In Today’s Issue:
Should the United States implement a universal basic income, a system in which the government gives everyone cash intended for basic needs? That’s the question in our current Masthead debate.
Members argued over whether a government holds a moral duty to promote general welfare—and whether a UBI fulfills it.
Annie Lowrey, an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, argues that a UBI isn’t as difficult to pay for as critics allege.
Up Next: A Conversation With Timothy Snyder
Is authoritarianism on the rise? Masthead members chose The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder, as one of the two selections for our summer book club. (The other is Educated, by Tara Westover.) As AtlantiveLIVE editorial assistant Anna Marks put it, “Chronicling Russia’s most strident geopolitical actions of the last half decade, including the country’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and its interference in Western elections in 2016, the book paints a damning picture.” Tomorrow, Snyder will join us in the forums to address your questions and comments. Share a question for him on the forums or send us an email at email@example.com.
The Moral Case for Giving People Money
The sharpest points of disagreement among members in our forums debate were over the idea that Americans have a moral obligation to implement some kind of UBI system. Here are some of their arguments. As usual, we refer to members by their first name.
“Poverty is a human-rights issue,” Alistair wrote. A UBI would help alleviate it, he argued. “UBI is a start to recognizing that positive human rights, the rights to fundamental social and economic protections, are just as important as the freedoms Americans love so much.” While some might see the policy as a radical departure from the status quo, Alistair said, it’s really no different from any other kind of federal program. “The federal government has a wide latitude to raise taxes and spend for the general welfare. And UBI is just that, spending.”
A UBI might be just another way of avoiding deeper social problems. “The moral argument for UBI is more a capitulation to resistance within our society to our real obligations ‘to promote the general welfare,’” Steve wrote, adding that a UBI could not bandage over gaping structural inequalities in education and work opportunities. “Do we really believe that money is what we owe ourselves for being here, or that it delivers the things we really do [owe] each other?”
A UBI’s ambiguity may also be a strength: “I think one of the benefits of UBI is that it doesn’t presume to define the ‘general welfare,’ and allows people to define it for themselves,” one member argued. While improvements in education, job opportunities, and safety nets for food, housing, and health care would all promote welfare, they cautioned against ranking social issues on behalf of those impacted by them.
Think of the children. “We are missing out on so much talent, creativity, and equality” because underprivileged youths are barred from reaching their potential, another member wrote. “I have worked with so many young adults, from so many different backgrounds and ethnicities, whose major obstacle to living productive, innovative, and creative lives was poverty. With a UBI, they could have the space and support to figure out how to be their best selves.”
Women in particular would benefit. A UBI would help families in which women do a disproportionate amount of the labor in terms of caretaking for children and the elderly, Kelly wrote. “What happens if UBI gives women an independent income (not tied to a partner or welfare agency) to pay for child care or education? What if men who received UBI could participate more in the care of their children?” Family labor may be able to achieve balance.
From Panacea to Policy
We asked the Atlantic contributing editor Annie Lowrey to weigh in on some of the most common objections raised by UBI critics.
“A UBI would be impossible to pay for.”
Annie Lowrey: This might be the most common criticism of the blue-sky, big-think policy, which is gaining traction on the left and is all the rage in Silicon Valley. Giving every American $1,000 a month would cost nearly $4 trillion a year. That is roughly equivalent to the federal government’s current budget—not just for social-welfare or social-insurance programs, but for everything.
But a UBI would not be impossible to pay for.
To start, even in its most ambitious iteration—$1,000 a month for everyone—a UBI could supplant or make redundant other government programs, bringing its total price tag down. Social Security, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments would likely go away in a world with a UBI.
Plus, many UBI boosters are talking about trying out far more incremental policies, such as an income guarantee or a universal child grant, which would cost far less. Meanwhile, eliminating poverty through the tax code, as some scholars suggest, would cost in the low hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
And, financing a sweeping new social program might be politically difficult, but it is hardly mathematically impossible. The United States is a low-tax country by rich-country standards. It collects roughly a quarter of its GDP in tax revenue each year, whereas France, for example, collects nearly half of its GDP via taxes.
Some UBI supporters have also suggested making payments as a dividend from a trust fund, as the state of Alaska already does, or tying them to taxes on carbon emissions.
“A UBI would encourage people to quit working, which would cause America to lose some of the ingenuity of its greatest asset—its people—and weaken the economy. When people stopped working, folks still in the labor force would come to resent the dropouts and the overall policy.”
Annie: That might be the second-most-common criticism of a UBI. It is true that there is some amount of money you could give each American a month that would cause them to drop out of the labor force. (How many people would keep working if a mysterious person deposited, say, $20,000 a month in their bank account?) But the payments from a UBI are meant to be “basic”: enough to keep someone out of abject poverty, without being enough to live well on.
Moreover, any number of studies have shown that while there is some reduction in work effort when the government makes unconditional cash transfers, they hardly cause workers to stop working en masse. The economist Ioana Marinescu found in a study last year for the Roosevelt Institute that such programs have “no effect on labor market supply, [and only] a slight reduction in work and earnings.”
“A UBI could cause minimum wages to fall. Employers would no longer feel obligated to pay workers a living wage.”
Annie: Imagine a world with a generous UBI in place: Every American citizen and legal permanent resident receives $1,000 a month, no questions asked, no strings attached, in perpetuity.
Such a world would give far more bargaining power to workers, who would be much more capable of leaving a job if it were not remunerative enough, and capable of turning a job down if it did not offer good working conditions. Employers would have to compete harder to win over employees—an especially important point given the dramatic erosion of worker power over the past 30 years.
But such businesses would also have a big incentive to hire workers who were not receiving a UBI, such as undocumented immigrants. They would also have a greater incentive to hire workers abroad, whose relative wages would be low compared with those of domestic workers. Generous welfare states do create a starker divide between in-groups and out-groups. Would Americans still be better off, in aggregate? It is impossible to say without knowing the specifics of the policy.
The Best Way to Implement a UBI
The debate continues in the forums. “Some UBI boosters really treat it as a magic bullet, rather than a tool,” Annie wrote. “Surely supportive policies, many of them, will always be needed.” What would the most effective implementation of a UBI look like? What structural supplements would need to accompany it? Share your thoughts.
Today’s Question: We just asked it! What’s your proposal for how to implement a UBI?
What’s Coming: On Friday, Sarah Zhang will write a dispatch on the current status of personal DNA testing.
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