“The distinguished sociologist explains why a basic income would not be a “disincentive” to work (unlike means-tested anti-poverty programs), argues that basic income does not “subsidize low wages” in a morally problematic way, discusses the potential impact of basic income on unions and progressive politics.”
Podcast via Against the Grain.
Why is this podcast important? Because various people challenge that the basic income would be a good thing for working people and the labor movement; here a progressive point of view from marxist sociologist Erik Wright that answers positively, should be read in conjunction with the book from US labor leader saying the same:
” is a Professor in the prestigious Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — and a staunch advocate of a universal basic income.
Wright was interviewed on the April 5th edition of the Berkeley-based radio show Against the Grain. In a broadcast of approximately 50 minutes, the distinguished sociologist explains why a basic income would not be a “disincentive” to work (unlike means-tested anti-poverty programs), argues that basic income does not “subsidize low wages” in a morally problematic way, discusses the potential impact of basic income on unions and progressive politics, and differentiates his preferred version of a basic income from that of Charles Murray and others on the right — and more.
Overall, Wright presents a persuasive and compelling case that the radical left must take basic income seriously, while allaying worries that the policy could hurt workers and rebutting objections to its unconditionality.
Against the Grain describes itself as providing “in-depth analysis and commentary on a variety of matters — political, economic, social, and cultural — important to progressive and radical thinking and activism.” (http://www.basicincome.org/news/2016/05/audio-sociologist-erik-olin-wright-on-basic-income/)
“AGAINST THE GRAIN—[5 APR 2016] “Today on Against the Grain, what if everyone was entitled to, was guaranteed, a basic income, so they didn’t have to work to live?
“I’m C.S. Soong. Erik Olin Wright, a sociologist and leading radical thinker, makes a case for an unconditional basic income—after these news headlines with Mark Mericle.” (c. 1:06)
[KPFA News Headlines omitted by scribe] (c. 5:45)
“From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. My name is C.S. Soong.
“It may sound weird. It may sound utopian. But an unconditional basic income is what many people have been advocating for years. You would not have to work to get this income. Everyone would be entitled to it. And, in some scenarios, it’s enough to live on.
“So, what explains the appeal to many on the Left of the basic income? Why have some conservatives and libertarians embraced the idea? Would the economy collapse because most people would stop working? And to what extent would the adoption of an unconditional basic income facilitate or fuel a transition away from capitalism?
“Erik Olin Wright is a leading proponent of a basic income and a prominent radical scholar. He’s a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And his books include: Understanding Class; Alternatives to Capitalism; and Envisioning Real Utopias.
“When Erik Olin Wright joined me in KPFA’s Berkeley studios, I asked him when the notion of a basic income first caught his attention.” (c. 7:03)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: ” [SNIP] ” (c. 8:30)
C. S. SOONG: “So, in titling their paper The Capitalist Road to Communism, were they suggesting, then, that something could be done within the framework of capitalism to move society in a communist direction?” (c. 8:46)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: ” [SNIP] ” (c. 10:00)
C. S. SOONG: “So, what would an unconditional basic income, what would it, basically, entail?”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Alright. Well, the first thing to note is that the idea of unconditional basic income comes in a variety of flavours. And, depending upon which flavour, it means different things.
“For some people, an unconditional basic income is really a bare minimum survival income. You know? To use a kind of metaphor, you don’t starve if you have a basic income.
“Most progressives, who embrace the idea, think of it as a more generous idea, that a true unconditional basic income enables you to live at a culturally-acceptable decent standard of living, which would include, therefore, enough income to have recreation, but a kind of no frills version. So, you can perfectly, comfortably, get by with it. But, if you really want to live a more extravagant lifestyle, then you have to earn additional income one way or another.
“So, that’s how I like to think of it. Certainly, for the purposes that I defend an unconditional basic income, it’s above a survival level.” (c. 11:14)
C. S. SOONG: “And who, in your idea of a basic income, who provides this income and how often?”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Well, income means it’s a flow. So, it’s more of a practical than a principled question of whether it’s providing it, so to speak, on a weekly or monthly basis. Some versions give you an annual lump sum. I think that’s probably not prudent, just because of people’s incapacity to budget well.
“So, [chuckles] you know, you think of it as a paycheck. So, paychecks typically come on biweekly or monthly bases. It would be a flow of income along those lines. (c. 11:49)
“It’s provided by the state. And it’s paid for through taxation.  Everybody gets it, everybody. Bill Gates gets an unconditional basic income.”
C. S. SOONG: “It doesn’t depend on whether you work or any other criterion.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Right. Crucially, it doesn’t depend on how much money, how rich you are. The unconditionality has, both, a moral component—you don’t have to be a good person to get it—and it has an economic component—it’s not means tested.
“Now, of course, the taxes needed to pay for an unconditional basic income for Bill Gates are gonna go up by many orders of magnitude, more than the basic income he receives. So, Bill Gates would be a net contributor. And there’s lots of details about how that works.
“One should think of it in the same way we think of unconditional, or used to think, perhaps, of unconditional basic education. Everybody gets it. Some people are net contributors. That is, their taxes go up in order to pay for public education by more than they receive in public education. But that’s seen as okay because it’s a public good; and it makes for a better society, if everybody gets a basic education.
“Well, a basic income has a bit of that character. Everybody benefits from it, even if you’re a net contributor because it creates a different kind of society, a society in which everybody has enough to live a morally decent, or culturally acceptable, standard of living.” (c. 13:20)
C. S. SOONG: “So, what impact would an unconditional basic income have on people’s ability and inclination, really, to take a job, to go into the labour market and work for money?” (c. 13:37)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Well, let me first clarify one other detail about the design. And that is who gets it. So, we said it’s unconditional on means testing or on virtue. There is still the question of whether, for example, it’s a citizen’s income or a resident’s income. That is, anybody who lives in a country, anyone under the jurisdiction of a state should get it. And, if it’s a resident’s income, does it include undocumented workers?
“Now, to some extent these are practical questions, rather than principled questions. I mean practical in the political sense. It’s pretty hard to imagine an unconditional basic income ever passing, you know, even in pretty progressive places, that would include illegal residents. Everybody agrees that tourists shouldn’t get it. [chuckles] You know? [SNIP]
“I think, on principle, it should go to everybody who’s in the economy, in the labour market, in the labour force. That the question of how you deal with the illegal migrants is a separate question, which needs resolution. We need ways of dealing with that. But that the moral principle of an unconditional basic income is precisely that anybody who is on your territory participating in the economic life of your society should unconditionally have their basic needs met.
In the most fundamental sense, I think an unconditional basic income should be for everybody in the world. I mean I think you should have a goal of a basic income.” (c. 15:18)
C. S. SOONG: “Mm. M-hm. Yeah.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “And it should be globally distributed. Well, that’s certainly not on as a practical political move.” (c. 15:25)
C. S. SOONG: “Erik Olin Wright joins us in studio. He is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leading radical thinker. I’m C.S. And this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. And we are talking, today, about unconditional basic income, which Erik has written a lot about and thought a lot about.
“So, yeah, back to this question of jobs and the necessity of having a job. So, if the basic income, the unconditional basic income gives you, provides you with, kind of, a culturally-acceptable no frills existence, then is the whole idea that people would no longer need to go out onto the labour market?” (c. 16:11)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “The idea is that you don’t need to go into the labour market to get your basic necessities. So, in the United States, roughly speaking—and, you know, it varies from place to place because of cost-of-living—but think of an unconditional basic income as being in the $12- to $15-thousand-dollars-a-year range, roughly speaking, which would mean if, um, two adults live together, they have a household income of $30,000. You’d have to think through the details of children. You know? Do you get a partial income? How do you do it? Again, those are important details. You can put those to the side.
“So, just take a couple. $30,000 dollars in most places in the United States, you can live okay.
“But most people probably want more income than $30,000. So, there’ll be at least some reason why many—I think most people—will want to gain additional earnings.
“With an unconditional basic income, as soon as you earn additional income, you start paying taxes on the additional. There’s no, the unconditional basic income isn’t taxed. It’d be, kind of, directly. If all you live on is the basic income, you don’t pay taxes, income taxes, on that. But you start paying taxes on any earnings above your basic income.
“The tax rates will be higher. You have to figure out exactly where the cut point is, where you become a net contributor, rather than a net beneficiary.
“But there’s no disincentive to work. That is you’re not—the first $10,000 you earn above your basic income is not gonna be taxed at 80%. You know, it’ll probably have a 15% or 20% income tax rate on the first $10,000 you earn above a basic income.
“So, the first thing to note is there is not a disincentive to work.
“And it’s only people whose life plans are consistent with $15- or $30 thousand, in a couple, whose life plans are consistent with that level of earnings who will say: That’s all I want.
“Now, there will be people, certainly, for whom that’s true.” (c. 18:15)
C.S. SOONG: “But, if they think that way, that is a disincentive to work. I mean a lot of people are worried that so many people will take themselves out of the labour market that the economy might even collapse.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “So, just to be kind of technically precise, a disincentive means you’re punished if you work. This would—”
C.S. SOONG: “Gotcha.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “—mean a lack of an incentive to work for them. Right? So, they don’t feel any incentive to work ‘cos they feel no need to work. But there’s no disincentive to work.
“With means tested anti-poverty programmes there’s an actual disincentive to work because you lose your benefits if you work.”
C.S. SOONG: “Right.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Okay. Well, there’s no disincentive, then, to work.
“Yeah, so a basic income is an unworkable plan if it’s the case that the large majority of people really have as their deepest longings to be couch potatoes.
“So, you know, if the human spirit, contrary to what many of us believe, is really profoundly lazy, in the sense that we don’t care about creativity—we don’t care about making a contribution to our world and leaving our stamp in some way or other, we really just wanna watch soap operas—so, if that is what we are at our essence—you give people $15,000 dollars and everybody stops working—the system collapses.
“Well, I’m being sarcastic. You know?”
C.S. SOONG: “Sure.”
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “This is a caricature. There will be some people, though, that will absolutely live a life of leisurely indulgence.
“Philippe Van Parijs, one of his earliest and terrific pieces on this is called ‘Should Surfers Be Fed?’ ‘Should Surfers Be Fed?’ And it’s basically raising the standard big objection to basic income that it will mean that people who work hard and generate the income that gets taxed for a basic income will be subsidising beach bums.” (c. 20:13)
C.S. SOONG: “But you could, certainly, maybe, with a basic income you could be a beach bum; but you could also be productive in a way, that’s not profitable to you—right?—that doesn’t involve working for money.
“So, for example, you talk about, you’ve written about care-giving labour. And the fact is that many care-givers are not compensated at all. Well, this will allow them to do work. And, you know, this is not couch potato work. So, they’ll do work. That kind of work, they won’t have a job for money, for pay. And, so, how does that work in the context of basic income and to what extent is that a positive thing in your eyes?” (c. 20:53)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Of course, it’s an absolutely positive thing. [SNIP] And it would lead to an absolute expansion and enrichment of the arts.” (c. 23:46)
C.S. SOONG: “What about the situation of paid workers? [SNIP] ” (c. 23:47)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: ” [SNIP] “(c. 26:01)
C.S. SOONG: “I’m C.S. This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. Erik Olin Wright joins me. He is Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And he’s author of many books, including Understanding Class, Envisioning Real Utopias, and Alternatives to Capitalism: proposals for a democratic economy with Robin Hahnel.
“And I, and Erik, want you to know that many of Erik’s books are available for free online. We’ve put a link on our web page at KPFA.org. Just go to KPFA.org/programs and click on Against the Grain; and you’ll find a link to Erik’s website, where you’ll find PDF links to many of his publications.
“So, essentially, what you’re saying is that workers have more power, they have greater leverage in relation to employers under a system with unconditional basic income. And is that part of the reason? Well, how big a part of the reason that you support unconditional basic income is this? That there are unequal power relations in society and that an important goal of movement for social justice ought to be to adjust and transform those power relations.” (c. 27:22)
DR. ERIK OLIN WRIGHT: “Yes, certainly. [SNIP] ” (c. 29:10)” (https://lumpenproletariat.org/2016/04/05/sociologist-dr-erik-olin-wright-on-a-guaranteed-income-for-all/)
- partial transcript, https://lumpenproletariat.org/2016/04/05/sociologist-dr-erik-olin-wright-on-a-guaranteed-income-for-all/