The most universal benefit of them all

While the UK debates ending universality, economists in America are talking about making income itself universal.

With Labour's decision to push for the end of winter fuel payments for all, Britain has seen yet another step against the principle of universality in benefits this week. But while the tide here is pushing more and more in favour of means-testing every intervention possible, in the US, the opposite debate is being had: should even the largest interventions be universal?

In early May, Mike Konczal wrote an article in the Washington Post proposing a universal basic income (UBI), also called a "citizen's income". The idea is that significant proportions of the social insurance system get replaced with a "poverty-level" income which is given to all, universally and unconditionally. So rather than claiming unemployment benefit when out of work, disability benefit when sick, or a state pension in retirement, you claim a standard sum every month from the age of majority to your death, regardless of your status.

Many of the benefits of a UBI are the same as the benefits of universalising any part of the welfare system: it massively reduces bureaucracy at all stages; it's far easier to get benefits where they need to go; and it removes the stigma of claiming help from the state. For some benefits, even one of those arguments is enough to justify universalising them. So, for example, we don't means test the NHS – among other reasons – because the thought of keeping someone in the emergency room while we check their past six months of payslips is anathema to most people.

But the UBI carries its own additional upsides, by virtue of being so large compared to other benefits. The most important one is that its universality reduces so-called "income traps", points in the tax-and-benefit system where the marginal value of every pound earned drops too low. So, for example, as your earnings rise, you may find that you leave the personal tax allowance, lose working tax credits, and become ineligible for housing benefit all around the same time. That could mean that a job which pays thousands of pounds leads to a take-home pay rise of a tenth of that, giving you a serious incentive not to take it at all.

That problem is also what the Universal Credit is aimed at solving in Britain; but despite the name, it's not a universal benefit, and so it can at best smooth over the problems caused by withdrawal, rather than remove them already.

But Konczal's most interesting point is that there are strong right-wing – or, more accurately, libertarian-right – arguments for a UBI. By removing conditionality of benefits, it also removes a method of state control. It is no longer up to the government, for instance, to determine which types of work experience you can do while still being paid unemployment benefit; nor can they shape society by deciding which types of non-labour activities ought be rewarded – carers, community gardeners, political activist or artists all get the UBI without having to prove their worth.

In fact, as Konczal points out, it's the left which should really be wariest of arguments for a UBI. It has the potential to extend market logic to every reach of society, by equating "being a citizen" with "being paid". That's exactly the sort of thinking Michael Sandel warned against when I spoke to him last month, because, in his words, it "may crowd out attitudes and norms, non-market values, worth caring about".

Konczal's piece sparked a wide debate in the economics community. Despite his strong argument that a UBI ought to be a libertarian idea, many of them opposed it, arguing that handing out a UBI would mean that people would never work, and the government would instantly lose the tax revenue it takes to pay it in the first place.

That argument doesn't quite work; in fact, the understanding as to why that is was the great breakthrough in 19th century economics, the marginal revolution. People tend to make their decisions, not based on absolute levels, but on marginal changes. If you are given a UBI, then you still face the choice as to whether or not to go to work and earn an extra sum of money. And since people working on poverty pay don't tend to decide never to increase their income, it seems likely that a UBI wouldn't discourage much work.

But it would discourage some, because that's the point of it. By removing the link between "having to work" and "starving to death", a UBI would promote a healthier attitude to work, removing the element of fear which forces employees to sell their labour to exploitative employers. Instead, work would occur based on equitable negotiation: if the employee no longer lives in fear that they will be on the streets without a job, their bargaining position is greatly improved.

In the end, it's that outcome which will mean the UBI can never truly catch on among right-wingers – or even the centre-left – leaving the Green Party the only one in the UK to support it. In radically redistributing economic power from capital to labour, it is anathema to the conventional order . That is true despite the fact that elements of it ought to be hugely appealing to people from across the political spectrum. It is freedom-enhancing, bureaucracy-reducing, and in some cases life-saving, but it's also going to remain no more than a thought experiment. That's a crying shame.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war