More on “free” money and job-seeking

Writing about my motivation (or lack of it) to seek work last week reminded me of one the arguments for a universal basic income: the basic income sets a floor for what people can expect from employment, reducing or eliminating the need for complex laws governing minimum wages and conditions since workers have greater ability to simply leave if the wages are too low or the conditions too poor.

I’ve set my floor fairly high, for reasons that I outlined in my earlier entry. Having part-time work together with savings means that I can afford to apply only for the jobs that best fit what I want to do and that I feel I’m most likely to have success with. From this point of view, would-be employers need to make a pretty good offer to better my lifestyle of working part-time, working on other projects of my choosing, and living near the beach.

An obvious concern with setting such floors us that a universal basic income might turn us all into job snobs, refusing to do any work unless it met whatever rarefied expectations we might have. Who would do the work that might be necessary but not very appealing? In my case, this might be working on those soups of technology I see advertised on job boards—though a major part of my complaint is that such advertisements don’t explain what the technology is for, so it is hard to judge how necessary it actually is.

To address this concern, advocates suggest that the basic income be set at such a level so as to allow someone to subsist on it while leaving him or her with an incentive to seek paid work that would support a more comfortable lifestyle. No doubt there would be an endless debate over exactly how much is required for subsistence, as there is over the level of welfare payments now, but I’ll leave that debate aside for now.

As things stand, though, few seem worried about any reduced incentive to work amongst people who derive income from shares, capital gains, rent, and other sources that do not require any work, or who command such astronomical rates of pay that they would need to work for only a short time each week in order to make a good income (in fact I more often hear much the opposite in debates over marginal tax rates on high incomes: those on very high incomes, we’re told, will be incentivised by even higher after-tax pay). I’m not quite in that category—I need to work at least an extra day or two each week over and above my part-time job to be able to afford the lifestyle that I lead without drawing down my savings—but it does at least make me suspicious of the idea that receiving a subsistence income would eliminate all desire to work.

Of course I’ve only been doing this for three months now, and both my own past experience of seeking work and what I’ve read of other’s experiences suggest that it takes (on average) 3-6 months for professional workers to find a new job after being laid off. There’s also an argument for not just taking the first job that comes along if performing that job results in lower pay and/or less valuable experience compared to a job that comes along a little later. I can only know after doing this for a year or more whether or not setting up A Little Research was a good idea, whether or not my writing ever gets published and sells, or if I should have just taken another full-time academic position or even worked on one of those technology soups.

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