With the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold around the world, many people now realise that the economic foundations of our society are much more fragile than they had seemed. The disruption to global supply chains from the Wuhan coronavirus is just beginning to have an effect. As this essay will show, much of the pain that we will suffer this year could have been avoided if we had had a universal basic income.
Nothing gives a person more power over another group of people than that group’s desperation. The more desperate people are, the less money they will be willing to work for, and the shittier the workplace conditions they will be willing to accept. The ruling class doesn’t want to give up the power that widespread desperation and poverty give them. so they promote more of it.
The major argument against a UBI is that people need a certain level of coercion before they are willing to work. Without the threat of starvation or being kicked out of their house for not making their rent payments, people won’t do the amount of work that their rulers consider acceptable. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen is the logic.
Modern events like the COVID-19 pandemic show that this way of thinking has made our society much weaker than it needed to be.
A forestry exporter in Gisborne recently complained that the pandemic had halved the income of his business. Because Chinese workers are being kept at home to prevent further spread of the virus, there is no-one to unload the boats in the docks. This means that forestry exporters can’t send any product to China, and so have to shut down a large part of their operation.
Without income, this forestry exporter has found themselves needing to lay off staff. Getting laid off is a highly stressful event at the best of times – when it comes at the same time as your entire industry is shutting down because of a coronavirus pandemic, then one also has to deal with the fear of not being able to find new work. Those who fail at that will be forced to go into WINZ and run the usual gauntlet of getting accused of being a bludging, malingering piece of shit. It promises to be a tough time for many.
A great amount of stress is needlessly created as the result of the way our economic system is structured, and this is amplified beyond breaking point when a pandemic like our current one strikes. If we are intelligent, we will take this opportunity to restructure this system so as to make ourselves more resilient to the next mass medical shock.
A recent Stuff article reported that Jacinda Ardern and other high-ranking Labour ministers had generously agreed “in principle” to remove the one week standdown period for anyone losing their jobs as a result of the coronavirus. No-one really knows why beneficiaries are made to starve for a week before being granted money, but the fact that they are creates much unnecessary misery, sometimes leading to suicide.
Removing this standdown week is a good move, but it’s a tiny measure compared to the introduction of a UBI. That would remove an enormous amount of stress from the people whose jobs were vulnerable to pandemics that impacted China – a group that will always be sizable in New Zealand. Greatly reduced stress means, in cases of sudden employment shocks, a greatly reduced number of deaths from despair.
Some are expecting that COVID-19 will be particularly virulent in America, for reasons relating to their economy. The best way to combat the pandemic is to quarantine entire areas, as China has done. America is unwilling to do this, which means that they have relied on asking people who think that they might be infected to get themselves tested and then to self-isolate – a process that might take up to three weeks.
The problem is that most American workers can’t simply leave work for three weeks. For them, three weeks with no income means getting kicked out of their houses for not making rent payments. It means getting the car repossessed, it means going hungry, it means needing to beg for an overdraft extension or miss out on healthcare. It means an immense level of stress.
A UBI would take the majority of this stress away. The knowledge that losing one’s job would not result in starvation and destitution, but merely a temporary reduction to a Spartan lifestyle, would make the necessary adaptations much easier to make. Losing one’s job would no longer mean crisis time but merely scaling back operations for a while.
A UBI would also incentivise people to not spread diseases like coronavirus to others.
Workers who are in precarious financial situations will feel compelled to go to work even when they suspect themselves to have coronavirus, on account of that they need the money. This will inevitably lead to them infecting far more people than if they had self-isolated. So not only does the lack of a UBI mean an increase in stress, it makes epidemics like COVID-19 more likely to develop into pandemics.
If New Zealand had a UBI, people who suspected themselves to be infected in a pandemic could easily arrange with their employers to be off work for a few weeks, without getting fucked by cashflow problems. These cashflow problems currently make it all but impossible to follow medical advice to self-quarantine, which exposes the entire economy to a systemic danger.
COVID-19 might not be the world-ending pandemic that many had feared. But even if it isn’t, we are still vulnerable to such a thing in the future. The introduction of a universal basic income would, above its numerous other benefits, make the national economy much more resilient to a pandemic. As it is, the ability to self-isolate is almost a luxury – perfect conditions for disaster.
If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2019 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis). A compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2018 and the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 are also available.