Basic Income in Song
by Joel Glidden
A conversation between sociologist Kathi Weeks, critical of the Protestant work ethic; Mark Walker, who argues that a basic income would raise wages in the job market; three econometricians who advocate against a basic income scheme to ameliorate poverty; and two scholars who are critical of the feasibility of basic income – all are represented by myself with various masks and a mannequin in an empty apartment, all of which is set to the dusty strains of a Yamaha keyboard preset.
This video was made for an assignment in an academic writing course where students were asked to dramatize our final paper by imagining what a conversation between the authors of our source material would be like. To my professor’s great credit, the intent of this exercise, to help us students discover our paper’s ultimate thesis by way of a conversation, was indeed successful, as my argument became clear to me in the midst of writing the lyrics.
The different viewpoints expressed by these experts are so complex and different from each other that I wasn’t really able to represent both sides of the issue in the lyrics. Though music can be more myopic in perspective than an academic paper, this technical issue served to highlight the problem with this discourse, namely the fact that everyone’s arguments for how a basic income should work are all radically different from each other, and that this is due to their ideological presuppositions. Kathi Weeks, in her book The Problem with Work, attributes the attitudes towards the role of work in the economy with our culture’s ideology of “productivism,” or the idea that everyone must work in order to be deserving of income. Since this concept gets to the heart of the communication breakdown between various disciplines, I use her perspective to point out the inconsistencies in my opponents. It’s also important to note the backgrounds of the authors of the two papers that I criticize: “Fighting Poverty…” and “The Politics of Unconditional Basic Income…” are written by econometricians in the former case and a biomedical ethics researcher and a lecturer in law in the second case, which implies how widespread productivist biases can be amongst different experts; (we even get an aside from Paolo Virno, a Marxist philosopher whose ideas on the capacity of human skill provides a possible criticism of my argument, and who’s portrayed in the video by a wig stand). Though my opposition may all be faceless straw men in the song, the arguments in their papers are founded on the basic assumptions that we all have towards work.
But beyond the video’s overall effect of showing how different economic viewpoints are not able to see eye-to-eye on even the reasons why a basic income is necessary in the modern service economy, I found that the real message of this video, and what would become one of the main arguments of my paper, is that a basic income is a lot more than a social welfare project: the whole idea calls into question the very nature of why and how society chooses to allocate income to its citizens. I argue that even before basic income should be discussed in political terms, we must be clear about the problem it attempts to alleviate. These points emerge toward the end of the video, in dialogue between me and Mark Walker, from whose paper I take my premise.
First of all, we as a society can no longer take employment as a given when the number of jobs keeps shrinking in the long term (“Unemployment…”). Second, we can no longer assume that people will be able to find work if they’re forced to as a means of basic survival (on account of the dearth of high-paying work in the current economy, which is arguably caused by skilled work being replaced by technological innovation). Finally, a basic income might indeed make it unnecessary to force employers in the service industry to “play nice” with the workers who depend on them by enforcing minimum wage laws. When a middle-class employee possesses some kind of “portable leverage” in the job market (in the forms of college degrees, marketable skills, and personal capital like transportation and housing) employers must necessarily raise salaries in order to entice and keep employees. And since our society is moving irreversibly into an era of unskilled, low-pay work, a basic income is a strong contender for a solution to supply the lower classes with the portable leverage needed to “naturally” raise the wages of the menial jobs that they could freely choose to accept or decline. These are all points made in Walker’s paper, “BIG and Technological Unemployment: Chicken Little Versus the Economists” in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. But even with the concrete evidence of low labor participation and technological unemployment, to make this argument persuasive will further require that we attack the productivist ideological assumptions about work that are so ingrained in public thought, which cause us to presume that finding work is everyone’s own responsibility, and that people must be forced, rather than enticed, to work. This will have to be done at the level of discourse, as Kathi Weeks rightly argues.
But if the video cannot present the full story, does it have value as a stand-alone piece of infotainment? The viewer will find neither artistry nor argument in this jingle; even after fifteen verses of overstuffed syllabic content, a viewer might find explanation lacking. So instead of aiming for persuasion, the hope is that my enthusiasm for these issues will serve as a marketing tactic. That is, if I don’t prove my point, perhaps the attitude of this piece will highlight the need to take a basic income seriously in light of the problems of technological employment and the current state of labor participation. What I wouldn’t give to be witness to an actual conversation between these people, all of whom are more knowledgeable than I, forcing each other to confront ideas that the other one failed to consider. It’s the very lack of discourse on the subject that engenders the holes in each contributor’s logic. Indeed, in doing research for my paper, I came across a lot of articles written by experts from many fields waxing speculative about the feasibility of basic income, but very little serious criticism or even dialogue with others who are writing on the topic. While it’s encouraging that more and more papers and articles on the topic have been popping up in recent months (like the cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic [Thompson]), basic income seems to still be largely discussed in terms of being “compensation” for a lack of jobs, rather than as being a necessary economic tool to improve the menial labor job marketplace. If this conception of the function of basic income continues to remain without response, I will simply have to resort to writing more songs about it.
Clavet, Nicholas-James, Jean-Yves Duclos, and Guy Lacroix. “Fighting Poverty: Assessing The Effect Of Guaranteed Minimum Income Proposals In Quebec.” Canadian Public Policy 39.4 (2013): 491-516. Web.
De Wispelaere, Jurgen and Lindsay Stirton. “The Politics of Unconditional Basic Income: Bringing Bureaucracy Back In.” Political Studies. 61.4 (2013): 915-932. Web.
Thompson, Derek. “A World Without Work.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. n.d. 13thAugust 2015. Online. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/>
“Unemployment / Labor force participation rate.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 21st April 2015. Web. 22nd April 2015.<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unemployment#Labor_force_participation_rate>
Virno, Paolo. “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus.” Generation Online. n.d. 13th August, 2015. Online. <http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcmultitude2.html>
Walker, Mark. “BIG and Technological Unemployment: Chicken Little Versus the Economists.” Journal of Evolution and Technology. 24.1 (2014): 5-25. Web.
Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
Joel Glidden is a freshman at the University of Southern Maine, where he studies philosophy. Before that, he spent his time working in a laundromat – and studying philosophy. He is driven to research and think by the twin problems of how to want things and how to avoid power. His favorite philosophers are Spinoza, Hume, Deleuze, Federici, Peirce, and Hacking. He also plays in a synthpop band named Mr. NEET. If he weren’t doing these things, he would simply manage a laundromat with a coffee table covered in dozens of copies of Spinoza’s Ethics.