The Finnish unconditional basic income experiment has barely commenced and the first media reactions to it are already out there. For example, Helsingin Sanomat (HS), one of the most popular Finnish newspapers, interviewed three participants of the experiment who replied to the newspaper’s invitation for basic income beneficiaries to publicly share their experiences. The title itself (a quotation from one of the interviewed claiming that “this is really great!”) already hints at the manifestly adulatory nature of the report.
Let’s imagine that I benefited from the current basic unemployment benefit (työmarkkinatuki). If it amounted to 700€ minus 20% of tax deduction, I’d be left with a net sum of 560€. If all of the sudden I was awarded the same amount of money (700€) but with 560€ free of taxes and no strings attached (I wouldn’t need to be a jobseeker), that’d certainly be “really great”. Additionally, I could take part-time, low-paid or short-term jobs without all the usual paperwork. It would also be “really great” to big business, whose practice of low salaries and precarious contracts would thus be not only legitimated, but even encouraged. Meanwhile, we wouldn’t have taken a single step forward in eradicating poverty.
Passing over the fact that the issue of bureaucracy could be tackled without reinventing the whole social insurance system, let’s focus on one idea that pervades the entire report: unemployment and underemployment are seen as immutable realities. They are here to stay and there’s nothing we can do about it. They are raised to the status of natural phenomena to which we simply have to adapt. Just as medieval serfdom was divinely ordained, so appear to be present-day unemployment and underemployment. The report lacks any assessment of the causes of these phenomena.
As to underemployment, HS seems to be missing the fact that this phenomenon thrives simply because low-paid workers with precarious contracts are more profitable for companies. But why should workers conform to the capitalists’ needs and not the other way around? The answer is a no-brainer: it’s a political choice. With the unconditional basic income, the government is objectively promoting underemployment.
Concerning unemployment, HS does mention the automation of the production process but unemployment in Finland has nothing to do with that. It stems from a deep global economic crisis on one hand, and the common practice of social dumping on the other. One only has to read Finnish newspapers to constantly see centres of production being transferred to China, India, Poland or Romania. Machines aren’t the ones to blame, although they are a convenient scapegoat. Blame instead capitalists that proceed with collective redundancies as soon as profits fall or don’t grow as much as expected, as well as companies that move their production to other countries to maximize their profits through cheap labour.
This is not the place to examine the complex process of technological development and the mechanization of the labour process, since this is simply not the case at hand. It suffices to say that the phenomenon has a contradictory effect upon employment, in the sense that automation makes labour obsolete in some sectors only to make it necessary in others. Even if mechanization were in fact eliminating jobs in Finland, the solution wouldn’t lie in charging only a few with full-time employment, while turning the unemployed and underemployed into a multitude materially dependent on the Almighty State. The solution would be to reduce the workday duration and thus distribute the necessary social labour among everyone able to work, guaranteeing the inalienable right to social security to those unable to do so.
To be fair, at least HS has the decency of informing the public about the estimated costs of this policy: nothing less than 15 billion euros. Just to have a sense of proportion, the Finnish government is currently hammering down its people with a harsh austerity programme just to cut 4,5 billion euros of expenses until 2021! This is absolutely unrealistic no matter the political perspective from which we see it. We’re talking about a government who slashes social benefits directed to those with low incomes, while providing the top earners with tax reliefs. Who do you think would pay the bill for these 15 billion euros?