Universal Basic Services: Letters to the London Review of Books 

February 2019

Let us accept the need, acknowledged by John Lanchester, for a new economy that will reverse the frightening momentum of neoliberalism and avert climate catastrophe, tax global corporations and the rich, even cut military spending (LRB, 18 July). How is Universal Basic Income any kind of solution to these problems? There are many different versions, as Lanchester says. But there is a core idea: UBI is a programme giving every citizen or resident a regular income for life, with no strings attached, which is enough to live on and provides ‘security’. It is not about handing out cash to rough sleepers. It is not Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme. It isn’t even Alaska’s Permanent Fund, since $1400 a year is not enough to starve on, let alone enjoy security. Nor is it any of the various plans, from the UK Royal Society for the Arts scheme or Andy Stern’s US plan or Philippe Van Parijs’s start-low-and-see-how-it goes €200 idea.

All extant pilots, experiments and plans are partial. They give money to selected groups of people or they give a little bit of money to everyone and then usually payments cease after a limited period. Insofar as there is evidence that any of these schemes ‘work’, it is only on their own, limited terms. So what is all the fuss about? 

Full article available here: link

Universal Basic Services: A Theoretical and Moral Framework

16 January 2019

The case for Universal Basic Services (UBS) is a recent idea that is attracting much attention. This article provides a theoretical justification for extending the delivery of public services, as an alternative to the longer‐standing argument for Universal Basic Income (UBI). It rests on human need theory and the concept of provisioning systems. Both recognise the irreducible heterogeneity of consumption, the multi‐faceted nature of human needs and the variety of systems on which we all depend. Both recognise the importance of shared systems and mutual benefits. The final part restates the case for social rights or entitlements to the satisfaction of basic needs and for collective responsibilities to meet them to serve the values of equality, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability.


The extended crisis of what we can still call the welfare state has provoked proposals for radical, encompassing reform. The gap between the rich and poor is widening, children go to school hungry and dirty, and life expectancy rates are beginning to fall. More people are in work, but work doesn't pay and the so‐called ‘social security’ system provides nothing of the sort. Since the financial crash, alternatives have increasingly encompassed economic restructuring. Following growing awareness of the climate crisis, some also include radical environmental reform. The present predicament can be summarised as fragmented and degraded welfare, plus financialised, short termist and unsustainable capitalism.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is perhaps the most all‐embracing radical alternative. UBI has become increasingly popular on the left, right and centre as a unitary solution to the social and economic fractures and failures in modern society. According to the Compass group, ‘There is no single silver bullet policy to create a Good Society—but basic income is the closest there is’.1 But it has also attracted growing criticism, both normative and pragmatic.2 I share many of the critiques but I do not rehearse them here. Instead I develop the case for an alternative—Universal Basic Services (UBS).

The idea of UBS was originally developed by the Institute for Global Prosperity in 2017.3 It proposed a wider range of free public services that enable every citizen to live a larger life by ensuring access to certain levels of security, opportunity and participation.

Full article available here: link

The Green New Deal

The growing campaign for a Green New Deal in the US is interesting. And Philip is right to pose the question whether it provides some purchase for campaigns to recompose consumption and shift towards sustainable lifestyles.


In my book Heat, Greed and Human Need I regard GND as a first-stage green capitalist strategy to enable a Stern-like decoupling of emissions from output. While highly desirable it challenges neither growth nor consumer preferences. This is Thomas Friedman’s position in the NYT. He appeals to ‘Father Greed — a.k.a., the market. I am a green capitalist. I think we will only get the scale we need by shaping the market’. To keep it simple, he proposes as goals “the four zeros.” 1. Zero-net energy buildings: buildings that can produce as much energy as they consume. 2. Zero-waste manufacturing: stimulating manufacturers to design and build products that use fewer raw materials and that are easily disassembled and recycled. 3. A zero-carbon grid. 4. Zero-emissions transportation: a result of combining electric vehicles and electric public transportation with a zero-carbon grid.


The progressive Green New Deal that the new Democrat Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has laid out also aspires to power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. But it also aims to make the economy fairer and more just via such measures as “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” “basic income programs” and “universal health care,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. This what I would call a fair green growth strategy or a ‘just – or at least a more just – transition’.


Nothing wrong with that; indeed it marks a tremendous advance in the US, as would a ‘green jobs in every constituency’ campaign in the UK and similar demands in other countries. But it does not challenge current patterns of consumption and the relentless commercial pressures to consume more. That is why I regard ‘recomposing consumption’ as a distinct second strategy to help achieve the enormous rate of decarbonisation now required. (And beyond that a third stage of moving to a stationary economy).


But these conceptual distinctions are blurred in real political struggle. Pursuing fair green growth via a progressive GND is intended to challenge and reduce current levels of inequality that fuel conspicuous consumption. It will add weight to calls for necessities to be prioritised over luxuries and thus open up discussion on what consumption is for. The call for universal health care puts public services and social consumption on the agenda in the US in a big way; in Europe this could drive support for a wider range of ‘Universal Basic Services’. New green investments would also provide the necessary infrastructure to enable consumers to switch, for example from cars to public transport.


So in these ways I think the growing interest in GND can provide an opportunity to extend the audience for the Scorai agenda.