Four Lessons for Labour on How to Sell the UBI

Susan GuthrieTax and Welfare

Andrew Little has blamed the recent poor poll numbers for Labour partly on the public debate around the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Although it was never Labour Party policy – it was simply raised as an option to look at during their Future of Work Conference – they weren’t prepared to answer the critics when the idea got floated.

The fact is that all of the questions and criticisms about the policy are easily enough answered. Here are four lessons Labour can learn on how to sell the UBI.

Lesson 1: You don’t need a crisis to innovate.

When it comes to economic policy in New Zealand, and it’s possibly true everywhere, it seems to take a crisis to create the appetite for change. We don’t move unless pushed.

It took the Great Depression to bring in universal public health care and the unemployment benefit for example. And it was the prospect of the government defaulting on its debt that ultimately gave us GST, an independent central bank and the other reforms that occurred in the 1980s.

Economic policy unfortunately seems to bring out the coward in our politicians. They wait until a crisis to even think about, let alone implement, new ideas.

Businesses wouldn’t last five minutes if they took a wait-till-a-crisis approach. Successful companies are constantly exploring new ways of doing things, and they adopt great new ideas when they uncover them. They don’t wait for a crisis.

Individuals too seem to be capable of change before hitting crisis point.

There was no ‘crisis in communication’ before the internet – phones, mail, broadcasting by radio and TV worked perfectly well – but we got the internet nevertheless.

Innovation is a good thing. We need to change our view of economic policy and accept that innovation in the absence of a crisis is not only possible but a good thing.

Lesson 2: A basic income is a good idea, there are numerous benefits and no negatives, it’s innovation at its best.

A basic income policy would provide everyone aged 18 and over with an unconditional, tax free survival-level of income each and every year.

The idea is a creative one that has been analysed closely for over 30 years. Now more than ever the benefits of the policy are becoming widely understood. The policy is simply smart – it offers a better way of doing things.

You can see this from the fact that it has been supported by parties on both the political left and the right.

What a basic income policy does:

  1. it provides certainty – a lack of certainty about where you’re next meal is coming from is just as damaging to your health as not having a meal at all. We all need some basic level of financial security. Certainty and security matter just as much as the level of resources people have available to them.
  1. knowing that no matter what you have a regular income coming in frees people to innovate and it frees people to invest in acquiring new skills. Innovation and upskilling benefits those individuals of course, but also the wider community – we all win from a more skilled society, even if we personally aren’t innovative or learning anything new at all.
  1. a basic income policy frees people to choose the optimal mix of paid work, creative work and unpaid work such as helping in the community or caring for family and whanau. While being free to optimize how you spend your time is of great benefit individually, there are significant benefits beyond the individual too. Time spent in unpaid work produces benefits for everyone, not just those immediately involved. It leads to more connected communities which brings many other benefits – better health, higher educational achievement, fewer suicides, lower crime rates and higher income per capita.
  1. Under a basic income policy ‘Client of WiNZ’ would disappear as a meaningful social marker. An individual’s source of income could no longer be used as a basis for prejudice. Irrespective of your values, and your views of misanthropy, you should welcome the policy because it strengthens and reconnects communities and that has significant economic and social payoffs across the entire population.
  1. At present, with our income-tested welfare system, people who, due to unemployment, sickness, disability or family responsibilities, cannot take part in the workforce to a significant degree, face effective marginal tax rates in excess of 100% on any casual or part-time work they accept. In other words when they earn, they lose the benefit and are no better off. They are penalized for trying to supplement their income and stand on their own two feet, leaving them trapped in poverty. Under a basic income policy these effective tax rates would disappear. People who rely on the basic income would face the same tax rate on additional income as everyone else. These so-called poverty traps would disappear.
  1. A basic income policy would have few administrative requirements so there would be considerably fewer deadweight costs to be funded out of tax. Currently over $1 billion is spent every year just administering the WiNZ benefit system and Working for Families which is a welfare policy for working families – that’s the cost of approving applications, checking payments, writing off debts and so on.

Because retirees are not widely considered ‘clients of WiNZ’ it is often overlooked that NZ Super is in fact a basic income policy. A fixed payment is paid unconditionally to everyone aged 65 and over. Retirees are free to add to this with paid work, spend their time with family or volunteering or in hobbies. The policy is highly regarded overseas for its efficiency and its effectiveness. NZ retirees are among the most healthy in the world and make a significant economic contribution through both paid and unpaid work.

Lesson 3: basic income is a lubricant with healing properties, not simply an ointment

It’s not just the fixed association between economic policy and crisis that is making it hard for the basic income idea to get traction. Critics object that money is given to people who ‘don’t need it’.

For three generations now – since the 1930s – tax-funded income payments have been closely associated with the idea of ‘being in need’. Tax-funded income is synonymous with ‘welfare’ policy. Look up any definition of ‘welfare’ you like and ‘in need’ will be there.

This is one from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

welfare. 1 : the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity <must look out for your own welfare> 2 a : aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need b : an agency or program through which such aid is distributed.

The common view, built up over three generations, is that the only time you make a tax-funded income payment is when someone is in dire immediate need. And the implicit assumption is that you don’t make income payments otherwise – but this view ignores all the other benefits a universal basic income policy delivers.

Of course a basic income is of vital importance to those who cannot provide for themselves at the moment – but it is more than that too. A basic income policy, if funded and implemented carefully, can capture the many benefits I listed earlier while preserving the essential support provided to the most vulnerable in our society.

Basic income should be thought of simply as the oil that lubricates everything of value that we do, in all our variety: our innovation, our up-skilling, our care-giving and community work, our creative work. And it also provides for those who cannot support themselves while allowing them to retain their dignity and freedom (something the current system does not).

It is a lubricant with healing properties, not an ointment to address sores as they appear (that’s current welfare policy).

We will always need complementary policies that support or assist the most vulnerable. The challenges they can face will not be eliminated by the basic income policy, but restoring dignity and choice to vulnerable people is a great start.

Lesson 4: a basic income policy is affordable

The other objection to the idea of a basic income is that it is simply unaffordable, we don’t have enough tax revenue to pay for it. This objection can be easily dismissed.

A strong case can be made for broadening the tax base – too many assets residing in NZ produce economic benefits to their owners that go untaxed. Interest earned from a bank deposit is taxed but the benefits of owning property are not. Broadening the tax base is capable of generating significant new tax revenues. Tax reform should be done irrespective of your views on the basic income policy but, of course, the new revenues raised by tax base broadening provide the means to fund the basic income policy.

Broadening the tax base is capable of funding the UBI both now and in the future. This point has been raised by many commentators in light of the Panama papers, which have shown the lengths the rich go to in using tax loopholes to legally minimise their tax bill. Close the loopholes, and we would have more funding to play with.

There is an important fiscal issue to be solved however and that is how to fund the transition to a basic income policy. For many years we would need to run some aspects of the existing welfare system and the basic income in tandem. Only in this way could those currently dependent on relatively high WiNZ payments (for example, sole parents) maintain their current standard of living. We think even this transition is affordable, depending on how it is done.

However on this issue, international perspectives on deficits are changing, which creates another option for a government looking to fund the transition. There are fears around the world that the global economy is slowing too fast and the world may tip into a prolonged and deep recession. Interest rate stimulation hasn’t worked. Even the Economist magazine is now supportive of governments deliberately running high fiscal deficits – borrowing in other words – to stimulate growth.

So running higher than normal fiscal deficits over the next decade has become acceptable on the global scene, a country that runs deficits will not lose the confidence of investors and be punished by capital flight. We now have the perfect opportunity to begin implementing the innovative economic policy known as the basic income.

Four Lessons for Labour on How to Sell the UBI was last modified: April 12th, 2016 by Susan Guthrie
About the Author

Susan Guthrie

Susan is an economist who, prior to joining the Morgan Foundation in 2010, held various private and public sector roles. She has worked for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the NZ Treasury, as an international economist in the financial sector in New Zealand and Hong Kong, and as an advocate for consumer rights. In 2011 she co-authored with Gareth Morgan ‘The Big Kahuna’, a book advocating tax and welfare reform for New Zealand and in 2014 she co-authored with Gareth ‘Are we there yet? the future of the Treaty of Waitangi’.