Economic security and “the great disturbing factors of life”



“I am looking for a sound means which I can recommend to provide at once security against several of the great disturbing factors in life–especially those which relate to unemployment and old age. I believe there should be a maximum of cooperation between States and the Federal Government. I believe that the funds necessary to provide this insurance should be raised by contribution rather than by an increase in general taxation.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt, June 8, 1934.

Steve Randy Waldman of the interfluidity blog pulls me back into Universal Basic Income (UBI) land. I appreciate the compliments, but let’s get to the cheddar.

I share his foreboding of a political future without a labor movement. It’s unpleasant to imagine how bad things could get, even aside from that whole destruction of the planet thing. In troubled times, there is a natural conflict between trying to preserve old, embattled forms of social protection and casting about for new, more viable ones.

In general I have no problem with providing unconditional cash money to the poor rather than in-kind benefits. The problem of course is that we have in-kind benefits for food and housing because of the historic, political weakness of free-standing cash assistance. So we need a political environment that would be conducive to some kind of conversion.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “Food Stamps,” got its political boost from agri-business interests, support which is waning. Rep. Ryan wants to turn SNAP into a block grant, a type of death sentence. Not the sort of conversion we want. (With the advent of payment cards, SNAP benefits are more like cash.) By contrast, there is a very good reason for in-kind benefits in the form of health insurance. You don’t want to cast people into an individual market with some kind of voucher. I’m puzzled by SRW’s suggestion that public provision of health care has become infeasible, though later he seems to say it isn’t.

I believe SRW’s characterization of the libertarian impulse is wrong. At its root I would say is not some desire for minimal bureaucracy and free choice, but a drive to drown a whittled-down welfare state in the bathtub. If you don’t like bureaucracy, try not to spend much time dealing with private health insurance companies. The Koch-fueled libertarians use UBI to trash existing programs and advocate a wholesale trade. Big government for all its flaws provides some measure of protection from predators that abound in the private sector.

SRW says the UBI is social insurance. It’s America, and we are all entitled to our own definitions. So what exactly is social insurance? It’s not clear. SRW claims the support for a program depends on the extent to which its benefits are general to the politically-enfranchised. Well sure, but what was it about the program that won the support of the politically-enfranchised in the first place? I still think it’s the contributory rubric. FDR thought so too.

Of course the public has no clue as to the actuarial connection between any social insurance benefits and payments. The thing that matters, however, is that they think there is one. The popular sense of a difference between the dole and “stuff I paid for myself” is strong. Underlying this is the general approval, however unethical, for benefits in excess of any contributions for the deserving. The deserving are those who work or who acquire by fair means or foul some reward for private sector activity. (An exception is the bank bailouts.) I didn’t say this is fair. I only claim it has durable political salience.



Steve claims the UBI is a bridge from the U.S. to welfare states that are more effective in addressing poverty. By this criterion the U.S. certainly ranks comparatively low. The question is where such a bridge would lead. Existing, more effective welfare states are built on big social insurance, not UBIs.

The preference for big, universal programs over narrow, targeted ones to reduce poverty is well-taken. It is usually advanced for the promotion of social insurance, not UBIs. For the reasons I’ve proposed, contributory social insurance is the best existing vehicle. The basis for solidarity is mutual recognition of ‘desert,’ and such recognition rests on contribution. That’s my story.

On a liberal plain, UBI does look better than targeting and means-testing. The tricky problem here comes down to specifics. I noted this in previous posts. Something that sounds good in the abstract can founder when it is spelled out. This actually was the fate of negative income tax proposals in the 70s. They enjoyed bipartisan support, including from Richard Nixon, but the proposals blew up when Congress considered some relevant numbers.

If we are talking about a swap of UBI for means-tested benefits (SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, and the EITC are the big ones), the money formerly used to finance these benefits, once spread out over the entire UBI-eligible population, brings huge hits to existing beneficiaries. Of course there are other possible, supplemental sources of funds. We need to imagine ways to get at them that have some political plausibility — where losers don’t overwhelm winners. It isn’t easy.

One sort of compromise between our positions lies in the universalization-by-socialization of certain types of services. Mickey Kaus used to write about this, before he went insane. Universal pre-K, for instance, is a variation on the theme of UBI that enjoys some support. But notice, in the realm of universal K-12 there are huge distributional struggles, for a function with a constitutional foundation that enjoys widespread approval. In practice, K-12 is substantially financed on a quasi-contributory basis through grossly unequal local property taxes. But by all means, let’s push for free pre-K, free mass transit, a public option within ObamaCare, etc.

Another potential area of mutual interest is TANF. On what basis could TANF be moved closer to a national not-U basic income? Take it back to the Federal budget, minimize benefit reduction rates, cut back on annoying behavioral requirements, raise the benefit floors in the states of Jesusland. What to call it? Family allowance, children’s allowance, I don’t know. I do know that’s where the most deprivation can be found.

It would be great if some enterprising persons could set up a well-designed poll to test the fundamental political question in this debate: does support for benefits hinge on universality or on ‘desert’ based on contribution. An historical analysis would be revealing as well, though as always, past performance does not guarantee future returns.

Thanks to Steve Randy Waldman for a provocative exchange. See also Josh Mason at Slackwire.



Good cops

mankell-wallander-10-luftslottet_572In matters of criminal justice, in contrast to all my hippie, crunchy, rec-room-Bolshevik tendencies, I lean towards an Old Testament posture. I relish revenge, not excluding associated righteous violence. This is purely on a fantasy level. Governments in the U.S. are too racist and incompetent to administer something as serious and irreversible as capital punishment.

I’m always amused by moral condemnation of capital punishment from revolutionaries. Do they not know what happens in a real revolution, not to mention afterwards?

So my prejudice is not necessarily inconsistent with hard-left philosophical sentiments. There could be deeper psychological roots which we will not be going into here. In college I did a course in “revenger tragedies” from the times of Shakespeare and Marlowe, so the impulse obviously has an ancient lineage. (The course was as dull as everything else about Shakespeare.)

After all the violence porn of the homicidal Kojak, Dirty Harry, and their legions of imitators, it is a pleasure to see a completely different approach to police work in the Wallander series, based on novels by Henning Mankell.

There are actually three different Wallanders. One is the original Swedish character, played by Rolf Lassgård, which I’ve never seen. Two is the successor, played by Krister Henriksson, in the second and third seasons. I’m presently working my way through the third, final season. I will regret not having more to watch. Third is a BBC/British version, starring Kenneth Branagh. I’ve seen three of four episodes with KB. Lots of these are available on Netflix.

In Sweden everything is better, including the police. (Well, I doubt the food and music are better. Plus it’s really expensive. And cold.) But that aside, the Swedish police imagined in the series are a model for their trigger-happy American counterparts to envy.

First and foremost, they don’t rack up nearly the same body count as U.S. television cops. Second, they treat suspects with a respect that looks positively outlandish. This is a little overstated, because the sort of criminals they deal with, on average, are not nearly as savage as what we find in our own fictions. Third, they are a model of competence, including the SWAT teams. This latter I think is partly a facility in story-telling. If you need people to keep doing stupid things to move a story along, you’re not telling a good story. The same goes for incredible turns of luck or coincidences.

The lead Wallander in the second series noted above is a model of all three qualities. This is best illustrated in his low-key interrogation technique, as well as his nearly overwrought efforts to avoid shooting somebody who is resisting capture and really deserves to be shot. It’s a really humane performance.

I’m not crazy about Branagh’s Wallander. He’s too weepy. Overcome by his personal problems, and overwhelmed when he actually has to shoot somebody, he needs to keep his shit together more. Henriksson usually keeps his cool.

Why in U.S. cop shows are the criminals always more amoral, the cops more incompetent and unprofessional, the stories less intelligent? British cop and spy stories, which I consume avidly, are much better in these respects as well. In this sense the Dragon Tattoo films, which are all great, are more American, though some of their impact derives from a more civilized background against which evil looks even more evil.

Two current U.S. exceptions are Longmire, which has been cancelled, and Justified, entering its final season. Longmire is a sheriff in Wyoming. He doesn’t act tough, he just is tough. With bad guys he is firm but not blustery.

Justified is about a U.S. Marshal in Harlan County, KY. He racks up a very high body count indeed, but he is always . . . justified. The novel difference is he goes out of his way to respectfully explain to bad guys why they should surrender. They often prove too stupid or bull-headed to acknowledge their disadvantageous position, at which point the quick-drawing, crack shot marshal is obliged to shoot them dead, which he does with stunning accuracy and efficiency.

Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins

Both shows are rich in local color and forego stereotypical images. Most of the bad guys are white. Some are rich and some are poor. The recurring bad guy in Justified — Walton Goggins — is far and away the most interesting character in the story. Minority characters (African-American and Native American) are resourceful, intelligent, ethical, and flawed. Like white people. Both shows are one long story as well as modular short ones. Justified in particular wants to be seen from the beginning.

See also Louis Proyect on Marxist crime stories.

The people versus St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch

mccullochAnnals of the United States of Lyncherdom: the fix is in for the murder of Michael Brown. By now there are six witnesses to the incident. Their stories are all pretty much the same. In the face of this, “Prosecuting Attorney” Robert P. McCulloch, Democrat, is angling for worst person in the world in the year 2014. (Turns out there is quite a bit of dirt in his background, if you believe Wikipedia.)

Turning to the current ongoing scandal, the indictment against McCulloch for malfeasance to date includes:

*   Failed to file charges against Wilson, which would not have required the convening of a grand jury;

*   Did not propose to the grand jury that Wilson be indicted, which is normally what prosecutors do. Instead he is just dumping all the evidenc in front of them. This amounts to a signal to the grand jury to forego an indictment;

*   Permitted Officer Wilson to testify for four hours before the grand jury considering his indictment; very rare.

If there are no qualified attorneys on the grand jury, the non-committal stance of McCulloch’s office could lead to an indictment on charges that do not fit the crime and result in an acquittal on technical grounds. Ordinarily the prosecutor provides guidance in this vein.

I do not believe Mr. McCulloch should have recused himself from the case because his father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. I believe he should just do his fucking job. Everything he has done to date suggests a desire to protect the police miscreants rather than “the people.”

I hope this case doesn’t drop from the national radar, for two reasons. The obvious one is justice in this particular case. The second is that the specifics point to great national issues of race and class. Contrary to President Obama’s emissary Rev. Sharpton, the comatose U.S. Department of Justice, and the somnamblulist Attorney-General Eric Holder, I hope people use this case to raise the broader problems.

Addendum: Related, this column by civil rights veteran Charles Cobb is worth a look. He alludes to the reality that most of the protest around Ferguson has taken the passive form of writing stuff on the Internet, rather than organizing to get people into the street.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting in downtown D.C. about Ferguson. About fifty people, I was one of two or three whites, and the oldest one there by a good sight. A number of speakers and attendees had their own separate projects. The speakers were eloquent but there seems to have been no organizational follow-up, except some emails reminding me to vote. I’m no big activist, but I can get to meetings and marches with a little prodding. I could even do some work if I thought it would be useful. But it’s mostly been crickets. This has been a wasted opportunity.

Cobb is speaking to a mindset that expects deliverance from above, rather than self-activity. We’ve already seen what sort of help and encouragement we are getting from Democrats, including President Obama’s emissary the Rev. Al Sharpton.

It makes perfect sense to note that without marginal Democrats like the reluctant prosecutor McCulloch, the zombie-like Missouri Governor Nixon, and their political ally Senator Claire McCaskill, the GOP takes over and does unspeakable things. And so it would be. But that makes all the more urgent the construction of an independent politics that can expand as well as providing tactical electoral support for Democrats as the times demand.

P.S. If you follow Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, you would have known about this over a week ago.

MaxSpeak responds

earsWe speak but we also listen. Responses to commenters, in reverse order (most recent threads first)

Sandwichman: Sure a UBI on the receiving side, without disturbing anything else, is an unalloyed good. But there is more to it than that.

Paine: We’re on the same page.

Peter K: Sure employment is a priority. My posts were limited to benefit programs.

nihil obstet: I think my reforms are pretty ambitious. Just not too ambitious. Some of your specifics are in the spirit of social insurance, so not against the grain of my posts.

Rich C: UBIs as I noted are being proposed in a wide variety of forms. I think the basic thrust of the idea is to replace everything, more or less, with a UBI. As for Dolan’s numbers, it only adds up to $6K a year, which is a pretty skinny income for one person. It’s easy to imagine better uses for the dollars lost from tax expenditures. Others have their own plans for that money, which as you can appreciate is very difficult to crack for any purpose.

Nihil Obstet: We disagree about the basis for political support for SS. I think it’s the contributory/insurance angle, you think it’s universality. I don’t have any evidence to bring, so I guess we’ll have to let that sit.

I’m not sure I get the pensions/SS angle. I think hostility to pensions stems from envy of public employees, including misguided perceptions of how great they have it.

coberly: We’re in agreement about the focus on the cap, though it should be noted that the Medicare tax was uncapped with barely a whimper from anyone.

sglover: no I don’t buy the substitution argument (public benefits allow employers to pay lower wages). That’s another post, since it comes up all the time with the EITC. It follows even less with the UBI, as you say.

Alex B.: No, it is unattainable, but that’s not my argumment. Mine is that it distracts from more compelling objectives, as elaborated in my manifesto. The UBI is not huge enough to noticeably affect the national debate in the U.S., but it is still the wrong road to go down, IMO.

Bud Meyers: I totally disagree with the idea that jobs will be displaced by automation. The composition of jobs will change, but there is still quite a bit of useful work to be done. People were talking this way in the 1950s. There is always more automation, and always other kinds of new jobs.

JDG: You’re raising the same universal vs. contributory argument I picked up above. To be sure, the ‘earned’ nature of SS or Medicare is not precise; I would argue that it is broadly appreciated in any case. As for end of work, see the preceding.

The question of public employment is well-addressed in the comments so I’m not taking that bait.

Does the UBI need work?

Harvest_time_in_Romania,_1920Commenters point me to some illuminating work on the UBI by Ed Dolan (‘ED’).

The chief burden of the UBI for some is the potentially harmful effect on work incentives. I do not share this misgiving myself. As a matter of folk wisdom, I would claim that nobody ever said, “Sure $10,000 a year is plenty for me. I don’t need more.” Usually aspirations are greater. People tend to want a standard of living that facilitates their social inclusion in some greater community. They care about how others see them.

A fair amount of the work incentive arguments are misleading. There are two basic types of incentives in question. One is whether or not to work at all. The other is to work a bit more or a bit less. Most of the actual popular animus against means-tested benefits (MTB, a.k.a. ‘welfare’) centers on the first. Working somewhat less, say, to care for children, doesn’t carry the same stigma. Nobody cares if a couple reduces their combined weekly hours from 70 to 60. Elites, on the other hand, tend to elevate work and GDP, family well-being be hanged. On the whole, I join my comrade The Sandwichman and say we’d all be better off under less compulsion to work.

Dolan goes to some lengths to effectively lay the work incentive arguments to rest. I don’t need that much persuading, but that’s partly because I don’t view existing work incentives as so onerous. The key to his argument is the positive effect on work incentives if a UBI replaces existing means-tested benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (‘SNAP,’ formerly food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

In a nutshell, these programs have a negative income tax (‘NIT’) structure, which simply means you are provided some level of assistance that decreases as your income from other sources increases. So in addition to paying income tax you are subject to some ‘take-away’ rate on the benefits. The combined effect in effect is a higher marginal tax rate (MTR) which according to economics-for-squares (EFS) is supposed to affect your choices “on the margin,” to work a little more or a little less. A higher MTR makes you work less. As noted above, that you might work somewhat less, as opposed to not at all, is usually of less concern as far as ethics are concerned.

The economist’s typical concern with MTRs is that they discourage greater individual work effort and keep families stuck in poverty. Usually MTRs, whether they stem from taxes or benefit reductions, are found to affect secondary earners most. For the primary earner in a family, the normal desire is to work at least a 40 hour week, 52 weeks a year. Often there isn’t much choice about hours.

It is true that in certain income ranges, the combined MTR of benefit reductions and taxes can be very high. However, the very high MTRs don’t necessarily apply to a wide income range or have much effect on actual work behavior. It’s possible to earn your way through the high MTR ranges, and of course that’s what most full-time workers look forward to doing. There was a poignant moment on the old weekend Chris Hayes show. A Walmart activist was being interviewed. He noted that over a certain income range relevant to him, given his own situation, there was not a lot of payoff from earning an extra dollar. But he said, “that’s all right,” since he appreciated earning more salary and looked forward to more still with higher returns.

ED’s argument on work depends on a UBI replacing a NIT. It doesn’t work for a UBI in isolation. In isolation the new UBI increases income, and with more income we all want more leisure (see EFS above). Because of these offsetting effects, the net result of a higher or lower MTR is always theoretically ambiguous. It becomes an empirical question. EFS is also bullshit, but that’s another story. We’re sticking with the popular lingo here.

So fine, replace MTBs with a UBI and maybe you get more work (probably not less), lower administrative costs, total eradication of poverty. Or not.

You first get hella disruption of existing family incomes for poor and near-poor families receiving existing MTBs. The nature of an NIT requires benefits to be available above the poverty line. If they are phased out by that point, they will either be too low to begin with or have very high MTRs for sub-poverty levels of income. Putting that aside, if you replace all MTBs for families for the sake of ruthlessly eliminating poverty, you will be nailing a lot of families between 100% and 250% of the poverty line.

You get a different sort of political reaction if you fund a UBI by filling the holes in the income tax base. (Home mortgage interest deduction anyone? Charitable contribution deduction? Bueller?) In any such exercise there will be winners and losers. And their identities will not be a secret.

Replacing some means-tested benefits with a UBI is not objectionable in principle. But then it wouldn’t be a “U”BI. How you do it becomes crucial. The pesky details tend to be glossed over in UBI philosophizing.

Universality may get more political credit than it deserves. Imagine a Social Security beneficiary or modestly-paid worker. On top of their earned benefit or their earned income they get a UBI (at the cost of some taxes), while somebody they know gets the same thing and declines to work, ever. Would they be happy? I doubt it. The political problem remains if that problem stems from popular views of just deserts, rather than universality. People don’t resent their own free lunches (see tax deductions, above) because they think they are a just reward for work. Even if income does not come from work, any tax offset is seen as reasonable because all private sources of income are seen as legitimate.

It’s possible that people could easily resent equally-distributed benefits if they do not regard recipients as equally deserving. Perhaps Social Security is politically viable because of its contributory, social insurance nature, not its universality. Historically, it began well short of universal, and to some extent it remains so today. If so, the principal political argument for the UBI collapses.

I promised to respond to some specific comments made here, so watch this space.


Il Manifesto

Marx LennonMy 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 (see #1 above), 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 it 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.


Here we go again

“[I]n this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. If we are to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

ScreenHunter_10 Sep. 12 09.38

In defense of social insurance

oldmanyellsatcloud_thumbOn Twitter I said: “The basic income movement is an attack on the strongest political pillar of social-democracy: social insurance.” I’ve inveighed against the Universal Basic Income in the past, so here I go again. Another edition of old man yelling at clouds.

Throughout history, in certain communal settings some variant of the Marxian “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” has applied. In a naive sense, the UBI is not far off from that ideal. What economists call a demogrant* — a fixed, unrestricted, unconditional transfer payment to every individual (to each according to his needs**) — would presumably be financed by some kind of progressive tax (from each according to his abilities). I have no quarrel with the ideal. The problem is that it’s an utter fantasy that beclouds thinking about more plausible social policies. It’s a distraction from the need to defend really-existing social insurance and to attack the devolution of the safety net (about which a bit more below).

The most tenable model to which we could aspire for a step forward in social progress is some version of social-democracy on display in Western Europe. By a variety of measures of inequality, poverty, and other indicators of human well-being, this model offers hope of improvement. Social-democracies are certainly far from perfect, but if we want to be ambitious but also practical, it’s the direction in which to head. The foundation of these systems is extensive programs of social insurance. (Incidentally, these programs are not as a rule funded with highly progressive tax systems.)

Now it’s appealing to imagine the  from-each/to-each model as a type of social insurance. We all pitch in and we take care of each other. The difficulty is that this pushes the concept beyond the breaking point. Actual social insurance is more bloody-minded: what you get depends by some specific formula and set of rules on what you pay. It accords with common notions, whether we like them or not, of fairness. This contributory backbone of the system is what has solved the problem of gaining political consent for massive tax-and-transfer programs. There is no modern precedent for a UBI of comparable scope. (In the Alaskan bonus payment system, there is no visible Peter who is paying Paul. It’s like manna from heaven.)

Social insurance offers more than just a pay-in/pay-out mechanism. As insurance, it protects ordinary people from risks they face. Insurance is more efficient than mere saving. Individual saving can be inadequate in a number of respects. Take the case of Disability Insurance. After some limited work history, the worker is protected against loss of earnings in the event of disability. It would take a lifetime to save enough to substitute for earnings in the event of disability. In the meantime you accept a reduced standard of living, for decades, to provide for a possibility that may never come to pass. That’s inefficient. Or suppose you become disabled before you have saved enough? Suppose you invest your savings in uncertain ventures. In general people don’t know if they will become disabled. Pooling risk — insurance — solves the problem.

The social part of social insurance permits the basic market-like insurance arrangement of you-pay/you-get to be shaped according to social values. Both the tax side and the benefit side can be somewhat progressive. There is room for some flexibility, but it is not limitless. Go too far in the from-each/to-each direction and you lose the political support available under an insurance rubric.

Much as been written about why the U.S. has such a retrograde system of social provision. I don’t expect to add to it myself, except to say that in this context it is only social insurance that provides a political platform for collective provision for individual well-being. Straight-forward, simple redistribution is not well supported. It’s all we can do these days to protect what benefits have already been won.

It’s true that we have non-insurance programs providing means-tested benefits: anti-poverty programs. These programs are under attack. This is not a sea-worthy vessel you would want everyone else to board. I have urged UBI partisans to direct their attention to the atrocity of welfare reform. The biggest hole in the U.S. safety net is the misery of families with children whose wage-earners are unable, often for reasons beyond their control, to solidify an attachment to the labor market and the social insurance provided to wage-earners.

In 1972 Senator George McGovern proposed a demogrant of $2,000 as part of his electoral campaign for president. He received 17 electoral votes, winning Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, to cheatin’ Dick Nixon’s 520 votes.

We still live in Nixonland.

Tomorrow I’ll offer some remarks on the latest Vox blast on the UBI.

* Not to be confused with a negative income tax, social wage, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, each of which differ from a demogrant in fundamental ways.

** Please do not mistake my characterization as a suggestion that the UBI is dangerously radical or communist. I’ve got no problem with communist, as an ideal. The problem is that the UBI is utopian in an unedifying way.

Meet the new war, same as the old war

I echo Chris Hayes’ incredulity, expressed last night, at Barack Obama’s long strange trip: from his rise to political stardom as an opponent of the (second) Iraq invasion, to his devolution as a born-again interventionist, proposing to reinject the U.S. into the very same war he originally opposed.

It looks like the same war because the U.S. enemy in Iraq was Saddam Hussein and his base in the Sunni population. The Shiites and Kurds had nothing but hatred for Saddam. So this was a war on the Sunni. This onslaught continued in the person of the Shiite-dominated, U.S.-backed Iraqi puppet government.

The newest Hitler-of-the-month, the so-called Islamic state or ‘ISIS,’ is nothing but the reemergence of the Sunni under a distinctly less wholesome leadership. We traded Saddam for a group that looks worse than Al Qaeda, from the standpoint of non-Sunni minorities in Iraq, and possibly for the U.S. too, eventually.

The exploitation of the execution of American journalists as an excuse for war is patently ridiculous. I have no less regard for the victimized Americans than anyone else who doesn’t know them. But the U.S. government doesn’t start new wars because Americans are murdered. After all, the USG murders Americans all on its own. It needs better reasons, by its own lights. I wouldn’t get stuck on the beheading thing either. A U.S. ally does beheadings, recently for the criminal offense of “sorcery.” This particular ally will be enlisted to join against the barbaric ISIS.

The more important reason the executions are an insane pretext for war is because that was precisely their purpose. ISIS is saying, please attack us. They are smart enough to know the U.S. is dumb enough to oblige them.

My standard approach starts with the question of efficacy. Can some kind of escalated U.S. assault on  ISIS accomplish its objective? If it can’t, all the moral considerations pro and con are irrelevant. If you listen to area experts, rather than rabid baboons in pin-stripe suits, the efficacy is dubious. You might be able to blow up all their new toys (courtesy of the U.S. government, via the Iraqi joke army). But their grip on the population will remain. This is a population that is disaffected from the U.S., ISIS or no ISIS. In the past there are cases where the USG has conquered unfriendly populations and pacified them. This is not going to be one of those cases.

The U.S. was not greeted as a liberator in Iraq. What combination of other countries would receive a more congenial reception, if it put ground troops onto the field against ISIS? The great oil sheikdoms, lead by the great beheading nation of Saudi Arabia? Other white folks from Europe? Shiite Iran? Will Kurdish or Shiite troops be willing to fight ISIS on turf in which they have no political interest?

I can’t get upset if the U.S. helps the Kurds, with anything they need, including air support. But what is in store may go well beyond that and contain its own dynamic of escalation. In the end, the question may still remain, who will march into Sunni territory, extirpate the opposition, and construct the political basis for a new Sunni politics? I don’t see it.