Minimum alcohol prices

There’s absolutely no denying that the UK has an alcohol problem. The rates of binge drinking are amongst the world’s highest. A far higher proportion of Brits are addicted to alcohol than almost anywhere else. The result is a huge strain on the NHS, higher fatalities due to drink driving, and in some cases higher rates of domestic violence. The problem is particularly bad amongst the middle aged and older generations, especially those who live alone.

In response, many British politicians have proposed a minimum price on alcohol, which will take effect in Scotland in May next year. The obvious case for it is that by raising prices, fewer people will drink regularly. Proponents of a price floor point to cigarettes, where raising taxes on tobacco has reduced smoking rates. A minimum price would also discourage young people from drinking by making it a less attractive proposition when people can buy alcohol legally for the first time.

It’s true that a minimum alcohol price will probably reduce alcoholism by a little bit. But I doubt it’ll be all that effective. If someone is addicted to alcohol, raising prices will likely mean alcoholics will cut spending on necessities, damaging their health. A price floor ignores the fact that many people who drink excessively are actually quite well off people who wouldn’t be affected. In practice, I suspect the main effect of minimum pricing would be to reduce the disposable income of the poor and the young, while doing little to reduce rates of addiction.

Britain’s alcohol problem is not caused by low prices. In most European countries, particularly in the south, alcohol is cheaper, and yet rates of alcoholism are lower. The exception to that is the former Soviet Union countries which have a particular problem with vodka addiction amongst men. But in countries like France and Spain, alcohol is cheap and yet consumed responsibly. This is because alcoholism is caused by a toxic drinking culture. In Britain, it is simply socially acceptable to get hopelessly drunk, even in supposedly respectable places like Oxford and Cambridge university. Most shockingly of all, the elite Bullingdon Club glorifies drunkenness. If the ultra-wealthy can abuse alcohol, then why not the rest of the population? For rates of alcohol abuse to come down, there needs to be a profound shift in social attitudes. Minimum alcohol pricing simply papers over the cracks.

I’m afraid I don’t believe reducing poverty rates will necessarily reduce rates of alcoholism by all that much. Partly because as I mentioned earlier, many of those who drink excessively are middle class. ( Also, there are some very poor parts of East London and Norfolk where alcoholism is very low, and also some relatively well off parts of West London and Northern England where alcoholism is very high (,465581,443482,315655;l=en;i=t2.bingedrinking;v=map8.) Obviously we should all  try to reduce poverty by as much as possible. But we will only solve our alcohol problem when we realise the issue is cultural, not economic.

The prosperity gospel

The so-called prosperity gospel is a set of beliefs that says that God will reward faith , and very generous giving, with financial blessings.

Although proponents call themselves christian, there is nothing christian about this idea. The most prominent American prosperity gospeller is currently Paula White, white, married three times and accused of taking advantage of her African American flock in Florida and on Black Entertainment Network. Controversy swirls around her. Trump likes her (well, she’s a blonde with a good figure and an outgoing personality), and her philosophy suits him beautifully, for he can claim that it is God who has endowed him with billions of dollars. White offered the prayer at his inauguration and is a weekly visitor to the White House, with considerable influence. She is the head of a group of evangelical pastors who advise Trump, and it is she who alledgedly “personally led Trump to Christ”, (not cheating suppliers and ridding himself of debt by going bankrupt). She has been clever, never asking Trump for any favours, but buying a $3?5 m condo in Trump Tower. She is so well esconced in the White House that she is able to put in front of Trump a list of 130 peoplewho are “originalist, constitutional“ judges and pursue what matters to her: Supreme Court justices, religious liberty, Israel, human trafficking, coverage of contraception, and abortion. No other religious sect has similar access, even though the Constitution states that no Administration should favour one faith over another. She claims that Trump is fulfilling an assignment from God that is important to the church and to America”.

Here you have a clever woman who knows exactly how to manipulate the self-reverential Trump, who probably is now persuaded that he is the chosen of God, not only because of his wealth but because he has been personally chosen to return America to the path of righteousness. The abuses of religion! No wonder Epicurus was wary of it.

Epicurus and mumbo jumbo

No one knows whether the Romans really believed in their gods. I doubt they believed that their Emperors were really transformed into gods on death. In a book by Daniel J. Gargola called “The shape of the Roman order: the Republic and its spaces”, the author points out that they believed deeply in the rites of religion, the attempt to discern the will of the gods, expiate ill omens, and discern whether a public act was within the bounds of divine law. Religious rites had to be performed with precision. Auguries were taken in templa, and the buildings they were taken in had to be in precisely the right place with the right geographical orientation.

Epicurus was quite definite: there may be gods, but they live on Mt. Olympus, bicker and chase one another around the mountain, but have no time for the pathetic concerns of Man.
He never, as far as I know, commented on the rites of religion, and we do not know what he thought of the Roman preoccupation with auguries and so on because he wasn’t there But most emerging societies had these rites and superstitions, including the Greeks. I do believe he would have, had he been there, laughed at them and called them “lorem ipsum asynartisies” which, loosely translated, means “mumbo jumbo”. The flight of birds, the neighing of a horse at dawn, or the direction a tortoise walks when released – all these are totally random, and nothing useful can be deduced from them. But they are sufficiently obscure, and the people sufficiently ignorant, that they do allow priests to use them to exert power over their flocks and frighten them into obedience. Sometimes that obedience is a positive thing, if it produces a kind, thoughtful, considerate and cooperative population. More often it is just about power.

Thought for the day

When asked their views on the Ten Commandments, 8% of Leave voters, versus 4% of Remain voters, said that the commandment against lying (thou shalt not bear false witness) was no longer an important principle to live by. (YouGov)

How have we arrived at this situation? One should not need this part of the Ten Commandments to tell you it is wrong to lie. It should be common sense, instilled by parents. Decline in religious observation has nothing to do with it; upbringing does.

It’s started!

Two agencies of the European Union are being pulled out of Britain in some of the first concrete signs of Brexit. The European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Agency, which between them employ more than 1,000 people in Canary Wharf, will move to Amsterdam and Paris respectively. “All of their work is firmly based on the EU treaties which the UK decided to leave,” said an unapologetic Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem leader, said Brexit secretary David Davis had tried to pretend Britain could keep the agencies, showing the government had little grasp of the coming “jobs Brexodus”.

In addition, the UK has lost a battle to remain part of the international court of justice (ICJ). It is the first time in the court’s 71-year history that Britain has failed to gain a seat. Incumbent judge Sir Christopher Greenwood stood aside for an Indian candidate after failing to win the support of the general assembly. It seems that some EU nations are no longer automatically supporting Britain at the UN. (Guardian 21 November 17)

The Guardian also comments that the EU appears to be firmly in the driving seat of negotiations as Britain’s red lines are rubbed out one by one, Meanwhile, David Davis apparently faces censure for hoarding secrets from MPs about Brexit’s economic impact – pretty grim, one imagines.

What did the Brexiters expect but a catastrophic decline in Britain’s influence worldwide and a major decline in the economy? Obvious to those of us on the sidelines, but then busting up the system is the name of the game, as it is in Trumpland.

Inequality in the United States

According to the Guardian Weekly (November 11th) the world’s 1,542 billionaires increased their wealth this year by 17% to $6tn, a return impossible to get on most stock markets and rather a distance from the average interest income of 0.35% offered normal people by normal banks. The IMF has told western governments to increase taxes on the top 1% to reduce the dangerous levels of inequality. Keep trying!

At the beginning of the last century the railroad, oil, steel and banking robber barons were brought to heel by a Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. The chances of a real leader emerging today to do something similar look bleak. The more sensitive of the super-rich 1% are apparently getting anxious about blow-back from beleaguered taxpayers, fed up with the farce. They (some of them) are trying to disperse some of the money by buying art and making it accessible to the hoi poloi (72 of the top collectors of art are billionaires), and buying sports teams (140 of the top sports teams are owned by 109 billionaires). Billionaires also own the US National Basketball Association and the National Football League, and British soccer clubs are not only full of foreign players but most of the top clubs seem to be owned by foreign billionaires. Welcome to the 21st Century, where little British is owned by Britons.

Am I being too negative when I say that patronising art galleries and owning soccer clubs doesn’t quite do the trick. I would rather they paid a 40% tax per annum (that means every year!) and help improve schools, healthcare and other good causes. Because, of course, their clever accountants, helped by sleazy “banks” in Caribbean islands, Cyprus, Jersey etc make sure the huge incomes are tax free. If moderation is the key word in Epicureanism, then no follower of Epicurus can support the current situation. It is unhealthy for society.

Inequality in the UK

More than 6 million Britons owe 8000 pounds ($10,550) on a day to day basis, and that is in addition to mortgages. Almost a quarter of them say they are struggling to survive financially, while 62% say they are often worried about their levels of personal debt. 10% of the respondents to a recent survey say they are are maxed out on their credit cards, and a similar number are in overdraft at the bank. A third said they couldn’t see any hope of getting into the black and helping their children with college, accommodation etc. It seems that half the country is financially vulnerable, with 25 to 34 year olds the most over-indebted. UK consumer debt has reached 200 bn pounds, and that is probably unsustainable. And this is without Brexit!

My wife and I had dinner with a person who was a senior executive at the IMF until he retired. We were talking about the economics after Brexit, and he said he expected Brexit to result in 7-8 years of very bad economic circumstances, with maybe as much a 5-8% reduction in GDP, which is big. After, say, 10-20 years the country would struggle back onto its growth path. Of course, no one knows for certain, and if they did there isn’t much they can do about it now it seems that Brexit is a certainty. If his back-of-an-envelope suggestion becomes reality, Britain can look forward to a very rocky few years politically and economically. The Tories will be blamed, or should be. The loss of the Brexiteers is no loss. Problem: who else has the ability and the policies to sort out the mess? Isn’t it odd that in most parts of the world there is a leadership vacuum, and the only people who have a vision are autocrats – and who wants anyone with that vision?

Why I dislike Hillary Clinton less now.

Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, and certainly in its immediate aftermath, I had a distinct dislike for Hillary Clinton. I regarded her as yet another centrist, ‘neoliberal’ shill whose cautious approach to governing was ill-suited to a country clearly in need of radical reform. Particularly in contrast to her primary opponent and socialist ideologue Bernie Sanders, she seemed to lack principles and conviction, instead choosing to cynically use identity politics and smears to win the primary. Her attacks on Sanders were often factually false, like her claim Sanders wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act- he didn’t, he simply wanted to build upon it to move to single payer. Her campaign implied Sanders didn’t care about women and minorities, which wasn’t remotely true. Most importantly, she was far too hawkish on foreign policy. Her proposed no-fly zone over Syria could have led to direct confrontation with Russia. She hasn’t considered the shortcomings of the War on Terror or the Arab Spring. And unlike many Democrats, she never attacked defence spending for being largely wasteful and not actually making America safer. Overall, she really seemed like more of the same.

Then the shocking election result came in. When Trump won, my antipathy towards Clinton grew to new levels. Had Sanders won the primary, I thought he would have beaten Trump handily, particularly in the Midwestern states disillusioned with recent trade policy. Clinton did far worse than Obama amongst the rural white working class because she didn’t grasp how angry people felt at Washington. Rather than spending so much time praising Obama for his past record, Clinton should have spent more time explaining how she would have improved people’s lives now.

However, I’ve had a slight change of mind. While I still hold Clinton responsible for losing the most easily winnable presidential elections since Reagan defeated Mondale, I accept that Sanders’ policies never received much scrutiny, and so he may not have won as easily as the Trump vs Sanders polls were suggesting. I now have more reservations about Sanders’ policies; his healthcare programme was far too ambitious and costly. Clinton’s call for pragmatism and realism makes sense given how difficult federally-run single payer would be to get through Congress. I also no longer believe Clinton’s use of identity politics was entirely cynical. Rather, the Trump presidency has highlighted how prevalent sexism and racism still is in America today- Clinton was right to highlight those issues. As well as his bigotry, Trump’s protectionism has vindicated Clinton. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will only make America poorer and more isolated. Clinton’s support for free trade was right, her mistake on trade was not defending it well enough.

The most significant factor behind my more lukewarm attitude to Hillary Clinton was not actually anything that happened in America, but Brexit. I voted to Remain, but I decided to be magnanimous in defeat, and work with Leavers for the best possible Brexit. In return, many Brexiteers have needlessly attacked Remainers, accusing them of being unpatriotic, disloyal and undemocratic. Despite being the victors, many prominent Eurosceptics feel insecure, choosing to demonise almost half the population. While it wouldn’t be right to overturn the referendum result, no one ought to be under any obligation to support Brexit. Calling Remainers ‘enemies of the people’, as an infamous Daily Mail headline did, is bullying. The once-respectable Daily Telegraph has also descended into the gutter, declaring 15 MPs who voted against fixing the exact time we leave the EU to be ‘mutineers.’

Trump and most Republicans’ attitude towards Clinton reminds me of the behaviour of the most fanatical Brexiteers. Like the Leave campaign, Trump and the Republicans are the victors. They control the presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and most state legislatures and governorships. Yet they constantly feel the need to spew vitriolic abuse at anyone who dares question them. Clinton, a relatively centrist politician by any reasonable measure, is portrayed by Fox News and conservative talk radio as an unpatriotic hard-leftist who is irredeemably corrupt and seeks to destroy America. Somehow wanting to raise taxes on the wealthy back to 1990s levels constitutes extreme socialism. Much of the criticism is based on misogyny and conspiracy theories about Clinton; Ben Carson even said that she was in league with Lucifer at the Republican Convention, and the audience applauded!  The constant reversion to emphasising how evil even moderate Democrats are betrays Trump’s distinct lack of accomplishments since coming to power.

None of this is to suggest the Right has a monopoly on abusive behaviour. Too often the Left is hyperbolic when it decries anyone opposed to socialism, including Hillary Clinton, as being part of an evil ‘neoliberal’ elite. But in the US and the UK, what makes the Right’s virulence so appalling is the pretence of anti-elitism. The reality is that any democracy is competition between different sorts of elites. Clinton and the Democrats are no more elitist than Trump and the Republicans. What makes the Right’s anti-elitism is misguided is that it is the Right who enjoys power, at least in the US and the UK. Thus, the denunciation of Clinton as an elitist smacks of rank hypocrisy. The Right should respect that Clinton lost, and leave her alone.

Should Epicureans approve of cannabis?

Brendan O’Neill is perhaps one of my least favourite British columnists. I disagree with him on almost everything, from Brexit to student politics and the populist right. But his article this week is really interesting. O’Neill laments the effect of legalised cannabis on the culture of Los Angeles. He decries how it has become all pervasive- you can smell it everywhere, despite being supposedly illegal to smoke it in public place. It makes people too chilled out and stupid. And far from being a social lubricant like alcohol or cigarettes, cannabis makes people less sociable. You can read the full piece here

I don’t entirely agree with the article. Part of it relies on stereotypes about cannabis users: overly-educated, annoying middle class hipsters who are very fond of peddling a particularly pedantic form of political correctness and moral superiority. I certainly don’t believe cannabis is all that much worse than alcohol or cigarettes. The former is more likely to make people violent and abusive, the latter smells just as bad and carries a far greater cancer risk. Having said that, I wouldn’t want cannabis to become a part of the youth culture the way it has in LA and so many other places in America. Because of the smell, it’s quite an anti-social drug in my view, one which could prove seriously divisive were it to be used widely. The last thing Britain needs is yet more social divisions. Also, I’m sure cannabis makes people more stupid and boring, particularly if they use it regularly, even if the cliche O’Neill presents isn’t quite accurate.

Epicurus stood for moderation and enjoying your life. He certainly would have disapproved of the war on drugs, which costs huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, and results in a higher incarceration rate- needlessly splitting up families for non-violent offences. Taxing and regulating cannabis is far more humane than leaving it in the hands of criminals. But moderation also means taking into account the effects of smoking cannabis on other people. It’s certainly wrong to smoke it when children are present. Cannabis may not be life-threatening, but that doesn’t make it healthy. Strict regulations and a social stigma against heavy use will be necessary if it’s legalised anywhere else.


A looming disaster

A “disorderly Brexit” is now seen as “almost inevitable” by the world’s biggest banks. That, at any rate, was the gist of the observations sent to the Chancellor by the City of London Corporation’s Catherine McGuinness, after days of meetings with Wall Street bosses and Washington policy wonks. With continued access to the single market still in doubt, “uncertainty is translating into action”. UK-based American companies are already beginning to implement “contingency plans”. The British right-wing Press is agitated about the possibility that the government will allow the EU to “dictate” Brexit trade terms. The Tories airily expect to have their cake and eat it on trade, with advantageous deals with both the Europeans and the Americans. But EU trade regulations are very different from those of the US, which are much less consumer orientated. Britain risks having to pick sides between two trade superpowers with starkly different demands. The Americans have intimated that Britain would have to scrap EU food standards on chicken and GM crops (among other things), if it wants a successful post-Brexit deal. Faced with a choice of trade partners we are now seeing the advantages of the EU’s strict regulations on food, to mention only one issue.

We have now reached “the halfway mark” between Britain’s vote to leave the EU and our planned exit date in March 2019, said Iain Dey in The Sunday Times. And what progress has our “bumbling, chaotic” government made? “Even if a good deal with the EU had been possible at one stage, the chances lessen by the day.” Big businesses, particularly foreign-owned ones, “cannot afford to wait to find out”. They are already taking decisions. “Soon those decisions will be irreversible.” (drawn from articles by Iain Day & Aimee Donnellan, the Sunday Times, and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Daily Telegraph).

The only good thing is that it will surely finally dawn on the public that the right-wing Brexiteers are a totally incompetent bunch of blowhards, paid to protect British interests, but incapable of cooking a boiled egg. Hopefully, they will in due course resign and the electorate can vote in people prepared to do their homework.

“My country ‘tis of thee, not what it used to be, for thee I mourn”.

The truly sinister strategy of Putin

With all the debate about the direct interference of Russia in the American, French, German and other elections, including Brexit, what has eluded the Press and the commentariat is another sinister, subtle and long-term Russian attack on the West.

The civil war in Syria started in March 2011. Russia has had a particular interest in the continuation of the war, but now deems it time to pose as peacemaker. Why?

The brutality and destruction in Syria has driven 4.5 million Syrians out of their country. Most have found their way via Turkey or Greece to EU countries. The expulsion of these (mostly harmless) Syrian citizens has been deliberate Russian policy (Assad presumably wants some people left to rule over). The mass migration is doing precisely what the Kremlin wants and planned for: Western public dissatisfaction and political turmoil.

At first there was genuine support for the refugees in the West, but as time went on angry French, Dutch, East European and other voices started to be heard. So far the leaders of the EU have held their ground, but a nasty racism is threatening a serious divide that is driving nativism and racism and opening up sores that were previously buried. Hungary now has a semi-fascist government. Germany, so long regarded as the stable core of the EU, is suddenly weak and unable to form a government. Countries that have had modest immigration of moslems in the past suddenly have to accept immigrants who have no idea about life in the West and have to start from scratch. Growing resentment at not even being consulted about the numbers destabilises the EU. Which is precisely the Putin objective.

And among the tens of thousands of refugees there are a number of terrorists. Whether Assad and Russians eased their path to the West we can’t say, but we have to truly abandon the idea that you can treat Putin as a reasonable leader we can work with.

In the series called “Madam Secretary”, the US knocks out the Russian power grid as a lesson to Moscow. Think about it.

Ah, hah! A voice of reason and common sense!

“I am a gun rights advocate and firmly support the Second Amendment. I own handguns. I learned to shoot at an early age from my father, who was in law enforcement. I am an infantry combat veteran of the Korean War. I am absolutely opposed to civilians owning any form of assault weapon or multi-round magazine. The only reason for these weapons is to kill people, and they belong in law enforcemement and the military.

My proposal: shooting ranges alone should have these weapons and rent them to people to shoot on the premises.
(Carroll Rueben, Montclair VA, to the Washington Post, October 6,2017)

American evangelicals, No.2

Hypocrisy is alive and well in the American evangelical community. It was collectively adamant that President Clinton should be punished for the Monica Lewinski affair, but now, faced with accusations of pedophilia against Senate candidate Roy Moore, the latter is an “upright man” who should be forgiven for his sins. Moore’s election win would apparently help the majority of Alabamans halt abortion, abolish same-sex marriage and prevent child- bearing outside marriage. To win the war for the nation’s soul, Christians apparently have to accept flawed leaders, especially if they say they have repented. “It isour desire to see sinners saved”, to quote a prominent pastor, David Floyd. As long as they are not liberals.

61% of Americans now believe that politicians who commit immoral acts in private can still behave ethically in public office. The percentage of evangelicals who believe this is 72%. Winning elections is becoming the key objective, and it is uncoupled from character – witness Donald Trump, whom 80% of evangelicals voted for, (in no small part, to ensure that a conservative joined the Supreme Court).

Epicurus believed that we should “make agreements with others (laws), so that we do not disturb one another”. What would he make of the nastiness, hatred, vulgarity, crudeness and lack of moral backbone that has sezed the nation? Aside from the Nazi/ Mussolini era, this must be one of the the more disagreeable times in history. I can attest that I am very “disturbed”.

American evangelicals, No. 1

Historically, American evangelicals were poor and on the margins of society. Evangelicalism in the 19th Century stood for public education, prison reform and the abolition of slavery. They advocated equal rights, including voting rights, for women, and the right of workers to join a union. They also fiercely defended the separation of church and state.

Now, the descendants of those 19th Century evangelicals are, some of them, very rich, and this has led to a change in the the meaning of American evangelism. They are passionately against abortion, ignoring the tragedy of the unwanted and unloved child that so often is the result of forcing women to give birth, regardless of circumstances. They believe other religions and sects to be illegitimate. Their leaders are now esconced in the White House, advising a godless President. Many voted, if for nothing else, to get a majority on the Supreme Court. Tax, and reducing it is a principal pre-occupation. The apparent fact that there is a famous evangelical standing for the US Senate, accused of being a sexual predator is apparently of no importance; power is. There are still some true christians among them who are uncomfortable with the direction of the movement, but the separation of religion from politics is not a subject that concerns these people, as far as I can establish. At the moment they are in the driving seat and are gettin what they want. It could come back to haunt them.

Epicurus was very sceptical about politics in any case, but particularly hostile to politicians using religion to further their aims. In fairness, there are plenty of religious people who find the antics of the political evangelicals tacky and dangerous, to say the least. But we are in an era where studied, informed commonsense has been overtaken by hypocrisy and tribalism.

Universal Basic Income

I’m aware the topics I’ve been posting on have been very wonkish and policy-orientated recently. I’ll do something less serious next time, but I thought I’d give my take on an increasingly popular idea amongst economics. Also be warned, the post is necessarily lengthy. 

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction of present-day ‘late’ capitalism is the co-existence of immense wealth and serious deprivation. On the one hand, an increasing number of people are millionaires, or at least enjoy a life of luxury unimaginable to people living just 30 years ago. By contrast, there is a persistent (and in some countries increasing) number of people for whom life is a daily struggle. These people are often referred to as the ‘precariat.’ They live paycheck to paycheck, have no savings or assets, and often cannot guarantee how or when they will make enough money to afford necessities. If they are employed, they work long and irregular hours, and enjoy little job security. This contradiction is most obvious in the cities, which is partly why left wing parties tend to do best in urban areas. But even in the countryside, there is an enormous gulf between the life of an estate owner and a farm labourer, for instance.

In Europe, this contradiction has persisted despite the existence of everything traditional social democrats have advocated: universal healthcare, state pensions, workers’ rights, paid leave, unemployment benefits, child tax credits etc. Take for instance, France, where state spending is well over 50% of GDP. It doesn’t take long once you emerge from Paris’ Gare du Nord to discover that the French socialist model has largely failed, and in fact there are enormous numbers of poor Frenchmen. America is somewhat different to Europe due to the less comprehensive nature of its social insurance system. But even in Democrat-controlled states, where taxation and spending levels are at European levels, a large proportion of the population is extremely poor.

If the old healthcare and social security systems have failed despite large amounts of money being poured into them, then a bold experiment is needed: Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea is that everyone is paid a certain amount by the government. This would vary somewhat depending on whether an individual has children or is retired, but the payment should be large enough to cover your basic living costs. Thus, at least in theory, no one should be living in poverty. UBI has additional benefits. It abolishes large bureaucracies needed to means-test a wide variety of programmes. It is simple and transparent. It eliminates the possibility of welfare fraud. It would encourage people to innovate and take risks, knowing that there is a safety net below which they cannot fall.

For some dystopian economists, automation will result in permanently lower levels of employment, particularly amongst the unskilled working class. To prevent civil unrest from breaking out, UBI would give those displaced by automation and other technologies a way to survive while they retrain and readjust to the new economy. I’m personally not as pessimistic about automation and technology as these economists. But the fact is that areas affected most by deindustrialisation have not recovered well. In the US, the Rust Belt voted strongly for Donald Trump, and most post-industrial areas in Britain voted strongly for Brexit. Perhaps UBI is a fair means of addressing the disillusionment many people in these areas face. If a more free market policy programme is pursued, many regions will permanently turn against the governing party, even if the country as a whole is supportive. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives are still hated in large parts of the UK, even as she left office almost 30 years ago. UBI is based on the principle that no one should be left behind. Even in an largely prosperous economy, any kind of poverty is inexcusable.

The main objection to UBI is its cost. Giving everyone, including the wealthy, a large sum of money each would be enormously expensive. UBI advocates argues this cost would be reduced by a smaller bureaucracy and the elimination of all other benefits and most tax deductions. But even then, it wouldn’t come cheap. Taxes would have to rise to cover the cost, which would eliminate the benefits of it for everyone but the poor. The rich would vehemently opposed to it, since they would lose far more than they would gain. This leads to another objection, that it would be a welfare programme for the rich. UBI advocates argue that most people would see their lives improve as a result of having their basic living costs covered. But the fact is that most people pay more in taxes than they currently receive in direct welfare payments from the government. If UBI is intended to benefit the better-off, a more efficient way to do so would be to lower taxes. UBI certainly isn’t a redistributive as means-tested programmes, or indeed a negative income tax

UBI also doesn’t take into account regional variations in wages and living costs, particularly in terms of housing. If UBI is the same everywhere, recipients in high-cost areas may end up worse off than the existing system, where payments like housing benefit have increased in recent years. If UBI takes into account regional cost of living differences, then perhaps it would reinforce existing regional inequality by paying people in already richer regions more.

My personal objection to UBI is that it abdicates the responsibility employers have to pay their employees decent wages. Under some UBI proposals, the minimum wage would be abolished, since the government is already guaranteeing people a decent standard of living. Even if the minimum wage was maintained, employers could get away with paying their workers relatively little, knowing that UBI will cover the rest. The solution to poverty is to make employers pay their workers properly, not have the government subsidise poverty wages. I also fear it would lead to inflation, since retailers who serve the low-paid would raise their prices, knowing their customers are receiving more money. Even if anti-inflationary measures like rent controls, there would be no way to ensure that the overall cost of living does not rise substantially.

Overall UBI is a very interesting idea. I’m certainly open-minded as to what the results of UBI experiments tell us. I don’t believe it would lead to a dramatic fall in employment, as some conservatives warn. The very poor and most students would definitely be better off under UBI, regardless of whether it’s best for the country as a whole. But its costs, the lack of redistribution and the threat of inflation prevent me from endorsing it right now. Nor would UBI bring us any closer to solving the housing crisis- the cause of so much poverty across much of the world. UBI currently represents a dramatic expansion of the size of government, without addressing the fundamental causes of poverty the programme seeks to address.