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The Abolition of the Unemployed

Researchers urge freedom instead of full employment. With a basic income, the unemployed of today would have the freedom to seek for employment that suits them. No one would force them to accept any work. A basic income is a way to solve the dilemma of jobs destroyed by productivity

Researchers Urge Freedom Instead of Full Employment

By Katrin Pinetzki

[This article published in August 2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web.]

Can there be a future without the unemployed? Nothing is easier than this. A Dortmund professor of "labor sociology" knows a way there. "We could remove unemployment," Ute Fischer claims and looks resolutely at her opposite number. She is very serious.

Ute Fischer is a scholar, not a politician. She does not wage election campaigns but researches conditions under which future society could be more relaxed. As known for a long time, a large number of people cannot find a job. Unemployment is a structural problem. The unemployed could be freed from its stigma. This is the conclusion of Ute Fischer and her colleagues who founded the initiative "Freedom Instead of Full Employment."

The sociologist wants to change structures. She pleads for a basic income that unconditionally supports every citizen from birth to death. Whoever has a job can increase that basic income with a paid income. All others would manage without more income but would not be unemployed according to the current definition, seeking work in vain and dependent on substitute compensation. With a basic income, the unemployed of today would have the freedom to seek for employment that suits them. No one would force them to accept any work. Receiving transfer payments can be degrading, the sociologist says. "When basic income gains acceptance, work will be redefined," the researcher argues.

Professor Hartmut Neuendorff agrees. A year and a half ago, the professor bid farewell to the university with a lecture on "Capitalism and Capitalism Criticism." Afterwards there was a discussion titled "Freedom Instead of Full Employment." For Neuendorff, politics and society must say farewell to the goal of full employment. He sees basic income for everybody as a logical consequence of German economic history. "Since the beginning of capitalism, productivity has always increased. But the volume of work necessary for that higher productivity decreases more and more despite growth and investments," Neuendorff says. At the same time the average living standard in Germany demands wages that are hardly paid any more for low-level work. "Increased productivity destroys jobs or shifts them to countries with lower living standards," Neuendorff summarizes. "A basic income is a way to solve this dilemma."

The idea is old. It arose the first time during the French Revolution when the people discussed how they wanted to live in the future. A basic income was one of the ideas for the new order of society. However it was never realized. Its time had not come yet. Is the time right now? The researchers around Hartmut Neuendorff are not the only ones to emphasize this theme. The head of the German dm-drug store chain, Gotz Werner, is a prominent advocate and canvases for the basic income in speeches and campaigns. After long hesitation, the political parties have also entered the field. The ideas of politicians often have little in common with what Ute Fischer champions in the initiative "Freedom Instead of Full Employment." Thuringen's prime minister Dieter Althaus supports a basic income of 800 euro from which 200 euro would be deducted for the health fund. 600 euro would be left - too little to maintain life.

"It is good that politics is speaking about this," Fischer says. "We want an unconditional basic income that actually lets an individual make free decisions - not an austerity variant of past social spending." The basic income should be more than mere existence security. "It should allow cultural goods to be shared," Fischer urges.

For years, she and her supporters drove through the land, gave addresses, discussed with people and know every conceivable objection to the model. "Some regard us as neoliberals and others as communist crackpots," Ute Fischer says and laughs. Nevertheless they cannot be identified in a political party. Both support and rejection exist in all camps. Advocates and opponents in the public cannot always be foreseen, Ute Fischer says. "I have witnesses everything: old leftists sweep aside the model and bourgeois early pensioners are very interested." There is a greater openness in apparently conservative circles since the family is upgraded with the basic income. Approval of the model depends strongly on one's bond to work, Fischer says. "Social climbers who work out of their worker milieu often do not agree. After fighting their way over 20 years, they are now suddenly devalued - from their perspective - since everyone would receive money without a return favor." With supposedly hard facts, opponents try to block all discussion. "Who should pay for this?" is the first objection. What a shame, the scholar laments. In playing the thought game, what would a society be like without pressure to paid work?

One can only imagine such a society. Wou9ldn't most people lie in hammocks and do nothing? Drug store manager Gotz Werner answers this argument: "Then I would advise selling the hammocks!" Ute Fischer laughs. She is sure people will seek employment despite basic income. "Independence will greatly increase," she forecasts. The criteria for choosing vocations will change dramatically. Instead of focusing on what branch is secure and what calling will support the family, the questions will be: What can I do? and what do I want? If I am hardly trained or have skills that at first do not seem marketable, I will be able to offer myself to the community and be recognized," Fischer says.

New jobs could arise. At the same time, unpleasant work that only a few would do voluntarily will be better rewarded. "There are thousands of possibilities of being useful in society. No one will have to remain without employment, " Fischer predicts. The employment office could limit itself to advertising positions and offering occupational counseling. The climate in businesses would also change, Hartmut Neuendorff believes. "Basic income would make employees less dependent on their employers. This will give them the freedom and the courage to offer ideas and criticize abuses."

Liberated happy persons who realize themselves through their work and become useful in society sounds too beautiful to be true. Do the Dortmund sociologists promote an idealistic notion or utopia? Isn't a new society needed for this social form? Others ask, are we ready for this? Ute Fischer laughs. She knows this objection. In the discussions, we often hear "the others don't know what to do any more." I think of the slogan "Work structures the man on the street." Today many cannot deal with this freedom. The time is finally past when family traditions determined ways of life and one could plan on a lifelong job. This radical freedom is obviously a challenge. "We don't want to be completely arrested to the traditional idea of work," the sociologist Hartmut Neuendorff stresses. "We are intensely thrown back on ourselves. We receive money and must form our own life. Nevertheless Ute Fischer is optimistic that this will succeed. "By nature a person is curious. He or she wants to grow and learn as the infant crawls out of the crib. If one only allows and encourages, a person will do exactly what corresponds to his or her abilities and inclinations, she is convinced.

In the last years, these questions were research themes of the Dortmund sociologists. What drives people to work? What performance ethic binds the individual to his calling? What does he seek and find in his job? What holds a society together? The conclusions make Ute Fischer hopeful. "Commitment to achievement is high irrespective of the training level." An individual's readiness for achievement depends strongly on educational history and the esteem experienced as a person. "The basic income can build on this and trigger possibilities," she believes. The university is a good example. No one with a wrist watch stands behind the scholarly employee.

In the kindergarten and school, something must change when a basic income encourages later occupational life according to inclination, Neuendorff adds. Curious and eager to learn children are guided in certain paths, he insists. "The school is a disciplining instrument that drives out of students what should really be developed. What classically is understood as education has hardly occurred in the school for a long time." Educators and parents must emphasize personal responsibility. Ultimately every child should also receive a basic income - though not as much as an adult.

What about financing? In the study "Solidarity Citizen Money," the economists Wolfgang Strengmann-Kuhn and Michael Opielka analyzed the financing of Dieter Althaus' model for the Konrad Adenauer foundation and came to a positive conclusion: the citizen money could be financed.

According to the view of the Dortmund basic income advocates, the Althaus model with a basic income of 800 euro a month is too little. How high should it be? The Dortmund sociologists do not have an answer to this gripping question. "I have been occupied for three years with financing. Serious economists say the changes occurring with the basic income are ultimately incalculable."

Many things will change, according to the researchers: supply and demand of labor, price- and wage levels, the independence share and whole branches. The number of births could also rise, Ute Fischer forecasts. "The basic income gives courage to begin families. This is not an ivory tower idea," Ute Fischer concludes. "We have the wealth creation in our country that makes this possible."

Ute Fischer has great sympathy for the idea of financing the basic income with a consumption tax... A system adjustment including consumption and living standards can take decades, Fischer presumes. "With the so-called transfer model, we could gradually grow into the consumer tax by reducing other taxes and raising the consumer tax more and more."

This evolutionary model is also revolutionary. What Ute Fischer and Hartmut Neuendorff proclaim is nothing less than a century-reform. "I feel the responsibility and ask myself sometimes whether we can really shoulder this," Fischer says. "The model gives society a credit or advance of trust that obviously can be disappointed. This does not dissuade me - but I sometimes tremble before my own courage."

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