Why Progressives Should Prioritise UBI Over A Job Guarantee

Why Progressives Should Prioritise UBI Over A Job Guarantee

In 2018 there seems to be no hotter topic amongst progressives: should we have a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or a Job Guarantee? The answer is quite simple: both, obviously.

There is nothing inherent in one that excludes the other and a world in which people unconditionally have their needs met alongside a clear path through which they can contribute to their community sounds ideal.

But then comes the trickier question: which should we prioritise? The order of implementation matters and as progressives gear up for our next major fight with limited resources and political capital, this article is going to outline a some important things to keep in mind. In this article I am going to clarify some terms in the debate, highlight some differences between the two policies and then respond to some criticisms of UBI from Edward Miller’s article[1].

So what even are these policies?

For anyone unfamiliar with the debate, there are a lot of confusing terms that are sometimes conflated with each other so it’s important to define them first. And as anyone involved in politics knows, any program can be done badly. So in good faith, this article pits the best version of UBI against the best version of Job Guarantee. Therefore the policies in this context are modelled as such:

Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a federally funded unconditional liveable wage for all citizens.

Jobs Program – a government-led initiative with an objective in mind. The government then employs and funds as required in order to achieve that objective. Since every government program is a jobs program this wouldn’t be a new idea, but an expansion of public services would be new. The Jobs Program approach to addressing climate change would be to hire experts to design a plan and then execute that plan.

Job Guarantee – a local committee would compile a list of tasks that would provide value to the local community (accepting input from individuals and organisations). When someone wants a job, a representative from the committee is assigned to their case to find them an appropriate role in the community. The Job Guarantee approach to addressing climate change would be to create a platform for people to chip in whenever they can.

You could of course combine programs and have a Job Guarantee and a Jobs Program running simultaneously (for instance hiring a team of experts to devise a plan and then allowing people to chip in whenever they can) but in order to clearly understand what the policies are, the distinctions between them must be noted.

It’s also important to remember that while sometimes they’re made out to be, no policy is expected to be a panacea. Both Job Guarantee and UBI would require other programs and regulations in order to function effectively. For instance, neither directly addresses issues of climate change, international relations or our societal dependance on advertising, but that’s okay. We face many problems as a society and it’s unreasonable to expect one single idea to solve all of them. Therefore it’s worth considering not only which policy is best, but also which most effectively paves the way for future changes.

An affirmative, unconditional right to life

The logistics of these two ideas will always be complex and debatable but let’s pare these two messages back to their purest form. What is their underlying message? What are the problems they’re trying to solve?

At its core, a Job Guarantee is designed to address the issue of involuntary unemployment and its underlying message is that everyone who wants a job should have one. It says that if you want to contribute to society then the government is obligated to help you find a way to contribute.

In contrast, the problem UBI is intending to solve is poverty. The core message is that everyone unconditionally deserves the resources they need to live. It says that we’ve had our communal physical [2] and intellectual [3] wealth privatised for centuries and that everyone deserves a rightful share of that wealth.

For me the choice between these two statements is stark. I think it sends a strong message when progressives are campaigning for people to have more ways to sell their bodies, before there is a right to exist without selling your body. We must be bold and unambiguous in saying that poverty is unacceptable and that every life has value regardless of whether or not they’re working.

Every task that could be done with a Job Guarantee could be done with a UBI

When people have their basic needs met they are free to use their time however they want to use it. Whether it’s working on a personal project, starting an enterprise or participating in a larger team project, people with a UBI have full control over what their time and labour is spent doing. A Job Guarantee worker on the other hand is under scrutiny from their local council and is only able to work on projects their council finds valuable.

A Job Guarantee is often touted as giving people the ability to find “social connection and a sense of purpose and contribution” [1], but at the core of this sentiment is a paternal idea that people are unable to find these things on their own and that they need to be told what to do in order to do something valuable. There is also an ableist implication to this kind of sentiment which implies that work-limited people are less capable of having purposeful or fulfilling lives.

And if working is as desirable as it’s made out to be, why not just pay people unconditionally? They would choose to work regardless of whether or not they have to. The main difference is that the UBI is a symbol of trust trust and empowerment for people to do the things that they find personally most meaningful.

Now it may be fair to ask people to get involved with their local community, but if the progressive movement values consent then we should want people to get involved with their local community voluntarily rather than being coerced into it.

A Job Guarantee without a strong safety net would be coercive

In order for someone to truly give consent, saying “no” must be a safe option. That is to say, if you are being mugged and say “yes” to handing over your wallet then you didn’t consent to handing over your wallet. If saying “no” to sex isn’t a safe option then you didn’t consent to having sex. And if saying “no” to a job isn’t a safe option then you didn’t consent to having that job. Therefore in order for someone to truly consent to participating in a Job Guarantee, not participating in a Job Guarantee must be a safe option.

Job Guarantee advocates often acknowledge this fact by clarifying that a Job Guarantee should be in addition to the welfare state rather than a replacement to it. When welfare recipients are forced to work in order to receive their payments that is called ‘workfare’ and is largely unpopular amongst progressives due to this coercive affect. Work For The Dole is a textbook case of workfare in action.

In Miller’s article he says that JG gives people “a choice between the existing social safety net and enrolling in the Job Guarantee” [1], but at a time when homelessness is increasing [4] and Newstart payments are well below the poverty line [5] his statement reads more like a threat than a reassurance. This is not a meaningful choice that people can safely consent to. And given how wildly inadequate our welfare system is, shouldn’t improving that be the priority?

Prioritising Job Guarantee plays into the “dole bludger” narrative

A large component of political debate is framing the discussion. This is in part of why neoliberalism has had such a grasp over our economic systems for the past few decades. When they were able to set the debate on their terms, every outcome (win or lose) was on their terms. If we are debating ideas based on abstract concepts like the national debt, rather than the very real impact on society that is felt by poverty, we have already lost.

In 2018 this seems to be a lesson that progressives as a whole seem to have learned[6], which is why it’s so concerning to have so many progressives prioritising Job Guarantee over UBI under the narrative that “everyone should have to contribute to society”, “we don’t want anyone to get anything for free” and “it’s an easier idea to sell”. I wonder if these were the bold progressive arguments used when we were fighting to have healthcare as a right.

Another reason this narrative is so dangerous is because it paves the way for welfare cuts. Currently it’s politically tricky to cut welfare because the people who receive it have no other floor beneath them. But when everyone has a guaranteed job it’s going to be significantly easier to malign anyone who for whatever reason chooses not to work. “If you don’t take the Job Guarantee then it’s your fault to be poor and you deserve to be poor.”

Should we be forcing people to work?

For almost all of history it has made logical sense to have economic and political systems focused primarily around labour. After all, without labour how would anything get done? So it’s hard to blame people for assuming that is always going to be the case.

However, with the rise of increasingly capable autonomous systems, now is the time to question this norm. From cashier-less supermarkets [7], to self driving cars [8], virtual assistants [9], autonomous farming [10], 3d printing [11], autonomous drones [12] and augmented reality [13], it’s clear that we’re living in a completely unprecedented time in history. Things that were once thought to be science fiction are increasingly becoming commonplace.

When thinking about how this technology affects our political and economic systems there is a simple fact that needs to be made clear: humans have limited needs. When autonomous systems are capable of providing those needs, humans are needed less. Our “wants” appear to expand infinitely, but an economy that “needs” human labour is not what the future looks like.

And while it’s true that many people see UBI as a reaction to automation, others see it as a tool to empower that shift to a more autonomous society. When people are free to opt out of jobs entirely, the labour pool will likely shrink, the cost of labour would then rise along with the incentive to automate. Long-term, automation will almost always be cheaper than human labour because it’s a one-off expense rather than an ongoing one.

This raises the question of why we haven’t structured our society in a way that incentivises this automation more strongly. We could have a national investment program designed to automate people’s jobs, but that would never be politically feasible in an economy in which people are dependant on their jobs for income. And given the potentially emancipatory and liberatory effects of democratically owned automation, it’s baffling that the left isn’t adopting a more bold pro-automation stance. There are of course advocates for Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism (FALGSC) but they are far from the political mainstream of the moment.

If FALGSC or some other kind of autonomous and liberated society is the goal (and whether it is or not is is the goal is an important question for progressives to ask ourselves) then is Job Guarantee –a policy that at its core upholds the idea that jobs should be the defining traits of our lives– the most effective way to get there? And if we can’t rid ourselves this obsession with jobs at this technologically unprecedented and revolutionary moment in history then how can we ever?

What even is a job?

Supermarket self-serve checkouts.
By Kgbo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A question at the heart of this debate is what it even means to have a “job”. Of course the answer is obvious, it’s babysitters, teachers and cleaners, right? And… playing football…?

If the definition of a job is “task or piece of work, especially one that is paid” as the dictionary suggests, many people do make an income through playing football so it qualifies. Does the Job Guarantee mean a guarantee that anyone can be paid to play football all day? Or does “being paid for doing a task” not capture the full picture?

Another possible way to distinguish what is and isn’t a job is whether you’re doing something that provides value for someone else. If you were to do your own dishes then you’re cleaning and should not have dignity because you don’t have work. But if you clean someone else’s dishes then now you’re a cleaner which allows you to experience the dignity of work.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with what you do for someone else. If you were receiving a liveable wage via UBI and you volunteered to plant trees then that’s not a job because you’re just volunteering. But if you were receiving a liveable wage via a Job Guarantee (hypothetically let’s say the UBI and Job Guarantee rates are the same in these scenarios) and had a job planting trees then that does count as a job because now we’re calling it a job.

But I think more likely is that what is or isn’t defined as a job is somewhat arbitrary, defined by whatever the government classifies as a job. There’s an idea that labelling something as work gives it more meaning and dignity, but either way you’re still doing dishes, planting trees and playing football.

Moving away from growth and commodification

Some Job Guarantee advocates claim that a UBI would be inflationary, because when people are free not to work they may choose to spend their time on things that don’t have a productive capital output. This is a logical conclusion if the only way to structure an economy was with continued expanding economic output, but is that the case? Or is it time to realise that an economic model based on endless growing production and consumption is doomed to fail.

Kate Raworth (economist, author of Donut Economics and presenter of this incredible TED talk) makes the best case against growth best when she says:

“growth is a fantastically healthy phase – everything grows from your children’s feet to the Amazon forest. Everything grows and then it comes to a maturity and it thrives. And it can thrive for a long, long time. So it’s extraordinary that we’ve created economies that are financially, politically and socially dependant on unending growth”.

It’s time for our economy to come to its maturity phase in order to thrive.

A UBI is also critiqued for not adding tasks like caring work to our measures of economic performance. Given that money is primarily used in exchanges that lack trust (which is why you don’t charge your grandma if she asks you to help with the dishes), shouldn’t the progressive case be to de-commodify our transactions rather than further commodify them? It’s okay for some aspects of our lives to go unmeasured.

Or if the goal is to further commodify the productive aspects of our lives, is there an expectation that we should be compensated for using a self-checkout machine at the supermarket? The work that was previously done by a single cashier is now distributed over many customers. What about using Facebook and adding productive data to the company? Shouldn’t we be compensated for that value also? Our lives are filled with many micro-jobs and the idea that any system can accurately represent every exchange is unrealistic.

Is serving an economic system reliant on growth really where progressives want to prioritise their time and energy? Forever adding more and more units to economic performance. Or does it make more sense to empower people to live the lives they find most valuable? The only system that is designed to grow infinitely is cancer.

It’s a cheap way for the federal government to wash its hands of providing properly funded services

When Job Guarantee advocates describe the kinds of jobs it would create, they usually say that they’re paid a “decent” wage and then that wage would become the foundation for society. And that no employer would ever pay less than that, since the employees could quit and get a guaranteed job. This means that if you’re working a guaranteed job then you’re assured to be at the lowest position in society. The Job Guarantee jobs are also often described as being “transitional jobs” and will often make a distinction between government jobs by clarifying that “Job Guarantee jobs aren’t government jobs”. For instance while a government job could be a school teacher, a Job Guarantee job could be a teaching assistant.

The tasks that are proposed under a Job Guarantee are often things like operating tool libraries, running training sessions, elder care, organising food waste programs and environmental maintenance. But if these roles are actually valuable to our communities then they should be devised as a properly organised Jobs Program so that they are services people can rely on, rather than being provided by rotating door of people who chip in a bit in between jobs.

By creating a new “catch-all” government agency, the federal government can absolve itself of responsibility when it comes to properly providing these services. Why would they pay people real wages to run tool libraries if they’ve already got people doing it for what is guaranteed to be the lowest wage possible?

Enhancing strike power

When employed people have a UBI they would be able to voluntarily withhold their labour indefinitely as it would effectively act as an infinite strike fund. No more begging, the working conditions would have to be on the workers terms or there would be no work done (at least, as long as workers are needed in society that is). An employer would have to offer conditions that are better than the potential alternatives of spending time with family and friends, working on a personal project or relaxing.

When employed people have a Job Guarantee they have an equivalent threat: they can leave and go to a guaranteed job. A more powerful statement than the current status quo (leaving to poverty), but if the worker has to work either way maybe sticking with a bad job that pays more than the bare minimum might not seem so bad. There is also another often forgotten side to this story: under a Job Guarantee the employer also has a pool of trained people who are already working and perhaps interested in earning more than the minimum wage. This may potentially pull down the wages of the people in “real jobs”.

But the most grim perspective on strike power comes from the Job Guarantee workers themselves. It’s hard to make the case that Job Guarantee workers are going to have any meaningful strike power at all when by definition Job Guarantee jobs don’t need to exist (they’re designed to be taken up and dropped again when workers get other jobs). Of course there are options for unions to lobby the government for higher Job Guarantee wages (particularly around election time), but without an option not to work, the potential for withholding labour would be virtually non-existent.

Empowering new forms of democracy

A UBI would be revolutionary to our democracy because democracy requires participation. Rather than work-drained activists using whatever free time they have outside of the 9-5, everyone would be able to spend as much (or as little) time and energy engaging in participatory democracy as they want. And new options like a Direct Democracy would become a lot more viable if everyone who wanted to participate was guaranteed to have time to participate.

The Job Guarantee does empower democracy but in a slightly different way (for the local councils tasked with defining Job Guarantee jobs to approve electoral campaigning as a guaranteed job seems far too politically charged to be realistic). The Job Guarantee workers would be constantly engaged with their local community. This would be great, but a little small-scale when the biggest challenges facing us as a society have a national or international scale.

But perhaps more importantly when we’re free from work we’re free to think about other things. We’re free to dream bigger and ask questions about our society. How can we expect to solve the monumental problems we face today while we’re all trapped in an endless treadmill of work?

In defence of a Job Guarantee

I don’t want this to be an article focused entirely on beating down the idea of a Job Guarantee because if we’re going to have serious discourse across this currently very polarised political divide I think it’s important to acknowledge that it does some things that a UBI wouldn’t.

Most significantly, a Job Guarantee provides a clear path for people to contribute to society. While most people don’t need to be told what to do in order to be productive, it’s clear that some people like being told what to do. They want to have a formal path laid before them that requires less effort than forging a path for their own.

A Job Guarantee would also create a government body that is explicitly dedicated to connecting underutilised resources in our society. We have a lot of a lot of inefficient waste and it makes sense to have people who can see the larger picture of our collective resources doing what they can to reduce that waste. If someone wants to start a community garden and there is an empty plot of land for them to do so, why not connect these two underutilised resources?

But again the question has to be asked, are these factors enough to make it a priority above an unconditional liveable wage to every citizen? To have both policies would be ideal because they could cover what the other lacks. However as a transitional phase in which we only have one, does a world in which everyone has their needs met unconditionally but they don’t have a formal path to contribute sound better or worse than one in which everyone has a formal path to contribute but they are coerced into it?

In response to UBI critiques

“[unlike UBI, a Job Guarantee gives people] access to, and a stake in, the means of production”

This is not a statement that is universally applicable to all forms of a Job Guarantee. Not any more than volunteering for a charity gives you “access to and stake in the means of production”.

There is one version of a Job Guarantee that says that if you want to start a farm then the government should provide you with all of the land and resources in order to do so. Putting aside how unrealistically capital intensive and unscalable this would be, why could this same logic not also be applied to UBI system? Everyone would get an unconditional liveable wage and the the government could provide additional capital for any projects you may want to undertake.

Ultimately a key distinction between Job Guarantee and UBI advocates is that Job Guarantee advocates believe there should be work requirements between you and the resources you need to live.

“Affordable UBIs are inadequate”

To have this written an article alongside advocacy for a Job Guarantee is amusing. The conclusion from this is that providing a liveable wage to all citizens is somehow more expensive than providing a liveable wage to all citizens + additional expenses for an administrative team + the cost of any capital investments. Mathematically this doesn’t add up.

It’s also worth noting that in Miller’s article, he brushes aside technical implementation problems with a Job Guarantee because if “we believe in a pre-logistical right … we expect governments of all stripes to deploy the resources to figure it out” [1] but that same luxury isn’t then afforded to the UBI. This statement (along with his prioritisation of a Job Guarantee) implies that a pre-logistical right to work should be prioritised more highly than a pre-logistical right to live.

“[if a UBI is funded through taxation] the issue is then that the UBI is no longer universal … net-UBI-recipients [may be] seen as dependent on the net-tax-contributors”

This critique reads more like a condemnation of government programs and progressive taxation than of UBI specifically. Public schools, libraries, hospitals and roads are not funded equally by every citizen, but does that stigmatise those services and make us any less dependant than a UBI would?

In modern society we are all deeply interconnected and interdependent on one another. A doctor could not perform the operations they do if they had to grow and process their own garbage/food. A journalist could not report on the stories they do if they had to build their own house/roads. And an programmer wouldn’t be able to do much at all if past generations of mathematicians and scientists hadn’t developed the tools used today. We need to advance the narrative on dependency and arguments like the ones used above don’t help that process. None of us alone can stand against the forces of nature.


Image: basicincome-europe.org

With an election just around the corner and progressives thinking about where to spend their time and energy in the coming months and years, we must ask ourselves many important questions, but there is one that I think is the defining question of the modern progressive agenda:

When we have a welfare system that is so fundamentally inadequate and automation is paving the way for a society based on abundance, does it make sense to prioritise a policy that says everybody has a right to work, or does it make sense to prioritise a policy that says everybody has a right to live regardless of whether or not they work?

A UBI is a step towards a more democratic, liberated society that values all people regardless of their economic output and challenges traditional ideas of “dole bludgers” and “jobs”. But most importantly it ensures that participation in society is voluntary and non-coercive by directly abolishing poverty.

A Job Guarantee achieves some things that the UBI doesn’t and is not a bad idea, but it is a bad priority.


[1] https://greenagenda.org.au/2018/09/universal-job-guarantee/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure

[3] https://medium.com/economicsecproj/technological-inheritance-and-the-case-for-a-basic-income-ded373a69c8e

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-14/homelessness-in-australia-jumps-14pc-over-five-year-period/9547786

[5] http://unemployedworkersunion.com/newstart-vs-poverty-line/

[6] https://futuretofightfor.org.au/policies/being-bold/

[7] https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/17/17869294/amazon-go-store-chicago-cashier-less

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZpwQluW6mY

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qCanuYrR0g

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r0CiLBM1o8

[11] https://78.media.tumblr.com/ebfd76c25e5228e4442456f863f129d5/tumblr_oo4fpbEWiE1sliee9o1_500.jpg

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2itwFJCgFQ

[13] http://prostheticknowledge.tumblr.com/post/172169680826/introducing-virtual-wearables-another-update-from