Sunday, April 12, 2015

UBI Caritas (the best things in life are free)

The miraculous Max Sawicky resumes wrestling with Universal Basic Income at MaxSpeak. This time the incitement comes from Dylan Matthews at Vox, who argues that a secondary benefit of basic income would be that "it enables a transition to a world of less work and greater leisure."

That would indeed be a good thing. But as the Sandwichman pointed out two weeks ago, advocates for basic income seemingly make exactly the opposite argument. Guy Standing, co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network, cited a recent experiment in India -- and earlier experiments in North America and Europe -- as evidence for the claim that a basic income guarantee "would not reduce labor supply... The simple fact is that people with basic security work harder and more productively, not less."

Guy Standing on top of an airplane

The contradiction between the two arguments is less extreme than it may at first appear. A U.B.I. might reduce the dire incentive to "work or starve" at the same time as it increases opportunities and incentives to pursue the bright elusive butterfly of "meaningful work." That would be good if it was the only consideration. But it is not. There is also an inconvenient truth about the relationship between productivity and fossil fuel consumption. In the industrial economy, larger amounts of better work mean more greenhouse gas emissions. Productivity is a double-edged sword.

Max is right to point out that a Universal Basic Income scheme would involve lots of money sloshing around, creating lots of opportunity for misappropriation. His alternatives -- a family allowance and a retirement floor -- also involve money, albeit targeted to where the need is likely to be.

In my view, that only addresses one side of "the need". The other side is the need to reduce superfluous production and consumption. We have long since passed the point where capital "diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary."

Currently, world-wide carbon emissions per year are roughly double what can be re-absorbed by oceans and plants. This is not to say that the re-absorption by oceans is harmless --it leads to acidification. But clearly more than half of the emissions are superfluous to sustainability. Lo and behold, carbon emission increase in virtual lockstep with hours of work. In the U.S., the  correlation between the two has been about 95% over the last quarter century.

Don't even think of using the "correlation doesn't prove causation" gambit. We are talking about a "water is wet" relationship. Fossil fuel is burned to do work. Period. If you can't fit those two pieces together, go home.

So the bottom line is we either need to cut hours of work at least in half or the remaining hours need to be less productive not more. Does the Sandwichman have a policy proposal for accomplishing such a Herculean task? Of course. The Moon Belongs to Everyone. Just to save you the trouble of clicking on that link from two years ago, I've copied the scheme below.

The Moon Belongs to Everyone

Dorning Rasbotham, Esq., was a friend of the poor. Nay, from the bottom of his heart, he was a friend of the poor! He felt tenderly for the poor man and his family. After all, what would become of the rich if there were no poor people to till their fields, pay their rents and manufacture their goods?

Squire Rasbotham laid down the following principle in a pamphlet he published in 1780: "A cheap market will always be full of customers." Let's not waver from that principle as we consider the facts in the following table:

"Hours" in the above table refers to billions of hours of paid employment in the U.S. in each of the specified years. "GHGs" refers to billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Both totals increased from 1990 to 2011 and those increases were 88% synchronized between the two variables. If one went up, the other went up. If one went down, the other went down -- 88% of the time!

Correlation does not imply causation. In this case, though, the correlation is exactly what theory would predict. The correlation here is not "implying" anything. It is evidence in support of a theory that existed long before people even thought of measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

That theory is an extended version of Squire Rasbotham's principle that a cheap market is always full of customers. In 1865, William Stanley Jevons applied that same principle to the economy of fuel:
As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption, according to a principle recognised in many parallel instances. The economy of labour effected by the introduction of new machinery, for the moment, throws labourers out of employment. But such is the increased demand for the cheapened products, that eventually the sphere of employment is greatly widened.... 
Now the same principles apply, with even greater force and distinctness, to the use of such a general agent as coal. It is the very economy of its use which leads to its extensive consumption....

And if such is not always the result within a single branch, it must be remembered that the progress of any branch of manufacture excites a new activity in most other branches, and leads indirectly, if not directly, to increased inroads upon our seams of coal.
This theory is known as the Jevons Paradox or the rebound effect. Substitute "fossil fuel" for coal and the theory predicts pretty accurately the results presented in the above table.

Fast forward to today. We want more jobs -- that is to say more hours of work --but we want less greenhouse gas emissions. We face not only a paradox but a dilemma. The horns of this dilemma are yoked together, not just "in principle" but in the physical, mechanical agent of both the economy of fuel and the economy of labor: the machine.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

It gets rather tedious watching one group of experts "solve" one side of the dilemma while completely ignoring the other side while yet another group of experts "solves" the other side while ignoring the first. "Crackpot realism" was C. Wright Mills's name for it but there's nothing realistic about it. It's just plain old crackpot.

So what's the solution, then? I'll tell you after the break. Listen to this song first.

The moon belongs to everyone,
The best things in life are free;
The stars all shine for everyone,
They're shining for you and me. 
The flowers in Spring,
The birdies that sing,
The sunbeams that shine,
They're yours--they're mine. 
The sky belongs to everyone...

And that's not just the lyrics to an old song any more. That's the ruling of Judge Gisela Triana, of the Travis County, Texas, District Court in July 2012. From the Boston Globe, July 12, 2012:
The lawsuit was brought by the Texas Environmental Law Center, and is part of a court campaign in a dozen states by an Oregon-based nonprofit, Our Children’s Trust. The group is using children and young adults as plaintiffs in the lawsuits — some state and some federal — filed in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

By relying on ‘‘common law’’ theories, the group hopes to have the atmosphere declared a public trust for the first time, granting it special protection. The doctrine has been used to clean up rivers and coastlines, but many legal experts have been unsure if it could be used successfully to combat climate change.
As David Morris reported in On the Commons, Peter Barnes proposed treating the sky as a public trust in his 2001 book, Who Owns the Sky. Barnes's idea was the basis for a "cap-and-dividend" bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009.

Cap-and-dividend is a variation on the cap-and-trade concept of a market-based emissions regulatory mechanism. Some of the main criticisms of such market-based schemes have to do with enforcement mechanisms, non-compliance, transparency and regulatory capture.

The idea of trading pollution allowances originated in Ronald Coase's "The Problem of Social Cost" and was further developed by J. H. Dales in Pollution, Property and Prices. Coase's article centered on a critique of the "Pigouvian tradition" that advocated a prominent role for the state in taxation to offset the effects of environmental externalities.

In his critique, Coase didn't consider that there was both an environmental and a labor component to Pigou's analysis. Pigou's analysis of the labor question was not reducible to the environmental one and relied at a key point on Sydney J. Chapman's theory of the hours of labor. I have discussed this in detail in "The Hours of Labour and the Problem of Social Cost."

I mention this to emphasize that the hours of work is not just some random, unconnected variable that I've pulled out of a hat. It is fundamental to the analysis of social cost. It stands to reason that it should also be fundamental to the resolution of problems arising from social cost shifting.

I have therefore proposed a friendly amendment to the cap and dividend proposition that I will provisionally call The Lump-of-Labor Rebound GHG Cap and Trade Remedy.

I will just sketch a rough outline of how such a policy might operate followed by some remarks on how it can be integrated with a community-based valuation of the "temporal commons":

According to our table above, there were 6.7 billion tons of GHGs emitted in the U.S. in 2011 and 225.6 billion hours worked. That same year the adult population in the U.S. was about 240 million. Suppose that the government adopted a target of cutting emissions by two-thirds by the year 2040. To do so would require a 3.7% annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The best greenhouse gas reduction on record (apart from economic fluctuations) in the period 1990 to 2011 was a little less than 2.5%. The average annual reduction was about 0.5%. Taking an average of the two gives a 1.5% reduction as something that is feasible but ambitious. To get from a 1.5% reduction to a 3.7% reduction would then require a reduction in aggregate hours of work of 2.2%.

Dividing the reduced hours number by the adult population produces an annual transferable hours credit of 936. If we assume that the labor force participation remained constant, the hours transferred from those outside of the labor force would raise the average annual hours of those in the labor force to 1460 hours, although it is conceivable that some recipients might chose to neither use nor transfer their credits. In that case, the hours reduction and the associated greenhouse gas reduction would be steeper than planned.

This is not to assume that the benchmark GHG reduction of 1.5% will occur automatically or that the further reduction in GHGs as a result the reduction of work hours will be proportional to the reduction of hours. These are targets only and there need to be programs put in place to try to meet them and monitoring to evaluate how successful those efforts were.

So far the discussion has focused on a policy that could only be implemented by a government with radically different priorities than those that any actually existing government of a wealthy industrial country has. It is a political Utopia. But the gist of this policy proposal is not restricted to a global emissions reduction strategy. My own research project began some 15 years ago by looking at collective bargaining practices and how they might be modified to promote job creation through the redistribution of working time.

One of the fruits of that project, "Time on the Ledger" examined how employment can be considered as a common-pool resource. A different valuation of benefits of leisure time and of unpaid work and of the costs of unemployment and of environmental damage could lead to a very different set of priorities in collective bargaining and those different goals could reignite a labor movement in place of a marginalized, ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant organized labor.