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.



Il Manifesto — 17 Comments

  1. Old man yelling at the clouds! Now in my 40s, the Voxsters make me feel old.

    But your Nyro song makes me feel younger and lacking in knowledge. Wasn’t aware of her until I saw a good David Geffen documentary on cable, possibly HBO, which told how he believed she’d hit it big. I was aware of Geffen’s other musicians like Joni Mitchell, CSNY, and the Eagles of course.

    I’d agree with 1-4. Welfare as we knew it was ended and poverty went up after the housing bubble. The progressive reformbots don’t discuss that very much. I don’t know, it’s as if UBI is way to epater le bourgeouisie and scandalize conservatives/triangulating Democrats without having to actually defend 1-4 and push expansions.

    I would also push for maximum full employment via government’s demand management policies (fiscal, monetary, currency/trade) a la Baker and Bernstein.

    In this way we could be better than Europe even as we aim to make our safety net and social insurance as good as theirs is. Tight regulations and macroprudential policies on the financial sector and rev and gun government demand policies when a recession hits. Tolerate higher inflation.

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  3. I’m not sure that restoring and expanding welfare is more politically doable than a UBI. Even if so, the way to move the discussion and the national consensus to the left isn’t to limit ourselves to the minimal reforms we want. Liberals have been trying to be realistic and reasonable for 30 years and it hasn’t worked very well.

    I think the UBI would indeed help address the economic disability that women experience, and the same for minorities, who are disadvantaged in the employment marketplace. The Civil Rights Act was passed 50 years ago, and the discrimination it outlawed is restricting the full autonomy of women and minorities. Our response has been identity politics. That’s been damaging, a real cost to liberal policies. We need a better way to deal with inequalities.

    I’m still hung up on the notion of universality as the way to solidarity. If we’re staying with private sector jobs as the dominant means to distribute access to goods, then those means should be standardized — mandated annual and sick leave, decent pensions, civil service-like protections against arbitrary personnel actions, and the like.

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  6. Sawicky is right in more ways than one. UBI does not generate any political power. Re-unionization OTW would not only supply the ability to extract the max price for labor _from the consumer_ — which in any case is the max it is possible to pay labor — but would also refill the 99%’s vacuum of political muscle, meaning financing and lobbying, equal to the 1%’s to go our 99% of the votes.

    Re-unionization only way to go. Forget about toothless expedients like card check — most any union still hanging on today is subject to the race-to-the-bottom formula: e.g., good, formerly middle class supermarket jobs gutted by Walmart paying employees less to do the same work.

    Only workable way to re-unionize is to adopt the labor market system perfected by the most successful union in America, the Teamsters (National Master Freight Agreement), and the most successful economy in Europe, Germany (legally mandated centralized bargaining) — along with continental Europe in general and French Canada and Argentina and Indonesia — proved successful in preventing the race-to-the-bottom since instituted in Europe post-WWII.

    I saw a show on FDR last night where they mistook Social Security retirement to be more important than empowering workers to organized unions. Wrong for the same reason.

    (In post war Europe, for reasons I don’t understand, centralized bargaining [a.k.a., sector wide labor agreements] was introduced by the [presumably right wing] industrialists to fend off a labor union race-to-the-top which would have sucked too much money away from re-building. Britain didn’t adopt which is why Britain fell behind according to one progressive economist.)

  7. “It uses up scarce political oxygen.”

    Really? Is Obama spending all his time lobbying Congress for UBI and can’t spend time working for welfare expansion? Are Congressional Dems passing bills that will never become law to implement UBI? Are there multi-million dollar orgs dedicated to UBI that are sucking away funds from other orgs?

    No, no, and no. It’s an academic argument among a small sector of the population that’s a useful exercise for thinking through the (lack of) necessity for more economic incentives for production.

    The other argument you have against it is about fairness, which is apparently a political argument (i.e., “I don’t think UBI is unfair, but these jerks over here would!”). To which I’d say: well, means-tested programs have the same problem (think welfare reform in the 90’s or Medicaid expansion rejection more recently), and thinking through UBI can clarify people’s thoughts on these programs.

    Or not. Either way, I just don’t see why a few academics talking about the effects of UBI does any harm to anyone at all.

  8. True UBI is an object of limited attention. There are certainly no stirrings for it in the political class. I’d like to redirect what attention it does get, which I think you understate, to the priorities I favor. It’s more than just a few academics. There’s a movement, web sites, an academic journal. One sign is that whenever I write about it — and I’m not exactly a household word — I get a slew of reactions.

    I written a bunch of posts on this that I think address your other commments.

  9. Devil’s advocate – “why yes, let’s have a UBI, and let’s not worry about costs, we’ll instruct the fed to just print up $10,000 per person per year and hand it out to them.” all you have to do in exchange is agree that it replaces all other individual welfare programs….

    A. It would be a stimulus for a little while.
    B. Then it would cause a lot of inflation, to the point where one’s UBI funds bought something close to zero.

    => If you wish to ease the plight of the poor/ill/aged you must give them money which is NOT the same as money given to everybody else – welfare only helps when it’s a relative disbursement, a redistribution.

    Redistributions are always limited by what the body politic will stand for. You may lament republicans and triangulating democrats, but they are in political control.

    What’s more, the body politic clearly has more tolerance for relatively large sums given to people with explainable limitations and next to no tolerance for those with behavoiral issues or substance abuse problems. You can lament this as you wish, it is an observed fact.

    That’s the real issue with UBI – it presumes the majority of citizens are much more giving than they really are or ever will be, and if anything is an opening to a trap.

  10. Max, I did not realize you were back until Sandwichman and Co. sent me here. I did not realize trying to a UBI would cost $1.5 trillion a year. Guess we have to stop the empire and soak the rich folks to make that happen. Always a hard thing as we know.

    Your argument about people resenting free riders is sound, but not complete. I think it is funny that Americans only look down the economic ladder when voicing that resentment. I see lots of rich folks who barely work and yet…silence. And the ones who voice the resentment the loudest I find are people who are much less well off than me, and pay hardly any taxes themselves. There is, after all, lots of confusion and contradictions in the rage at free riders.

    I wonder what you make of Steve Hughes’ 3 minute take on jobs…

  11. Hi Mitch. You’re right, people indulge free-riders if, as I mentioned, the largesse that benefits them is somehow connected to the private sector. If it’s part of ‘business’ or derives from inherited advantages then it’s o.k. seems to be the attitude.


    “His best known work is The Right to Be Lazy. He wrote against then-contemporary liberal, conservative, Christian and even socialist ideas of work. He defended that laziness, combined with human creativity, is an important source of human progress.” Wikipedia

    May I suggest you read “A capitalist road to communism” by Philippe Van Parijs and Robert J. Van Der Veen.

    Philippe Van Parijs is one of the founders of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network)

    Thank you.

  13. Currently reading “Two Cheers for Anarchism” by James Scott, as it happens. Thanks for the cites.

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