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Basic Income for Artists: The Gateway to a New Economy?

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Basic Income for Artists: The Gateway to a New Economy?
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An Irish pilot program is paying 2,000 artists €16,900 a year to focus on creative pursuits; as the latest in a growing number of Universal Basic Income experiments, it may signal one of the first steps towards a more sustainable economy for all

by Stephen Hare

Value is an important concept, although amorphous in nature, it forms a central part of our decision-making every day. It is the lens through which individuals allocate time, importance and worth to the people, “things” and activities in our lives. What is valuable to me, may not be valuable to you, and doesn’t necessarily reflect what is valuable to communities or populations at large.

One central role of the economy is to perform this translation, taking value from a broad and deeply personal ideal to one that can be globally understood and applied. The universal language through which economic value is captured, perceived and allocated is of course, money.

Markets are the trusted mechanism through which value is translated and assigned to goods and services, but are they reliable?

The Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) pilot in Ireland, which is paying 2,000 artists an unconditional wage of 350 euros a week, is the latest indicator in a growing body of experiments related to Universal Basic Income (UBI), which challenges accepted norms around economic value, how it is accounted for and what it may be missing.

So, what is the BIA scheme? What does it challenge? And, how does it tie in with broader calls for a Universal Basic Income for all?

The Irish BIA: What’s is it all about?

The BIA is the brainchild of Catherine Martin, Ireland’s Minister for Culture, who having watched the COVID-19 pandemic destroy the livelihoods of workers in the cultural sector, employed a task force to answer one important question: how can the Government help Ireland’s cultural sector and its workers survive?

A report produced by the task force, called “Life Worth Living,” explicitly recognises the value of Ireland’s vibrant artistic landscape as both intrinsic to the cultural identity of Ireland and its people, and also from a more tangible economic standpoint, in reference to maintaining Ireland as an attractive place to live, work in and visit.

Amongst others, the main recommendation of the report was to pilot a Universal Basic Income scheme for a three-year period, specifically targeting workers in the Arts, as a means to provide financial security to individuals and build industry resilience in what continues to be an uncertain post-pandemic landscape.

Having started in September 2022 the scheme works as such: 2,000 eligible applicants were randomly selected out of a pool of 9,000 to receive 16,900 annually over a period of three years.

Alongside a control group of artists who weren’t selected, those receiving payments will fill out questionnaires, which, in the Department of Culture’s own words will assess “the effect it has on [the participants’] creativity, the amount of time they devote to the arts, their wellbeing, and their ability to earn additional income from the arts.”

With the first scheduled questionnaires set to be issued and collected in April 2023, the only evidence collected so far is anecdotal. Non-the-less, it acts as a powerful indicator of the potential impacts of the BIA.

Both Lydia Mulvey, a screenwriter, and Mark McGuinness, a photographer, have gone on record describing the transformative power of the unconditional cash transfers, both in terms of their general health and their ability to dedicate time to their respective crafts.

The BIA scheme recognises the patterns of precarious employment for workers in the creative industries. Without Goverment intervention, the Arts in Ireland risks long-term damage through depletion of skills and talent caused by migration from cultural work to more “stable” work.

In this way then, the BIA is an acknowledgement of the instrinsic value of artistic and cultural endeavours for both individuals and society. It challenges the narrow economic conception of value, attempting to capture it in response to a market-economy that isn’t able to.

Of course, not all agree that the BIA pilot is a good idea, and whilst opponents claim it is simply an expensive sectoral intervention designed to gift money to the work-shy, they may be missing the point entirely.

Besides the acknowledgement of intrinsic and hidden value, the BIA is an example of a UBI experiment. UBI more generally stands to bring forth other benefits, which experiments from around the world can give insight into.

Universal Basic Income: Experiments from around the world

The history of the Universal Basic Income concept can be traced back to Valencian scholar and Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives, who in 1526 proposed the idea that government should be responsible for securing the subsistence of all its residents. Since then it has been the subject of short-lived debate in the West, before gaining real political attention in 2016.

UBI is defined as a cash payment distributed in regular periods to each individual citizen within a defined political community, irrespective of employment status and earnings, without condition and without reference to previous contribution.

Across the globe, UBI experiments have resulted in a multitude of benefits.

In 2016, the charity GiveDirectly started a 12-year Kenyan UBI trial, paying 20,000 people across 245 villages roughly 75 cents per adult per day. Although detailed results are yet to be published, economic benefits have already been seen to spread from recipients to other nearby villages.

In Namibia, a trial that ran between 2008 and 2009 gave all residents below the age of 60 in the Otjivero-Omitara region a basic income of 100 Naimbian dollars per person per month. As a result, school enrollment went up, child malnutrition dropped and poverty-related crime went down.

Importantly, these experiments are not only seen in developing economies, where the largest leaps in poverty alleviation are possible. In 2017, Spain’s B-MINCOME pilot guaranteed the income of 1,000 households in some of Barcelona’s most deprived districts.

The two year trial offered households up to €1,675 across different modalities, conditional (cash transfer is based on participation in social programs), unconditional (cash transfer with no strings attached), limited (extra income reduced cash transfer) and non-limited (extra income does not reduce cash transfer).

Although modality slightly affected outcomes, basic income unanimously boosted life satisfaction and mental health. These findings are also reflected in Finish, German and Japanese UBI trials, where results report less stress, improved mental health, increased motivation for work, decreased divorce rates, increased happiness and higher levels of trust in social institutions.

In the face of global increases in depression, anxiety and suicide, record levels of stress at work and stagnated levels of happiness compared to increasing GDP in developed economies, these results are significant.

The experiments described above, including the ongoing Irish BIA, show that UBI principles are being used to generate positive results in a broad range of contexts. So, what makes UBI such a malleable policy idea?

Beyond small-scale experimentation: The power of Universal Basic Income?

The UBI issue is complex but generally underpinned by three key motivations:

  1. To respond to social challenges stemming from the changing nature of work
  2. To reform problematic social welfare systems
  3. As a means to reduce poverty and improve health and quality of life

Firstly, as technological advancements in robotics and AI progress, there is a reality that many jobs previously carried out by humans will no longer exist. The figures are quite striking, where some experts predict that up to 47% of jobs in the US may be replaced by automated systems.

With this in mind, proponents claim that UBI is one way to ensure a drastic decrease in unemployment poverty.

Whilst some prominent economists argue that so far fears around autonomation have been largely misplaced, and that the labour market will ultimately adapt, UBI still holds strong appeal in other areas.

Secondly, in terms of welfare systems, UBI looks to address the stigma associated with means-tested benefit provision. A study conducted in the UK and Japan showed that often, embarrassment, shame and low self-esteem are common in those who receive state assistance. By being universal in nature, these negative associations would be directly addressed.

Poverty and unemployment traps, which describe situations in which employment becomes financially disadvantageous, would also be tackled. As UBI doesn’t remove the right to earn extra income, individuals face no disincentive to find other paid work.

Thirdly, as an anti-poverty measure providing people with enough to secure basic subsistence, it also holds great appeal. However, studies show that payment amounts affect the poverty impact UBI can have. This feeds into UBI’s biggest areas of objection: how much schemes cost and how they are funded.

In the 2017 IMF fiscal monitor report, the economic viability of UBI was globally assessed by placing countries into three categories relating to their tax and transfer systems as frameworks for wealth redistribution.

The report showed the feasibility of UBI to be directly tied to existing welfare and tax systems, highlighting those in developing nations with the least infrastructure as standing to gain the most. For developed economies, UBI in replacement of current welfare was actually shown to have the opposite intended effect, resulting in higher poverty.

Various other approaches, which have focused on country-specific models, perhaps give more detailed insight into how UBI might function at large.

In the UK for example, the IMF showed that a UBI replacing existing social welfare provision would cost 6.7% of GDP and reduce poverty by two thirds, whilst another showed that for a cost of 3.4% GDP, the number of families below the poverty line would be reduced from 16% to 4%. Each of these could feasibly be paid for by large-scale and complex tax reform.

Uncertainties around cost and funding mechanisms are not the only concerns commonly raised in UBI debates. Fears around the disincentivisation of work and lowered labour market productivity are often discussed.

However, the Spanish and Finnish UBI experiments have gone someway to dispel productivity concerns, by showing there to be no positive or negative effect on the likelihood of individuals seeking employment.

In reality, the likely macroeconomic effects of a national scale UBI policy are poorly understood. Experiments have only been carried out on small populations, and for limited periods. What is clear, is that UBI is not a silver-bullet policy, and that supporting policies implemented alongside it will most likely have the biggest influence on shaping its outcomes.

To more radical thinkers, this is where the power of future UBI policies truly lies.

Radical thinking: The bedrock of a sustainable society?

Although the three key motivations outlined above are powerful reasons to pursue UBI experiments, radical thinkers from feminist and post-growth schools of economics discuss its power to increase personal autonomy as the real key to unlocking a more socially and ecologically sustainable future.

Firstly, UBI presents an opportunity to redefine what we mean by “work,” something that the Irish BIA pilot exemplifies perfectly. Child rearing, looking after elderly family members, engaging in community volunteering and artistic pursuit are all forms of important “work” that are ascribed no value in a market economy, which UBI could directly redress.

Feminist economists point out that given women’s disproportionate share of care related “work,” UBI also presents an opportunity to tackle economic gender inequality.

Degrowth scholars say that within UBI’s ability to capture hidden value, it could also form the bedrock of an ecologically sustainable economy. Degrowth is premised on the idea the pursuit of constant economic growth, reflected in GDP, underlines both the continued destruction of depleted ecosystems and increasing inequalities seen within nations.

Unlike those who see industrial automation as an ongoing issue of concern, degrowth proponents see it as an opportunity for the west in particular to reduce our dependency on harmful material production.

Supported by policies such as working time reduction, like the Government sponsored four day working week trial in the UK, UBI would give people the freedom to break their dependency on material work and focus more time on less ecologically harmful activities.

Of course, these ideas are very western-centric, and have very little evidence to back them up. Besides, in order to work, a huge shift in the fundamental aims of national economies would need to occur.

As the nations in the global north need to lessen their consumption and account for the stagnation of life satisfaction against growing GDP, many developing nations in the Global South need to provide a means to meet the basic human needs of their citizens.

Perhaps if used in the right way, UBI could be a policy that can achieve both.

Basic Income for the Arts: The gateway to a new economy?

The BIA is a refreshing policy which reflects the true power of UBI. By broadening the concept of value, it is challenging the limits and role of the economy itself. But, to understand its real significance, the BIA must be understood alongside the growing roster of UBI experiments from around the world.

The BIA represents the first state-sponsored UBI experiment targeting the Arts sector, and although its future as a permanent Irish policy is unclear, its use outside of an explicit poverty context is important.

UBI has grown from a policy once equated with Utopian fantasy, to one whose multi-faceted value is being recognised internationally. Seemingly, it is yet another acknowledgement that free-market capitalism is unable to appropriately meet the needs of individuals and society.

As for UBI’s more radical conceptions, who knows if the degrowth camp are correct, and if it really could form a significant step towards both social and ecological sustainability. But, as all signs point towards the need for something radical and new, why not UBI?

First published in Impakter. You can read the article here.

About the Author

Stephen Hare

Stephen is a recent graduate of the MSc Ecological Economics programme at the University of Leeds. Having developed a strong academic interest in sustainability issues, he continues to explore these areas in a different context with Impakter. Alongside ambitions to combine a career in journalism with his love of travel and the outdoors, this year he hopes to enter some European trial running events.

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