by Narcy Calamatta
Universal basic income (UBI) means the government — in a civilised democratic country — guarantees to all its adult citizens a regular individual survival income. I think this system should include any citizen who votes and helps choose a democratic government — in my country’s case, the Democratic Republic of Malta, that would be any upright citizen over 16. Here the citizen comes first, and I hope Malta will be among the first to introduce a UBI scheme, although so far its advocates have received little official recognition, because by 2019 Malta had almost reached full employment and its social services are now so good that few citizens slip through the safety net.
UBI is not a free-lunch scheme. This is not even a minimum wage, which in many cases holds workers on the edge of the poverty line. In any case, it’s not a social handout, doled out after the rigmarole of means tests and personal evaluations. No, this is a basic amount of money, enough for citizens to live decently — with a roof over their heads, food on the table and enough money to pay for basic expenses such as clothing and transport. The word basic derives from the Latin word “basis”, which means foundation. You do not build your house on clay but on a good basic foundation.
If this scheme were passed into law, our upright citizen would be receiving money from the government. It is not earned money, commensurate to production or services rendered. It would be enough money to know for sure that today’s expenses will be covered. This is a new way of thinking.
Is it better than the old way? Consider that, as things stand today, a citizen with no basic support has to go out in the morning and face the free-market system, in which the survival-of-the-fittest mentality still rules. If you are just leaving school, or in between jobs, you are never one of the fittest.
Therefore if you are to survive with dignity, you need a guaranteed supply of money. You have to have enough coming in to give yourself the chance of acquiring a fair share of the wealth of society. You need to have an equal opportunity with those who arrived before you or have family privileges or acquired a better education. The word “fair” here means a plausible chance of realising your potential. Your government should guarantee that income if it aims to have a happy and just society.
Is UBI a new concept?
It is not a new concept in Norway, for sure, where they have already started an experiment in a specific sector of the population to judge whether it could work. Scandinavian governments have always been pioneers in citizens’ rights. With the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic, governments all over the world have had to take measures to save jobs and small businesses. The advocates of UBI showed them the way in which to guarantee a basic income.
Who says so?
Pope Francis in his recent book, Let Us Dream, pointed out that the Covid 19 pandemic has uncovered the resilience of humans for finding solutions to save the dignity and the wellbeing of all citizens.
His Holiness suggests that: “Governments should recognise the value to society of the work of non-earners as a vital part of our rethinking in the post-Covid world. That is why I believe it is time to explore concepts like the universal basic income, also known as the negative income tax.”
Martin Sandbu, in his book The Economics of Belonging, states that individuals must not completely lose control over their personal economic fate to market forces. He also proposes that in the transition of market powers from manufacturing to that of a service- and knowledge-based economy, governments should not resort to the usual bailing-out of the traditional losers such as banks and corporate multinationals.
Sandbu, rather, favours increasing workers’ productivity and bargaining power so that firms compete for the best workers, not the workers among themselves for the best jobs. He also advocates that tax-free earnings allowances should be replaced with a small universal basic income, to reinforce safety nets without laying poverty traps.
US political columnist David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, states that today people are living longer, and the phases of life have gone up from five to seven. He adds what he aptly calls “the Odyssey Years”, between 25 and 35, in which the postgraduate widens his or her horizons and has a go at a bigger spectrum of life. He calls it a period of constant auditioning.
The Odyssey Years
Brooks points out that today people are living longer. When you finish your education there is no rush to settle down and become a predictable nine-to-five employee for the next 40 years. You can experiment with various career options before you choose to tie yourself down and join the grey-suited brigade. A study in Australia found that youngsters between 25 and 35 experience an average of 17 jobs and five career changes.
Brooks also points out that those citizens in their Odyssey Years are reluctant to submit themselves to the conservative “gatekeeper” pattern. Youths are rejecting the idea of allowing a stranger to label them early in their working life.
He also highlights a new category of people in active retirement. Senior citizens who extend their education and create new community work are contributing to society when in retirement, and Brooks evidences the need for a continuous lifetime education. To go the extra mile, every citizen should receive a UBI payment.
Resting time between jobs
We are also duty bound to think of those mature people who find themselves between jobs, either because their trade has become redundant or because their employer has shut down under the pressures of market forces. In the late 60s when I was in London, trying to become a professional actor on stage and in film, my experienced colleagues taught me to say I was “resting”, not out of work.
That was never a resting time, really, because it was when we worked hardest looking for the next gig, going to auditions and soliciting work. We were looked upon as scroungers, because we did not submit to a steady job in an office. Today almost everyone experiences periods of time inbetween jobs for one reason or another. Such citizens need retraining to acquire new skills. The older they are, the less healthy they might be and, therefore, limited in choice of the type of work they can do.
Meanwhile, these citizens might well have committed themselves to providing for their children’s education and progress in life. When a person reaches middle age, he or she has reached the peak of responsibilities. I had a friend in New York, a highly respected Knight of Malta, who, in his prime, became a cardiac patient and ended up lining up at food banks on cold winter days.
Citizens who work in jobs requiring top physical fitness — police, soldiers, fishermen, construction workers and the like — need to retire at an earlier age. Whatever income they have from pensions or life insurance, it is never enough to match the rising cost of living, market fluctuations in the value of currencies, or a sudden economic crisis. It is even worse for citizens of less-developed countries. These talented and respectable citizens need to have a guarantee that some sort of basic income is always available, so that they can solve their own problems.
All these challenges cost money. I suggest that if the UBI is truly universal, then all citizens should be able to rely on a steady basic income that empowers them to realise their potential.
Potential is found outside the conservative box
This is a matter of thinking outside the box. So far, progressive countries have honed their social services and industrial-relations laws to a fine art. However, all existing laws operate within the constraints of conservative traditional practices dictated by the free market and the supply-and-demand rigmarole.
UBI does not consider the quid-pro-quo practice of employer/employee or the supplier/buyer relationships in an unregulated market place. We said before that everyone should be given a fair chance to realise his or her potential.
Everyone has potential. Those who have natural talents and training in a skill in demand are the first to procure a steady income. Others who may have talent and training but whose skills are not in demand in the commercial and industrial world, whether within their geographical limitations or their cultural ones, risk being lost to society. Demand varies with change of fashion or trends, and specialised workers need time to adjust to innovation.
I am an artist in the performing arts. I know how the present world makes it impossible for talented artists in any realm of art to realise their full potential. Life becomes one long string of compromises, constricting the family or dependents of the artists to live a hand-to-mouth existence. It is not only artists who have this predicament. Researchers, ecologists, archaeologists, young track and field athletes… They cannot aspire to have a decent income when they are starting up. Anyone whose skills do not conform to the big money-making engine may be considered a pariah.
But I would call this category of citizens with high potential “silkworms”: if you give them enough time and nutrition — UBI — to develop, they will produce silk-quality products. From among these you will get the occasional star singer or football player who generates sufficient income to keep hundreds of families afloat. You might also be nurturing a researcher, scientist or athlete who brings honour, gold medals to his or her nation and also an improvement to the lifestyle of their society.
We must never forget the high rate of turnover of staff in the service industries. Creative people, like cooks, seamstresses and all sorts of artisans, depend on the restrictive supply-and-demand parameters of a free-market regime. More often than not these artisans are self-employed and, in the off season, have no secure financial support — not just for their own business but also, in many cases, to provide for their employees. These small enterprises cannot survive on their seasonal earnings alone and need some sort of steady basic income guarantee to help them weather the unpredictability of seasonality. This type of citizen is never in the same place long enough to be unionised or categorised, because they are nomads. You will find Italians cooking in Germany and Germans servicing aeroplane engines in Malta. They can be much more useful to society if they can rely on a UBI.
Potential, potential, potential
Governments should look at the benefits of having their citizens realise their potential by addressing today’s realities. The postwar pattern of youngsters looking for a job for life no longer holds in today’s innovative world. The anthropological classification of 70 years ago into rural and urban society has been obliterated. Each neighbourhood may well contain a cross-section of all strata of society and all categories of workers and educational standards. A teenager sitting in his parents’ kitchen in a mountain-top village could metaphorically be moving mountains with his computer in faraway continents. It seems to me that it is impossible and futile to try to pigeonhole such diverse skills.
To think outside the conservative box we need to address the various realities that face our citizens throughout their lifetime. There are few today who aspire for the proverbial gold watch after 40 years of loyalty to a single employer. Today, respectable citizens realise their potential when they rise to a position where they can contribute towards their communities’ needs and pay back to society what they have received, with added interest. The key solution is to make it possible for each and every citizen to realise his or her potential.
Our economic system is not perfect
It is evident that our present economic system is not perfect. The richest countries have the highest proportion of homeless and destitute citizens. Our wealthiest and most socially aware countries have the highest rates of suicides. Our strongest economies depend on cheap labour, often provided by disenfranchised emigrants escaping a worse misery in their own country. Under the current model of so-called democratic governments, 10 per cent of the population own as much as the other 90 per cent together. Besides, the end result is that of unrest and conflict.
I have earlier quoted from those few studies not to give the impression that I have found shangri-la but to show that we, the advocates of a UBI system in our economic set-up, are not alone. All over the world there is this wind of change, endeavouring to alter our economic philosophy for the better. We aspire to do this while knowing all along that we will never make it a perfect system.
Covid effect and the financial injection antidote
In other words: where is the money coming from? Hopefully, politicians who adopt the policy of instituting a UBI system will be voted in by a majority. They would then bring in a new way of thinking. When Covid 19 hit the Maltese economy, it damaged mostly the tourist sector. Tourism accounts for more than 30 per cent of our GDP. The young prime minister of months in situ asked his advisers for an immediate and novel solution for the summer months.
The answer was to give each and every citizen of 16 years of age and over a spending voucher of €100: 60 per cent to be spent in restaurants and catering establishments, 40 per cent on clothes and household goods. That summer of 2020, the catering industry and related tourist establishments reached high turnovers, some even matching the record figures of the previous year.
There was no tax inflicted on business leaders to compensate for this. Every voting citizen was given the same amount without any scrutiny or means tests. No-one was asked to prove this money was needed. The whole country was in a holiday mood and each person went on to spend more than the €100 allotted. Each euro spent did the usual rounds, in that the restaurateur had to buy his supplies and the supplier went out to celebrate, using his unexpected profits. The scheme was so successful that the government proposed a similar scheme in the November budget, to be activated at the end of the shutdown, hopefully this spring. All political forces were in favour, because such a ready cash injection into the economy has served as yeast — to raise the rest of the economy to a new energy. I suggest a trial period of giving this €100 to everyone every week for a year and wait for results.
How can we bell the cat?
Pope Francis states, in his book: “Policies like UBI can also help to free people enough to combine earning wages with giving time to the community.”
This new system, which would allow citizens more time with their families and their local communities, would make the individual citizen proud to walk straight and tall. Citizens would have the courage to face bigger challenges and realise their dreams. They would gladly struggle and do their best to realise their potential. This can be a credible promise of achieving a new beginning if we press our politicians to adopt a universal basic income system. Communities made up of such newly invigorated citizens would get together and accept the challenge to bell the cat.
European Citizens’ Initiative
In January 2021 a number of EU citizens registered a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) to promote the UBI proposal with the intent to have it presented to the European Parliament. The initiative is in the process of collecting one million signatures, of which the first 100k are already in hand. The main concern is that few official bodies are involved because this is not a scheme that is included in traditional social-services legislation or industrial-relations circles.
I encourage our readers to find out more about the ECI-UBI and join in our efforts to bell the cat.
© Narcy Calamatta February 2021
Narcy Calamatta is a veteran writer, designer, actor and director on stage, TV and film. A militant in social causes, he regularly contributes to local print media in Malta in English and Maltese.
He has been editor of a left-wing political satirical bi-weekly gazette and a stringer for the international issue of the Hollywood Reporter. He was the drama and art critic on the first local electronic newspaper, maltastar.com.
His essays on the tourism and film industries have been published in a guide book in three languages and he has published a book with a collection of four of his plays in English and their translation in Maltese.
This year he published a dissertation on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame and its translation into Maltese. He is the editor of two books; Survivors II by international photographer Joe P Smith and Somebody Up There Loves Me, his brother Peter’s saga in Maltese on his fight with cancer. Narcy has also written three scripts for award-winning short films and he wrote the scripts for seven episodes of a TV comedy series. His dissertation on The Beheading of St John, the Caravaggio masterpiece that hangs in St John’s Cathedral in Valletta, was published locally and he delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
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