Universal Basic Income is a concept that has been recently circulating in the minds of reformers and social engineers. For those who may not be familiar with the concept, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an economic policy proposal with the aim of reducing poverty by guaranteeing income to every adult. Kenya, Finland, and Ontario, Canada are launching test programs for UBI, so there is talk of the feasibility of it here in the United States. In this era of right wing political reaction, which follows a post 2008 economy where millions of people are still scraping by, the proposal of UBI has captured the political imaginations of many. In an era where jobs are scarce, and are being made even more so by increasing mechanization, the idea of UBI does appear to be the answer to disappearing opportunities and crushing poverty. In the context of a post 2008 economy, it is a good thing to discuss ways to reform economic policy. Today, people are slipping through the safety net, as our political leaders seem intent on destroying it even further.
Intelligence Squared US hosted a debate on Wednesday night at the Kaufman Center in New York City about the pros and cons of UBI. Arguing that this program is the safety net of the future, were Charles Murray and Andrew Stern. Against the motion, were Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman. Over the course of nearly two hours, these four experts would argue over the merits and potential problems of UBI, with the audience voting to determine who won after the question and answer period. The proposal on the debate floor was to offer a $1,000 dollar a month stipend, or $12k a year to every adult 18-64. Ultimately, the side against the motion won the argument. 61 percent of the attendees voted against the motion. Having been there in attendance, I want to offer my assessment as to why.
Murray and Stern argued spiritedly about the need to safeguard against further coming disruptions of the labor market from mechanization, and had a good moral argument as to why UBI would be a humane thing to enact. However, as is the case with any social reform discussed in the United States, the question of how to pay for it dashes the hopes of those on the side of progress. While pointing out that this is an age of insecurity, the for side was not able to argue convincingly as to how the U.S. government could actually pay for the program. There was some talk of reducing the military budget to do so, but in this current political moment, that is unlikely. The against side pointed out that in order to launch such a program, it would mean phasing out other anti-poverty programs and initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) , and tax incentives like Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and housing vouchers. It would also mean raising taxes, an idea that many Americans loathe on the principle. Besides, any initiative that sounds socialistic in nature is anathema, and can be quashed by appealing to the selfishness of people. The good book says that “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” But what if you are unable to find work? Then what? One weakness in the Against side is that they argued against UBI from the vantage point of putting more money into education. While, understanding the sentiment, education in of itself, uncoupled with some additional mechanism, will not end poverty.
In my opinion, UBI sounds like a great thing, but would be a band-aid on much deeper needs for reform economically. Why not instead, a public works program, similar to the WPA of the 1930’s? Also, UBI does little to eliminate the systemically enforced scarcity that the market brings us. What about the lack of affordable housing? Also complicating the issue, is considering if the term universal in basic income would actually apply. Would the formerly incarcerated be able to receive it? Those who are most marginalized in our society, often find themselves locked out of initiatives that are supposed to be for everyone. Historians will recall how Black Americans were shut out of the GI Bill when it was first enacted. The needs of many, exceed 12k a year. While the proposal is supposed to be the answer to the woes of working class people, it might weaken unions and be a disincentive for employers to pay a living wage. Is there room at all for organized labor to push back against the dictates of the “bottom line”? While tech CEO’s opine about the merits of driverless trucks and their cost effectiveness, is there any vision of pushback against the job destroyers? With the work that needs to be done on renewable energy, climate change, and infrastructure, I am not certain that we should just accept that a jobless future is the way it has to be.
You can view footage of the debate below for yourself.