Everyone’s share of the pie

A new, hopefully honest, government will find its hands full. Apart from dealing with feudalism, monopolies and cartels, unwarranted privatization, corruption, kickbacks, commissions, ‘bhatha’, they’ll also face widespread grinding poverty.
Even if solutions are found, they’ll take time to take effect, because simultaneously, a rigged and unjust system has to be corrected. It takes longer to fix a rotten system.
What can be done in the interim? One could take a cue from other countries, even if only for the short-term. Pakistan has the money for it – easy to gauge from the billions stolen on a regular basis. It would be better than the arbitrary money distribution to disaster victims, or supposed income support programmes, where no one knows who the recipients are, whether they are the right ones, and how much is skimmed enroute sans transparency and auditing.
The idea is over a century old, but revived after the 2008 economic crisis: a universal basic income.
The need for a basic income has become a necessity both in the east and west despite varying stages of development. Today, there is a rising shortage of jobs in urban areas almost everywhere. This is mainly because the elite and corporate interests control most resources that lead to job creation — mainly land, water, and utilities.
When big industries and businesses monopolize basic resources, it leaves very little for small entrepreneurs and ordinary people to set up their own or compete, especially as populations grow. Overproduction and globalization make matters worse. More of the unnecessary is produced and exported while locals are deprived of the opportunities and necessities of life.
There are rules against monopolies everywhere, but power elites have always ignored them. After 67 years, the Pakistan Muslim League conveniently fails to recall that the original party created by Jinnah had, on the eve of independence, committed in writing to restore lands to the tiller — largely handed out free to zamindars working for the colonials. The feudal hijacked the PML straightaway and never kept the promise.
Another problem is that low-income workers and the poor, seek relief more as a favour or charity than as a right. Rulers take advantage of this, even though public money is meant for all citizens.
How is basic income rationalized? Everyone is entitled to a share of the world. In the earliest days, people had different criteria of needs, not necessarily in monetary terms but based on essential resources.
Land and water are the most basic. From these they obtain other needs – food, shelter, livelihood and security. When you have enough land – a quarter acre will do — you can produce enough food for the entire family. You can build your own home on land granted by the government on usufruct basis as your share during your lifetime. Besides, agriculture historically provided 80 percent or more of all jobs.
Since crops grow mostly with little help until harvest, it leaves a lot of time for other things. This led to the development of the world’s most important artisan skills. – Weaving, pottery, carpentry, metalwork, papermaking, herbal medicines, housebuilding, boatbuilding, art and craftwork, which in turn led to specialized professions and the most important industries in the world. Even today, agriculture still provides work to 50-60 percent of people in South countries.
Whatever economic activity one is involved in, a physical base, that is land and water, remains the foundation – whether for an office, shop, farm, factory or a home-based operation. The point: land and water are the building blocks of all production.
As civilizations progressed, natural resources became increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, especially feudal dynasties and monarchies. The strong muscled in over the weak and meek. Today, a few thousand billionaires and corporations control most of the wealth of nations, ironically enough, under ‘democracy’. Democracy was so flexible in definition and practice, it’s been most successful in deceitful use. Pakistan is a worst case example.
Different ways are suggested to calculate what a basic living income should be. Almost everyone agrees it should be enough to escape hunger and cover utilities, transport and shelter, but not so high as to encourage the recipient to become a lazy parasite.
In the west, dwindling jobs have become an acute problem for another reason – overproduction through automation and computerization so that a single sophisticated piece of equipment can do the work of 10, 20 or more persons. Jobs in production are not expected to return. Scope is left only in services and creative work. Even though we’re a long way off from this situation, we can prevent it by attending to our neglected domestic economy, and avoiding western mistakes like overproduction and over-intensification of agriculture.
Another way to calculate entitlements is by giving monetary value to natural resources. – Then calculating the profits of all public corporations and services such as oil, gas, coal, steel, utilities and communications. Then dividing the total by the population number: that’s the amount the individual citizen is entitled to.
Oil-rich Alaska, one of the US’s states, does exactly this. A state corporation operates its oil production and sales. After deducting overheads and costs, all profits are shared among all Alaskans, working or not. It varies, but comes to several thousand dollars a year. The same principle can be applied everywhere in the world on state corporations that actually belong to the people. Pakistan has more than one public corporation. Most have been sold and the rest must be stopped from being dishonestly privatized or sold off.
Some European countries give unemployment allowance. But social welfarists, practical economists and planners have suggested another way called the Basic Living Income – a minimum amount for each and every adult citizen whether he is earning or not. This is the equivalent of an individual’s share of the earth in monetary terms. This way, everyone has basic needs fulfilled and is able to invest in themselves to improve their chances of getting back into the economic mainstream.
Early this year, Switzerland had a referendum on this; the majority have voted in favour. By next year they’ll decide — which would bring Swiss citizens $2,800 per month.
Most western countries give out some sort of ‘free money’ anyway, in the form of child support, food stamps, housing assistance and unemployment allowance. But it’s a time-consuming hassle to go to several different offices, fill forms and stand in line to collect money, all of which is still not enough. A lump sum would serve recipients better while saving huge costs of personnel to process and hand out cheques.
In the past year, thanks to activists and new, responsible politicians, we have discovered what a rich country Pakistan really is. We are poor and deprived not only because of rich tax-evaders, but because of corruption and stolen money sent abroad. There’s always been enough money to pay workers a fair wage, supporting income to those who are temporarily or permanently unemployed, and to the old or disabled who cannot work.
But it needs political will and conscience which we haven’t had to date.

 The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.


ePaper - Nawaiwaqt