Articles - 18th February 2020

Easy Money: Universal Basic Income in the Freelance Economy

Words by Joe Williams
Illustration by Rachael Presky

If you’ve heard of Universal Basic Income, chances are you’ll have heard somebody dismiss it as ‘free money for everyone’, a misguided policy that would cost billions and only encourage laziness. But that isn’t the whole story. Whilst UBI is indeed the idea of a regular payment from the government to everyone in the country regardless of their circumstances, the benefits of providing every citizen with an income floor far outweigh the costs. In particular, however, UBI would be a godsend for freelancers, offering both financial security and the freedom to pursue other projects.

But firstly, how much money is a ‘Basic Income’? Well, that depends on where you are and who you ask. There have only been a handful of actual UBI trials. The first, cited by Rutger Bregman in Utopia for Realists (2014), was the Canadian ‘Mincome’ social experiment, which ran from 1974-1979. In it, one thousand randomly-chosen families in Dauphin, Manitoba received a monthly minimum income to keep them out of poverty: ‘A family of four received what would now be around $19,000 a year’. Mincome was eventually shut down by the Canadian government and the concept of a Basic Income fell out of fashion shortly after, not least due to the rise of a neoliberal economic consensus in the 1980s.

But then, after the 2008 financial crisis, UBI was back. In June 2016 the Swiss government held a referendum on a proposal for a Basic Income of 2500 Swiss francs a month, an amount which was then roughly equal to £1750. The UK think tank Compass ran a trial in the same year, offering a smaller £284 a month, but the results, as Aaron Bastani wrote in Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019), were ‘distinctly underwhelming’. The next year saw another Canadian trial, this time in Ontario, where randomly-chosen citizens received an annual income of up to $16,989 per person or $24,027 for a couple. And earlier in 2017, the Finnish government launched a Basic Income trial which offered unemployed participants £475 a month, with the hope that this would increase paid employment – it didn’t.

The difference in scope and budget between these few trials demonstrates the lack of agreement about what exactly is ‘Universal’ or ‘Basic’. As the anthropologist David Graeber wrote in Bullshit Jobs (2018): ‘there are radically different visions of what a universal income is and why it would be good to have one: ranging from a conservative version that aims to provide a modest stipend as a pretext to completely eliminate existing welfare state provisions like free education or health care, and just submit everything to the market, to a radical version […] which assumes existing unconditional guarantees like the British National Health Service will be left in place.’

But despite the fact that no government has yet implemented any of the possible gradations of Universal Basic Income, a full UBI would hugely benefit freelancers. The regularity of the income would provide financial and social security and remove the need for a ‘day job’, giving freelance workers much more power.

One of the frustrations of freelancing is that the work naturally comes in ebbs and flows, but a basic income would limit the damage of a particularly long dry spell. As freelance consultant Anna Dent, author of the Guardian article quoted above, told me: ‘I think a UBI (or UBI-like policy) could be really beneficial for freelancers – by providing a stable minimum income it could smooth the gaps between contracts, or while waiting for invoices to be paid, thereby supporting a freelancer to invest time in building their business or client list.’

Because self-employed work does not guarantee the same kind of assurances that in-house workers benefit from, this could be a lifeline. According to Dent, ‘It could also provide a measure of security in case of illness, or just allow freelancers to take breaks and develop a better work-life balance.’

This final point will be of great interest to those freelancers working a second job to cover their expenses. Creative freelancers in particular – writers, painters, illustrators, musicians – have a reputation for taking a ‘day job’ to make ends meet. Mark Gardner’s ‘Day Job’ interview series gives a fascinating – albeit slightly depressing – account of the paid jobs that successful writers and artists have had to take in order to financially support their creative work. Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), told Gardner: ‘I lived in Oxford for a year and worked at a pub, wrote during the day. I just kept writing and writing. And then I got homesick, so I came back to Lewiston, Maine, and worked at, honest to God, every restaurant — breakfast, lunch, dinner. I also worked as a piano player in a bar. It was horrifying.’

Whether it’s one of these ‘horrifying’ jobs in catering or retail, or a ‘bullshit’ office job as described by Graeber, the potential for a UBI policy to completely remove the need to take a secondary job is an obvious good thing, as it would enable freelancers to focus on the work they actually enjoy and thereby increase their happiness and productivity. But it’s also important to bear in mind which freelancers have to take these day jobs in the first place: in particular those who are working-class, estranged from their families, or parents and carers.

‘Every freelancer I know has a side job that they do in order to make ends meet, which certainly wouldn’t need to be true if we had UBI,’ freelance journalist Imogen West-Knights told me. ‘And it would seriously level the playing field in terms of who is able to embark on a freelance career in the first place. Journalism would become an accessible career to so many more people overnight.’

However, introducing an egalitarian policy like UBI into an unequal society wouldn’t balance things overnight. As West-Knights added:That said, you do have to worry that already pitifully low freelancer rates might drop even lower if publications knew that you were getting a guaranteed amount to live on without them forking out for it.’ Clearly, any serious UBI policy that took into account the value that the freelance workforce brings to the economy would have to plan for such behaviours. A similar worry is that, according to Graeber, ‘landlords would just double rents to grab the additional income. At the very least controls would have to be imposed.’

Such worries relate to the existing power dynamic between tenants and landlords, or between freelancers and clients. In the first case it’s a seller’s market, with prices kept high due to a scarcity in the housing market; in the second, it’s a buyer’s market, with a higher number of freelance workers than decent, well-paying jobs. Because of this, unscrupulous clients very often feel emboldened to pay their contractors badly or to take certain liberties when it comes to paying invoices on time, delaying payment in order to better manage their cashflow. This is called ‘supply-chain bullying’, and it happens because dishonest companies don’t take freelancers seriously enough.

UBI could rectify this too, and profoundly shift the balance of power from the client to the freelancer. In the conclusion to Bullshit Jobs, Graeber wrote that UBI would alleviate the ‘sadomasochistic dynamic of hierarchical work arrangements’. Whilst he wasn’t thinking of freelancers specifically, supply-chain bullying certainly falls under this category. Graeber continued: ‘All of the gratuitous sadism of workplace politics depends on one’s inability to say “I quit” and feel no economic consequences.’ UBI would grant freelancers this power.

But is UBI ever likely to happen? Despite the various trials that have taken place in a number of countries, UBI still doesn’t seem much of a policy priority, not least because it would be so transformative. Perhaps the only manifesto to include a Basic Income policy has been Andrew Yang’s bid to secure the Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential nomination, but his ‘Freedom Dividend’ has been ridiculed because its universal income would be paid for through… VAT, a universal tax. And that referendum in Switzerland I mentioned earlier? The Swiss public rejected the proposal, with 77% voting against the plan.

But don’t rule it out just yet. Believe it or not, the benefits of a Basic Income are already being acknowledged by the private sector. Jo Hinchliffe, Connector at IndyCube Community, wrote a blog post about receiving ‘some time each week as a basic income allowance’, where he is paid but can spend these few hours however he chooses. He described using this time for networking outside of the office and voluntary work with a local school, and concluded that ‘it feels like basic income makes good things happen and is a real part of the future of work and community.’ Hinchliffe’s is a paid position, but the benefit of free time is acknowledged by his bosses.

Hinchliffe calls this ‘Basic Income’ but it’s better known as ‘20% time’, something Google has been offering since at least 2004. In An Owner’s Manual for Google’s Shareholders, the Founders wrote: ‘We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in “20% time.” Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.’

20% isn’t much, that’s just one full day a week. But it’s interesting that the Founders of Google, one of the most successful companies of all time, understand the importance of free time. Again, this isn’t strictly a Basic Income, and the emphasis here is on the benefit and value created for the company, rather than for the worker. But this policy should pique the curiosity of freelancers because Google openly acknowledge that free time ‘empowers’ their workers ‘to be more creative and innovative.’

In September 2018, the Irish government began to explore the creative benefits of free time, with a new scheme that allows Irish artists to claim up to one full year of unemployment benefit, to provide ‘breathing space’ so that they may ‘develop their portfolios and skills’. Karen O’Loughlin, arts and culture organiser for the trade union Siptu told ‘This is a positive step forward on the path to recognition of the professional status and value of performing artists in Ireland. […] The way to truly value artists is to ensure they can make a secure living from their work and that means the development of a basic income scheme for them’. Whilst this scheme only lasts a year and is not universal because it is only available to artists, this is a hugely exciting development. An equivalent scheme in the UK, offering ‘breathing space’ for freelancers, would be ground-breaking.

The social benefits of such an idea are not lost on Graeber, who told me: ‘The UK used to produce a new fantastic musical genre and new crop of brilliant musical artists every five years or so. Why did it stop? Well, because they got rid of the dole. Almost all those people were on relief at some point or another.

‘If you just give everyone enough to live on and ask them to decide for themselves what they have to contribute to the world, well, sure, you’ll get an army of bad poets, lunatic schemes to invent perpetual motion devices, or annoying street musicians, but if just one of those poets turns out to be Dylan Thomas, just one of those inventors actually does invent an anti-gravity device or some such, just one of those musicians does turn out to be John Lennon or Miles Davis… well, you’ve pretty much got your money back.’

Whether or not any kind of UBI policy is likely to happen soon is one thing. And whether or not it would substantially benefit ‘the economy’ is another. But what a regular, universal income floor would certainly do is increase the security of freelancers, and that would give us all a lot more freedom.

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