Friday, September 29, 2017

Guaranteed Income in the Press: Some Understand It, Some Miss the Point, and All Provide Welcome Attention

We’ve had more writing on what I have long considered one of the few possible comprehensive solutions to the jobs crisis, and what thinkers back to at least Thomas Paine have proposed for centuries before that. 

The first piece is from April 25th in Business Insider, “Canada is launching an experiment that will give 4,000 people free money until 2020.”  In the first paragraph, author Chris Weller said “a regular monthly allowance” was “a system known as basic income,” and soon thereafter named the soon-to-begin Ontario Basic Income Pilot as an example of that.  This program would get 4,000 Ontario residents “additional income based on their current salary,” which would be reduced by half of any additional earnings.  Maybe this is a good idea, but it’s not a guaranteed income.  It’s welfare.  It’s akin to some American situations, in which jobless people lose benefits once they find work.  Using that name for this sort of program is destructive to the idea of a true basic income, and will feed into conservatives’ concern that it excessively discourages people from working. 

The same author reported in the same publication on July 5th that “Hawaii just became the first US state to pass a bill supporting basic income.”  Hawaii’s government, though, is not planning to implement it, or even to determine if it would be justified, but to collect preliminary data which could result in another study.  It was not clear if Weller’s view on what guaranteed income is had changed over the intervening two-months-plus, but here he said that the person spearheading the effort, state representative Chris Lee, “had become intrigued by the idea of paying people a salary just for being alive.”   

On August 1 we went back to the definition problem.  “Universal Basic Income Experiment in Finland Not Looking Good,” in CNS News, combined author and Cato Institute economist Daniel Mitchell’s undeveloped and almost reflexive stance against it with Finland’s upcoming effort, which, as it will only consist of giving benefits to out-of-work people, does not match the title.  Perhaps in Finland it would be a bad thing, as Mitchell said, to cut the number of surplus workers, but I doubt it, and that would not be a problem in the United States, where at last count we could easily fill 17.6 million additional jobs.  In any event, Finland’s plan is only a test of generous unemployment benefits, and its success or failure will be irrelevant to the merits of guaranteed income.

After the last piece, I was refreshed to see one which showed better understanding.  In “Top Economists Endorse Universal Basic Income” (Forbes, August 31), contributor Frances Coppola shared proceedings from two economics conferences.  At one in Mainau, two panelists hit the right notes.  Sir Chris Pissarides spoke positively of globalization and automation, while acknowledging their job-reducing effects, and suggested a “universal basic income” as a way “you can trust people to decide for themselves how to spend their money” by letting the market provide social services.  Daniel McFadden “advocated unconditional income transfers.”  Coppola’s conclusion that “universal basic income is a radical policy that requires a radical funding solution” is, also, a point that must be made.

While likewise positive, and mentioning the unconditional nature of such a program executed properly, Ben Schiller’s “A Universal Basic Income Would Do Wonders For The U.S. Economy” (Fast Company, September 13) showed weaknesses around the edges.  Schiller named “a huge jolt” as one of its justification, or at least mitigating factors, citing research showing that a $1,000 monthly stipend for all adults would expand the economy more than 12% over eight years.  That’s not very much, and the article also suffers from references to “benefits not conditional to having a job” and “you don’t have to work… to get a UBI,” when more worrisome is, as above, others’ views that such money should only be distributed to people not working.  I was glad to see, though, a glimpse of why the technical community, which will probably be a necessary constituency in getting one implemented, is increasingly supporting guaranteed income.

Last week we saw an understandably but discouragingly political stance by a major possible 2020 presidential candidate.  In “Joe Biden Is Against a Universal Basic Income – and He’s Right” (The Daily Beast, September 26), the uncredited author heralded the candidate’s September 19th remarks, such as “our children and grandchildren deserve… the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work,” and “a job is… about your dignity… self-respect… your place in your community.”  The writer considered whether “Biden’s comments put him on the wrong side of history,” but soon afterward, unfortunately, disposed of that idea.  It may be a good move for Biden to go after Donald Trump’s base by talking as if he were giving a 1980 small-town stump speech, but we know nothing about he would create anything like 17.6 million new jobs, and the author’s comments that guaranteed income “would just be one more government handout” and would result in “millions of aimless Americans playing video games in their basements” make it clear that he or she, along with Biden, is also out of touch with the issue. 

The best article in this batch, “Let’s not give up on a guaranteed basic income before we’ve tried,” by Chris Hughes, was published on September 21 in The Hill.  Without even needing to show that most proposals and pilot efforts under that and similar names have not been guaranteed basic income,  Hughes made all of the right points – naming and generally refuting Biden’s speech above, proposing $1,000 per month (“for every American,” not only those without jobs) as a possible level, acknowledging that employment opportunities are not yet “disappearing wholesale” and that one who “believes in the dignity of work” need not oppose it, and proposing non-income-tax money sources such as a financial transaction levy.  He clearly understands the major considerations, along with what such a program should and should not be. 

This is not the first time we have heard from Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, and given his current position, co-chair of basic income advocacy group The Economic Security Project, it won’t be the last.  Although I do not support immediate guaranteed income implementation, as an ending I can’t do better than his: “Let’s not give up before we have even tried.”      

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