Sunday, January 29, 2017

The French Socialist Party’s Proposal of a Universal Income Amended: An Economic Floor Providing Economic Security to the Poor

Benoit Hamon, “riding to victory” from political obscurity on a proposal to “pay all adults a monthly basic income,” defeated the recent Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, in a presidential primary runoff election of the Socialist Party in the E.U. state of France.[1] Although “Hamon wasn’t as tainted as Valls by Hollande’s unpopularity” because Hamon had “rebelled and quit the government in 2014,” whereas Valls served more than two years as Hollande’s prime minister in the state legislature, Hamon’s “proposal for a 750 euros ($800) ‘universal income’ that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke. It grabbed headlines and underpinned his surprise success in the primary’s two rounds of voting.”[2] I submit that the proposal, although flawed from the standpoint of economic security, fits well with the industrial world of global capitalism.

Under Hamon’s proposal, the no-strings-attached payments could be made to more than 50 million adults in the state. The “no-strings-attached” aspect is crucial to the provision of economic security, which is itself of significant psychological and financial value to people who are either unemployed or live from paycheck to paycheck. Put another way, the lack of conditionality can give such people a more stable peace of mind that could not but improve the quality of life generally in the daily life of a town or city in interpersonal dynamics. The temptation would be to begin to insist that the money be used for A, B, and C, but not on X, Y, and Z. Even such salubrious conditionality would undercut the stability afforded by the faith that the money would be come every month necessary—come hell or high water. I submit that Western peoples tend to discount the value of financial assurance or stability—essentially the provision of a floor or net that can be relied on—just in terms of the foregone anxiety alone.

The problem is that Hamon meant the payments to go to every adult, irrespective of income and wealth. A wealth person with a good income already has financial security, so adding a floor of 700 euros would be a waste of money from the standpoint of providing economic security. So the cost of the program, which Hamon reckoned to be at least 300 billion euros ($320 billion), can be reckoned as excessive, given the purpose of the program. In other words, taxpayers need not pay so much to make sure that every person has at least an adequate amount of economic security. Lest it be said that the middle- and upper- economic "classes" would then have little self-interest in supporting the proposal, I would simply point to value of the peace-of-mind in knowing that should financial ruin, such as from an economic recession (or depression), injury, or illness hit, economic security would be maintained. Simply knowing this can lighten the step of even a wealthy person, since none of us can say with complete certainty that tomorrow will be like today.

Given the destructive competition that is a part of life in advanced industrial states, the rationale for the claim that every person should be financially secure from hardship is valid. That Hamon proposed a tax on robots to help finance “the measure’s huge costs” points to his rationale for why a modern society cannot simply rely on jobs and even unemployment insurance to provide economic security.[3] Automation has permanently removed many manufacturing jobs, both in the E.U. and U.S. Additionally, the financial incentive of companies to move factories to low-wage, non-developed and newly-developed/industrialized countries like Mexico and China, respectively, means that employment in industrial countries can no longer be relied on to provide economic security to a significant segment of populations, for not everyone is going to go to law- or business-school and graduate—even if education were tuition-free.

Abstractly put, the logic of global capital is not in sync with the fact that in any society, a portion of the adult population is oriented to blue-collar rather than white-collar work. Even if the E.U. were to become a manufacturing utopia, some people, such as the disabled, would still lack economic security, and thus stability, were jobs the exclusive means of providing it. 

In short, the nearly “post” industrial world cannot simply become a world of lawyers, physicians, accountants, and business managers, whereas everyone needs food, shelter, and access to medical care. Providing even a very low floor would pay dividends for everyone as society would be a more civil place, and the cost need not be so much as would be needed to pay 700 euros to every adult, regardless of whether the security is needed. In fact, perhaps 1000 euros would then be an option. Life is too short to sweat the small stuff, yet some people must and their lives are painful for lack of financial security.

Financial worry is like an internal, perpetual war to the poor person, eviscerating life of its pleasure. Quality of life matters, and not just for the poor. How people you interact with are doing in terms of anxiety due to hardship—whether deserved or not—can easily ruin your day, whereas being around calm people can make your day. No man is an island, and in modern society economic interdependence has its drawbacks. Giving other people the psychological security of a financial floor each month can indeed pay dividends to the payers without the floor necessarily being raised so high that the beneficiaries can take advantage of the blessing of security made possible by others.

1. Associated Press, “Hard-left Candidate wins French Socialists’ Presidential primary,” January 29, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.