April 2017Policy

UBI gains interest as "the end of work" approaches

Interest in a universal basic income (UBI) appears to be rising alongside a widespread sense that we are nearing the end of the kinds of work and energy and policy to which the capitalist world is accustomed.  Metro DC DSA members have recently discussed the "end of work" -- perhaps exaggerated, but surely true of the less labor-intensive jobs that pay living wages -- and the end of the fossil-fuel-driven economy, if our planet is to be kept fit for habitation.  Some Republicans are in the vanguard for a carbon tax coupled with a carbon dividend, a policy proposal that walks and quacks much like the social dividend, or UBI, that leftists have long championed.  The nation's health-care debate may also be paving the way for a UBI.  Wherever "Obamacare" vs. "Trumpcare" lands, many US voters seem readier to count health care a human right and follow the international trend of enacting a rational policy to deliver it on that basis.  Wouldn't it be a short step further to plead and vote for livelihood as a human right, as a number of social democracies have done?  At the February Metro DC DSA Socialist Salon, Matt Bruenig pointed out that capitalism already gives free money to our wealthiest families, so why not share the wealth all the way down the ladder?

The sweet reasonableness of a UBI is clear and compelling enough to socialists.  The tricky part is the cultural and political work.  How could most US voters be persuaded to let go the dominance of the work ethic and accept free money for all?   To a nation gripped by a sense of scarcity of public funds, how can socialists win support for this universal entitlement?  Two recent articles offer interesting pointers.

The Kenya Experiment

The world's first true test of a universal basic income began last year in a small poor Kenyan village.  So claims Annie Lowrey in her report "Safety Net" for the New York Times Magazine's "The Future of Work" issue.  This test is being run by GiveDirectly, a nonpartisan U.S.-based NGO.  A major funder is the Silicon Valley tech industry; seeing itself as a global force owing some degree of restitution for leading us to a "post-work future," it supports this and similar experiments to see "what happens when you give a whole community money for an extended period of time."  The emphases on "whole" and "extended" depart from the parameters of past guaranteed-income trials in Canada, Finland, and elsewhere. By making every villager eligible regardless of assets, this test differs from a preliminary GiveDirectly project in other Kenyan communities. In those, payments targeted to the very poorest families brought substantial material gains at the cost of hard feelings that "strained the social fabric."  By giving cash, both forms of GiveDirectly projects differ from the conventional in-kind aid long preferred by most charitable donors to places with a bare-subsistence economy.

In short, this test is about all-around free money-- no one left out, no strings attached, no near-horizon end in sight.  Its terms:  Every person in the Kenyan village is getting a "poverty-ending" monthly cash payment equivalent to U.S. $ 22, with the promise that it will keep flowing for twelve years, on condition only of one's staying out of crime and keeping secret one's PIN entered in one's own mobile phone (that apparently for some was the first gift of GiveDirectly).  What's happened so far?  $22 goes a long way in these circumstances.  One villager chose to buy roofing; others, food for a family of eight, fishing-net material, a goat.  They still work hard.  But their basic livelihood- food and shelter- is improving. They foresee very different lives- hope is in the air.

GiveDirectly is in the process of scaling up this experiment to forty more villages, along with a two-years-guarantee version for eighty others.  Many of its backers and fans dare to think a UBI of this sort "might be right for the world too."  That is, of potential worth for "developed" and "developing" countries, and if so because, not despite of encompassing all households. The US of course is a prime example of a rich nation where many households live in poverty as strictly measured, and where a great many more feel poor relative to other classes or to earlier generation of their own.

The Winnipeg Experiment

Yet it is hard to imagine our "land of the free" embracing so wide a scope for free money-- basing self-respect on more than work, seeing poverty as a sign not of bad character but rather of bad luck and long spells of hard times. Many might be more persuaded by a UBI model from a colder and more industrialized place than Kenya.  An even earlier "true test" of UBI was an experiment in a small town near Winnipeg, Canada conducted over four years in the late 1970's. A lately discovered account of its results appeared in The Guardian online (Rutger Bregman, "Utopian Thinking: The Easy Way to Eradicate Poverty," March 6, 2017.   Every family there got enough no-strings money to lift it over the poverty line-- not necessarily the same amount to each, but the same plan included the entire community. What happened?  Better school grades, lower hospitalization rate, and no change in labor force participation excepting students and new mothers.  The author concludes that "poverty is a lack of cash" and the people can be trusted to make good use of free money.

About that long ago, the British social planner Richard M. Titmuss (author of The Gift Relationship, 1971; Social Policy, 1974) already argued cogently for universal coverage, bespeaking full respect for all, in Social Welfare programs.  He aimed for going beyond the "Residual" mopping-up approach of charity and minimal social-safety nets, likewise beyond the "Handmaiden-of-the- economy" rewards for merit and performance.  Looking back at trends since the 19th-century workhouses and debtors' prisons infamous in Dickens' novels, Titmuss was pleased to note that "poverty, in short, is no longer a crime."  The American cousins got bad grades for continuing to stigmatize the poor. Seeing how hard it is to identify and charge the agents of damaging social and economic changes, he concluded that only society at large can right certain wrongs.  He insisted that Britain couldn't properly deal with poverty "unless our conceptual frame of reference includes the non-poor as well as the poor."  To that end he swept Fiscal Welfare-taxation policies favorable to the middle and wealthy classes into the plan.  A progressive tax system would help to build "distributive justice" into the funding for universal programs.

Surely a progressive tax reform to support a universal basic income is a fine idea today, if we aim seriously to scale up the example of Silicon Valley's voluntary project of free money for Kenyan villagers.  No doubt some good-hearted wonky analysts are figuring out how to pull in funds from a carbon tax.  Where there's wealth there's a way to share it, if we summon the social will.  This spring after the bleak '17 winter, can we smell hope in the air?

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