Annie Miller, A Basic Income Pocketbook, Luath Press, 2020, pbk, 1 9121 4762 9, 192 pp, £6.99
Annie Miller’s A Basic Income Pocketbook is essentially an updated, condensed and more accessible version of her 2017 Basic Income Handbook. I reviewed the Basic Income Handbook in 2018 for the Citizen’s Income Trust: my overall conclusion was that
“despite some shortcomings and omissions… [the book] is a very powerful and welcome contribution to the debate over Basic Income (BI). I can warmly recommend this book for both newcomers and seasoned veterans of the Basic Income movement.”
Annie Miller’s aim with the Pocketbook is to update the arguments and analysis of the Handbook while making them more accessible to lay readers, in particular those who may be unfamiliar with Basic Income beyond lurid tabloid (or broadsheet) headlines along the lines of “think-tank says let’s pay everyone not to work”. An accessible introduction to Basic Income – what the concept means, how a BI would work and evidence from where BI has been piloted – is a hugely valuable resource for proponents of the idea, and as the above excerpt from my review of the Handbook indicates, Miller’s 2017 book was already quite successful in this regard.
So, what changes and improvements have been made for the Pocketbook? First, the book is shorter (although the number of pages is approximately the same, the page size is notably smaller, with a corresponding reduction in word count per page). Second, the structure of the book has been rejigged. Part I consists of: an outline of the values and vision behind BI as a concept (Chapter 1), a survey of the problems with the current UK social security system (Chapter 2), and an explanation of how a generic basic income scheme would operate (Chapter 3). This section is very well laid out, clearly and concisely argued, and considerably more snappy than the 2017 version. Part II surveys BI schemes and pilot experiments from around the world; this section feels more contemporary than the equivalent chapters in the 2017 Handbook because it covers new pilots and proposals which have emerged in Finland, Scotland, Kenya and South Korea in the last four years.
Part III, titled “Practical issues: designing and costing a basic income model” is once again the centrepiece of the book, as with its 2017 predecessor. When reviewing the 2017 Handbook I had three criticisms of Miller’s approach to modelling and costing basic income. One was that she defined the maximum available resource per head for BI as “y-bar” – mean gross income per head in the UK or Scotland. I argued that this measure of maximum resource ignores the fact that 40% or more of UK Gross Domestic Product is spent on public services, and most of this public spending couldn’t be reallocated to BI without defunding the NHS, schools, police and so on. In the Pocketbook Annie Miller observes, rightly, that “we who value our public welfare services in the UK must reclaim our democracy, and campaign actively for both our welfare services and a generous BI. A BI system can lay the foundation for a good society and economy, but it is not a panacea for all ills, and needs to be supported by a range of services, and indeed, by their further enhancement.” But in that case, the maximum funding available for BI per head is “Y-bar” minus public services spending per head.
My second criticism of the modelling in the Handbook was that Miller only considered income tax as a funding mechanism for BI, ignoring other possible funding sources such as wealth taxes or social wealth funds. The Pocketbook is much improved in this respect, with a discussion of alternative funding models on p117-119 (although income tax is still presented as the main funding mechanism; however, this is consistent with most other existing research on BI). Finally, I criticised the modelling in the handbook for an absence of distributional analysis of the impacts of illustrative BI schemes in the UK and Scotland. This omission – which occurs because Annie Miller does not have access to a tax-benefit microsimulation model when modelling BI schemes – persists in the Pocketbook, although there is a useful new chapter on microsimulation modelling of BI and pilot experiments, which discusses existing models and evidence, as well as an excellent chapter on the economic effects of BI. While detailed costings using a flat income tax funding schedule are presented, some basic distributional analysis of the impacts of a BI scheme by net income decile and other household characteristics would have made the modelling section more comprehensive.
The final chapter of the Pocketbook looks briefly at the most common criticisms of BI and replies to them, and considers political obstacles to the implementation of BI and how they might be overcome. As with the 2017 Handbook, this final section is excellent and presents a convincing case for building a political movement around BI as a transformative social policy.
Overall the Basic Income Pocketbook is an excellent condensation and update of Annie Miller’s earlier Handbook and succeeds in making what was already an accessible and readable introduction to BI even more so. The only other two criticisms I have are minor. One is that in the drive to make the book more accessible and cut down the text, the number of references has been reduced compared to the Handbook, with a lot of references removed entirely. This is a shame, as an introductory text can cover more ground by providing a comprehensive index for the curious reader who can then fill in background reading later on. Finally, the Pocketbook went to press just as the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic were unfolding in the UK. While there are a couple of paragraphs about the potential impact of Covid in the introduction and a reference to the “post Covid-19 world” on the back cover, these are (by necessity) last-minute add-ons. If the publication date had been twelve months later it would have been possible to take Covid – and its exposure of many aspects of the UK social security system as manifestly unfit for purpose – into much greater account and work it into the narrative in granular detail. But notwithstanding these minor issues (the latter of which is entirely outside the author’s control), the Basic Income Pocketbook is a very useful and welcome update of the Basic Income Handbook with increased accessibility and salience. I can warmly recommend it as an introduction to BI or as a reference source for information on the latest pilots and microsimulation models of BI schemes.
Howard Reed is Director of Landman Economics