The case for a universal basic income

Labour has raised the possibility of going into the next election with a universal basic income policy (file)
Labour has raised the possibility of going into the next election with a universal basic income policy (file)

Up until now, the relentless forward march of technology has arguably created as many jobs as it has destroyed -- if not more.

But there are growing concerns this balance is about to end. Researchers have suggested in the next two decades, nearly half of all existing jobs will be lost to automation.

There are also concerns inequality will skyrocket, with those who control the machines reaping the benefits of increased profits, and the rest of us fighting over a dwindling number of employment opportunities.

Author and economist Professor Guy Standing says thanks to neo-liberal economics, the latter group already exists. He's labelled them the "precariat", a portmanteau of the words "precarious" and "proletariat".

"It's about people who are having to do bits and pieces, types of odd jobs," he explained on the Paul Henry programme this morning.

"They have no sense of occupational identity."

The key differences between the precariat and the older concept of the working-class proletariat are:

"We're going to have to find a new form of income distribution in order to make sure that a lot of people down the lower ends of the labour market -- call them the precariat, or whatever -- are getting enough," says Prof Standing, who will be a keynote speaker at Labour's Future of Work conference this week.

Labour has raised the possibility of going into the next election with a universal basic income (UBI) policy, meaning every New Zealander would get a regular payment, regardless of their income or wealth.

National scoffed at the idea, but it has Prof Standing's backing.

"We're not going to see a rise in real wages; we're going to see a continuing stagnation of real wages in the United States, in New Zealand, in Britain and elsewhere, and a rise in profits all the time," he says. "In those circumstances, we're going to have to look at new forms, new ways of remunerating people, enabling people to be able to buy things."

Essentially, if the trend towards job automation concentrates income in the hands of those who control the machines, without some form of income for the rest of us, no one will be able to afford what the machines produce -- leading to economic meltdown.

"There are always new jobs being created and new forms of automation advance all the time, and the real worry is the impact on the distribution of income from employment and from production."

But the UBI could solve more than just the looming unemployment/underemployment crisis.

In Labour's background paper on the UBI, it lists a number of potential benefits:

The paper also notes some potential flaws:

There are plans to test how a UBI could work in practise in Ontario, India, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

A trial in a village in Namibia found drops unemployment, poverty and crime, while school attendance and income on top of the UBI showed improvements.

New Zealand economist Gareth Morgan has welcomed Labour's interest in the UBI, but doubts the party "has the balls" to put a coherent policy together.

"I think when it comes down to it, they're too establishment," he told Hutt News recently.

"They tried last election to bring in a capital gains tax but then they exempted residential housing, which is actually the biggest reason why you would put it in."

Labour's finance spokesperson Grant Robertson hasn't done much to convince Mr Morgan otherwise, yesterday insisting UBI was not Labour policy -- yet.