What’s all the fuss with a Universal Basic Income?

There’s something seductive about a Universal Basic Income. A regular, fixed, unconditional sum of money paid to everyone ‘just for being alive’. Trials are taking place around the world – with Ontario, Canada, announcing one earlier this year and Finland having started their pilot in January.

From left-wing radicals to right-wing libertarians, from so-called socialists to the high-tech billionaires of Silicon Valley – it is an idea with a wide and growing appeal. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have both said positive things about UBI, the latter setting up a working group to consider it. Mark Zuckerberg (worth $70 billion) and Richard Branson have also given their support to the idea.

Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley tech incubator with Airbnb and Dropbox in its portfolio, is to run a trial in two US States; following an earlier trial in Oakland, California. Company President Sam Altman, boasting a total valuation of start-ups at around $80 billion, has wider ambitions: ‘Eliminating poverty is such a moral imperative’ he has said of the initiative.

There is long-standing support for UBI. Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (written in 1516) has his narrator say: ‘it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse’. In The German Ideology, written by Karl Marx in 1845, he looks forward to a new society much like the advocates of UBI do:

… where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic …

There are two important points of difference though between historical advocates of a new society; and today’s champions of a UBI. First, the old idealists had a broad vision of creating a better society than the one they lived in. Those who argue for UBI tend to be driven by fears and anxieties about the world of work, and constrained by a culture of limits that inhibits discussion about how society and the economy might be organised differently. Second, historical materialists like Marx, went beyond More’s utopianism – literally nowhere – to situate their ideals in the real world. It is only because a future society would take care of ‘the general production’ that the individual could be liberated from the daily toil. Today’s advocates of UBI have no plans to expand ‘the general production’ on which such a handout must surely depend. Indeed, many of those arguing the case for UBI are anti-consumption and would rather rein in the general production in the name of a future more ‘sustainable’ than the present.

Advocates though, as I say, are various and have put forward various arguments for the introduction of a UBI. Some are practical – it would be cheaper to administer than the welfare state it is claimed, though it would be impossible to incorporate housing or childcare costs argue others, and depending on its generosity would have implications for immigration policy too. Guy Standing founder of Basic Income Earth Network, wants to reduce inequality and tackle job insecurity and arrest what he describes as the ‘drift to fascist populism’. The Finnish trial is meant to tackle unemployment and avoid the disincentives associated with the welfare trap; though there is trade union opposition, interestingly enough, on the grounds that the introduction of UBI will itself be a disincentive to work. In the context of the UK, changes in the economy, particularly the shift to self-employment and the emergence of a gig economy peopled by a so-called ‘precariat’, make the current welfare arrangements obsolete, it is argued. People tend to drift in and out of low paid work too quickly for it to accommodate to their constantly changing circumstances. In the US, the debate is slightly different but again driven by anxieties about the economy, in particular fears that automation will destroy jobs (keying into wider concerns about national decline).

I wouldn’t ordinarily put Joe Biden, former Vice President, in the company of More and Marx. But as an opponent of Universal Basic Income, next to those who advocate a handout for all, he is the more visionary sounding. ‘Silicon Valley Executives’ he says, are ‘selling American workers short’. Having a job is ‘about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in the community’. In this way, ‘[a]ll of us together can make choices to shape a better future’ he says, putting forward at least the idea that people can play an active role in creating a new society. Whatever the practicalities of introducing a UBI – and even the most sympathetic struggle to convince that it can be fully implemented or afforded – its desirability is surely in doubt.

There is, or at least there should be, a formidable moral case against UBI – as a disempowering and ultimately self-defeating policy idea that treats people as passive participants in an elite experiment – one that can only undermine people’s sense of themselves as self-reliant and responsible members of the community. That self-respect that Joe Biden talks about is the foundation of the very idea of being a citizen and a productive member of society. But there are also political arguments that are not being had, about the state of the economy, about challenging low horizons and demanding more of our political class and of employers. UBI has become, in this way, a substitute for coming up with a coherent set of ideas to address today’s social and economic problems. What could in different times be a perfectly good idea has instead become a distraction from more pressing matters.

Based on a speech at Battle of Ideas 2017

The Lonely State

Over the summer, we were treated to ‘the biggest neighbourhood celebrations since the Jubilee street parties’. The organisers eagerly ‘inviting people to get together with their neighbours’ and attend a ‘street party or a shared barbecue, a picnic or a bake off’. But this time around we were urged, all too pointedly, to ‘celebrate all that we hold in common’. ‘Inspired’ by the murder of MP Jo Cox, the feel-good factor was notable by its absence; and in its place were some darker assumptions about the divided, nastier society the organisers imagined we have become.

One of the four areas of work undertaken by the recently established Jo Cox Foundation is to address what it describes as the ‘growing crisis of loneliness’. ‘It can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds – from the bullied school child, to the new mother, to the pensioner who has outlived her friends and immediate family’, we are informed. The Foundation wants to ‘try to get people talking at all levels’ whether it’s ‘chatting to a neighbour, visiting an old friend, or just making time for the people they meet’. And, ironically enough, the Foundation is not on its own with this initiative. Loneliness is all the rage.

Until quite recently, unfashionable charities organised befriending initiatives for older people left behind by family or deceased partners, or house-bound by disability. But today the category of ‘the lonely’ has widened. Whether it’s social media isolating rather than connecting the young, and intensifying a (quite literal) status-envy; or the plight of relatively young singletons living on their own out of choice or lone-parents with only screaming children for company; or even those leaving behind those elderly relatives to immerse themselves in study or work, and consequently experiencing loneliness themselves.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, has generated a number of alarm-filled headlines recently. She was presenting to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, what one commentator described as the ‘biggest ever review into the problem’. She described not only an increase in loneliness in the U.S., but also concluded from a number of large scale international studies, that social isolation, loneliness and living alone are leading to premature death around the world. Its impact is worse than obesity, she said. Not only does Holt-Lunstad say we have a big disease-like problem. She also claims that if only certain interventions were made, ‘social connectedness’ could flourish and lives could be saved: whether by training kids in social skills at school or getting GPs to screen their patients for signs of loneliness.

It is this diseasing of loneliness – both in the way it is described and the impact on people’s health it supposedly has; and the exaggeration of its extent that is most striking today. It triggers a stress hormone, increasing blood-clotting ‘in anticipation of injury’ raising blood-pressure and clogging up arteries, says one researcher. It can ‘dampen a person’s immune system’, says another. It causes depression, says one campaigner; and cancer, insists another. So, as if being lonely isn’t bad enough, it also has (if we are to believe what we are told) quite literally deadly implications.

According to a Leader in New Scientist, ‘Curing loneliness might just be the most cost effective public health intervention available’. In truth, we can’t ‘cure loneliness’ anymore than we can cure sadness (whatever the pretences of advocates of the happiness agenda). And we shouldn’t try to either. Indeed there is much to recommend the explanation which says social isolation can mean people’s deterioration in health goes unnoticed. It is also the case, despite what campaigners say, that the old and already unwell are still the most likely to experience loneliness. Still, there are a lot of lonely people out there. The question, as Paul McCartney sang, is: ‘Where do they all come from?’

It is not altogether a surprise to discover that loneliness is a big problem today. The progressive decline of social institutions over a period of decades is well known: from the family to the pub, the trade union to the working men’s club. In the absence of those institutions, the individual increasingly stands alone, turned in on themselves, albeit deemed vulnerable and ‘at risk’ and looking to the state or experts for ‘support’ and protection. But there is nothing inevitable about the way being with others has been turned into an ordeal of etiquettes and hazards as is increasingly the case: from gaining consent on campus and avoiding commitment in relationships to anxiously keeping the kids away from strangers.

Feeling lonely is normal. It is not a disease. You can’t teach children how not to be lonely. It is a feature of our interior lives, it is intangible and subjective. And it is not particularly receptive to policy interventions however well meaning. But, while we can’t solve the problem of loneliness as such, we can do something to make our communities feel less isolating and less conducive to feelings of loneliness. The state can play a positive role in sometimes quite literally bringing people closer together – improving transport and communications and making it more affordable for people to get around. But the obsession with congestion charges and cycle paths over building more roads and airports, and with the supposed dangers of surfing the internet over improving dodgy wifi connections; shows how little interest policy-makers have in genuinely bringing people closer together on a scale that would make any real difference.

But it would be better, in other areas, if the state could do a lot less. It could stop the unnecessary checks on volunteers and care workers that can put people off helping others and stoke anxieties about abuse. It could revoke the illiberal powers it has granted local busybodies that so contribute to the inhibiting of public life – from confiscating alcohol to banning skateboarding, from banishing buskers to demonising smokers. For here too, far from fostering a social environment that frees us up and connects us with each other, the political class’s enthusiasm for regulating people’s everyday lives and relationships only helps isolate and alienate us further.

The obsession with loneliness has not just sprung from nowhere. There has been a therapeutic turn in policy-making and in society more broadly; and, post-Brexit, a uncomprehending elite reaction to a society they imagine to be somehow less friendly than it was a year or so ago. Instead of delivering concrete policy interventions to solve discrete social problems we have initiatives that will supposedly make people feel better about themselves, improve their ‘wellbeing’ and encourage some fellow-feeling. The political class projecting their own alienation and dark thoughts about what we’re like onto us, and already consumed by anxieties about their own isolation and disconnectedness, have little interest in building infrastructure or in letting go their grip on people’s everyday lives. The truth is they just can’t leave us alone.

First Published in Huffington Post

More inspections won’t solve the care crisis

The Conservative Party might want to forget the ‘dementia tax’ debacle that haunted its General Election campaign, and marked the beginning of the end of its parliamentary majority. But the social-care crisis is not going away. An ageing population, rising costs (as providers are forced to pay care workers the National Living Wage), and cuts to local authority funding (estimated at £824million in England in 2017/18), are putting 12 per cent of the UK’s care homes at serious risk of going bankrupt, according to the latest research.

The pressure is expected to increase, with an anticipated growing demand for places (with one study in the Lancet identifying the need for 70,000 more by 2025) and a longstanding shortfall in staff – predicted to worsen with the much-cited Brexit effect supposedly putting off foreign workers coming to an allegedly hostile UK.

Care homes have been closing at a rate of around 500 a year, and for those that remain – it is not unreasonably argued – care standards can only suffer.
HMRC is currently chasing care providers for millions of pounds worth of back-payments for workers who were paid below the minimum wage for ‘sleep-in’ shifts. This will make further closures even more likely, argue those in the sector.

But do these factors fully explain the crisis in our care homes? It is certainly the case that local authorities are running out of options to deal with the crisis – other than raise council tax and make better use of the Better Care Fund (aimed at integrating local health and social care) – as central funding dries up. The Department of Health has responded by saying it will toughen up the inspection regime. But is the problem really that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is too lax in its monitoring of care homes and the quality of the care that takes place in them?

I don’t think so. While there is a place for ‘light touch’ visits to weed out the worst offenders, it is the public-sector audit culture itself that is making a solution to the social-care crisis so hard to find. Notwithstanding ever-increasing demands and historic under-resourcing, the focus on meeting targets and pleasing inspectors crowds out a culture in which a commitment to care, and the autonomy of cared-for older adults, might otherwise be allowed to flourish.

‘What’s it like to live in a care home?’, published this month by consumer rights body Healthwatch, gives a sense of how bad things have got. In over a third of the nearly 200 care homes its volunteers visited across England, conditions were poor – from peeling wallpaper and rotting pot plants to being so generally dirty that a ‘deep clean’ was insisted upon. Some residents reported having no internet access or not having the opportunity to get some exercise for weeks on end; and others complained that they ‘didn’t get enough time to connect with those caring for them’.

For all policymakers’ high-flown rhetoric about ensuring older people are given more independence, choice and control over their lives, too often care homes were found to be failing even to uphold residents’ dignity or just ‘get the basics right’. As national director, Imelda Redmond, put it: ‘Care homes are not institutions, they are people’s homes.’ The sooner the managerial ethos is abandoned, and those who live and work in these homes are able to take control of decisions about care, the better.

First published in sp!ked