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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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.