3. Homeward Bound


new internationalist
issue 188 - October 1988

Illustration: Jim Needle
3. Homeward bound

The journey continues, past owner-occupied housing estates
and hostels for indigent property developers. Wild ideas and practical
proposals sit side by side as the NI abolishes unemployment
and the work ethic with two strokes of its pen.

HOW would you fancy being paid for not working?

How much? Would I be kept in the style to which I'm accustomed?

Nothing so palatial. I was thinking more of a free payment that would keep the wolf from the door.

If this is a roundabout way of making me unemployed, the answer's no.

I was just wondering what you'd think of the Basic Income Scheme which has been proposed by the Greens. They envisage the State guaranteeing a basic income to every adult member of society (and a lower payment to children) regardless of whether they worked or not.

I thought Greens didn't like the State.

Well spotted. Most of us are keen on the State provided it does the right things.

What would be the point of this scheme?

To protect people from poverty would be one thing. But also to free people from work as we know it now. At the moment one of the things that makes unemployment unbearable is that our society only confers respect and status on people through their jobs. And one of feminism's main critiques of the economy is of the assumption that men will hold full-time jobs and the status that goes with them. Meanwhile women are left with either no paid jobs (and married women who want work but can't find it aren't included in official unemployment figures) or else with lower-status, part-time employment.

Feminists. Greens. You have to work them all in somewhere, don't you?

It's what's known as good sense. Guaranteeing people a basic income irrespective of their paid work might help give both women and men a more fulfilling, less dominated experience of life and work. But on top of that it would have to be easier for women to work. Emulating the Soviet record on providing childcare facilities would be a good start.

Why would anyone bother to work at all?

To earn more than the basic rate. Doubtless there would be some who would prefer not to work. But we're moving at full steam into a less work-driven society anyway. New technology is going to mean there are far less work hours to be divided between those who want them - all the more so if we adopt the Green idea of a low- or no-growth economy. But we can make 'having a job' less important. We can even still have full employment provided we share out what work there is more fairly.

You're making it sound too easy. I'm afraid we're going to have to learn to live with unemployment.

That's not true, Even today it might be possible to abolish unemployment very quickly if only a government had the will.

Hmm - this'll be good. It's all very well conjuring up future economies but abolishing unemployment here and now is a very different matter.

There's no question that at the moment most people work longer hours than they'd like while others are left without work at all. And that's crazy.

But it's also simplistic - like saying you could move the European food mountains to Africa and abolish famine.

But in this case the simple answer could work. The main objection to combatting unemployment by reducing the working week comes from companies who see themselves footing the bill, since workers wouldn't accept a wage reduction proportionate to their hours.

I would have thought IBM or General Motors could afford it all right.

They probably could. But since you're asking me to propose something a government could implement tomorrow there will have to be some other way round it. I'd suggest that at the next election a radical party could propose that we make ending unemployment a national priority, one that it is worth all of us making some sacrifice for. Say unemployment runs at ten per cent and inflation at five per cent (broadly recognizable figures for our readers' economies). Everyone in the country could be asked to forgo their annual pay increase in line with inflation for two years. The money freed would pay for the recruitment of one extra person for every 10 current employees.

But that would mean ordinary people were suffering financially to cure a problem that's not their fault.

Yes, but they'd be gaining something in return, remember - their working week would be cut by 10 percent. And companies would be contributing to the national priority by absorbing all the extra costs involved in changing their system to absorb the scheme.

Illustration: Jim Needle It couldn't be that simple, surely.

Of course there'd be all kinds of details to be ironed out: the regional differences in unemployment, the firms without 10 employees and so on. But where there's a will there's a way. And remember, this isn't part of the Practopia - it's a proposal for here and now just to show what might be done by thinking simply but imaginatively. It's that kind of vision which a radical party is going to have to present in order to kick us out of the Politics of Greed's destructive spiral.

Okay, so assume for the moment that I accept we'd all be working shorter hours. How else would my life change?

Your housing situation might be different. Land reform is just as essential in Western countries as it is in the Third World. Yet we deplore the amount of land owned by the rich in Latin America and forget that the same principle applies closer to home.

So who would own the land?

It would be held in common and leased to farmers where appropriate. As in commerce, a farmer could work a small patch alone, raising chickens or a few crops. But as soon as the farm became bigger and required the involvement of other people it would have to be on a co-operative basis. And the Government would probably want to encourage more people to take up farming on smaller plots, using organic methods.

Sounds too much like hard work to me. As long as they produce enough for me to have my granola and eggs in the morning I'll be happy. But you were talking about my house. Would I be able to own it?

I think so. We could, of course, nationalize all land and housing and then distribute it to people according to need. But it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to organize. Personally I wouldn't fancy the job of deciding who should live in a large house with a beautiful garden and who in an apartment at the top of a city building where the walls are peeling and the elevators never work.

You could knock down all the houses and start again, building them to an equal size.

I don't think you're being serious. Better to knock down the slums and divide the bigger houses into two or three units.

But how can you justify people owning houses and making vast profits on the property market?

I don't justify the profits but I don't see any reason why people shouldn't own their own home. I used to be against the idea myself but I must admit since I took the plunge I've enjoyed the feeling of control it gives me - it's quite different from how I felt when I paid rent. I can make the house what I want and don't have to leave it until I choose to.

Other people aren't so lucky, though.

Exactly, so we have to find a way of giving all people that kind of control. Building the kind of houses that people want to live in would be one of the most important roles of the State (or the local state). When the City Council in Liverpool, England - controlled by the much-reviled Trotskyite Militant wing of the Labour Party - decided to make house-building a priority, the first thing it did was to ask local people what kind of house they would choose to build. And surprise, surprise, they didn't want an apartment stuck hundreds of feet in the air but a small terraced or semi-detached house with its own little garden.

But they didn't own those houses once they were built.

No, but they could do in our scheme of things. They could repay the building costs through a mortgage to one of the State banks. And they could buy existing houses at the market rate by the same means.

So there would still be a property market?

I think so. As with consumer goods, it's difficult to conceive of a planned system that would be flexible enough to allow people to move from place to place as they wished.

And if there's a market there will still be some people making big profits while others lose out.

Not necessarily. House prices boom for three reasons: general scarcity of housing; unequal distribution of wealth which allows a few to afford the highest prices; and regional factors, like there being more jobs and wealth available in, say, Ontario than in Nova Scotia. In the Practopia house-building will reduce scarcity; wealth will be much more evenly distributed; and even now any government worth its salt should be able to come up with a decent regional policy.

You're squirming out of this too easily again. You say there'LL be much less inequality. But home ownership is going to produce inequality. People who have paid off their mortgage will pass on the house to their children, who may already own a home.

We already have taxes on inheritance and there's no reason why these shouldn't be much heavier. But we could go further and say that anyone inheriting a house would have to choose whether to live in that one or their own. It's fair enough for people to want to keep the family home - but they'd have to relinquish another home to the State to do so.

I can't see that being very popular.

Perhaps not with people who own one house in the town and another weekend place in the country. But on the whole I think there'd be wide popular support for stopping people owning two homes and pushing property prices up out of the reach. The principle should be that no one could own a house they didn't live in: the whole idea of charging rent to tenants would disappear. This would be another thing that would keep property prices low. And it would effectively be a substantial tax on property, gaining the State a great deal of money to fund its social programme - but a tax which never affected people's everyday income.

I can't help feeling you're pulling the wool over my eyes and just papering over the cracks in your argument.

Would I do a thing like that?

Illustration: Jim Needle

Frankly, yes.

Well, to be honest I am making a lot of this up as I go along. Doubtless there are plenty of cracks in my argument. But that's not really the point.

In fact this is a pointless exercise.

In a way you're right. I'm not trying to offer a watertight blueprint. Where would be the sense in that? After all, nobody in their right mind is going to invite me to run a government after reading this. And if they did they'd be missing the point.

There's that point again - so there is one after all.

The point is that the kind of changes we're talking about are only going to happen if people understand them and want them. That means despite the barriers to understanding at the moment - media ownership by billionaire magnates, official secrecy, the power of wealth, all the things that make democracy a sham at the moment - we have to carry on trying to present a radical agenda. And the more democratic rights and participation we win for people, the more they'LL understand the system and make changes possible.

You're making things sound too simple again.

Perhaps. But it's certainly true that campaigning for more genuine and wide-ranging democracy is more important than any blueprint we could come up with. None of these ideas are The Answer - maybe they're even a bit too cautious, so concerned with offering practical proposals that they lose on inspiration. But the idea is to help start us thinking again about exactly how we could change the world. We've spent far too long being told that the world is too complex for us to understand, that we have to leave the deciphering and administration of it to supposed experts and professionals. Economics is the ultimate example of that. How many times do you hear someone say 'I don't know anything about economics but...'?

I don't know anything about it.

But at the moment that arcane knowledge gives economists the right to determine how society should operate. In fact it is ordinary people who should determine the shape of society and economists should just be technicians who aim to bring it about. Like that housing example I mentioned. People knew what kind of environment they wanted to live in and it made a lot more sense than the ideas imposed on them by professional planners in the 1960s - it was just that they'd never been asked before.

It's true, I know what I want.

And what's that?

Oh, a bigger car, maybe a yacht, a house in Bali ...

Naturally all of this can be yours if you'LL just vote for me.



[image, unknown] The working week should be significantly reduced and what work there is should be shared out more equally.

[image, unknown] The Green proposal of a Basic Income Scheme would be one way of offering people a more fulfilling, less dominated experience of life and work.

[image, unknown] Land should be held in common. People should own their own homes. But nobody could own a house they didn't live in; the idea of charging rent to tenants would disappear.

[image, unknown] Winning more genuine democratic participation is more important than any blueprint for a better world.

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