Career change and the quest for autonomy

I have decided to change careers – from public policy to psychology. The first step involves dropping my long-suffering Masters studies in economics and public policy (yes two programs, one of which I’m three quarters through), and entering a one-year Bachelor of Psychological Studies. In doing this, I’m moving on from about a decade as a public servant and political staffer.

In studying psychology my aspiration is to go into private practice, as a clinical or general psychologist. The road ahead is long and challenging, and nothing is given. In the case of clinical psychology, it will require at least four years of full-time study, and two years as a registrar. I will need to gain competitive admission to honours and then Masters, which often requires first class grades. Only a minority of students wind up with one of the prized places.

Nevertheless I’m up for the challenge.

Why?

Considerations in my decision included:

Favour economics/public policy Favour psychology
Strongly favour:

  • Considerable existing human capital
  • Risk and uncertainty of change (may not succeed in psychology, or may not find it as fulfilling as hoped)

 

Weakly favour:

  • Passion (but passion can be a curse…)

 

Strongly favour:

  • the superior autonomy of professionals in private practice
  • motivational benefits of helping people directly
  • a clearly defined career path
  • verbal-centric work (I prefer talking to writing)

 

Weakly favour:

  • a career directly consistent with my ethical values
  • personal attributes (can be empathetic while staying analytical and somewhat detached)
  • a career with strong demand across Australia and into the future.

 

In addition to the above, I have a preference for a field adjacent to social policy and a discipline that mixes qualitative and quantitative approaches. These aspects are roughly neutral between psychology and the type of public policy I do.

Public service employment destroys autonomy

The single most important factor in my decision was autonomy. Most people want some level of autonomy, but for some of us it is almost sacred. I think this is a pretty deep issue of personality, and as such is relatively resistant to change.

There are few careers that can deliver the independence afforded to a professional in private practice. A tenured academic is one, but academic employment in Australia has turned into a dystopia of casualisation and labour over-supply. Tenure – the teeth of academic autonomy – has largely been dismantled.

The main career option in public policy is the public service. This is perhaps the worst possible career for autonomy, with legislation uniquely designed to sacrifice public servants’ freedom not just at work but in their private life. In the federal public service, public servants can’t count on their freedom to even like Facebook posts critical of the government. In this respect having a passion in the field (politics, policy) can actually be a negative: it is a bigger loss to lose the ability to speak out about something if you really care about it.

The Australian government’s speech restrictions err on the side of excess risk aversion, curbing public servants’ citizen rights unnecessarily, and hollowing out organisations by pushing away people with valuable divergent thinking skills. Organisations need a diversity of cognitive styles and personalities, including critical thinkers and sceptics.

In addition to loosening restrictions on public servants, the government should pass legislation guaranteeing greater speech rights to private sector employees. The trend towards codes of conduct with vague catch-all restrictions is a serious risk to freedom of expression in practice. The open exchange of ideas, facilitating intellectual and political deliberation and progress, is a public good underprovided by a free market. It should be protected and promoted by government.

But I digress.

On a more mundane level, being a public servant, even in a flagship division of a ‘prestigious’ department, involves doing a lot of bullshit. By that I mean tedious clerical work, destined to be ignored on a staffer’s desk.

(Disclaimers: public servants do important work; many people have a wonderful time in the public service; I found it very rewarding for several years; I have been that staffer.)

Other options

Another public policy option is being a political staffer again, but you can’t do this all your life; most people tire of the hours, stress and insecurity; particularly when they’re in their mid-30s, with kids. Like the public service, this work also requires giving up much of one’s individual autonomy outside work. (Although you get more autonomy on the job, and you can help fight for a cause you deeply believe in.)

Working for a social democratic think tank would be attractive. However, there’s not much going in this space in Sydney, where I’m effectively tied to over the medium to long term for family reasons. I’m not even sure there are enough organisations to allow someone to sustain a career in this field long-term anywhere in Australia.

The corporate world holds little appeal to me, and I don’t think I’d be motivated to do it day-in, day-out.

Journalism seems too risky and structure-less.

I considered ventures like a Nicholas Gruen-style policy consulting firm or even a Matt Bruenig-style crowd sourced think tank. But Gruen is a force of nature, and I doubt I have the intense focus and ongoing dedication to drumming up business required to make a consultancy successful. I will never have Bruenig’s audience gathering ability, and even if I did there would be no way for the model to be downscaled for the Australian market.

Working for an NGO is something I haven’t really tested, but it’s probably not particularly financially lucrative and I suspect I might get bored over the longer term.

Towards psychology

For a few years now I’ve been wandering from work project to work project, uni subject to uni subject, without feeling clarity on what it was all aiming towards. I’ve notched up some reasonable achievements during this time, and I’m proud of them, but I’ve gradually lost motivation not knowing what all the work was adding up to in the long run.

Psychology provides an opportunity for a clearly defined career path. It involves helping people, which is intrinsically motivating, salient for me given family struggles in this area.

In addition, psychology is ethical on a day-to-day level. Public policy work may be ethical on a macro level (obviously public servants do a necessary job), but day-to-day it often involves colluding with and facilitating evil, for example spinning data to help a government disingenuously argue the case for cuts to the most vulnerable. I always found this work extremely dispiriting and demotivating – and even morally dubious, especially when it goes beyond following narrow directions and into territory where you’re pro-actively applying ingenuity to assist the government in its scheming. Watching robo-debt unfold heightened my ethical worries about working in the Australian Public Service.

What’s next

I’ll be living in Adelaide for most of this year. Flinders University has the fastest and cheapest program for my situation. I hope to be able to do honours at a university in Sydney next year.

I’m looking forward to a new phase in my life, a new experience, a new challenge.

Job guarantee errorism

It’s always a pleasure interacting online with the jobs guarantee (JG) and “modern monetary theory” (MMT) crowd. They must be the most passionate, devoted and fervent people on the internet, excluding ISIS.

Due to my concerns that a specific policy – the JG – could not be implemented as they envisage (see here, also here and here), they stopped by my Twitter yesterday and gave some constructive feedback.

Apparently, my worldview is “morally and intellectually impoverished”,  is “fundamentally neo-liberal (and wrong)”, “basically invalidates almost all progressive goals”, “10000% it’s an incredibly uninspiring view and at best a wet liberal, if not genuinely conservative”. I find this kind of deranged hyperbole to be one of the genuinely entertained aspects of Twitter.

Ironically, my views on economic justice largely derive from radical traditions. Inequality is, at root, a construct of legal and institutional fictions known as property rights. We are born into society that determines our command over resources based on arbitrary definitions of ownership. There is nothing natural or just about the prevailing system of property rights. On the contrary, it is fundamentally unjust because it catastrophically fails to allocate sufficiently to those of greatest need. This is not an issue of work, it preceeds work. Property rights must be redefined such that the poor receive a greater share of society’s resources – not because they work for it, but because the principles of economic justice require it.

Nearly 40% of the income in from the Australian economy is capital income, awarded for no work at all. The average adult in the Australian top 1% receives capital income that is more than triple the total average adult income from all sources. Given these facts, how is the central issue of distributive justice in this country insufficient work? If income can be detached from work for the capitalists, it can be for the rest of us. The single most potent tool modern governments have for redefining ownership of resources requires no work at all: it is the tax and welfare system.

Leading JG gurus fetishise work because of a profoundly conservative impulse that it should be a requirement for survival (for the poor). It is not surprising to find they are overtly hostile to the welfare state and that they echo the rhetoric of right-wing welfare reformers. Minsky condemned the “welfare mess” and argued “one must earn one’s keep”. Bill Mitchell would like to “abandon the unemployment benefits scheme”.

If this is the language of the JG’s foremost advocates, is it any wonder why some of us worry that it would turn into glorified work for the dole?

In my model of social democracy, social security and safety net concepts are cleanly separated from labour requirements. This protects beneficiaries from coercion and exploitation. Unlike the JG advocates, I do not believe the centrepiece policy for economic justice should depend on work.

What would society look like under this evil conservative vision?

  • generous unemployment benefits with lenient conditions
  • active labour market programs
  • no work for the dole
  • mass unionisation and sectoral level bargaining
  • generous and universal family benefits
  • a universal social dividend to all citizens funded by a social wealth fund.

As I have argued, there is room to trial a transitional and optional job of last resort (JLR), which unlike the standard JG proposals would be sensibly modest and designed to mitigate against risks. It would not pretend to be a universal “guarantee”. If it is wildly successful, by all means, expand it. But don’t be so dogmatic and hubristic to assume a highly complex, bureaucratically intensive theory that screams risk will work just because you will it too, not when the most vulnerable in the community are at stake. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan rightly cautioned in his Senate speech against Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms:

But first, do no harm. Do not pretend that you know what you do not know. Look at the beginnings of research and evaluation that say, “Very hard, not clear.” Do not hurt children on the basis of an unproven theory and untested hypothesis.

The JG folk don’t seem to comprehend the danger of committing to something – a “guarantee” – that they may not be able to deliver on, of the way a phony guarantee would stigmatise the welfare recipients who are unable to be matched with a suitable job. They don’t seem to understand how the concept of a guaranteed job could, in the actually existing Australian society, turn into a social expectation that the recipient will take a “guaranteed” job, something entirely unreasonable given the health and welfare profile of so many of the unemployed.

They don’t seem to understand how maybe, just maybe, allocating a complex range of individuals, each with highly specialised needs and capabilities, to an extremely narrow range of jobs possibilities, which must satisfy restrictive criteria such as not displacing other workers, could be beyond the power of actual human bureaucracy and that people might get hurt in this process. They don’t seem to appreciate the risk that these pseudo-jobs would in fact displace real jobs, despite best efforts, trapping people in dead end drudgery with limited opportunity for promotion.

Much of my concern about bureaucracy relates to my personal experience as a kid in a single parent family, with a mum who was often sick. Knowing the stigma attached to poor single mothers, I would have zero confidence in fairness from local committees either.

If concern for the most vulnerable in our community is “morally and intellectually impoverished”, “fundamentally neo-liberal” and “genuinely conservative”, I plead guilty.

 

Local bureaucracy is still bureaucracy

Last week I proposed a “job of last resort” (JLR), a pared-down variant on the so-called job guarantee (JG). In this post, I want to clarify some of the problems with a comprehensive JG in response to online discussion.

Under the JLR, eligible unemployed workers are able to apply for a special government job at minimum wage – similar to the JG in this respect. But the change in terminology – dropping the word “guarantee” – is deliberate and reflects the reality of the program. The JLR does not guarantee a suitable, or even any, job for all unemployed people.

I do not believe guaranteeing over 700,000 unemployed people a suitable job is something the bureaucracy can deliver on. I do not believe in promising something that cannot be delivered. A fake guarantee would only add to the stigma of unemployment. If the public is led to believe jobs are “guaranteed”, it implies that an unemployed person who does not succeed in obtaining a suitable JG job is consciously shirking.

Under the JLR, the pool of eligible workers is narrow (only the very long-term unemployed or underutilised), and the job availability is also narrow: city and regional beautification (gardening, landscaping, etc) or, for the less fit, low skill tasks embedded in government departments that would otherwise not be performed (door greaters, so-called “tea ladies”, etc). It may be possible to expand this modestly from government employment to community employment, but the principle remains: if you don’t fit into one of the available categories, you’re not in luck. Also you can be dismissed like any regular employee. No job is “guaranteed”.

This pared-down model of reserve public employment is necessary to ensure the program is actually deliverable.

A comprehensive JG would need the capacity to evaluate over 700,000 unemployed (well over a million in recessions) and somehow find or create them a job, tailored for their individual circumstances. Unemployed people disproportionately face challenging life circumstances. They are substantially over-represented with physical and mental health conditions and disability, life traumas and complex family situations. Some have conditions that make them a risk to themselves or to others. Some have messed up circadian rhythms or neurological conditions that cause them to sleep throughout the day. Some have run away from violence; some have just left prison after perpetrating violence; some have done both. Somehow, a program will take this complex diversity and neatly slot them all into a job, and things will turn out fine. I just don’t buy it.

JG advocates try to handwave away the bureaucratic problem by declaring the program will be “federally funded, but locally administered”. But this just kicks the can down the road. Local bureaucracy is still bureaucracy. It still requires resources to evaluate workers, find or create suitable jobs, and monitor the employment relationship. Indeed local-level administration would be more resource intensive due to diseconomies of scale – the local level would lack the (relative) production line efficiency of a mass scale processing – and because Commonwealth level administration would be required in any case to oversee the funding agreements with, and performance of, local entities.

What would the local-level administration look like? JG advocates sometimes say the job allocation will be determined by a mix of local councils, democratically elected committees, local community groups and local businesses. To me this sounds like nightmare rule-by-committee, and no panacea for the JG’s inherent administration problems. Big government bureaucracy gets a bad rap, but local government, small business and local communities can be just as problematic, at times even more so. Local councils lack the media accountability of the Commonwealth government, and as such are not infrequently corrupt and incompetent.

When we romanticise the local, we downplay the profoundly repressive force of what Noah Smith calls “local bullies“:

…freedom of the individual can be curtailed not only by the government, but by a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions. In a society such as ours, where the government maintains a nominal monopoly on the use of physical violence, there is plenty of room for people to be oppressed by such intermediate powers, whom I call “local bullies.”

Twitter personality James A. Robichaux poses the local bullies problem (without calling it such) in the context of a JG:

Job Guarantee advocates talk about how a local, democratically-elected council will determine which jobs are needed, including jobs suggested by citizens who want to do them.

I can imagine how that will go.

I think that it’s no wonder that all major JG proponents are white.

The cool kids and their sycophants will form a majority and vote themselves the coolest jobs.

The minority of uncool kids will have the bad jobs and won’t get their own job ideas approved.

[Edit: A commenter (reasonably) points out not all major JG proponents are white. To be fair to the original author, it was an offhand comment on Twitter. This specific empirical claim was not the purpose of using the quote, and I think the broader argument stands up.]

To the extent local-level decision makers have discretion, the more appealing jobs may be allocated to people who model stereotypes of the “deserving” poor or other prejudices prevalent in a particular community. It is not hard to imagine conservative communities administering welfare very differently to left-leaning communities. It is not hard to imagine a conservative local-level bureaucrat thinking, for example, that a trans person is partly responsible for their unemployment by “choosing” a “lifestyle” outside the mainstream. It’s not hard to imagine a local official turning a blind eye to job displacement issues to provide free labour to an organisation they have associations with.

Local biases are a real problem in the context of a national welfare state that should be administered according to the rule of law, ensuring fair and equitable treating for citizens regardless of where they live. Even when not overtly pernicious, life changing decisions being made on ad hoc local whims are hard to justify when they are funded by national taxpayers.

Remember the Commonwealth Government’s Building the Education Revolution program. Some pricey shadecloth contracts administered mainly by the NSW Government embroiled the Commonwealth Government in years of damaging controversy. Yet we think hundreds of local bodies can make hundreds of thousands of life changing decisions, using Commonwealth funds, and everything’s going to be fine?

Spending decisions on a nationally funded program must have accountability to Australian citizens. The Commonwealth would therefore need to negotiate detailed inter-governmental agreements with 547 local councils (or authorities at a similar level) stipulating rules, processes and principles for the equitable administration of the funding, including in evaluating job seekers and avoiding job displacement. It would need to monitor these agreements. In addition, it should establish a national appeals process.

Under a “federally funded, locally administered model”, all of the complexities associated with evaluating workers and placing them in jobs would remain, but the intergovernmental component would create an additional layer of bureaucracy. All of this is so unwieldy it is unlikely to achieve any of its goals particularly effectively.

Does the “job guarantee” have a modest cousin?

I’ve long been a sceptic of a jobs guarantee (JG). A world in which a government department can effectively evaluate the needs and capabilities of every unemployed person and assign them to a suitable individualised job is beyond the scope of plausible reality, in my view. It’s just not my experience of the way bureaucracies work.

Such a program would also bring macro-economic risks, potentially suppress wages in JG worker sectors, and do an injustice to the unemployed by making promises it can’t keep. Unemployed people suffer enough stigma. It would only get worse if the government effectively told the community the unemployed were all there entirely by choice, as would be the implication of claiming jobs were “guaranteed”. A full blown JG would also have a massive fiscal cost – likely tens of billions each year – which just cannot be hand waived away in budget obsessed Australia.

Nevertheless the motivating spirit behind the JG has its attraction. Long-term unemployment is a waste and a tragedy. Human beings, willing to work, sit idle for years when they could be contributing to society through some form of productive labour. And although I think claims about the “dignity of work” can be overstated, it is true that long-term unemployment is profoundly damaging for happiness, health and human capital. Many of us would prefer almost any safe and dignified job to this. Some – not all – of us have a deep need for a reason to get out of bed, duties to perform, a need to feel needed.

What if we could design something like a JG, but on a relatively modest scale, capturing its merits while dropping the risks and grandiosity of a universal JG? Let’s call this a “job of last resort” (JLR) program.

Theory

The starting point is that JLR would only target the segment of the unemployed who are relatively unlikely to gain employment in the private sector any time soon. It would not cover someone briefly between jobs. Rather, it would be limited to those who have been substantially underutilised for a very long period. This is to ensure the program does not interfere with transitional unemployment, which is present even in the healthy labour markets described as “full employment”.

A problem with a full blown JG, available to all unemployed, is that it would divert a significant number of people into the program who otherwise would have quickly obtained a regular job. This may harm the individual, whose career progression would probably be better served in regular employment. By crowding out private sector employment, it may also cause inflation. However, to the extent JLR only targets the unemployed who are not on the margin of employment – call them inframarginal unemployed – these concerns should not be overwhelming.

Eligibility

The program would be available to anyone who has received an unemployment (or related) benefit for:

  • at least two thirds of the past year and
  • at least two of the past three years.

Also eligible would be a person who has:

  • received an unemployment benefit for at least two thirds of the past year,
  • received an unemployment benefit for at least one of the past three years, and
  • had total labour earnings of less than $80,000 over the past three years.

The latter eligibility method attempts to capture long-term underutilised workers. An earnings threshold is chosen due to administrative difficulties in evaluating hours worked. Modified criteria would exist for people who had spent time as students or carers.

Conditions

JLR participants would be paid at the minimum wage. They could choose between programs of different levels of commitment, for example 35, 25 or 15 hours per week.

Eligible participants would be offered a job in city or regional beautification, for example, gardening, litter collection and landscaping. Those who do not have the required fitness would be eligible for placement on low skill tasks in government agencies. The important point is that they are undertaking work that adds value but which would be unlikely to be performed otherwise, such as in basic staff catering – what used to be called “tea ladies”. They could be hired as door greeters at government agencies.

JLR participants would be held to usual workplace standards and may be dismissed if they fail to complete assigned duties or abide by the code of conduct. In this case, the participant would return to regular unemployment benefits and be eligible to reapply for a JLR position after six months.

Self-directed work plans

After participants successfully complete the first six months of a JLR program, they would have the opportunity to submit a business case to request allocating up to 10% of their working hours to self-directed work. Work options would include arts, culture and sports. The business case would have to satisfy that the activity made a measurable contribution to the community. The threshold would be modest – for example, exhibiting work, publishing articles or even getting hits on a blog post. An approved participant in this arm of the program would be accountable for the delivery of the benchmarks set out in their participation agreement.

Non-completion would result in the loss of the self-directed time and its reallocation to regular JLR activities.

JLR participants who successfully deliver on their self-directed benchmarks over a six-month period may apply to increase the self-directed time to 20% of their working hours.

Job search requirements

The JLR is not intended to be a permanent job. It is a last resort. Participants would be expected to undertake some (reduced) job search activities. The discount on job search requirements, relative to unemployment benefits, would be substantial for 35-hour work week participations. The idea is just that they continue to apply for appropriate jobs, rather than spend their time churning out pointless low-chance applications.

Cost

There are currently around 100,000 people who have been unemployed for at least two years. Program eligibility is considerably broader than this, but only some of those eligible will elect to sign up. So as a rough guess – potentially an underestimate – let’s assume 100,000 people will participate in the JLR.

Let’s assume all participants chose to work the maximum 35 hours per week, an obvious overestimate.

The minimum wage in Australia is currently about $19.50 per hour. On-costs for public servants – including superannuation, office space, training, etc – are typically assumed in government costings to be around 20%-30%. But the figure is likely to be much higher for JLR participants for two reasons. The first is mechanical – the JLR’s wages are lower than those of regular public servants, so a given amount of spending (on accommodation for example) will be greater as a percentage of their income. The second is that management costs of JLR participants will be high due to the participants’ diverse and complex needs and capabilities, which will be affected by their spell of unemployment. Managers will have a challenging task to create effective and integrated teams out of workers who are given to them ad hoc, rather than selected to fill specific roles based on their personal capabilities. I’m going to assume on-costs of 50%.

Based on these assumptions, the gross annual cost of the JLR will be:

100,000 * $19.50 * 150% * 35 * 52 ≈ $5.3 billion.

The cost will be offset by Newstart savings. The rate of Newstart for a single with no children is $279.50 per week. Let’s assume, conservatively, the average JLR participant would have received half of this due to occasional work and various means testing arrangements:

100,000 * 279.50 * 50% * 52 ≈ $0.7 billion

In addition, the tax office would claw back some money through personal income tax, but this would not be material for this level of analysis. People on minimum wage just don’t pay much tax, and their spell of unemployment would drag down their year’s tax bill to zero in many cases.

Based on the assumptions above, the net cost of the JLR would be approximately $4.6 billion annually. The estimate is crude – a professional costing would require administrative data and sophisticated modelling – but it gives the order of magnitude.

At around 0.2% of Australia’s GDP, the JLR is eminently affordable in theory. It wouldn’t crack the government’s top 20 most expensive programs. It costs roughly one tenth of the age pension, a quarter of family tax benefit and of disability pensions, a third of funding to private schools and half of unemployment benefits. It is trivial compared to tax concessions on superannuation.

But the issue is political will. In Australia we live in a political culture that is fixated on the budget. The immediate question is whether, given political economic constraints, this is the best use of around $5 billion a year. There are probably other ways we could spend this money to get better bang for our buck in terms of human welfare. On the other hand, perhaps this is more politically feasible than other programs. Voters do love “jobs”.

Should we do it?

I remain concerned about the interlinking of social security with work. I would prefer a clear demarcation between safety net programs and labour requirements. Blurring this distinction is a slippery slope to exploitation. Sure this ship sailed with Work for the Dole, but should social democrats be promoting it as part of our grand vision?

I have no absolute answer to this question. What I can say is that if we do go down this path, we should do so modestly, and with concrete policy proposals, rather dealing in grand rhetoric and sweeping claims that cannot realistically be implemented.

The JLR is my offering, for discussion, to this end.

Poll: Australians support a universal basic income

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Unions NSW has found 49% of Australians support a universal basic income (UBI), with the remainder split between opposing or saying they do not know. The finding is a remarkable result for a policy radically outside the political mainstream.

Consider this: in a country with deep traditional antipathy to “dole bludgers”, half of Australians are prepared to support a policy of free government money for everyone, for nothing.

In addition, the poll found that UBI support correlated with education, with 57% of university graduates in favour of a UBI. Society’s education levels increase over time, so UBI sentiment is likely grow even more favourable.

These UBI findings are some of the most fascinating poll results I’ve seen. It would be interesting to have more details about what exactly responders saw leading up to the question. The UBI results are not played up in the Unions NSW report – understandably, as the UBI is not one of its preferred policies. In activist circles, the UBI is often juxtaposed against a jobs guarantee (JG), which is what Unions NSW prefer. Personally, I don’t understand why UBI and JG are treated as dichotomous, as one could support both policies, or neither.

The report emphasised the poll’s finding that 67% support a JG, an unsurprising result given Australians tend to answer positively to the concept of “jobs”. It’s a nice word. “Guarantee” is a nice word too. However, it is highly questionable whether the positive sentiment towards these words converts into support for any real-world policy.

The problem is that a “jobs guarantee” can mean very different things to different people, especially randoms who have never heard anything about the policy before.

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of JG. For some, the JG is about helping the unemployed to self-actualise, but for others the attraction is setting the idle poor to task. By collapsing welfare and workfare impulses, the JG sucks in support from people imagining completely different programs. Obviously, this alliance can only be sustained as long as the JG stays at a linguistic level. Once the policy-maker supplies policy parameters, they will be declaring for one side and alienating the other.

Should the JG be entirely voluntary? Should it involve only things like picking up trash and digging ditches or should it involve arts, culture and personal expression? Will it involve dangerous work? Will it compete with existing employees, driving down wages? Can people be fired? Would they be endlessly employed without showing up? What if they have a mental health condition, for example, that seriously compromises their ability to show up and do the job? Having generous conditions is appealing to lefties, but at some point it will lose any resemblance to what normal people think of as a “job”.

Unfortunately the survey question did not help much here, as it did not ask for a response to a specific JG policy. According to Unions NSW on Twitter, a preamble to the JG question said that the policy “could” include the government providing jobs paid at least at minimum wage to people who cannot find one in the private sector, and making unpaid overtime illegal for jobs paying less than $100,000 a year. It would have been preferable for the survey to specify that the JG “would”, not “could”, provide government minimum wage jobs. Instead it effectively invites responders to imagine whatever policy details they like, within a broad umbrella that spans as far as reforms to unpaid overtime!

On the other hand, a UBI is intuitively understandable (cash for everyone!) and wears its most unpopular aspect – free money for doing nothing – on its sleeve.

Despite loading the dice in favour of the JG, the poll finds that 32% still prefer a UBI (56% say they prefer a JG).

Think over how radical this is: in an Australian political culture with a long history of intense animosity towards “dole blunders”, 32% of Australians would prefer the government pay an income to everyone for no work whatsoever than to implement a smaller scale program that tied income to work.

Again, there is nothing natural about this dichotomous framing. It is like asking people to declare whether they’d prefer investments in maternity services or cancer, and then using the result to justify pursuing only one of the two.

For what it’s worth, I do not support a JG and nor do I advocate for a conventional UBI. The more pressing priority is a generous system of unemployment benefits and other social security payments, without excessive activation requirements. Newstart must be increased and Work for the Dole abolished. From there, social security conditionality, including means testing, should be steadily reduced so the system promotes the freedom and self-actualisation of recipients and protects people across all socio-economic groups. As we head down this path towards social democratic utopia, the growing system of payments will evolve into a de facto guaranteed minimum income. Then we might consider joining up some of the programs and consolidating into a UBI. But this is a utopian goal.

However, there is one type of universal income that has merit in the more immediate term – a social dividend, an old idea but now most associated with Matt Bruenig’s Social Wealth Fund for America. This would involve the government managing a social wealth fund on behalf of its citizens, paying dividends to each citizen equally. The social dividend is universal but not “basic”, as it goes to all citizens but its purpose is not to provide a living allowance. What this kind of social dividend does is simply redistribute society’s capital income. The design is conceptually elegant and politically expedient: by targeting only capital rather than labour income, it evades the objection that universal income programs take from workers and give to non-workers. Under the social dividend, the income subject to redistribution was never being paid for work anyway. If passive, unearned income already goes to top 1%, why can’t we share it around? Moreover, the payments are not funded by a giant tax but from a massive investment in the market economy.

When it comes to universal income, I’ve always been a “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” kind of guy. But if the Unions NSW YouGov poll results are to be believed, I should be much, much more optimistic: Australians already support universal income.

A modest proposal for democratically regulating Folau-style speech

Folau’s dismissal by Rugby Australia has ignited a debate about whether employers should be able to restrict employees’ speech outside work. While conservatives have defended Folau on religious grounds, others such as Gillian Triggs, Josh Bornstein and John Quiggin have cautioned that such restrictions give business too much power.

The latter position holds that limits to free speech should be determined democratically, not by capital. Business has no framework for adjudicating morality; its objective is simply profit.

The employment relationship is not a systematic or equitable basis for regulating speech. Only half the population is in the labour force. Why should non-workers, the self-employed, or the independently wealthy – who don’t need to work – be able to get away with harmful speech? Employees with conservative bosses may also escape censure; meanwhile, enlightened speech might be punished.

If formal punishment is appropriate for Folau, it should be administered by government, under speech regulation that is democratic, consistent and transparent.

So what would a democratic approach to speech regulation look like? We already have some examples, such as laws on racial vilification, sexual harassment and menacing speech. Folau’s speech could be restricted by significantly expanding the scope of these kind of laws.

Folou’s sacking has two main functions. It serves as a deterrent, discouraging others from making homophobic comments; and it aims to take away Folau’s ‘platform’, reducing his ability to promote harmful ideas.

To achieve these functions, a criminal offence could be legislated to punish speech that is hostile or harmful towards protected groups, such as LGBTQ.

Deterrence

For deterrence, punishments would be aligned with what an employee could currently experience from employment penalties. For Folau, dismissal will cost him the three years left on his contract (reportedly $5 million). Let’s assume Folau would earn half this amount in alternative employment. Thus Folau’s employment punishment is equivalent to 1.5 years of earnings.

Under the proposed law, the court would impose a fine equivalent to 1.5 years of the offender’s income (around $2.5 million for Folau) for an equivalent offence. The fine could be calculated based on past or current income, with judicial discretion to make adjustments in special circumstances.

Let’s assume Folau’s offence is around the mid-point of severity. The maximum fine, then, should be twice as much – three years’ income. In addition, the judge would have discretion to impose community service or, in grave cases, jail.

De-platforming

As an elite footballer, Folau had a large audience for his opinions. Many who support Folau’s sacking argue it will remove this platform. But efforts to ‘de-platform’ sometimes backfire, generating greater publicity for the offending material. This phenomenon even has a name – the Streisand Effect.

In Folau’s case, the firing unquestionably raised his profile and increased awareness of his comments. Folau raised $600,000 on GoFundMe within 12 hours of asking for donations towards legal expenses. GoFundMe cancelled his campaign, but it just moved to a different website and donations surged. More than $2 million was raised from over 20,000 donors. De-platforming is a tricky business.

Unlike private sphere de-platforming, state censorship can have serious teeth. A sentence under our proposed legislation would include time-limited restrictions on the offender engaging in public communications, such as bans on media engagements, rally attendance or social media use. Repeat offenders may have their phone and internet connections cut.

For real?

Let’s not be squeamish about tough criminal punishments. Sure they might destroy someone’s life, but so might losing a job. And while Folau’s going to be alright, for others job loss can lead to family breakdown, homelessness, suicide. At least the public sector approach will provide a judge, transparent rules and appeal mechanisms.

It is also more humane. Unlike job loss, financial penalties would be limited to three years’ loss of income, and payable through a HECS-style loan. As for jail in the most extreme cases, well why not? For a marginalised community – vulnerable to suicide and violence – hate speech can be a matter of life and death. Arguably it is a form of violence. Even non-violent property offenders go to jail.

It is true that offenders’ communication rights would be significantly repressed, but that’s the whole point of de-platforming. The public sector just happens to be more effective at it than the private sector.

It is also true that the legislation would constrain political and religious freedoms. It would criminalise statements of theology subscribed to by significant minorities of the Australian community. But all speech restrictions, whether imposed by the public or the private sector, must by definition trade away freedoms.

It is surely more ethical to administer this trade off in a democratic, systematic and accountable way than by the amoral criterion of profit. Criminalising Folau is therefore morally preferable to sacking him.

Is it too harsh? Does it go too far? Well, I don’t know, does it?

A job guarantee is dead on arrival

Chalk me up as someone who thinks a job guarantee (JG) won’t work. The idea has surface appeal but it rapidly unravels once specifics are considered. See Jamie Hall for an excellent implementation critique, and Matt Bruenig (linked in Hall’s piece) for countless more.

In addition to the policy challenges, I don’t see how a JG could work politically. Sure there’s some evidence from polls that folks say they like a JG, but “jobs guarantee” is a slogan, not a policy. Everyone likes “jobs”. They like the word. But it’s a word that excites very different impulses in different people.

Those on the left imagine “good jobs”, with security and worker empowerment.

For the right, it’s Protestant work ethic stuff, curbing idleness and setting people to task.

These alternative dispositions lead to fundamentally contradictory conceptions of a JG.

For leftists, to satisfy “good jobs” criteria, the conditions would have to be significantly superior to a lot of jobs that people already have in the private sector. On the right, it’s widely believed that anyone who truly wants a job can already get one, implying that a guaranteed job is little more than formalising existing opportunities. Any fallback job provided by a government welfare department would likely resemble something like work for the dole: unpleasant and inferior to comparable ‘real’ jobs in the private sector.

The two contradictory impulses underlie the political impossible dilemma at the heart of the JG:

Either:

  • Workers can be fired – in which case it’s not a guarantee

OR

  • Workers cannot be fired – in which case it’s not a real job.

The first “JG” (right wing JG) is workfare. In Australia’s social security system, people who reject work get kicked off the dole, so participation in this JG would be mandatory. Should workers be fired it would be equivalent to being suspended from welfare. Australia’s Bill Mitchell goes so far as to promote abolishing unemployment benefits altogether:

My personal preference is to abandon the unemployment benefits scheme and free the associated administrative infrastructure for JG operations.

The concept of mutual obligation from the workers’ side would become straightforward because the receipt of income by the unemployed worker would be conditional on taking a JG job.

The no firing version of JG – which the left would prefer – is really a type of basic income combined with an optional volunteering program.

In addition to the implementation challenges, these political contradictions are why JG advocates have an unusually high rhetoric to policy content ratio. The moment details are provided, the advocates are forced to declare their hand on their political philosophy, destroying the very ambiguity that enabled the cross-spectrum support.

My view is that folks who support a basic income with an optional volunteering component should just lobby for it directly. Any strategic ambiguity gained from pretending it’s a “job” will be exposed well before the policy ever gets implemented.

Finally, let me just register how weird I think it is that so many leftists have latched onto the JG. I always thought a fixation with work for work’s sake was a conservative pathology.

The JG will involve a Centrelink-style bureaucracy assessing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and finding/creating/administering for each them something called a “job”, supposedly based on their individual needs and capabilities. No one’s too sure exactly what these jobs will be, but most likely something like pretending to rake leaves. When the job doesn’t pan out – for a vulnerable person coming out of long-term unemployment, disproportionately beset by illness and trauma, the odds of this are high – they’ll be tossed off their welfare and onto the streets. Their compliance with the job program will be monitored by the bureaucracy, the folks currently running robodebt and work for the dole. What could possibly go wrong!

None of this necessarily means opposing public sector job creation initiatives altogether. But these jobs should be grounded in project cost benefit analysis, and cleanly demarcated from welfare policy. The former should be a relationship of obligation, and the latter a relationship of entitlement. Blurring these concepts will only end in tears.