Every once in a while, it’s fun to write a hot take. While this isn’t the blog I was prepared to write, it does raise some interesting ideas about employment, the virus, and government strategies for financial relief.

A spectre is haunting Canada – the spectre of a viral pandemic.

Given that fact, and the pseudo-incarceration that seems to be shrinking the square footage of my apartment daily, I’ve had a lot of time to wonder what is going to CHANGE when this is over. Will people ever shake hands again? Will divorce rates and/or fertility increase because of global self-isolation? Will e-sports use their sudden market monopoly to usurp football and basketball indefinitely? Are real estate prices actually going to drop? Will cruises still be a thing?

Is it possible to run out of Internets?

Finally, will this crisis finally convince us of the value of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)? I’ve been fascinated by the idea of UBI for about a year now, and I’m hoping it becomes the silver-lining of the COVID-19 spectre. I believe it will bend the arc of western history towards justice – and I think the pandemic is providing a real opportunity to consider its viability.

I believe this for three main reasons:

  1. The pandemic is drastically accelerating the financial decline of those employed in the gig economy, and exposing the fundamental cruelty of an employer who benefits from your labour but rejects all responsibility for your well-being (medical benefits, job security, workplace safety, minimum wage guarantees, etc). Since our government cannot let a critical mass of people go bankrupt at the same time, it is being forced to both intervene with financial relief, while also removing the loopholes in labour laws that Uber and other similar corporations exploit.
  2. The pandemic is sharply dividing those who can engage in remote work (largely white-collar, highly-educated, middle and upper class workers), from those who can’t. Many white-collar workers will consequently remain financially stable during this crisis, while many service workers and tenuously employed workers will not. This further exposes a class divide which is quickly becoming the most important divide in North American life.
  3. The pandemic is an “act of God,” and therefore the economic consequences cannot be explained away through the normal justifications. If Bob, a wedding photographer, loses his income stream for three months due to COVID-19 and declares bankruptcy, it will not be because he was lazy, or stupid, or incompetent, but because he had the bad luck to be in an industry which was destroyed by the pandemic. The normal logic of meritocracy – that people’s economic success or failure is mostly due to their work ethic and ability – has always been dubious, but in a global crisis it is verifiably wrong.

This pandemic is pulling back the curtain on the capitalist dream, silencing the siren song of wealth accumulation, and revealing the harsh calculus of inequality. In a market which is constantly struggling to disassemble job security, evade unionization, eliminate worker benefits and plug any and all downward trickling, the virus has destroyed the tenuous margin in which so many workers exist. During times of economic prosperity, the consequences of a fraying social safety net are less obvious. In crisis, the collapse of that same net could destroy the economic system.

Of course, accepting UBI as a potential solution requires more that doubting the meritocratic calculus of economic success and failure. It also requires doubting whether working 40 hours a week provides an intangible moral virtue that makes one “worthy” of financial autonomy. To be honest, it’s becoming increasingly clear that both Canada and the US don’t need full employment to maintain economic growth, and that a substantial portion of the population is having increasing difficulty finding and retaining full-time work (chronic under-employment).

 I know this sounds crazy, but what if a 21st century economy simply doesn’t produce enough jobs for every worker, and the jobs it does produce tend towards the highly-specialized and skill-intensive? Do jobs make us what we are? Do they define us, fulfill us, give us purpose and meaning? If not, what is the loss? If they do, then why shouldn’t we be more selective about our employment?  A UBI would allow us to work less, to choose our careers with more freedom, and to pursue passion rather than practicality in our daily grind.

Of course, one could argue that people already have the freedom to choose their careers and hours, and that those that get stuck in dead-end jobs didn’t deserve better options. This is the dark side of meritocracy – the idea that equality of opportunity naturally stratifies people into careers that suit their abilities and accommodate their weakness, elevating the talented and rewarding the mediocre with mediocrity. I will deal with this in a future blog post, but I think all of us with relatively diverse social circles would argue that this idea can’t be true. Talent, drive and skill are important in people’s career trajectories, but so are life circumstances, physical and mental health, ideology and identity, and hundreds of other factors

We all know people who have lost jobs in the last few weeks, people who have no prospect for finding new employment in their field, and who may not qualify for conventional EI because of the nature of their jobs. Through no fault of their own, no character flaw or lack of work ethic or financial mismanagement, they are staring down significant financial strain, if not bankruptcy. What if we admitted that our current system, which benefits wealth and capital while penalizing labour, won’t survive 1-2 months of social isolation and needs to be dramatically  retooled? What if we promised every Canadian adult $1000 a month for the foreseeable future, financing it with revisions to the tax code and current social programming?

What if we finally decided to end our association between full-time work (no matter how meaningless it is) and moral virtue? Or if we rejected our innate trust in meritocratic forces to sort people according to ability and reward them proportionately?

In a world which seems to need fewer and fewer workers in jobs that require increasingly specialized and extensive education, why should we shame or impoverish those without the inclination or ability to get that education or do those jobs? We’ve created the wealthiest civilization in the history of humanity, and are in the process of decoupling productivity from human labour.

Why can’t we free people to enjoy it?

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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