I’ve been reading quite a bit about the movement for a universal basic income, and I think all in all it is a positive trend. Something needs to be done if we do not wish to live in a world 500 years from now where the majority of people still spend 40 hours a week doing work they don’t particularly value while thousands of homeless beg in the streets. But I think, at least of late, the greatest advocates for basic income have become the movement’s greatest liabilities. And here’s why:

  1. The “all or nothing” rhetoric of the movement’s main spokespersons. There is this concept that a basic income is not truly “basic” unless it gives everyone a living wage. This undermines the movement as a whole and turns it into a revolutionary fringe movement that has no hope of getting anywhere politically, rather than a reasonable set of economic policy objectives.
  2. The “win-win-win-win-win!!” nature of the rhetoric, which often claims that it will spur economic growth, eliminate poverty, and end all human suffering as we know it. This just makes us all look really, really stupid.
  3. The claim that we can get something for nothing, because of some magical economic equation which none of us completely understand. We can never get something for nothing, we can simply organize things in a more efficient and humane way.
  4. The tendency to join the Bernie movement in scapegoating Wall Street and the “1%” for all of our problems. What if someone said every problem with life in high school was caused by one out of every hundred students, and if we simply humiliated them and redistributed their property, everything about high school would suddenly become perfect? Wouldn’t this seem insane? Yet this is the current rhetoric of the far left.
  5. The tendency to talk of robots replacing jobs in such an extreme and paranoid way that it makes the movement seem inspired by the Terminator movies rather than by the practical application of economic principles.

The voices for basic income, in summary, seem to be the greatest barriers to its implementation. Basic income is a good idea. It is an idea I support. But I believe the basic income movement, rather than making dramatic demands in an attempt to end all poverty and tedious work in one, sweeping policy proposal, should instead aim for a small “negative income tax” or “national dividend,” perhaps starting with something as seemingly insignificant as $500 or $1000 a year. This would create a much smaller shock to the economy and be easier for the nation to accept. And once it has been accepted, and the principle has been proved valid, increasing the amount of the dividend would become politically much easier to achieve. Alaska has had this sort of a universal basic income for 38 years, and most recently paid out a lump sum of just over $2000 in 2015. Although Alaska is pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, support for the “Alaska Permanent Fund” is almost universal, with the last political campaign to reduce it being crushed by an 84% popular vote. Once basic income gets its foot in the door, it will be hard to ignore or overturn.

This fact is another reason starting small with universal basic income is a better idea. No one actually knows for certain how it would affect the US economy to implement something like this. I believe it would be mostly positive, with a few negative drawbacks, but until actual implementation takes place I- and no one else for that matter- can be certain how it would actually affect things on a macroeconomic level. As any welfare system in a democracy is easy to start, but politically suicidal to dismantle, it would be wise for us to start with a small basic income and see how it affects things, rather than diving in head first. And if it reduces poverty and stimulates growth- as I believe it would- we can increase that level slightly until it seems that the negative effects of it taking people out of the labor force outweigh the positive effects of it taking dollars from the graveyard of national savings and transferring them to the more lively areas of consumption and investment.

The argument that a basic income should always be able to cover all human needs is fundamentally unreasonable. A basic income of this sort empowers all current employees and capitalists to retire. If all people stop working, the economy grinds to a halt, driving up prices. This increase in prices reduces the relative value of the basic income, which then must be increased to keep it at a living wage. This hyperinflation can theoretically continue indefinitely (but it would not, of course, because people would starve to death first).

We may be close to robots automating 50% of the work needed to maintain the comforts of modern life. 90% automation may even be imaginable at some future point. But 100% automation is still an extremely distant fantasy, if it is possible at all, which I doubt. At least a few people on the production side of things need to keep clocking in and clocking out to keep the system human enough that it caters effectively to the human consumer. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

But a basic income that potentially might cover all our needs (as long as some people keep voluntarily working for prestige, luxuries, etc), and always is equal to at least, say, 5% of the GDP is much more practical goal. We cannot guarantee a survival wage without guaranteeing labor, which includes communist things like gulags and a police directed workforce, things I find to be quite a bit more distasteful than the typical capitalist threats of homelessness and poverty. But we can guarantee that some of the surplus of the economy goes to all indiscriminately, to reset the playing field and give everyone an equal chance. This, less inspiring, “partial basic income” is, I believe, the most reasonable thing we can shoot for, and is also a very worthy goal. The sooner basic income advocates can tone down their “pie in the sky” rhetoric and start focusing on more realistic, sustainable objectives, the sooner we can create a better version of capitalism.

 

 

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