Poetry as an argument for something different

Last weekend I was at the Queensland Poetry Festival, supporting Australia’s most talented poet, Chloe Wilson (disclaimer: I may be somewhat biased). Lean in a bit closer to the screen, I want to let you in on a little secret about poetry…there’s no money in it. Yep, zilch, zero, nada, nothing. Every day thousands of people read, write and perform poetry for the love of the art.

For me, poetry highlights two things wrong with contemporary capitalism:

(1) People are not fundamentally motivated by wealth maximisation – trust me you wouldn’t spend most of your time involved in poetry if what you really wanted out of life was to get rich.

(2) Poetry highlights how the market misallocates resources – while most Australian poets are pretty much bankrupt the CEO of Goldman Sachs is only morally bankrupt.

Capitalism, like Plato beforehand, has banished poets from its privileged community leaving them to wonder amongst the fringes of community centres and writers’ festivals. Poetry though is not alone amongst the arts. Music legend Kim Salmon recently wrote a damning opinion piece about attempting to make a living as a musician. I’m also pretty sure unless anyone can prove to me otherwise that sculptors, painters, photographers, cartoonists and other artists are not regularly pulling six-figure wages for enriching our society. These people work hard, damn hard without having a traditional job or matching wage. Just like homemakers, community volunteers and care-givers. There are a lot of people doing important and necessary work outside paid wage labour – work that is necessary and vital for many of us to even have a job in the first place.

Yet at the moment the Australian economy generates $1.8 trillion per year. We’re so rich, so filthy, disgustingly rich that it’s making both people and the planet sick (perhaps terminally so). Amongst this plentitude though, there are those who go without sacrificing themselves for their family, their friends, their community or their art/vocation. So, I’d like to propose a simple idea, an idea that many others have written about, and one that has a long history. It’s an idea that would actually end welfare as we know it – a universal income.

There are numerous different versions of the universal income but what I’d like to propose is this:

  • Every single adult Australian citizen receives an annual tax-free income of $20,000.

At this point, if you’re anything like me you’re probably wondering whether this is affordable and what would motivate people to work in the first place. Whether this proposal is affordable or not depends on which way you look at the question. If you look at the current federal budget, well the answer would be a pretty simple no. Total federal budget spending is $365.8 billion per annum, whereas my rough calculations for this scheme is that it would cost about $400 billion per annum. This way of examining the question though hides the values decisions we make around distributing wealth.

Australia has one of the lowest ratios of tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in the entire developed world (check out this handy graph). Whereas the universal income would total about 22% of the total Australian economy each year (going on the assumption that 20 million adults would receive it). The universal income though, would also end welfare as we know it in this country, including the costly and punitive monitoring system that has beeen established over the last 15 years. It would be a safe assumption to make that most of the $120 billion that we spend annually on our welfare system would be transferred straight over to the universal income (bar that vital extra money that those with some sort of disability or physical fraility need). So what we’re talking about is finding an additional (roughly) $300 billion of additional public spending each year – this would give us a public spending to GDP ratio roughly equivalent to Sweden. This is a manageable task when we think about it; I mean we live on top of trillions of dollars of mineral wealth that we let firms like BHP Biliton and Rio Tinto rip from us for next to nothing (this though is a topic for another post).

Some of you might be thinking – look this will certainly make a difference to the most vulnerable but why would even someone like James Packer receive this? For instance, a single person on the aged pension currently receives $670.90 per fortnight – a mere pittance for a life-time of hard work and dedication to our society but under this universal income system they would receive over $100 extra per fortnight. To properly answer this question though it’s important to pose another one. Why are the Right so obsessed about further ‘targeting’ welfare and the delivery of educational and health services? The answer is simple – the breakdown in solidarity. It’s much easier to make publicly provided goods and services much less popular if only those (insert your favourite categoty of marginalised peoples here) get (insert service such as ‘educational vouchers’) while the rest of us mainstream (read you) work hard to fund it but don’t get anything in return. On the flipside, it’s almost politically impossible for the Right to directly attack a universal public good/service/earned benefit once it’s been introduced. Take paid parental leave as an example – Tony Abbott and Co Pty Ltd fought like tooth and nail to prevent the introduction of paid parental leave for years but now it’s in it won’t go until there is some sort of ‘budgetary crisis’ where we (read you) have to sacrifice.

Others amongst you might think take a moralistic tone against the universal income. After all why would anyone be motivated to work in a necessary but low income job again such as cleaning, driving taxis or killing chickens? To this I have a simple rejoinder. Conventional economic wisdom has it that people are motivated by money but that low-income people are properly motivated by taking away what little money they have and very wealthy people are motivated by shovelling more and more public funds in their direction. Well that smells like bull-shit. If people are unwilling to carry out these lowly-paid roles might we simply ask (i) do we really need somebody to be doing this? and (ii) if it’s so vital should we not value the role more?

Most people I know though are not motivated by making a bucket-load of money – sure they want to be able to make a living but who wouldn’t? Do we seriously think that Galileo, Einstein, Newton, Da Vinci and co really would have preferred to slice and dice derivatives? If we provided most people the means to have a simple living what we would instead see is an historic level of human flourishing.

Think of the the raw energy and human potential of millions of Australians being unleashed. Imagine what great pieces of music, and works of art and literature there would be. Think of the young entrepeneurs who now being guaranteed an income would take a risk with some actually innovative new enterprise. Imagine the students freed up to actually learn and not just hold down a job while they pretend to study. Think of all the amatuer scientists and inventors who could now devote their collective wisdom to solving our great problems. I don’t know whether a universal income would add to or detract to the total amount of money our economy generates every year but what I know is this: it would add incalculable amounts to our collective prosperity.

Now look at where we are today as a nation – do you feel that gap? That tragedy of human waste? This gap rests as a hunger within me to fight for a better world. No wonder Plato banished those rebellious poets from his Republic.

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5 thoughts on “Poetry as an argument for something different

  1. While I was in the Netherlands 15 years ago, I read an article suggesting the universal wage. The Idea never left me I thought it to be an marvellous way especially for people who wanted to be creative. The universal wage therefor, should be more widely understood, instead of the Protestant work ethic that has been drilled into each one of us. An universal wage should set us free and make living so much easer for a lot of people. I LOVE IT.

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