Yves here. I’ve been remiss in not putting this video from November on a discussion of the merits of proposals for a job guarantee versus an income guarantee. The talk was hosted by Dissent Magazine, Jacobin, and the New Economy Coalition, and is explicitly anticapitalist, so you may need to filter out the occasional ideological leap.
The participants were Alyssa Battisoni from Jacobin, activist Jesse Myerson, Darrick Hamilton of the New School, and Pavlina Tcherneva of University of Missouri, Kansas City. There are some strong moments. For instance, Pavlina begins her critique of a basic income at 37:00, and closes with, “if the issue is capitalism, you have to change property rights. Just allowing people to not work is not enough” (~45:30)
As much as many readers advocate the idea of basic income, I suggest you consider the results of the one time it was implemented in historically on a large-scale basis: the Speenhamland system, in early industrial England. As Karl Polanyi describes at length in his classic, The Great Transformation, the long-term results were disastrous for the laboring classes. I strongly suggest you read the long-form discussion here, but the short version is that the guarantee wound up lowering wages and serving as a subsidy to employers. From that post:
The experiment was the Speenhamland system, which was implemented in England 1795 and dismantled in 1834, was intended to make sure that country laborers had enough income to live. It was intended as an emergency measure to help the poor when grain prices had risen sharply due to meager harvests. The justices of Berkshire decided to offer income support to supplement wages, with the amount set in relation to the price of bread and the number of children in the household, so that the destitute would have a minimum income no matter what they earned.
Even though it was never codified as law, the Speenhamland approach was adopted in country towns all across England and in a weaker form in some factory towns. It was widely seen as a “right to live.” It was neither universal nor consistently implemented, but it nevertheless appears to have been fairly widespread. It reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars, and was wound down in many small towns before it was effectively abolished by the new Poor Law of 1834. Not surprisingly, the Speenhamland system existed in its strongest and most durable embodiment in areas where the threat of violence by the impoverished was real. But another reason it lasted as long as it did despite the costs it imposed on local landlords was it kept the poor in place with their wages fixed at a bare subsistence level. Rural property owners wanted to keep workers from decamping to towns and cities in search of better paid employment. A smaller pool of local laborers would lead to higher wage levels.
Karl Polanyi explains how a well-indended program over time proved damaging to the very group it was intended to help. And it is critical to keep in mind that Polanyi is acutely aware of how treating labor and land as commodities is at odds with the needs of society.
Polyani details how the initial seemingly positive effects of the Speenhamland system became corrosive as it discouraged work by driving wage rates so low that it was economically rational to go on “the rates” as they were called then. Even so, per Polanyi:
The backlash against the Speenhamland system, which came via the Poor Law Reform of 1834, was the establishment of workhouses designed to force the poor to work. As Wikipedia explains: “The workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entry.” “Outdoor relief,” which then meant aid to the poor without requiring that they enter an institution, was discouraged in the Poor Law Reform and then abolished in the 1840s. Polanyi again: “But….[t]he majority of the countryfolk…preferred any kind of existence to the status of a pauper.”
And the unwinding of Speenhamland was brutal. Again from our post:
The backlash against the Speenhamland system, which came via the Poor Law Reform of 1834, was the establishment of workhouses designed to force the poor to work. As Wikipedia explains: “The workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entry.” “Outdoor relief,” which then meant aid to the poor without requiring that they enter an institution, was discouraged in the Poor Law Reform and then abolished in the 1840s. Polanyi again:
Never perhaps in all modern history has a more ruthless act of social reform been perpetrated; it crushed multitudes of lives while merely pretending to provide a criterion of genuine destitution in the workhouse test. Psychological torture was cooly advocated and smoothly put into place by mild philanthropist as a means of oiling the labor mill.
I’m sure you will have much to discuss!