like profit-sharing, fair trade, even paid maternity leave are used as props in the marketing and public relations of the organization. At their most altruistic, companies use these extras to entice talent into their ranks, prompting us to define bare minimum consideration of the needs and rights other humans as a benefit. Workers bitterly complain and yet still accept this because the alternative is to walk away and risk being destitute, homeless, and to lose everything.
The message has been clear since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; we don’t have an expectation of decent treatment from our employers. Laws meant to protect workers are only rarely enforced, and employees labor under threat of retaliation regardless of the consequences to the abuser. We all know and accept this, but we pretend these laws have teeth to enforce good behavior. Because there is an uneven parity of what is at stake for both parties, the businesses may be fined a fraction of their daily profits, while the worker’s very life and that of his family is at stake.
A UBI is asking to give workers the power to force a complete change in the social structure, to enact an absolute power shift and to change the underlying rules of society. It flies in the face of the very nature of evolution which demands our unwavering devotion to the endless marching forward of progress.
It is practically a sin for any business to say, “No, we’re good.” Healthy enterprises are defined as those that are growing by finding ways to improve the bottom line. There are short- and long-term strategies to increase revenues, cut expenses, or both, with the primary goal always about making more money, getting a larger market share, and protecting your position at all costs.
Bigger, greater, stronger.
Make no mistake, it is never about being a steward of good fortune by improving the standard of living for employees and their families, furthering careers into high-paying positions, or innovating new ideas for society. Profit is a cruel despotic master and it demands our strict obedience. There is no overwhelming sense of responsibility to pay back what companies have generously received, to mentor a new generation, or even to improve their industry so that others may prosper. Even if they wanted to do so, it is virtually impossible given the demands of the business world today.
We laud the efforts of business owners as “job creators” as if offering employment is some sort of great boon bestowed upon the lowly serfs of the community. It doesn’t matter if these jobs are low-wage, soul-crushing work, the business owner is a tremendous humanitarian for creating a greater demand for labor, and workers should be grateful.
At their very core, most business owners are mercenary because that is what our society values and rewards. They are as much a victim of a failed system as those they exploit.
Only rarely do we hold up people doing great works of mercy, or contributing to the community in unique ways. No, we revere those who experience monetary success, and turn that into fame citing their strong “work ethic” and “drive”, as if luck and perhaps something less noble might be the reason behind their good fortune. Would we know Oprah Winfrey today if it was not for her vast wealth?
The only ones winning at this system are the ones at the very top and often we find that they are sociopaths. Only in extremely rare cases do those who have integrity get to a position of wealth, and we often later find that it was a clever ruse hiding unscrupulous practices. The modern business world is like a giant pyramid scheme with the workers beings the suckers while the lunatics run the asylum, leaving behind a wake of lost potential.
This is such an integral part of our capitalistic social structure that we rarely stop to consider the end game when we are trapped in such perpetual competition. By constantly expanding business, we push the bottom feeders out of the market and this is viewed as beneficial because by eliminating the least successful, the rest are forced to perform at higher levels. To support this never-ending growth cycle, we exploit our limited resources — and it’s not just raw goods, but financial backing, talent, time, advertising space, customers, etc.
The very air we breathe is a finite resource, but we never acknowledge nor respect externally imposed limits to anything in our quest for profits.
This approach anticipates and requires us to cause pain and suffering to others, because under this dynamic, someone must lose. And new targets must be found tomorrow, and the day after that. Competition demands victims to force into bankruptcy or out of the marketplace, while labor is pushed to work harder for less — or eliminated altogether. We have become highly efficient at chewing people up and spitting them out, and them blaming them for the failure to succeed in a rigged game. Like business, we view others as competition, receiving entitlements that they did not earn. We expect everyone to suffer as we do.
This dynamic is mirrored in our lives under the guise of “personal profit.”
Most workers cannot imagine any other sort of system where their contribution has some meaning. Only the lucky few have jobs that they enjoy — follow your passion and all that — and many are employed in careers simply because the pay was good at the time they made the decision. Now, most seek employment merely to survive, the enjoyment of such endeavors is not given any consideration. “I quit my job because I didn’t like it” is likely to be met with vicious criticism.
Much of what we do is mindless “busy work” so that we may put in our hours to get our personal profit, whether the product of our toils is necessary or needed. It is unimaginable the amount of wasted effort that goes into the average business day by workers across the planet simply to prop up the machinations of the system. We have entire industries devoted to creating demand for products and services where there would be little otherwise to provide jobs for people and we mimic this in our workday. Often times, it seems that we work to support our jobs instead of the other way around.
We structure our lives to fit this system. We pay for an education based on the biggest return for our time invested, not for what we would like to be doing for the rest of our lives. And rightfully so, since working at our passion requires we compromise our beliefs and many times destroys the pleasure in the endeavor.
We choose where to live in locales based on job opportunities, sometimes sacrificing our safety or sanity to be close to where higher wages are available. Some of us even choose mates based on qualities that will help our careers, or those individuals seen as “trophies” to our success at playing the game.
When we are successful, we are constantly pushed to protect what we have, to buy a bigger house whether it is sensible or not, to keep our skills relevant, climb the corporate ladder, invest our money, save for retirement. There is a palpable fear that everything you have can be taken away in a moment of bad luck and you must shore up your hoard of resources for the inevitable rainy day.
We have internalized the concepts of bigger, greater, stronger. To hell with whether it is rational or not, the sheer momentum of millions of people doing the same carries us all forward. These are the rules now, we either accept the parameters and play the game, or we risk losing everything. You can opt out, but to do so is to lose the opportunity to participate in the benefits of society and to be marginalized or even suspected of criminal activity.
This dynamic is so deeply entrenched that we ridicule those who pursue careers that do not have a high financial return. There are the historic “bad career choices” that we do not allow people to pursue regardless of their skills and talents for the work. You need only tell someone you want to be an actor, philosopher, lawyer, writer, singer, artist, or inventor to experience the criticism firsthand.
In questioning people about what they would choose to do all day if they didn’t have to trade labor for money, most people are unable to comprehend the question. It has to be framed in such a way as to say that they live in a culture that allows this, such as, “If you were born into a society where there was no monetary reward for work, and your subsistence was guaranteed for life, what would you do all day?” Most people treat it like a trick question, asking qualifiers like, “What if I get sick”, “Who pays my health insurance”, “are you talking about retirement”, or not understanding the parameters, “Does everyone get a mansion?”
Most of us can’t even imagine an alternative where they could opt to be a missionary, gardener, or island caretaker.
And this is the reason why a UBI is not gaining traction, because it rewrites the rules of a game. We are not just proposing a change to the tax laws, but an entire revision of the power structure of society, and one that few people can even grasp.