No more “deserving” vs. “undeserving”: why we need a guaranteed basic income (and a parallel to intuitive eating)

farm with ducks and chickens and barn in background

What would you do, if you could do anything? I have a few ideas…

David Graeber (of “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” fame) has a great interview on PBS about the need for a guaranteed basic income to replace our current system of complex, dehumanizing bureaucracies. He says:

The problem is that we have this gigantic apparatus that presumes to tell people who’s worthy, who’s not, what people should be doing, what they shouldn’t. They’re all about assessing value, but in fact, the whole system fell apart in 2008 because nobody really knows how to do it. We don’t really know how to assess the value of people’s work, of people’s contributions, of people themselves, and philosophically, that makes sense; there is no easy way to do it. So the best thing to do is just to say, alright, everyone go out and you decide for yourselves.

I agree, so hard, with his critique of bureaucracy. From personal experience with unemployment benefits, I can tell you it’s a little bit soul-crushing to have to keep proving, week after week, that you’ve done enough job-hunting to deserve to pay your rent; and that’s just the tip of the government-benefits iceberg. There are so many poor and working-poor people for whom navigating the bureaucracies of food stamps, housing assistance, heating assistance, welfare, etc. is a full-time job of its own. See, for example, this piece about the ridiculous, invasive, confusing hoops that food stamp recipients have to jump through in order to eat.

Let me be clear: right now, while there is no alternative, we need those bureaucracies. We need to defend them against attacks from the Right, and push to expand them when possible. Right now, food stamps keep people from starving.

But in the big picture, in the long term, we can do better. I envision a society in which a guaranteed basic income is considered a right. I envision a society in which no one has to justify themselves, a society that doesn’t divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving”–a society that doesn’t make people jump through hoops for their basic human rights. A society that recognizes that, by virtue of being alive, everyone deserves enough money to live. (For what it’s worth, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that giving money directly to poor people decreases poverty and has other positive effects.)

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We deserve better.

I keep coming across disheartening reminders that having a successful career rarely translates into financial stability.

s.e. smith, a writer whose work I’ve followed for years on XOJane and elsewhere on the social justice internets, recently posted a list of tips for freelancers. In the introduction, ou* admitted:

Alas, the fact of the matter is that while I have been freelancing for seven years now, I still don’t have what I would call a wildly stable or successful career, and it’s highly likely that will never realistically happen. The same is true of many freelancers, especially in an economy where intellectual labour is valued less and less, which translates into lower fees for your work or dreaded offers of ‘exposure’ in offer for your free work.

The same day, I came across Susie Cagle’s post Eight years of solitude: on freelance labor, journalism, and survival. And it’s just depressing:

More newspapers and magazines want to profile me and the strange work I do than hire me to actually do it. Other writers and illustrators chastise, how can you complain about getting that kind of promotion? The year I got the most TV and radio spots and magazine write-ups, I made about $17,000.

Even though freelance writing doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons–I do best with external structure and routine, I need to be around people, and I just enjoy writing more when my rent doesn’t depend on it–it hurts to see how little our economy values people with skills and interests similar to mine. It’s incredibly frustrating to see so many people doing such good work but barely making enough to live on.

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For our souls and communities: why we need a work culture of regular sabbaticals

Hanging out with a goat and chickens while visiting a farm last year.

For the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of research into alternatives to the traditional job market that no longer offers much opportunity. Especially alternatives that involve either travel, farm work, or both–because I have both a terrible case of wanderlust and a strong urge to work with my hands close to the earth.

Last spring, I was seriously considering WWOOFing–volunteering on an organic farm in exchange for room and board–for the summer. I even visited a few potential farms, but in the end, I decided not to do it for two reasons: I didn’t want to be separated from Steve, and I didn’t want to come back to Boston in the fall with no job or way to pay rent.

Now that spring is around the corner, my dormant desire to sink my hands into mud and dirt is back. And are my fantasies about WWOOFing. But for the same reasons as last year, I don’t think I can make it work.

Through all of my research and yearning and fantasizing and facing hard realities, I’ve become more and more convinced that we need a national job culture of regular sabbaticals. Of stable, living-wage, permanent jobs that give employees the option to take a year off (ideally at a reduced pay rate, or unpaid) every x number of years, with the guarantee that their jobs would be waiting for them upon return.

The farm’s fruit trees and main buildings, not far from its solar panels.

This could solve so many disparate problems. Like reducing the workweek to 21 hours, it would spread out work among more people, thereby reducing unemployment. It would force employers to cross-train their workers more effectively, which would result in a more skilled and innovative workforce. It would have the potential to reduce carbon emissions.

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Another thing money can buy: time

Money doesn’t buy only job opportunities, kindness, and compassion: it can also buy time.

Last night, I was poking around the Transition Lab‘s website (because yes, I still have fantasies about doing it, even though I probably won’t for a whole bunch of reasons), and I noticed an announcement about two new work-exchange scholarships they’re offering:

At Transition Lab, we face an irony: While building a new economy, we still need to charge tuition in order to pay our bills in the old economy. Yet, the students who would benefit the most from our program don’t have a lot of money, because the traditional economy isn’t working out for them. It’s a double bind that is preventing the new economy to take off.

So we are going to take an innovative leap to break this cycle: We are offering the two remaining slots in our 2014 Co-Creator Program as gifts in exchange for the gifts that students can offer our program. That’s right- full tuition to two students in exchange for what they can gift us in return. Really? Yep. Gifts for Gifts.

It’s great that the people at Transition Lab recognize this double bind and are working to make their program more accessible.

But it reminded me how easily money can serve as a substitute for time and energy. People who can afford TL’s tuition can just go, no strings attached; those who can’t have to come up with a skill that’s useful to others, and then spend their time and energy practicing it throughout the program.

It’s similar to all the festivals and events that offer volunteer slots in return for free or reduced admission. Those who can afford tickets have the luxury of spending their time however they want; those who can’t, don’t. Volunteering isn’t necessarily bad–it can be fun if you do it with a group of friends. It can be a good way to practice your skills and learn new ones. But it can also be exhausting. Sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy yourself without having to work.

And that’s not even getting into the many, many people who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, who wouldn’t have the time to go to festivals or events if they wanted to.

I want a different world: a world in which free time isn’t a luxury, but a right. A world in which people have the time and energy to explore who they are and what they want to do.

Reducing the standard work week to 21 hours, spreading out work more evenly across the population, and instituting a basic minimum income would go a long way toward making that possible.

Speaking of which, Alyssa Battistoni’s recent essay in Jacobin Magazine, Alive in the Sunshine, is a must-read. She argues that reducing the workweek and instituting a basic minimum income is necessary to achieve both economic justice and environmental sustainability–and would also give people the time to build communities and enjoy life.

Her analysis reminds me of my favorite book, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, condensed into a form that’s both more succinct and more specific about policy goals. It also reminds me of this great video about visualizing a plentitude economy, made by Juliet Schor (whom Battistoni quotes) and the Center for a New American Dream:

This is the world I want to build.

(Note: just to be clear, I think Transition Lab is going great work toward building that world, and I’m not disagreeing with or attacking their decisions at all. I’m just using them as an example to illustrate my train of thought about the ways in which, in our current system, people with less money often end up with less free time and less control over how they spend their time.)

Things that give me hope

1.) New York’s Youth Poet Laureate, Ramya Ramana, reading her poem titled “New York City” at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration (transcript available here):

When I watch this young woman read, I can almost believe that change is possible. That the tides are turning. That we, the people, can and will rise.

Not just because of the beauty and fierceness and demand for justice that shines so clearly through her performance–although that alone is enough to blow me away.

But because this beauty and fierceness and demand for justice takes place at the swearing-in of a new mayor in the city that is America’s heart. The city that has been sanitized and stratified by 12 years of Bloomberg’s neoliberal policies. The city that has become an extreme–and extremely visible–symbol of an economic system that crushes lives and spirits.

The city that refuses to give up fighting.

In that fight, I see a world of new beginnings.

2.) Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “The arc of justice and the long run: hope, history, and unpredictability.”

Solnit argues that “[s]ometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.” She gives examples of social and political seeds that germinated for years, decades, even centuries before bearing fruit: the role of hip-hop in the Arab Spring uprisings; the influence of Thoreau’s writing, which sold few books when he was alive, on both Gandhi and King; the effect that a seeing a talented black trumpet player had on a young man who grew up to help end segregation by aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.

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Robots and drones can’t replace us: even more ways to make a living in a green economy

I keep reading articles arguing that we don’t really need human workers anymore, now that machines can produce (and sometimes transport) stuff. It’s often used to call for a basic minimum income, which I support.

But it makes no sense to me. The making of stuff is currently the cornerstone of our economy, but it doesn’t have to be–and it really shouldn’t be, because it’s quite literally unsustainable.

And there’s so, so much work that needs doing–very little of which can be automated.

I’ve already written about twenty ways people could make a meaningful living in a sustainable economy, and I just keep thinking of more. Here are another ten:

1.) Staffing food trucks, especially ones that serve underserved neighborhoods–such as Fresh Food Generation, an exciting new project here in Boston. Food trucks are a great way to provide delicious, healthy food at low prices, since they have less overhead than restaurants, and they can travel to serve different populations.

2.) Picking up food scraps by bike and then turning them into compost, like another new local business, City Compost. If this model became widespread, it could make a huge dent in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by food waste.

3.) Working at haunted houses like the one in this video, and other creative projects that both bring joy to their communities and provide jobs for local young people.

4.) Making processed food products–yes, in the literal sense of the word, which is not inherently a bad thing–such as jam, cheese, butter, bread, baked goods, maple syrup, sauces, dips, canned fruits and vegetables, and candy.

5.) Journalism.

These days, journalism has become a “glamour industry,” one that’s closed to all but the most privileged–but we need the opposite. We need people with diverse backgrounds to report, uncover, analyze, speak truth to power, hold leaders accountable, help us make sense of our world.

6.) Massage therapists, meditation teachers, personal trainers, and fitness instructors who teach everything from aerial acrobatics to Zumba, ballet to burlesque, yoga to water aerobics: to make joyous movement, stress reduction, and physical well-being accessible to as many people as possible.

7.) People who fix things, such as this pop-up repair shop in New York.

8.) Photographers, videographers, event planners, florists, makeup artists, and other local small businesspeople who provide services for celebrations and life events (which I talked about a bit in this post).

9.) Scientists researching diseases and chronic illnesses. There’s so much work still to be done!

10.) Creating organic vegetable gardens in the yards of homes, businesses, and schools, like yet another Boston-area business, Growing for Good. This is a great use of existing resources to build local resilient, sustainable food systems.

10 more ways to make a living in a green economy

Cupcakes: a vital part of any economy.

Jobs have been on my mind a lot lately…if by lately, you mean the past three years or so.  It’s a lot less depressing to envision what the job market would look like in a sustainable economy than to think about the shitty choices it offers now. And if we’re going to build a better economy, we have to start by imagining it, right?

So here are ten more ways that people could make a living in a new economy:

1.)  Delivering city freight by bike.

This would be a win-win all-around, as it would lower carbon emissions, decrease traffic, and provide exercise to the bike messengers.  Here in the US, we don’t have the necessary infrastructure for such wide-scale biking: but building it would create even more jobs in construction and urban planning.

2.)  Cupcake bakers. Because a revolution without cupcakes is not one worth having.

3.) Artists, writers, performers, and other creators of all stripes.

As my friend Bethany says, “The truth is, we don’t know what is possible. Which is why the pushers of envelopes, the stretchers of bodies and minds, the pioneers, the prophets, poets, and weirdoes are so vitally important.” See also this piece about why artists and designers are just as necessary as more “practical” jobs.

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