Economics 101

Basic Income, anyone?

How I loved college when I got there at the ripe old-age of twenty-two! Subjects I would never have dreamed of enjoying came to life—things like political geography. But there was one subject whose merits eluded me. I’d sign up for it over and over and then after one or two classes, despite not being a quitter and somewhat of a trouper, drop the course like a hotcake. Yes, it was economics. Ugh. All those graphs and percentages and numbers were like a heavy cloud descending on my brain. I knew it was important and relevant to my life and that it underlay every aspect of all our lives because everyone tells you this. And I have a fairly high tolerance for boredom. But Economics 101 killed me.

So the fact that I am sitting down to try to write about economics is an irony. I’d rather muse on the aesthetics, social relevance and morality of the theater any day—morality being the field that excites me particularly. It’s the way people treat each other—or mistreat each other—in the theater that I feel most passionately about. I’ve fashioned a piece on just this subject over and over in my mind while running in the park. But, wouldn’t you know, it’s the economics of it all that has come to seem most urgent. Even my beloved morality seems tightly bound up in it—as is aesthetics, social relevance, just about everything. Just as it is in the real world, just like the professors said.

There’ve been any number of discussions on HowlRound drawing attention to the economic reality of a life in the theatre today and its great divide—from the income and existential disparity between theater practitioners and administrators (precariousness versus security—each with its own sort of dependency) to the exploitation inherent in unpaid internships (which are just about the only way to get a foot in the door) and the economic inequality that allows some the luxury (though often a thankless one) to intern while others just can’t swing it. The extreme cost of MFA programs has been described, as has its burden of debt. And some have asked whether it’s worth the cost, while noting that one can hardly expect a career without it. An MFA, many maintain, is a necessary investment—as much for connections as for craft—the former being priceless, while teaching in such programs provides the only real means of income for many theater artists, creating a vicious or at least problematic cycle.

Meanwhile, the cost of entry to the profession is matched only by the prohibitive price of entry to a show—an issue that comes up over and over. And while no one has anything good to say about high ticket prices, the occasional administrator summons the bravado to justify the art’s costly exclusiveness. But no one denies that ticket prices affect the composition of theater audiences as well as the kind of material a theater produces. And while most on the site would demand redistribution of funding to artists and away from buildings in an effort to make theater a viable place for artists to live and work, others ask us to accept that a life in the theater should be no guarantee of a livelihood. Most recently we’ve even been treated to a bold cry for the end of arts funding, altogether, which I take as a rejection of the status quo. But how to muster the energy and time to build this new unencumbered theater without cash? And on it goes.

Not to be pessimistic, but where has all this talk gotten us, really? We decry an entrenched and power-besotted (dubiously) non-profit system which has shown not the slightest will to transform while pricing itself out of the market and taking us down with it. We decry the economic injustice implicit in gaining access to the field. And we try to be honest about our own economic realities, questioning our own and other’s entitlement, admitting to hardship if not outright poverty, despite our culture’s taboo around talk about money. And if at times the discussion has felt gentle to a fault on HowlRound, things have gotten a bit touchy lately, revealing underlying tensions and aggression, which given the economic climate is completely understandable, just as violence is understandable in the society at large. We all end up pitted against each other. And though we know that theater has always been a place of extreme lack of opportunity, with chance and luck as its bizarre operating principles, it now feels more like any other unhealthy and unfair economic practice in which the outcome is fixed and the rules opaque. And it seems to me that we may have reached the endgame in terms of thinking about our issues in isolation from the rest of the world’s issues. Perhaps there is a way forward outside the narrow confines of the stage?

To the culture at large, theater is an oddity that is thought (if it is thought of at all) to hold some exceptional status. How its artists subsist is a bit of a riddle to outsiders who assume it must have something to do with our propensity for suffering. Theater artists don’t hold real jobs or produce necessities and have no influence on the GDP or the nation’s productivity by any measurable standard. We don’t seem to work because we aren’t paid or we are paid peanuts for what we do. Our survival jobs tend to define us to outsiders. This lack of recognition isolates us in the culture, turning us inward for validation. And we know how well that functions. But just in time, it seems, there’s an economic idea floating around out there that might be big enough to take us into account. In fact, it seems custom-made for all artists. And wouldn’t you know, artists are active in its cause (which makes its legitimacy even more remarkable).

Yes, I am talking about a revolution. But ironically, this revolution is being studied and debated seriously in think tanks and journals and even parliaments worldwide and across the political spectrum—including in North America. It’s a proposition for an economic transformation that feels so radical in its simplicity (so simple that even I can understand it) that it comes as a shock to realize that it may actually become a reality somewhere near you soon.

The starting point are Articles 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which state that everyone has a right to a decent job and a decent standard of living, and the fact that—leaving the unprecedented unequal distribution of ever-greater wealth, aside—there are too many folks who cannot and will never get a job in the new economic reality and thus will not have the income for a decent standard of living. Technological innovation continues to eliminate work. There’s hardly a life-sustaining paid job to be had by a human anymore. More and more people in the prosperous nations are newly hungry and homeless, left feeling helpless and hopeless and useless—and angry and ill. In the meantime, the kind of necessary work that no one pays for does not get done because people are too exhausted trying to eke out survival by serving up over-sized portions of fast food or disgusting over-priced coffees or selling junk—material and mental.

This radical economic idea—the New Deal of our time—which is seen by many as the most practical chance societies have to cope with the crisis brought about by the transformation of work is variously known as Basic Income, Universal Basic Income, Basic Income Guarantee or Guaranteed Unconditional Universal Income. And here is the definition, most perfect in its simplicity:

A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.

In various manifestations, always based on this simple principle, Basic Income is a growing world-wide movement that takes artists seriously—as citizens of value. More generally, the nature of work, itself, is transformed by its precepts. I am talking about work like truly caring for the children, youths, the elderly, making art, building affordable housing, beautifying neighbourhoods, planting trees and sustaining gardens, creating justice in the world, etc, etc.

Such work would be acknowledged and valued and should a Basic Income come to pass, would be performed with new energy and enterprise. Of course any paid work that still exists will be there for the doing. And the desire for the acquisition of wealth, for material things and the luxury of travel will still encourage most to take it on, if they can get it, and to create businesses—now with less fear of risk. But each person’s basic needs will be met without a paid job, eliminating a plethora of special programs and bureaucracies and their bloated costs. The stigma and inhumanity of poverty will be eliminated once and for all as well as the physical and mental burdens associated with stress caused by want. Most interesting to contemplate is the possibility of a new flourishing of creative endeavour.

There is much to read on the web about Basic Income. Here are a few links. If you are hearing about this for the first time, you will have questions and scepticism, including how it would be paid for, so take a look, please.

About Basic Income from BIEN: Basic Income Earth Network.

Could We Afford a Universal Basic Income? from EconoMonitor.

Basic Income from Facebook.

Basic Income, a new human right. Basic Income Europe, Video from Youtube.

Even Rolling Stone is getting into the act! As has the NYTimes.

And if you are in any way affected by the economics of the theater, then I would argue that you might want to join its cause. There is something very liberating in believing that, like everyone else on this planet, theater artists have a right to an existence of dignity in which they can fulfill their life’s work.

Because as much as I appreciate the sacrificial impulse of those who believe a life in the theater should not be a guarantee of survival, I vehemently disagree. Theater is a valid occupation, despite the fact that its value has been generally dismissed and its artists devalued by its own institutions. And I am not declaring here that we should stop challenging these institutions. I’m suggesting that allying our struggle to the wider issue of human rights may have profound affects that we cannot predict. Yes, the Basic Income is an ideal at present, not a reality, but one that might guide, console and inspire us. It is an ideal that might also explode the theatrical imagination (its aesthetics and social relevance) in new, bold directions—mentally freeing us from the powerful hold of a theater culture which, frankly, is not worthy of its artists. Yes, economics underlies it all.


Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.



Add Comment
Newest First

Love the piece, Lydia. What you say has ramifications for all the arts, of course. And naturally, I'm thinking of poetry. But we don't value the arts in the USA; our culture, I think, in some ways doesn't really understand them (not productive in terms of GDP, etc.). I despair, because I think that this lack of willingness to understand and value the arts is getting worse, not better--thus, the chances of establishing a right to a basic income (perhaps so that people could create?) are slim. If society doesn't recognize the value of its creative arts, it's less likely to wish to devote many resources to their flourishing.

For me, this article cuts to the heart of my Maiming, or the Loss of the Theatrical Limb. As a person with multiple degrees in theater, I have had to take work which has steadily divorced my professional definition "theater artist." Truly, how long can a person abide in an umpteen hour/week job before they no longer can consider themselves a professional theater artist?

There is a movie whose title I can't remember where a bigwig asks a catering waitress, "But what are you really?" And like so many waiters and box office attendants and retail flunkies, she answers, "An actress," with the rolling eyes and desperate pseudo-curtsy of the forever-waiting-to-be-discovered. I think that we, as a culture, have to recognize the effect of this work. Not as a dignifying, work-ethic-inducing uplift of a Republican fantasy world, but as a caustic wind that smooths our mountains of artistic desire to safe nubs of internalized numbness and unrealized joy. And this loss of hope, reinforced with the cold dread of poverty, is what cants the dirge over the death of our American theater which we so blithely discuss on this blog.

You're right that economic privilege plays a role in the ability of artist to self-actualize into their callings, and that even those with that privilege still endure the all-too-conscionable hazing ritual of the frequently unpaid internship. But we should also recall that those without that privilege, who are nonetheless artists, who are nonetheless needful of income, who are nonetheless desperate for expression, have lost or are losing their ability to effect that change through necessary self-fictionalization of themselves as artists. Who is someone who considers themselves an artist, yet is constrained to not do art?

The answer? Someone with student debt. Which is a powerful perpendicular to your argument. Because we need a greater change in our culture if a basic income were to provide security for artists. We need to liberate the training of the artist from the Ivory Prison that has held it for so long, whose parole of debt is what keeps the graduated artist chained to the un-artful task for survival.

Change that and we can change our world.

Thank you for raising the huge issue of student debt which I failed to mention in my overview of the economic dilemmas facing theatre artists. You also raise beautifully the existential dilemma of self-definition and identity. Who are we when we are not able to make our art or see it realized?

Thank you for opening this discussion Lydia, it is surely an issue that can use a whole new make-over.As a matter of fact we really need to change our priorities in order to set in motion a reversal of many damaging forces to the planet and to all the species that live here (including humans).I just heard on NPR a report of young immigrants bemoaning the death of the "American Dream",well I say we must change the dream. The fact is that if universally real wages were paid there wouldn't be such an excess of useless items, people would buy one and it would be made to last, less waste would be produced, companies would not be scrambling to find the cheapest manufacturer, they would and on and on . . . I don't know about this Basic Income but surely a change of mind is in order.

I'm not sure a basic guaranteed income would change much for theater artists or the art form. The BGI would be enough money to live, but certainly not enough to produce theater on the scale to which we are accustomed. So we would still be beholden to those with more wealth to pick what shows are done. There would also still be paid art jobs, and we would still be judged on our success in that marketplace by outsiders. I fear such a policy would actually further enshrine the power of the rich, white donor class who already own the form. But now, we would owe them our livelihoods too.

I'm not following this.... How would BGI 'enshrine the power of the rich, white donor class'? How would 'we owe them our livelihoods'?

I agree though that there will always be judgement in our profession and scarcity of opportunity to secure a paid art job or to have a production on the scale you say that you are accustomed to. But there is a chance that artists might finally be valued and productive on other scales outside the success of the marketplace. Risk might be possible. Dependency less marked. New uses for theatre arts and skills might emerge. A healthy more just and inclusive society might lead to some evolution in terms of how and to whom we tell our stories..

The donor class is by definition comprised of people with excess income who give some of that excess to arts organizations. Because they pay the bills they get to choose the gatekeepers. Under BGI artists who chose not to work would owe their livelihood to those who produce excess, which is given to the artist. This as opposed to working a job where your labor produces excess value, some of which you keep. Pro Non Profit artists already concede that they can't make art without free money from rich people, now they would be saying, we can't even feed ourselves without charity. A thousand bucks a month sounds great, who wouldn't want that? But it wouldn't democratize theater production. If anything it would give cover to bloated arts institutions who pay their Artistic Directors 6 figures and their artists nothing. After all, why should they pay actors if the government is doing it?

Lydia says, "There’s hardly a life-sustaining paid job to be had by a human anymore," and it is so true: we see this everywhere, and it's leading to a horrific situation where there are a few who are very rich and many who are terribly poor. For most Americans I know, inheritance is the only way out of poverty, if you have that kind of luck. For others, you only have a chance if you're an engineer, medical doctor, lawyer, or stock broker. So many young people, and older people (with college degrees), are living on the edge of sheer poverty. What is a person to do--work at a fast food restaurant, a retail shop, become a bartender? The factory and corporate jobs that paid a decent wage once upon a time are gone. The universities have been turned into sweatshops, giving a few the privilege of tenure (with a livable wage and job security) while the majority teach as adjuncts, akin to serfs. The middle class America I grew up with has virtually disappeared. Put this together with the decimation of the planet (as species after species goes extinct and climate change caused by human wrecks havoc with the entire planet), and we have an unbelievable mess that will come crashing down upon us quickly. In the end, Capitalism and Communism have both been abominable, and we need some new method of surviving on this planet that is humane, just, and sustainable. And we need it NOW, not in 20 years. As many scientists have noted, we would need 5 earths to provide everyone on this rock of ours with the kind of lifestyle Americans live (energy, goods), but even here in the US, most are failing to keep afloat. With an economic system built on the idea of growth, and more and more consumption of resources, we have stripped the planet of its viability. With our distribution of wealth having become so lopsided, most people are living paycheck to paycheck and falling short month after month. We humans have created our own catastrophe, and we must come to see that in order to get out of the morass, we must rethink, retool, and redistribute in order to save ourselves and the place we live. But are we biologically equipped to think beyond our own immediate short term desires for status and wealth, where empathy for other living things (people and animals) is so often in very short supply? David Williams

Thanks for a very thought-provoking piece, Lydia. This is so complicated. And although I'm not sure I agree with your solution, I do appreciate how clearly you've described the problem.

Don't feel bad about not understanding economics, for (as commonly taught) it makes no sense. The purpose of so-called economics is to justify the manipulation of the monetary system (think John Maynard Keynes or Paul Krugman) to *supposedly* magically make things better for everyone.

But in reality the purpose is to make things better for those in power (primarily those in government and big business) at the expense of everyone else (individuals and small business owners).

So if conventional economic teaching makes no sense to you that is probably a GOOD sign!

(As I've probably mentioned before, the recent documentary "Money for Nothing: The Secret History of the Federal Reserve", made in "honor" of the Fed's one hundred year anniversary, does an excellent job of explaining how the so-called economists of the Federal Reserve have caused so much of the economic misery suffered over the last hundred years.)

Regarding the specific reference to how theater artists don't "hold real jobs or produce necessities and have no influence on the GDP" -- the fault isn't with the value of what we provide, but with the measuring stick: the GDP only counts transactions where money trades hands. But so much of life (from taking care of your kid to volunteer work) doesn't involve money trading hands. This doesn't mean the work doesn't have value, it means the GDP is grossly flawed as a means of measuring how well people are doing. (This should be obvious, but again decades of brainwashing by so-called "expert economists" has blinded people to the truth.)

HOLY CRAP! I just read the rest of the article. (The above was written after reading the opening paragraphs). I also scanned the New York Times and Rolling Stone articles since the author of this essay unfortunately didn't summarize how the Basic Income would be paid for.

"A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement."

You think things are bad now, implement this plan and in a few years our current economy will look like paradise. I hardly know where to begin. (And a thorough explanation should probably be in the form of an essay, not a comment.) But a few brief points:

1) Before undertaking something as drastic as this, how about understanding (REAL) basic economics first? (Then you'll be in a position to see how dangerous it really is.)

2) Giving each person $10,000 dollars (or whatever) a year will NOT help the economy overall -- despite the assertion that it "obviously will".

Why not? That $10,000 dollars is simply money taken from others, who then won't have that money to spend!

PLEASE THINK ABOUT THIS! This is the fundamental reason that all of these government "jobs programs" don't (in the long run) make things better -- the money that was used to "create" the jobs was simply taken from those who would have spent it to create (or maintain) other jobs.

Worse, these government jobs are usually of little benefit -- high speed rail, bridges to nowhere, more nuclear weapons, etc, whereas the money would have been spent on food, housing, and other important things (even, a little, on theater!).

You can't solve the economy by robbing Peter to pay Paul! You can only solve it by:

1) Educate people to consider it important to buy things from their fellow community and country, even if it means paying a little more for them. (Think how much of what most Americans buy, from clothes to electronics to just about everything else, is made in another country.)

2) Dramatically reduce spending on war (the biggest part of the government budget) so that:

3) the taxes on Americans and american companies can be dramatically reduced, causing:

4) Americans to have more spending money and...

5) American companies can produce products at price close to what you can buy them for overseas.

(Econ 101: Taxes on manufacturers, whether property, excise, or income, are ultimately reflected in the price the company has to charge it's customers for it's products. So high taxes result in higher prices, causing even more people to buy products instead from overseas. Causing American companies to go out of business. Causing people to have even less money to spend...)

6) Get rid of the so-called Federal Reserve System. (Trust me, there is no reserve there... it's just a "cool" sounding name for giving a small group of wealthy, politically-connected people massive control over the entire banking system of the country.)

This is how you get the economy back on track, ultimately causing all sorts of things to flourish, including theater. (At one point in human history virtually all human effort went for farming and shelter; it is only development beyond that point that has allowed for other activities, including the arts.)

Only if all of the above are done should implmentation of any kind of minimum basic income be considered. Otherwise, the MBI will simply temporarily mask the fundamental problems while causing them to get much, much worse.

(P.S. Pardon the length and rambling nature of this post, but I did it in real-time during what was supposed to be a quick "break" from working on my play.)

P.P.S. Just saw the other comment. I'm in favor of extending unemployment benefits (and food stamps), because the government has so distorted the economy (via taxes, military, and the Fed) in favor of the wealthy that the only way for the rest of us to survive is with these stop-gap survival means. But they are not the long-term solution... the points I outlined above are.

Yes, it's certain that the Fed is no longer an instrument of democracy, but now private and rigged mechanism of the 1%. Quantitative easement has erased any notions that the Federal Reserve belongs to us. Illumine the Fed is one of the working groups addressing this. As for the other assertion that robbing Peter to pay Paul will hurt the economy, this has already occurred. Peter makes 400 times the amount of Paul, so enacting limits via a ratio, similar to the initiative in Switzerland (that hasn't yet passed, although it was supported by over 40% of the population) will change this- creating revenue for the 99%. All you have to do is check out what the minimum wage is actually worth to get a true sense of just how crazy the disparity in income is. Since the bailout, big banks have seen a 35% increase in wealth, in direct proportion to the austerities we face. It's easy to see the direct correlation with the institution of Citizens United (corporate personhood) to the increase in power of corporations.

Why do you suppose minimum wage hasn't yet been enacted and food stamps continue to be cut, despite the fact that Americans are in favor of reinstating these, along with unemployment benefits?

All you have to do is look at our collective credit debit to see that our disposable income is already gone-- your argument that providing a basic income would freeze our spending power doesn't seem to take that into account. The amount of money currently spent to process homeless people through the social services system is more than the cost of providing housing. Seattle just changed their procedures when they realized this. There are numerous studies.

As for this conversation's relevance to Theatre, human rights effect all of us. Rather than remain blindered, and limiting our concerns to audience and funding, there is long-term benefit (for theatre folks alike) to acting as citizens and working to enact human rights.

Thank you to Lydia for this discussion!

Thank you, Neal Reynolds, for passionately engaging with my piece and the topic of Basic Income. Like all those with a strong interest in economics you have your own ideas about how to fix the economy. But if I may be so bold, I think I could refute most of your alarmist arguments against the basic income and humbly suggest that our positions and aims are not so far apart. I will leave the economic nitty grity to those with better minds than myself (see Bomb below, for example), but take for example your assertion that public works produce 'bridges to nowhere' while bridges are collapsing all around us. Or your insistence that we would have to take money from hard working Americans to support the others while yourself decrying the bloated military expenditure and the underfunded social programs that currently are failing to solve the problems of poverty and ever-growing need and joblessness in our country. Finally you seem to suggest that if we were to get our economic house in order then a Basic Income might be doable. I strongly suggest that a Basic Income will not be put in place without a simultaneous putting of the economic house in order. The main drive of my piece is that theatre workers cannot expect to solve the problems of the theatre's economy without engaging beyond the confines of the stage. I hope you understood that my statement that theatre artists 'don't hold real jobs or produce necessities' was meant ironically to convey how others outside our profession see us. Again, thanks for your lively response.

"At one point in human history virtually all human effort went for farming and shelter; it is only development beyond that point that has allowed for other activities, including the arts."Well...from what we know, theater dates back 4500-4800 years, at least. The oldest known cave paintings are estimated at 42,000 years, predating farming by 30,000 years.

(Money, on the other hand, only dates to 650 BC.)

Thank you. I never heard of this cause, actually. I'm so glad you sent it to me. Will try all your links. Definitely organic food for thought... but I'm getting old. In the US, they won't even extend unemployment benefits. Given the reality of Tea Party politics and the growing conservatism in the US, I don't see this coming in my lifetime. But then as I said, my life is getting shorter, so who knows what my son, who is now 27, will be witness to. The current issue right now is raising the minimum wage. Let's see how that works out. But listen. If some Americans can succeed in legalizing pot and gay marriage, perhaps Universal Basic Income is an idea whose time will come.

Power to you, Lyd. When are you coming back to New York? This time I'll be ready for you. Promise!