My friends at Vox keep banging away for the so-called Universal Basic Income, or “UBI”, so I have to keep banging back. There have also been substantive comments here. I will try to respond to them, but it might be better to begin at the beginning. Putting on my Marx-Lennon suburban rec-room bolshevik hat, here is what is to be done, as far as benefit programs go:
1. Defend and expand social insurance (Old Age/Disability/Survivors Insurance, also known as Social Security; Unemployment Insurance; Workers’ Compensation; Medicare)
2. Defend and expand means-tested benefits (especially Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. ‘food stamps,’ Supplemental Security Income — for impoverished old folks and the disabled, and assorted housing subsidies)
3. Expand work-conditioned benefits (the Earned Income Tax Credit, subsidies under the Affordable Care Act)
4. Re-federalize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (formerly AFDC, or “the welfare”) as a national family allowance in a negative income tax format.
It should be clear from the preceding that I am not opposed to income guarantees. My argument against UBI is pragmatic and technical. In the context of genuine threats to the working class and those unable to work, the Universal Basic Income (UBI) discourse is sheer distraction. It uses up scarce political oxygen. It obscures the centrality of the priorities cited above, which I argue make for better politics and are more technically coherent.
Part of the problem with the UBI is that it isn’t a thing. It’s a multiplicity of things, all premised on the delusion that we can simply eliminate poverty at acceptable cost without collateral damage. It’s a tabula rasa upon which people write their own social policy. Everybody has their own UBI, but that doesn’t mean there is a basis for compromise on something that would turn out to be worthwhile.
Typically UBI proposals are less than fully-baked. It’s like social policy for poets. How large would a UBI be? (If it’s $10,000, total cost would be $3.15 trillion, more than the entire amount of revenue expected to be obtained in the coming fiscal year by the Federal government.) Would it replace anything else? If so what? How would it be integrated into remaining tax-and-transfer programs? Would everybody be eligible? Immigrants? Felons? Ex-offenders? NFL players? Decisions, decisions. A serious UBI proposal would have to be run through a model like this. Then you would know what magnitudes you are dealing with, and whose oxen, nay, herds of oxen, would be gored.
It is misleading when the UBI, the technical word for which is ‘demogrant,’ is likened to other schemes that are fundamentally different, such as a negative income tax or an earned income tax credit or a social insurance program. Loose comparisons exaggerate the political plausibility of the idea and gloss over the technical difficulties of reconfiguring the existing system.
The priorities advanced above have passed a political and technical test: they exist (or did), and they work. Perhaps the most challenging priority proposed above is the final one, reversing the misbegotten welfare reform of 1996, beloved of Republicans and triangulatin’ Democrats alike. The GOP, notably in the person of Rep. Paul Ryan, wants to do to Medicaid, SNAP and other means-tested benefits what has already been done to AFDC. Superficial criticism of the existing system in the form of UBI proposals is unhelpful in this light.
OK, time for a musical break.
I’m not going to bother engaging the libertarian case for a UBI because I’m no libertarian, at least when it comes to collective provision for social welfare (homeland security and foreign policy are another matter). Is there a left case?
Some uphold the freedom from an unconditional grant over the oppression of wage labor, so I have to ask, would we have a UBI under socialism? I tend to doubt it. Socialism needs to produce the goods and services people expect. If you want abundance, there is more of a premium on universal labor force participation, both for reasons of production and for social solidarity. From each according to his abilities, not according to whether he feels like getting out of bed. “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” started with the Bible, but it was readily picked up by socialists. How would social solidarity be possible if some worked while others did not?
Elsewhere I have argued, and will again, that my misgivings about the UBI do not stem from concerns about work incentives, as an economic problem. When I raise the matter of solidarity, I’m thinking of the political problem. People resent free riders. In the article by Brother Peter Frase linked above, free-riding is invoked as a feature, not a bug, that will herald the World Revolution. Gulp. The conditionality of work, the understanding of an earned benefit, not the universality, is how I would explain the popularity of Social Security.
One feminist case for the UBI invoked by Vox is that it would make women less dependent on men. This might be taken to entail the ability of women to shoulder their dual duties as earner and home-maker. Of course, those dual duties are part of the problem motivating feminism in the first place. I could think of a few other things that would make women less dependent on men: full reproductive rights, universal pre-K, equal pay for equal work, less occupational segregation by gender, integrate care-giving into Social Security, an expanded EITC (see # 3 above), and family allowances (see #4 above). I’m no feminist icon, but to my way of thinking those are the politically relevant meat-and-potatoes policy priorities for feminism. Your mileage may vary.
The real issue for the UBI is not how it would work. That’s because it isn’t going to happen, and you know it. The question is, what does talking about the do for progressive political culture? I have tried to show that it distracts rather than enriches.
Tomorrow I’ll have something that deals with more of the UBI advocacy, including some of my sagacious commenters.