I love this guy! I love the concept of "work fetishism."
I love the notion that somebody, somewhere, somehow may really be worried
about, and working on, a public program that would assure "a
natural and attractive way of ensuring a fair distribution of real freedom."
That may be my definition of heaven on earth. But Im also just
the kind of guy who could fall hard for the "universal basic income"
At one level its near where I came into this fight.
In the late 1960s, I was an organizer for the National Welfare Rights
Organization (NWRO) in Springfield, Mass., Boston, and Little Rock,
Ark., during the founding of ACORN. We fought tooth and nail in those
days for the principal plank in the NWRO platforma guaranteed
According to George Wileys definition of the term
and the suggestions of recipient leaders like Johnnie Tillmon, we set
the number around $5,500 per year for a family of four. We fought this
campaign both in the streets and in the suites. The demonstrations were
highly publicized. And the NWRO national staff pushed the debate forward
by determining a real number ($5,500 or fight!) to offset the lowballing
figures from economist James Tobin and the McGovern "demogrant,"
as well as Daniel Patrick Moynihans $1,800 per year Guaranteed
Annual Income (GAI) welfare proposal under Nixon. NWRO led the opposition
to most of these proposals because they were too punitive and too cheap.
We didnt know then that we were as close as we might get to a
payday over this thirty-year stretch.
Today, we seem to have largely lost the battle on forced
work. Workfare, as it has become under the Clinton welfare plan, is
the bedrock of the program, while the notion of a guaranteed annual
income for welfare recipients, much less a UBI, has been lost in the
policy debate completely. Workfare is "work fetishism" with
a vengeance, since the penalties for resistanceor simply non-complianceare
sanctions and a guarantee of no income whatsoever.
Having been so badly routed on the issue of "distributing
real freedom," organizers for low and moderate income families
and communities have tried to change gears and focus more on making
work pay. That has meant that ACORN has organized "workfare
unions," particularly in Los Angeles, New York, and Milwaukee.
We have foughtand sometimes wonon issues requiring the payment
of minimum wages for workfare, creating rights and entitlements on workfare
jobs, and winning formal grievance procedures for workfare workers.
Nonetheless, people do still have to work.
Outside of the workfare regime, we believe the living-wage
movement has been crucial in reintroducing the issue of wages and wage
levels out of the context of a firm and its workforce and into the general
policy debate. These living-wage fights have led to the passage of more
than fifty city and county ordinances requiring significant wage thresholds,
mostly for publicly contracted work within these communities. ACORN,
SEIU Locals 100 and 880, and other unions and community groups have
made a huge contribution in this fight. Current efforts, like the pending
initiative in New Orleans to raise the minimum wage by one dollar over
the federal level for all workers in the city, could take the fight
to the next level.
This work problem is real. Damned if people dont
seem to want to work. They want to be paid fairly, treated with
dignity and respect, and they want to think that their jobs are importantthe
whole package. It strains my imagination to think of the burgeoning
service economy, chock-a-block with minimum wage and menial jobs, surviving
if citizens could get paid to not work at any level, no matter how pitiful.
Firms would be unable to fill some of these jobs without a gun.
So, as smitten as I am with all of this, and as hard as
I have always fallen for the notion of something like the UBI, I just
cant see it happening. With a projected trillion-dollar federal
treasury surplus, the silence around a guaranteed annual income for
everybody in the national policy debate is deafening. I think we should
encourage Van Parijs and the whole UBI debate: rather than fiddle-faddling
around about what might be possible, why not push the limits of the
dialogue as far as we can get people to go? But the notion that we could
move a consensus around incomemuch less freedomas an entitlement
of the American economy and work culture strikes me as an elegant and
I feel like a jaded, forlorn victim of unrequited love.
I think we need more and more of this, if for nothing else, just to
take the edge off.