WE SHOULD NOT WORK JUST TO SURVIVE : INEQUALITY


Hello. I remember, when I was three years old, back in my nursery class, we were singing this song, or at least, trying to sing a song. Some of you might have heard of it actually.

It’s about a wise man who builds his house upon the rock, and a foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. When the rains came down, and the floods came up, it was the house on the rock that stood firm. Looking back now,

I see there’s a clear message to this song. And that is that the best way to allow all of us to flourish as much as possible is to provide us with firm foundations from which to build our lives. In the song, these foundations were a physical rock from which the wise man built his house. Now I see these foundations as financial.

That is, enough money to cover our basic necessities; a roof over our head, food on our table, heat and light for our home, before we earn extra money through paid employment. That’s the idea I want to share with you today: that we shouldn’t have to work just to survive. I know what you’re thinking. It was emphatically articulated by a so-called “social media troll” last time we did this, back in November, and that is, “Why should I listen to some posh bloke, with a ridiculous double-barreled name, and a center parting in his hair, tell me about why we shouldn’t have to work to survive?” Well, they were right. That haircut? Absolutely terrible. (Laughter)

But for those of you who are skeptical about this idea, I invite you to consider this with me. Because if work is just about survival, just about putting food on our table, just about getting a roof over our head, or even just about struggling to make it to the end of the month, week, or even day then it’s very difficult for any of us to look beyond that. For it is only when we can look past the question of, “What do I need to do today to survive?” that we can ask ourselves, “What do I want to do to live?” This isn’t my idea. It’s not something I’ve read in a book, or a theory, or anything like that. The benefits of it can be seen all around us. Take this university, right here. Hundreds of thousands of students, many of you will be sitting in this room today, a part of a vibrant community of student-led organizations; societies, social enterprises, start-ups, voluntary organizations, all kinds of things. TEDx University of Edinburgh being one example.

Another example, as Alistair said earlier, is The Buchanan Institute, Edinburgh’s first student-led think-tank, which I, and a few others, helped to set up back in January. None of us do these things because we have to, but because we love doing them. And for many of us, they almost become like full-time jobs. People ask us, “Do you get paid to do it?”

We don’t, for the most part. And I speak for myself, but I also did it because I could. You see, I was lucky. I had enough money through a combination of student loans and allowances to cover my basic necessities so that I didn’t need to work. I stress this because in reality, if I was having to work 30 hours, 20 hours, even 15 hours a week, on top of my studies to cover my basic necessities of being here, then there’s no way I would have had the time and energy necessary to set up The Buchanan Institute.

Many people will say, “That’s all well and good these voluntary student organizations, they’re very nice, but where’s the money going to come from? Who’s going to make the money so that we can pay for this situation where nobody needs to work to survive?” Well, the most entrepreneurial and innovative people in our society also benefited from a situation where they didn’t need to work just to survive.

Take for example, Steve Jobs. Back in 1976, he co-founded Apple whilst working with his friend Steve Wozniak in his parents’ garage. Job’s wasn’t rich. But he had a roof over his head, he had food on his table, he had all the appliances and tools he needed so that he could focus his time and energy on creating the first Apple prototype in 1976. You see, if Steve Jobs had to work in a minimum wage job, 50 hours, 40 hours a week, just to pay for his basic necessities, then he wouldn’t have been the founder of Apple. We may never have heard of iPhones or iPods.

But let me take you to the Namibian village of Otjivero, Omitara. For it is here where an organization called, “The Basic Income Earth Network” conducted a simple yet groundbreaking experiment.

They provided every single Namibian villager in this village with a basic income, enough to cover their basic subsistence. The skeptical among us – and I was talking to a few today – would say, “These Namibians! if they’re given enough to survive on, then they’re going to be lazy. They’re not going to work. They’ll sit on their asses all day.”

Well actually, the opposite happened. The percentage of those involved in income generating activities rose in that year from 44% to 55%. This is what happened: freed from reliance on low-paid labor, just to cover their survival, the villagers could choose what they did with their lives and decide how they earned extra money for themselves and their families. For many, this was starting up their own small businesses.

Becoming dressmakers, brick makers, or bread bakers. People have said, “That’s all well and good, but that’s Namibia. That’s a developing country. The west is different; it won’t work.” Well for them we can say, “Canada”. In 1976, the Canadian government conducted a similar experiment in the town of Dauphin, Manitoba.

Every single person who lived in that town no longer had to work just to survive. It was called, “The town without poverty”. Once again, people didn’t stop working. The only groups of people who worked slightly less in that year were mothers, and some fathers, with newborn babies. And some teenagers who relieved from the pressures of earning money for their families, could now go back to school. But something else happened. Relieved from the daily mental and physical stresses of having to work to survive, the ‘town without poverty’ became a healthier one. They actually, in that year, saved 13% on their overall healthcare costs. Something in the UK, with strains on NHS budgets, we could perhaps think about. So what about the UK? Could we try something similar here?

Well actually, yes! An organization called “The Citizen’s Income Trust” have shown that by simply reorganizing our existing tax and benefits system, we could provide every single UK adult with nearly 3,700 pounds a year. This is without hardly spending an extra penny. How? Well first of all, this basic income would replace means-tested benefits that we would no longer need, whilst ensuring that no-one was worse off. But also it would replace the personal tax allowance that we get to a certain level of our income.

So rather than paying tax and then getting money back in a personal tax allowance from the government, you would have this tax-free cash lump sum called, “a basic income” in it’s place. Then what if people say, “Well what if the rich get it? The rich don’t need it. It wouldn’t work.” Then we can say, “In this country we have something called ‘the basic state pension’ for all pensioners. “The basic state income” is the same thing, but for all adults. And the Swiss? Well, they could go further. Much further. In 2016, they will hold a popular referendum to decide whether to introduce a basic annual income to every Swiss citizen of nearly 21,000 pounds a year. Fully-funded, fully-costed.

Sounds good. So, I want to ask you. Let’s imagine that you woke up in Switzerland the morning after that referendum passed and you found yourself with a guarantee of 21,000 pounds a year. Put your hands up, how many of you, would stop working completely? There’s actually nobody. Not one person. It’s not actually surprising. Some of you might work a bit less. Spend more time with the family, spend more time doing leisure. Some of you might realise that you hate your job, and you’re going to use that basic income as a platform to go and do something that you really want to do. It isn’t surprising because as many of us know, work doesn’t have to be just about surviving. It can be about following our passions, fulfilling out dreams, or, as I have been so lucky to do during this whole TEDx process, meet, and work with, and build lifelong friendships.

About six months ago, I was at the hospital, just after my sister had given birth to her son and my nephew called Raffi. I remember, standing there, holding this little thing in my arms and thinking, “Don’t drop him.”

(Laughter) Then I thought, these questions about the future, and how to be OK in the future, and what kind of society we can live in in the future, aren’t just for our generation sitting here. They’re for the ones behind us. The ones being born or yet to be born. And when he grows up and if he ever gets around to and wants to ask his uncle for advice about work and life, – which is wishful thinking- I’d like to tell him, and be that uncle that tells him something similar to what you might tell your kids and probably do. “Raffi, don’t just work because you need to.

Do it so that every day, you wake up doing something you are really passionate about, with the people that you love.” My nephew will probably have the opportunity to do this. He may never have to work just to survive. And people have said to me, “So Johnny, in that case, why do you care? Why do you care whether or not people should have to work to survive? Because it’s not enough. It’s not enough that my nephew has this opportunity. It’s not enough that I had this opportunity. It’s not enough that many people I know, and many of us in this room, probably had this opportunity. In fact, it’s not enough until every single person, every single one of us in this room, in this country, or even in this world, can at least wake up every single morning and genuinely ask themselves, not “What do I need to do today just to survive?”, but “What do I want to do to live?” Thank you very much. Have a great day and enjoy the rest of the talks. (Applause)


You are simply wrong. How can you say he wants handouts when he is arguing for giving out handouts?

He is doing this because he is the one with the opportunity to do so. And he is doing so to help those without the opportunities he has and has had. You did not invent the computer or internet, you are using someone else’s hard work, every technology you use is likely not anything you had any hand in creating. You are arguing that no one should share their hard work so the person who invented the computer should have simply kept it to himself correct?

We should all just be left to fend for ourselves is what you are arguing for but by that logic you would not have a computer unless you could build one yourself and without any starting materials as no one is going to share a single thing with you, material or knowledge, by your logic no one should give up anything they worked to create. Oh but you say it is different because you paid for your computer right? Paid for how? With money you earned working a job? In other words money you earned via the mere fact you had the opportunity to be born in a place with access to a paying job and without any disabilities to performing that job.

Lucky you. Not everyone has those opportunities thus not everyone can afford not just a computer but even the basic things necessary for survival like food and shelter. He is arguing that everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want not just what they need to do to survive.

Example, if you are living on the street it is very hard to take the time to find a job when all your time is spent finding food for the day or a place to sleep for the night and how do you even get to a job interview with no transportation? Again you can’t just hop on the bus because you need to find something to eat first you haven’t eaten in 24 hours and the last thing you ate was scraps from the garbage, you need to find more not sit around on a bus and in a job interview and besides you were digging in the trash who is going to hire you when you smell and look like garbage? You would need to clean up first but then you don’t have any time for that cause oh you found some food but you still need to find a place to sleep for the night.

Maybe you’ll sit on the corner and ask for handouts so you can afford something other than garbage to eat, cause you know there is some food in that trashcan nearby if you don’t get enough money for some food, but you cant hop on the bus to your job interview and come back to find the trash empty or eaten by some other homeless person and not have gotten the job and now its too late to sit out asking for hand outs its cold outside and you don’t have much to keep warm so you need to go inside with no food for the day and you didn’t get the job cause your clothes are dirty and you smell like garbage and why would you even bother attempting to get a job in that situation?

They just don’t have the opportunities as someone in a stable household. It has nothing to do with laziness or even drugs or alcohol because addiction is the same problem, an addicts life revolves around their addiction the same way a homeless persons life revolves around daily survival, there is just no time for any improvements to be made on themselves.

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