Godfrey Bloom, Tim Harford, and the Citizens’ Basic Income

Godfrey Bloom, UKIP MEP is extremely offensive, but he may have enhanced his prospects with people who are toying with the idea of voting for him in the Euro elections next June. Shorn of the deliberate unpleasantness, the idea that at a time of austerity, poor people in this country should resent money sent elsewhere may well appeal to those whose low incomes are being squeezed by benefit cuts. Unfortunately, as with the anti-cuts movement more generally, those angered by Bloom’s outburst have played into his hands. A straightforward rebuttal accepts the fight on his terms. It is technically correct and justified, but it will still have the effect of reinforcing Bloom’s message among his target audience. Am I suggesting we should have let his offensive ideas pass? Well, sort of. It may have done less harm. But as it happens, the forces of fair play and social justice have an unexpected ally. In July 2013, Tim Harford posted the following article in the Financial Times Magazine


In it he says:

“Helping the poor in the most obvious way of all, through direct cash transfer, is starting to look attractive. Why don’t we just give them money? Until recently it has been hard to reach the very poor directly. ‘Strings attached’ giving the money to the governments of poor countries can be snipped, paying instead for a minister’s luxury apartment. Yet now we can simply stuff cash into the virtual pockets of the poor. Many very poor people have mobile phones, or access to phones. The government of India has embarked on a vast project to give everyone an ID number. GiveDirectly is a charity that passes donations straight to poor families in Kenya, using the well-established phone-banking system, M-Pesa.

Most  tellingly, Tim Harford goes on to say:

“While reasonable people can argue about why poor people in Bristol or Barnsley are poor, there’s no doubt about why poor people in Malawi are poor: it’s because they live in Malawi.”

Tim Harford appears to be unaware of a project which has already done just what he suggests in Namibia, which strengthens his suggestion considerably. It makes Bloom’s nasty populism look shabby. But why stop at Malawi, or Namibia? What are Harford’s criteria for deciding who is poor enough to need money stuffing into their virtual pockets? Why exclude Barnsley – or Bristol? In fact, by what logic does he stop short of a straightforward Citizens, or Basic Income, for everyone, everywhere? Everyone, everywhere will get the wherewithal for their basic needs, and one source (I discuss others in blog posts) will be everyone paying according to the size of their income from all other sources.

Regular readers of this blog will know what is coming next. A link to Dynamic Benefits, the report which is the supposed basis for Iain Duncan Smiths’s abolition of means tested  benefits, but the first part of which could actually be cut and pasted under the heading “The Case for a Citizens’ Basic Income”. (If you click the link, click ‘Publications’. Dynamic Benefits was published on 16th Sept 2009).

Of course, someone has to lose on balance, but it should not be the vulnerable groups currently being crucified by the government’s welfare ‘reforms’, and they certainly shouldn’t be put in the position of appearing to pay for people even  worse off than they are. But wouldn’t those with the highest incomes resist such communism? Probably, at first. But as I have been trying to explain in this blog, the Citizens, or Basic Income offers the possibility of zero growth without hardship, and the better off are the ones most likely to recognize that if 98.4% of scientific opinion on climate change is right, this ‘sacrifice’ is in the interests of their grandchildren.

As I have also tried to explain many times, the graph at the top of this page demonstrates that excluding Barnsley has the effect of taxing any resident who starts to earn enough to lose benefits at a higher rate than a banker on bonuses. Once this truth has sunk in mainstream, the rich will no more dare to defend means testing and so hold on to their tax advantages than they would dare nowadays to smoke on a train.

But Tim Harford is on Twitter. So I tweeted him with the above thoughts. Guess what: he agreed! Just a throwaway line? Not if I can help it.

Whilst on the subject of Tim Harford, will he and others who think Elinor Ostrom disposed of Garrett Hardin’s classic essay on the ‘Tragedy of  the Commons’, please read the new page on this subject in my blog. Ostrom was correct in pointing out that there are innumerable practical examples of well managed commons, but both she and Hardin himself seem to have been unaware of  the history of Easter Island, or at least of its significance for our current management of the ecosphere.

4 responses to “Godfrey Bloom, Tim Harford, and the Citizens’ Basic Income

  1. It seems to me that Ostrom made a good case that solutions to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ were possible but not that they were certain. Also, all the examples I’ve seen are relatively local whereas climate change and some other of our problems are plainly global.

    • What worries me is that some see Ostrom as gospel despite the flaw in her work. Her logic seems to be that because solutions to the Tragedy are legion and always develop, Hardin cannot be right. If either was aware of Rapanui (Easter Island), neither recognized its relevance. As I explain in my blog page on the Tragedy, Ostrom is right in the long term, but Hardin is unwittingly right in the case of a society hitting ecological buffers for the first time. Global/local? Was Rapanui local? It was global for them.

  2. Thanks for that link to ‘Dynamic Benefits’ – I’ve just spent the last few hours looking through it. A lot of fascinating details, however one criticism I have of it is the implicit assumption that employment is demand led. I can’t see how changing the benefit system will create jobs. At the moment to quote the document ‘Today, there are 10.4 million working-age people not working in the UK. Of these, 5.9 million are claiming out-of-work benefits’. The ‘number’ of job vacancies is about 500K (and a great many of those are duplicated so it’s actually less than that). In the long term the challenge will be to manage a decline in work.

    • I agree with your criticisms of ‘Dynamic Benefits’, It was commissioned by IDS, and naturally makes assumptions (which i too think are erroneous) that suit him. I don’t think they matter because the main thing is the superb critique of means testing – by a report which is the foundation for government policy! The Citizens’ Basic income would play a part in managing the decline in available work because it allows people NOT to work, even though it creates a work incentive vitiated by means testing. Most of those approaching these issues from a ‘left wing’ starting point dislike the idea that lower rates of pay per hour would become feasible – another management tool. To take two examples, Zero hours contracts and compulsory workfare for charities are slave labour – totally abhorrent at present. With a full C(B)I they would both become optional, personal lifestyle choices.

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