GRASSROOTS IN THE USA AND THE EU ARE CALLING FOR A UBI
There is a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) project that is seeking to introduce the policy of a basic income for all citizens, especially those who slip through the safety net of social-security legislation. Decades ago, Martin Luther King advocated a guaranteed income for all citizens in the United States as a measure to eliminate poverty. Today there is a healthy discussion all over the USA on this subject. This discussion is being led by a robust league of city mayors who are in favour of such a system. However, a Gallup poll in 2019 still showed that almost 60 per cent of US citizens are against this basic income system. Strictly speaking, it is 60 per cent of those citizens emancipated enough to take part in a Gallup poll.
“We knew that this health crisis would impact artists and artists of color in particular,” San Francisco mayor Ms London Breed said in an April 6 2021 statement when she was considering the effects of Covid 19.
Last year Ms Breed accepted to ask for government funds to launch a trial universal basic income (UBI) scheme. Research in 2020 showed that 70 per cent of creative workers had left her city during the pandemic because they could not afford the rising house rents. Ms Breed had a group of 130 artists identified as being the most likely ones that could make the UBI system work. For the first six months of 2021 she is offering these chosen few US $1,000 per month.
It is hoped that by the end of June, these artists will have paid up any debts they had run up and will have used their talent to become small entrepreneurs and, consequently, self-sufficient. I had already suggested such an experiment to the ECI-UBI promoters at the end of last year. I shall hereby endeavour to ring the bell once more, hoping that, this time round, my call will not fall on deaf ears.
SLOWLY, SLOWLY, CATCHEE MONKEY
I am suggesting that instead of proposing a holistic strategy, governments should apply a sectorial tactic, which could gradually achieve our primary goal. We should aim at penetrating the underbelly of the crocodile of bureaucracy. We need to find a soft entry point. The gradual approach should also lead us to cautiously reaching our goal of a universal basic income. We need patience if we want to catch this monkey alive.
THE BUTTERFLY LEAVES THE COCOON
I propose that, at first, only graduate artists should become eligible for a personal basic income (PBI). In this situation, our typical newly qualified individual is leaving college, or an academy, or even a university faculty, without an immediate hope of acquiring an income as remuneration for artistic work. This freshly hatched artist has to go out and compete in an industrialised world ruled by globalisation moguls, powerful multinationals and fly-by-night high-stakes entrepreneurs. Our beautifully qualified butterflies leave the relative safety of their college cocoon and face the perils of a jungle.
We also know that wise artists are never satisfied with knowing their trade sufficiently. More often than not they choose to undertake further studies by buying electronic programmes or attending courses and training sessions. All this costs money that cannot be available unless the aspirant artist has a constant regular income or a statutory personal basic income. In most cases such starting artists need to cut their ear lobe off in exchange for a glass of wine. We must remember that many of them are also burdened with back-payments on study loans.
In Malta my suggestion of financing the first years of a university graduate will not sound so alien. All public education is free of charge in Malta, including university. In the last 30 years, all Maltese tertiary-education students have been receiving a monthly stipend to help them in their studies. This stipend starts as a small token at upper-secondary level and grows every year to a decent income by the fourth year of university. For Malta my suggestion of a personal basic income for fresh graduates could seem like an extension of the student status stipend for an extra year. This system could work as a leg-up in a student’s start to a working life.
Most artistic activity incurs basic costs for the acquisition of materials and tools. Artists are obliged by the exigencies of their trade to purchase paint, canvas, brushes, ballet shoes and musical instruments, besides having to hire rehearsal space or practice studios. We can also point out that every working artist living solely from his/her trade is traditionally self-employed and needs to pay for self-promotion material such as photos, portfolios and advertising. All artists need to find finance for these costs to embark on a career.
In many cases professional artists are denied a job because they are replaced by an amateur. When local entities are not governed by government regulations, the best artists are invariably elbowed out of the way through nepotism and clientelism. These universal conditions hinder unduly most start-up artists in establishing themselves in the free market. A civilised country should not have its fully qualified artists relegating their potential to driving taxis.
Besides, as we said earlier, the artists themselves are spending and consuming to complete their artistic output. Thereby they generate income for others such as retailers and supporting trades. If we were to look at the end credits of a single feature-film production we would see hundreds of technicians’ names, who would have worked on that production. This is to say that an artist who is a scriptwriter or a film director can create lucrative work for many other technicians by his or her art.
GUARANTEED ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS
Society makes superstar artists its model heroes. The sky’s the limit, as the posters say. Artists keep surpassing themselves. Whoever dreamt of the artistic standards of Cirque du Soleil before it first appeared? Artists raise the bar with every production they present. It follows that every newly qualified artist aspires to reach such heights. You will never catch an artist skiving off artistic work. Artists dream of greatness, so they cannot afford to waste time.
Newly qualified artists need a leg up to join the highly competitive free market of the entertainment industry or publishing, or even to reach into the pockets of the privileged art collectors. The UBI concept is saying that each artistic graduate should be guaranteed a roof over his/her head and a warm glass of milk and a croissant every day. The rest of the costs will be looked after by the working artists themselves.
Therefore artists can safely be given a guaranteed basic income by their own governments convinced that the money will be put to good use. When the artists are in their initial years of launching their specialised careers, they multiply substantially the value of any income received.
A RETURN ON GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
Why should a government feel obliged to aid a fledgling artist? What is the government’s return on such an investment of public money? Governments who would have invested great sums of money to educate each individual should in turn recognise the need to justify such investment. Therefore a government’s next step should be to ensure that such investments in training the aspiring artists will start rendering dividends.
When artists are successful they bring honour to their immediate community and sometimes to their whole country. When artists sell their trade they generate a positive cycle in their community. Their artistic output makes the universal quality of life much richer.
A single music concert outstrips any major sports event in the generation and circulation of money. Think of the phenomenal sums of money that music superstars such as Madonna and Bocelli and their retinues are paid to stage a public event. Think of how many people profit from this event: airlines, hotels, stage hands, ticket sellers, security personnel, transport, caterers and vendors of all types. The list is endless. The final result is that the public enjoys the show and the government takes its share from direct and indirect taxation. A government that is pro-business would do well to see that artistic enterprise flourishes. The return on such investment is immediate and is collected in cash.
ARTISTS CANNOT HELP BUT BE CREATIVE
How can a government feel secure that such funding will not be abused? Governments have to realise that an artist is an intrinsic worker. Every artist is a creator. A creator does not take coffee breaks according to collective agreements negotiated by a workers’ union. An inventor of new ideas does not stop thinking at any time, perhaps not even during sleep. Schubert used to wear his glasses in bed. I suppose it was in case he needed to jot down new musical phrases that would pop up in his dreams. He is quoted as saying that he did so because he wanted to see his dreams more clearly.
A writer gets up in the morning and writes without even stopping for anything before he gets his idea down on record. A concert pianist practises all day, every day. Actors and dancers are studying lines and scores, besides doing physical practice all the time. When I went to live in London as an actor I was advised never to tell anyone I might meet socially that I am an actor: actors and dancers are never invited to anyone’s home because they would likely eat their hosts out of house and home.
Artists do not provide their art expecting to receive remuneration but only produce their artistic output because it is in their nature to do so. They cannot help themselves from creating. Artists need managers and agents to ensure they are fairly paid for their work. Before they can afford such professionals in their lives, they have to be guaranteed a basic income that would ensure their mental sanity and good health.
The next question would be on the quantum. For certain civilised countries such as Malta, where every potential worker is given the national minimum wage rates as an unemployment benefit, the personal basic income should be higher than the minimum wage. In Malta’s case the minimum wage is just above the poverty line. Here we are suggesting that every start-up artist should be entitled to get a stipend or allowance halfway between the national minimum wage and the average wage. Sometimes this rate is called the living wage.
THE THIN EDGE OF THE WEDGE
I suggest that if we are convinced that the newly graduated artist deserves a basic national income — at least for the initial period until said artist gets established — then we should approach the government authorities with a request for a personal basic income for just this sector first.
A minister for culture is more likely to be understanding of the needs of this specialised group. Besides, the numbers would never be overwhelming as they would be if we were to request a universal consideration that would include all citizens. Many newly qualified artists, such as digital designers for example, walk straight into a well-paid job. Many artists choose to become teachers or managers in their trade and again find immediate employment. It is only a small number of the potentially self-employed artists, who do not have family money to support them, who need to be considered for a state stipend.
So when we restrict our request to such a specific sector of start-up artists, we would be aiming to pierce the wall of universal resistance by a thin edge of the wedge. Should we manage to persuade even one government to give a basic income to such a limited sector as that of start-up artists, then we stand a good chance of establishing a precedent. After a short while this model will point out imperfections that must be improved upon or ironed out; then it would become an exemplary point of achievement for any government administration.
SAUCE FOR THE GOOSE AND THE GANDER
Once the personal basic income model given to start-up artists becomes successful, then it would be easier to approach other government departments to copy the experiment. Immediately this system becomes common practice, then other sectors will find a paved road for acquiring a basic income for their special-interest start-ups.
One example could be track and field athletes, who have a very short life of existence as protagonists in the sport of their choice. Not all of them are potential champions and consequently do not receive statal sports funds: the majority end up as also-rans.
Other sectors such as researchers, scientific innovators and inventors at large should be considered as deserving of a basic income as well. Such innovators do not work on a regular time schedule and voluntarily burn the midnight oil pursuing their dream. They will never get adequate or fair compensation for their efforts. Many of them have to abandon their precious work because otherwise they risk becoming destitute.
These two examples are not mainstream types of working citizens but, like artists, they both have a good potential of contributing to the national economy and/or to the wellbeing of the community. If these select groups start getting a personal basic income, then it would become logical for others to be equally encouraged by their governments to rise above the poverty trap of an industrialised and unbalanced consumer society. It is only fair to say at this stage that what is sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander. Then, in a few years, the policy of governments providing a universal basic income will become commonplace.
SAN FRANCISCO: PRAY FOR US
With this blog post I am appealing to governments to take up the San Francisco mayor’s model and issue a basic income for a sample number of artists. If San Francisco gives its blessings to this new system of guaranteed basic income then gradually other governments could be persuaded to spread the concept to other sectors of precarious work categories. This impetus could grow to achieve the desired universal basic income. It sounds utopian for sure, but so, once, did Britain’s National Health Service. The Maltese government’s monthly stipends for students of tertiary education is taken for granted today. Governments of Nordic European countries are busy devising ways of how to implement this new scheme. They are not wasting time discussing whether it is a good idea or not — they already know it is. The grassroots of many communities in the USA, Europe and the rest of the world are sprouting interest in the introduction of a universal basic income. I wonder if they all have faith in San Francisco.
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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