On Work, Money and PURPOSE, Part 3
Time to talk about money.
(this post is part of a longer essay I wrote in May 2020. Please also read the rest and, if you find it useful, thanks in advance for supporting this and my other work, through donations or in other ways, as described here.
Index of the full essay:
- Part 1: Introduction, and What Is Work, again?
- Part 2: Employment and Innovation in the 21st Century
- Part 3: Universal Basic Income (why/when/how it makes sense, for Catholics and everybody else)
- Part 4: Open Business Models, Finding (real) WORK in Catholic Doctrine, and Conclusions
Chapter 3: Universal Basic Income
There are several definitions of Universal Basic Income (UBI). The most coherent with both the name itself, and the overall vision of this paper, is that UBI is a lifetime, tax-exempt, monthly income, issued without any condition or check to every adult citizen of the country that issues it (minors may receive a UBI too, but this is not relevant here).
The hypothesis made here is that UBI would cover the cost of the first two basic resources previously listed, that is food and shelter. Information/Communication, which in this age means internet access, may be included in UBI or managed as the other resources below, but since it is by far the less expensive need, it is not further discussed here.
This hypothesis stands on two assumptions: one is that everybody surely, constantly needs food and shelter through their whole life, but the costs of adequate food and of basic shelter (e.g. a single-room mini-apartment?) in any given area vary, from individual to individual and over time, much, much less than education or healthcare for the same individual(s). Therefore, they are much easier to calculate, and budget for.
The other assumption is that public education and healthcare, as well as welfare for individuals with special needs, are basic, non-negotiable characteristic of any fair and stable society. They should not be considered in UBI because they should be free, or almost free, as Universal Basic Services (UBS), even if UBI were wrong, or impossible.
The first reason to not provide also food and shelter as UBS, that is through free public housing, free food stamps or similar programs, is simplicity and cost savings: Giving money to buy shelter and food eliminates the need for a huge apparatus to control abuse, build and assign homes, and handle special needs (e.g. celiacs) or even lifestyle choices (e.g. vegans).
The main reason is human dignity, freedom, and what in CSD is the principle of subsidiarity: resources and problems should be managed by the people closest to them, in this case individuals. The state cannot know what is better for every single individual. Many poors have always known that their primary needs are not alcohol, drugs or bets, and UBI leaves everybody much more freedom to live where they want and with whoever they want, eating the food they prefer. This is even truer for the new “poors” of today and tomorrow, including the so-called working poors, who struggle to put food on the table even if they are working full time.
All this is why there must be a UBI, and be unconditional, and it is easy to see that a UBI like this could never even begin to remove incentives to entrepreneurship or p-work to buy anything more than food and shelter.
At the personal level, UBI would make much more SERVICE concretely possible, and p-work more human, by making it easier to leave bad employers, negotiate better conditions, or bear temporary unemployment.
On the “business” level, and for the same reasons, UBI would allow, not demotivate many more people to experiment with better business models and true, useful innovation at the “system” level, both in public administrations and private companies. With UBI and UBS it would be much less painful to restructure, or even shut down when really needed, organizations that are not profitable, or contributing to the Common Good anymore.
At the macroeconomic level, in the worst case UBI may be nothing more than the least-worst answer to the impossibility of full employment in the next decades, much like democracy in the definition cited by W. Churchill in 1947: “the worst solution, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
But in the best case UBI would be an essential component of a “tide that lifts all boats” for real, exactly in the way that CSD and many other doctrines propose. A country where every citizen eats regularly, has no fear of being thrown on the street and can afford to follow their true vocation, or negotiate fair p-work conditions, is much more peaceful and has much more opportunities for business, entrepreneurship, and serious saving on everything from law enforcement to counseling, healthcare, bureaucracy, waste management and so on.
Summarizing, UBI makes society mentally healthier, more dynamic, and generally more resistant to the macro-challenges of our time. Including pandemics, if COVID19 is “probably a dry-run for worse, future ones”, or other similar disasters. In any extended emergency, with UBI only the people whose work is really urgent must continue to work. UBI is the best social distancer there is.
UBI and CSD
Two thousands years ago, St. Paul wrote (2 Thessalonians, 3:10) “If any would not work, neither should he eat." While this position deserves a much deeper discussion than it is possible here, I will dare to observe that something one is materially forced to do is much less ennobling than a moral obligation. It may also be argued, considering 1 Corinthians 12, 6-7:
“There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work”
that St. Paul was talking about what is defined as WORK here (including SERVICE, that is).
UBI would not remove the Catholic obligation to charity, simply because it could never eliminate all the occasions when charity is needed among human beings. In any case, if charity is needed as patch to socioeconomic systems that cannot function anymore, it is more charity to look for better systems. This said, some catholic theologians and scholars already support UBI, or are quite close to it.
Jesuit theologian Fr. Joseph Ogbonnaya said in 2017 that a minimum guaranteed income (that is, not UBI, but a big step in that direction) “effectively implements most of the complementary framework of Catholic social teaching.”
More recently (2019) other theologians said that UBI “seems to match the core principle of Catholic social teaching that everybody deserves enough to live on” and that (emphasis added): “Work in the Catholic tradition means ALLvaluable human activity,” and UBI would “give workers leverage to refuse jobs that demean them”.
UBI open issues
The real open issues with UBI are borders, and the current nature of money. Should a country give UBI to all legal immigrants, least they get only the humblest, less paid p-work that natives with UBI could afford to refuse? How should it handle immigration then? On the other side, should expatriates continue to receive UBI from their native country, even if they are not spending it there anymore?
Speaking of money, merely “printing”, to pay UBI, the same fiat money that is used today, with the same mechanisms, may lead to hyper-inflation.
The idea that UBI comes from taxes, that is money taken away from those who earned it to give it to those who didn’t, would also be unacceptable for many people, and a reason to stop paying taxes. The answer to these concerns is that UBI, as unavoidable as it may be in the near future, can only be part of a larger reform of society, that starts from a reform of money and how it is managed, from creation to taxation.