In the COVID-19 crisis, which is hitting hard at the vast majority of people, it’s hardly surprising that, in these first weeks of the emergency, the proposal for a universal basic income—an unconditional, monthly, monetary payment by the government to the whole population—has been widely discussed as a possible mitigating measure. People who acknowledge the fact that they have always dismissed the idea of a basic income are now saying it’s “absolutely necessary”. What was inconceivable a couple of months ago has become real. In an editorial titled “Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract” the Financial Times opined, “Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”
In a recent article in CounterPunch we concluded with the question, “By the way, what would be the social cost of not introducing an unconditional universal basic income now?” Every day that goes by, the burden of this social cost, paid by the more vulnerable members of society, is exponentially increasing as people stop receiving the small income they might have been earning, or are simply unable to pay rent and buy food. The cost of financing a basic income would be paid by the rich, in the form of higher taxes on the large incomes most of them are still earning. So, the “costs” being weighed in the coronavirus balance are the social cost, paid by the already-battered poorer members of society, and the individual cost to relatively few rich people and their corporations. If there was a real social contract, the balance would tip in favor of alleviating the social cost. And, yes, by redistribution, which isn’t such an eccentric idea after all. Showing up the effects of great inequality, COVID-19 is not the great leveler, but a basic income could be.
Many groups around Europe are calling for urgent implementation of a “quarantine” basic income, to be paid over a period of three months after the end of the lockdown or, better, until 31 December 2020. The Spanish government has made nice sounding but mean-spirited declarations offering a minimum income to “the neediest”, who must prove that this is their status. A Band-Aid for a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Since neoliberal tinkering will only make matters worse, the remedy “to this economic and social crisis” had to come from the populace: a Manifesto is now circulating, stating the obvious, namely that “a basic income is needed”. Right now. It should be “[…] effective as of 30 April until at least the end of the year. This would be enough time to evaluate its effects and design its continuity, especially since the crisis will continue to be harsh and persistent after the end of the coronavirus state of alarm, and also because there could be new outbreaks that will once again require lockdown and cessation of economic activity. We must not prolong the errors that are presently being made in the areas of healthcare and social existence.” The Manifesto calls for a basic income of €750 per month for adults and €150 for each minor.
Even now, some leftwing politicians and academics—there are plenty on the right, of course—claim that a basic income is too expensive. Really? To give one example by way of comparison, the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) announced by the European Central Bank is managing 750 billion euros, most of which will be used to buy bonds from the continent’s biggest corporations, which are listed here. These needy entities include some of the most contaminating fossil fuel operators, like Enel, Total, Repsol, Shell, Naturgy, and ENI. A basic income would be expensive, they say. Well, detailed studies for Spain, based on data from 2010, show that the total cost of a basic income of €622.50 per month for 43.7 million people (some 70% of whom would benefit) would be just over €285 billion, financed with a flat tax rate of 49% and guaranteeing pre-existing levels of tax revenue. This would mean a redistribution of €32 billion from the top 20% to the bottom 80%.
A basic income isn’t a magic wand. It’s a measure, certainly wide-ranging (not least because it’s universal) of political economy, which also consists of taxation, monetary, employment, and other measures. Herein lies the difference between basic income proposals from left and right: how it is to be financed, which part of the population gains and which loses, and what other measures need to be applied, among them a reinforced public sector. “Rescuing” people (not banks and big corporations) means not only guaranteeing their existence but recognizing their rights as citizens (whether they have legal documents or not).
This brief Manifesto can easily be translated and adapted to the needs of different countries. The underlying need, however, is the same everywhere: a response to acute, rapid, and generalized impoverishment or, in other words, the immediate implementation of a basic income for everyone. This is not charity. It is a means of guaranteeing the right of existence, the human right upon which all other rights depend. And it could be implemented right now.