The work we do, the basic income we need

Tim Ellis.

I advocate for a basic income because I recognize that it makes both ethical and economic sense. An economy that is widely split between the haves and have-nots is bad for both classes; without sufficient demand from the consumer base, even the most successful capital-holder can’t earn on his or her investments. 

With the declining value of labour on the market, wages are no longer sufficient to get money into the hands of consumers. A basic income addresses that issue in the simplest, most effective, and most equitable fashion. 

Ethically speaking, of course, it’s perfectly aligned with Canadian values. We build a better society for all when we take care of each other. Canadians understand and embrace this reality. 

But let’s dig a bit deeper. The new economy is making us reconsider what work really is. For instance, unpaid work is fundamental to the human experience. Hobbies, volunteer hours, church and community groups, raising families – it’s all work. It’s just not valued by the market because there’s no profit built in. But it’s valued by people, and so it gets done. Financial compensation is far from the only motivation for work, and that should not be our only consideration in defining work’s value. Work performed outside of the labour market must still be viewed as work with value. 

We already have several examples of a basic income functioning effectively. The most relevant and most frequently cited in Canada is the ‘Mincome’ pilot project in Dauphin, Manitoba – and the results there and in other projects since indicate that people either continue to engage with the labour market or choose to spend more time on valuable investments in the future such as education and child-rearing. 

When I was a kid, we had a rotary phone. Today, my smartphone has more power than the entire Apollo project – all of NASA’s computational power, in my pocket. It’s for this reason among others that people in my generation view total automation as an inevitability. Maybe it will take a thousand years, maybe a hundred, but it seems obvious that it’s coming. And when it does, what then? Are we going to have the machines assign us busy-work so we can keep earning paycheques to scrape out a minimum-wage living? How do we transition from here to Star Trek? 

We’re already seeing a huge decoupling between productivity and wages, we’re already seeing 10 or 20 people being able to do the work that used to take thousands. In any rational society, the premise “people can do more work with less effort” would be a good thing and should free up people to pursue their own dreams. Instead, because we’ve tied survival to an outdated wage-based model, we get people “freed” from their careers and immediately forced to chase after whatever work remains, no matter how bad it is, just to stay alive. Why is that a smart arrangement? How does society benefit from that?

A basic income reprioritizes what we mean by “work.” As it stands, you’re only financially compensated for work the labour market values – that is, work that can deliver a profit for somebody. This means such essential and cherished human endeavours – parenting, volunteer work, leisure time, and so on – are tallied up as costs, not assets. These are the very heart of the human experience, and a basic income will allow those who wish to contribute these essential assets to our society to do so without being punished for it.