Jobs Guarantee or Universal Basic Income? Why Not Both?

Neither is a silver bullet, but they can help us tackle inequality and climate change.

Alyssa Battistoni June 20, 2018

An original Work Projects Administration sign from the 1930's. (Photo by Dovate)

The argu­ment about a uni­ver­sal basic income (UBI) ver­sus a job guar­an­tee (JG) has become one of the liveli­est and most con­tentious debates on the Left. Each has been tout­ed as a solu­tion to all ills: the way to decrease depres­sion, close the racial wealth gap, rec­og­nize his­tor­i­cal­ly under­val­ued forms of work, trans­form the econ­o­my, save the planet. 

Left-liberal energy is gathering around a job guarantee, as witnessed in recent proposals from Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker. That’s reason enough to get behind it.

Though UBI and JG are typ­i­cal­ly coun­ter­posed, it’s entire­ly plau­si­ble they could coex­ist. If paid work is as impor­tant to well-being as JG advo­cates say, most peo­ple would want a job even with UBI. In par­tic­u­lar, the black free­dom move­ment, from civ­il rights lead­ers to Black Lives Mat­ter, has called for both a basic income and guar­an­teed jobs. 

Whether both can do all the things pro­po­nents promise — in par­tic­u­lar, the essen­tial work of tran­si­tion­ing quick­ly to a low-car­bon econ­o­my — is a dif­fer­ent, hard­er ques­tion. Whether it’s pos­si­ble to achieve both is yet another. 

A UBI pro­gram could actu­al­ly be a dan­ger to the cli­mate if, in dis­trib­ut­ing rev­enue from pub­licly owned resources, we rely on prof­its from destruc­tive indus­tries such as oil, as in Alas­ka. But there are alter­na­tives: a deple­tion tax on com­pa­nies that degrade so-called nat­ur­al cap­i­tal, a tax on car­bon and oth­er pol­lu­tants, or a land val­ue tax tar­get­ing large landown­ers — all of which fos­ter envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion and make pub­lic claims to nat­ur­al wealth.

I ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed UBI because sep­a­rat­ing liveli­hoods from jobs is impor­tant, not only for human well­be­ing but for break­ing an envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive growth cycle. That’s where many JG pro­pos­als make me ner­vous. I have yet to see a JG pro­pos­al that doesn’t promise, at least tan­gen­tial­ly, to increase growth and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. A pro­pos­al pub­lished by the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties, for exam­ple, sug­gests a JG would pro­duce increas­es in the growth rate of GDP, and sub­stan­tial pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and capac­i­ty gains.” But not all such gains are desir­able. We ought to crowd out the many jobs that are active­ly harm­ful to peo­ple, soci­ety and the envi­ron­ment, whether in fast fash­ion or Ama­zon warehouses. 

Raúl and Rohan agree that we should work less in gen­er­al, and it’s pos­si­ble to build work reduc­tion into a JG pro­gram. But the val­oriza­tion of work nev­er­the­less per­me­ates JG dis­course, often framed in terms of dig­ni­ty or sol­i­dar­i­ty. If the point is for every­one to con­tribute to nec­es­sary work in the spir­it of equal­i­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty, we should be mak­ing every­one work — but no one yet has pro­posed draft­ing land­lords and the idle rich to shov­el com­post. (I’m on board.) 

It is encour­ag­ing, how­ev­er, to see that many cur­rent JG advo­cates are think­ing about what con­sti­tutes low-car­bon, social­ly ben­e­fi­cial work. Econ­o­mists Stephanie Kel­ton and Pavli­na Tch­erne­va have both called for a JG ori­ent­ed around care: for peo­ple, for the plan­et and for com­mu­ni­ties. Impor­tant ques­tions remain. Could par­ents get jobs” car­ing for their chil­dren? Could friends get jobs car­ing for one anoth­er? Yet the move to put care work at the heart of a cli­mate pro­gram is impor­tant. We need to move away from the work of resource-inten­sive con­sumer goods toward the work of bet­ter­ing lives, plant­i­ng trees, con­struct­ing play­grounds, mak­ing art. 

Per­haps most promis­ing is the com­bi­na­tion of a JG and uni­ver­sal basic ser­vices: free and pub­licly pro­vid­ed hous­ing, trans­porta­tion, inter­net access, edu­ca­tion, health­care and oth­er neces­si­ties. Dense hous­ing and pub­lic trans­porta­tion are par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­cial to reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions in a just way. 

If that sounds too good to be true, that’s where pol­i­tics comes in. The most sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal chal­lenge for both poli­cies, of course, is that pri­vate employ­ers don’t want peo­ple to have alter­na­tives to bad jobs. Real­is­ti­cal­ly, the Left doesn’t have the pow­er to win both a UBI and a JG in the imme­di­ate future — par­tic­u­lar­ly at a time when unem­ploy­ment is rel­a­tive­ly low, even if bad jobs are ram­pant. So we need to be alert to the chal­lenges of actu­al­ly pass­ing some­thing, and to how our ide­al poli­cies might be dis­tort­ed in the process.

I’ve grown more wary of a UBI as it’s increas­ing­ly cham­pi­oned by tech scions who see it as a way to throw crumbs to work­ers replaced by robots. That ver­sion of UBI, which would replace social ser­vices with lump sums of cash, isn’t what I want— but of late it’s been the one with more momen­tum. Sim­i­lar­ly, while left-wing JG pro­grams aren’t work­fare, we need to be care­ful not to rein­force the idea that peo­ple only mat­ter if they work enough, as the Right tries to impose work require­ments on food stamps and oth­er assis­tance programs.

My hunch is that the JGU­BI debate has become so loaded in part because pass­ing any left-ish leg­is­la­tion seems hard enough right now — so peo­ple want a pol­i­cy that can do as much as pos­si­ble all at once. (I’ve been guilty of this myself!) But we don’t need a sin­gle sil­ver bul­let: We need a strong Left move­ment. The most impor­tant prob­lem isn’t which pol­i­cy looks best in the abstract, but how we build a polit­i­cal force capa­ble of win­ning a decent ver­sion of either in the short term, and then build­ing on it over time. 

Left-lib­er­al ener­gy is gath­er­ing around a JG, as wit­nessed in recent pro­pos­als from Bernie Sanders and Cory Book­er. That’s rea­son enough for me to get behind it, too, and to push hard for a pro­gram that will sup­port the kinds of work, from solar pan­el instal­la­tion to wet­land restora­tion to elder care, that are absolute­ly cru­cial to our sur­vival. It’s also why I’ve spent more time dis­cussing it here. Yet, I will con­tin­ue to insist that every­one has a right to a decent life whether or not they have a job, that human dig­ni­ty does not depend on paid employ­ment, that per­pet­u­al growth is not the way to pros­per­i­ty, and that every­one should ben­e­fit from shared wealth and our shared plan­et. I hope the Left can keep both ideas in mind at once.

Alyssa Bat­tis­toni is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in polit­i­cal the­o­ry at Yale and an asso­ciate fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the Brook­lyn Insti­tute for Social Research. Her writ­ing has appeared in Dis­sent, n+1 Moth­er Jones and Jacobin, where she is on the edi­to­r­i­al board.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH