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Will Covid-19 Give Canada a Guaranteed Basic Income Plan?

With the adoption early Wednesday morning of legislation to seamlessly transfer Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) recipients over to Employment Insurance, Ottawa has moved one step closer to implementing a guaranteed basic income for all Canadians.

The revamped EI program will provide those transitioning from the CERB with an identical $500 per week subsidy for at least 26 weeks. They need not be unemployed—they can work and earn up to a maximum of $38,000 per year while still claiming the EI benefit.

That looks remarkably similar to a pilot guaranteed basic income (GBI) trial in Ontario that was shut down by Premier Ford’s Conservatives in 2018. It paid about $17,000 to individuals and up to $24,000 to couples. If recipients worked while receiving the benefit, their wages were to be subject to a 50% clawback by the government, and when their income hit $35,000 the supplement would end.

Why was this useful, potentially fruitful experiment cancelled?

Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa Macleod claimed it was axed because ministry officials told her it was not succeeding in turning recipients into “independent contributors to the economy.” We learned afterward from university researchers involved that there hadn’t yet been enough data generated to draw any conclusions one way or the other.

At the same time, though, there was an active business lobby opposing the very idea of a GBI, based on fears that widespread adoption of such a program would make it difficult to find people willing to work for low wages, and encourage low-wage workers in dangerous or unhealthy occupations to opt for the GBI instead of a paycheque.

You be the judge.

The notion that people are basically feckless, and given the option, will choose idleness over industry, is a canard popular with the 16th and 17th century British and European thinkers who gave us the foundations of modern economic theory. These were privileged white men, all, and the contempt they held for the lower classes is evident in their writing, and in their campaigns to have Church and local government welfare for the poor abolished, so as to force more men into the labour market created by burgeoning industrialization.

The idea that most of us view work as something to be avoided—a “disutility” in the language of the Utilitarian philosophers behind much of modern economic theory—has become so ingrained in our thinking that it’s seldom questioned. But common sense, a moment’s thought about your own experience, will tell you it’s wrong.

There’s work, and then there’s “having a job,” which is a relatively new coinage, a piece of labour market terminology. The “job” is doing work for somebody else, work from which they benefit more than you do. It’s the job that some of us resist; sometimes we call it wage slavery. Most people are happy to have work, so long as they have some control over goals and outcomes, and can see the results accruing in fair measure to themselves, their family and community. Then, the social and spiritual rewards outweigh any personal sacrifice involved. For most of us, work in this context is what makes us happy and fulfilled-—just as it did, presumably, for those ill-informed early economic scribblers.

Having a job, on the other hand, implies having to package ourselves into a marketable commodity, willing to sign on to corporate values like punctuality, productivity, conformity, efficiency, and a certain degree of ethical malleability in return for a degree of economic security.

The best argument for the GBI is a very simple one: it allows people the opportunity to fulfil themselves, to flourish, on their own terms. To expect disaster in the form of an epidemic of indolence is to be willfully ignorant of both history and our best insights, contemporary and ancient, into human nature.

It’s a commonplace to observe that an existential crisis clarifies thought, exposes what had been hidden, and offers opportunity to realign our priorities. We owe the graduated income tax to the calamity of WW1, the CBC/Radio-Canada to the threat of American cultural imperialism via radio. The bitter lessons of the Great Depression spawned universal, single-payer healthcare in Tommy Douglas’s Saskatchewan in 1947. (It went country-wide under Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent in 1957.)

Now we find ourselves in the midst of another historic crisis. And we have another historic opportunity to make this country a far better, more compassionate, more successful place than it has been in the recent era of tight-fisted neo-liberal dogma. If we accept the challenge, in decades to come we will look back on the GBI as a no-brainer, and as obviously a good thing as medicare for all, or the graduated income tax, or old-age pensions. It will be one more defining element of the Canadian experience, one more source of national pride.

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