Have the UBI People Turned to the Dark Side?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, I wrote a post highlighting the regressive effects of Andrew Yang’s UBI proposal, especially its impact on our poorest and most vulnerable. Yang promises to pay for his UBI (of just $1,000 per month–far lower than the living wage) with a combination of spending cuts and a regressive VAT, or national sales tax. Yang writes openly of fooling poor people into exchanging lucrative benefits with spending-restrictions for smaller lump sums:

Andrew proposes funding UBI by consolidating some welfare programs and implementing a Value-Added Tax (VAT) of 10%. Current welfare and social program beneficiaries would be given a choice between their current benefits or $1,000 cash unconditionally – most would prefer cash with no restriction.

The post has been picked up by parts of the basic income community and has been circulated in Yang subreddits. But to my horror, many people in these circles seem to be untroubled by these features. This leaves me deeply concerned about whether rank and file Yang supporters care about poor people on any level.

Image result for yang gang pepe

The first sign something was wrong was this comment, from the Yang Gang subreddit:

This person sees the regressive aspects of Yang’s plan as features–not bugs. Then there was this reply, from the basic income subreddit:

This person misunderstands how we measure whether a tax is progressive or regressive. It’s not the total amount of money that is relevant–it’s the percentage of a person’s income. Because poor people consume larger percentages of their incomes than rich people, a VAT taxes a larger percentage of a poor person’s income than it does a rich person’s. Beyond this, the speaker speculates about Yang placing restrictions on the VAT to make it more progressive–restrictions Yang himself never mentions on his website. Why should we trust someone whose impulse is to fund their UBI with spending cuts and regressive taxes to look after the interests of poor people?

This blind faith in Yang’s willingness to adjust the policy after the fact to make it less punitive was a common feature in many replies. The one that perhaps most surprised me was Scott Santens’. Santens is a long-time supporter of UBI, and I certainly imagined he was a discerning person who cared deeply about ensuring UBI proposals are adequately progressive. To my surprise, he instead went with this counterargument, which I will quote in part (follow the link for the whole thing):

The point of UBI is not to replace the need to work with a comfortable middle class lifestyle…The point of UBI is to create a floor underneath everyone, and once that floor exists, we can raise it over time as automation makes us more and more productive. Over time, we can then work less and less…As for leaving people worse off at the bottom, that’s just stupid. If you’re getting $0 in assistance right now, which most people are, then $12k is kind of a big deal…Granted, those in position of getting more than $12k right now who choose to keep getting that instead will essentially be taxed more through a 10% VAT…Should states provide a boost?…If states are getting a huge burden taken off their shoulders through UBI, they are going to have a lot of revenue no longer being spent on people. So why not use some of that revenue to make sure no one is worse off? Another option could be VAT refunds, or excluding welfare recipients from paying VAT…Yang isn’t being insidious here. He’s just keeping things simple. The complexity is the purpose of the actual legislation.

For the record, I’d be happy to support a partial UBI, if it had a progressive funding structure, defended the interests of poor and vulnerable people, and I had some kind of guarantee that the people implementing the UBI cared about ensuring that remained the case going forward. The trouble is that this isn’t just a low starting point, it’s also funded in a deeply troubling way. Santens never really deals with this critique.

First, Santens moves the focus away from people on welfare, emphasising the consequences for the people who currently do not receive assistance (and therefore are already considerably better off than the worst off). Then, rather than call them “poor people” or even “welfare recipients”, he refers to the poorest and worst off as “those in position of getting more than $12k”, implying that they are somehow in better shape than this first group when they are in fact recipients because they are in much worse shape. Later in our exchange on Twitter, he referred to them as people with “special circumstances“, again deliberately using language which diminishes their importance.

Santens then suggests that maybe states will throw money at poor people to help them out. But many state governments are controlled in part or in whole by a Republican Party which would surely prefer to return that money to rich people via tax cuts. The state response is likely to make the whole thing more regressive. Santens assumes the rich people who run our states are nice people who care about us. There’s very little evidence to suggest this. Many states were reluctant to expand Medicaid even with federal help! Does he really expect them to start new welfare programs without federal encouragement? Even if some blue states did step in to help, this would exacerbate already extant inequalities between red and blue states, putting poor people in red states at an even bigger relative disadvantage.

Then there’s the argument that Yang might adjust the VAT in all sorts of ways after the fact to make it less regressive. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest Yang is committed to doing that. And there are several facts which make me doubt him:

  1. Yang stresses repeatedly that he does not intend to enable extant welfare recipients to receive these benefits on top of the benefits they already receive. This is effectively saying, over and over: “There may be some people who are giving you the impression I care about poor people, but please don’t get the wrong idea.”
  2. Yang’s impulse, when structuring his UBI, was to pay for it with spending cuts and a regressive VAT. That doesn’t sound like the kind of person who can be relied upon to put the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable first. Instead, it sounds like someone who, whenever he faces budget problems, will go after the poor first because they are weak and cannot fight back.
  3. Yang has no political history and no record of doing anything for poor people. His focus, throughout his career, has been on helping more people become entrepreneurs like him. He seems to distinguish quite severely between the “deserving” who aspire to be rich like him and the “undeserving”, unvirtuous poor.

But Santens insists that he knows Yang personally, and that we can trust him:

Santens seems to hope we’ll forget all the previous times right-wingers have attempted to use the language of “universal basic income” to conceal austerity programs. As Shannon Ikebe points out in Jacobin, Charles Murray proposed a UBI which would give every person $10,000 a year and obliterate the rest of the welfare state, including Social Security and Medicare. That’s not progressive. In a similar vein, Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge at The Independent write of the Adam Smith Institute’s interest in UBI, as a cloak for their neoliberal dagger.

We’re supposed to trust these rich people to make the UBI proposal progressive in the end, when there are already multiple examples of UBI being used maliciously to trick people into supporting austerity. You know who else likes UBI? Elon Musk. Remember this guy?

The poor, in Musk’s eyes, are the “least productive” and therefore least deserving of resources. Belief in and support for UBI does not seem to guarantee, in any way, a substantive commitment to helping poor folks. Many of these people seem to openly disdain the poor.

The Yang campaign is a moment of truth for America’s UBI movement. It has to decide how many poor people it’s willing to step on to get this policy done. It has to decide whether it really thinks our rich people–given everything they’ve done over the last 50 years and beyond–can simply be trusted to make sure our poorest and most vulnerable are okay.

I feel for activists like Santens. UBI has been his life’s work, and there is now a minor presidential candidate who is willing to support the policy, and he’s excited about that. This presidential candidate has even formed a personal relationship with him, and is reassuring him in private that he’s a good person and can be trusted. It’s easy to be taken in by something like that. Who among us could become personal friends with a presidential candidate and not trust them? But the history of rich people promising to care about poor people eventually is littered with the forgotten corpses of poor people. Santens is doing business with the devil–those who wish to do UBI the right way cannot follow his path.

There’s other evidence that Yang is not okay. E.g.:

  • Yang waffles on healthcare, saying “Either through expanding Medicare to all, or through creating a new healthcare system, we must move in the direction of a single-payer system”. Compare this to Sanders, who already has a website up where you can calculate how much money Medicare For All will save you.
  • When he discusses a path for citizenship for immigrants, he frames it around the principle of “make them earn it“–again demonstrating a disinterest in helping poor and vulnerable people. Yang instead demands they demonstrate their virtue to him first.
  • He wants to cut the federal workforce by 15-20%, destroying good, union jobs.
  • He proposes something vaguely resembling the Chinese social credit system (albeit without explicitly discussing the possibility of using the system to blacklist people from public services).

There’s also evidence he’s plain stupid, like this:

The problem is not that we have never been able to pass campaign finance reform–it’s that whenever we do, the Supreme Court strikes it down. This is basic. He also expresses an affinity for libertarianism, rejecting the “left” label:

LibCon is a convention that features people like:

  • Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute
  • Bill Weld, the former Libertarian Party Vice Presidential nominee
  • Steve Forbes, the Editor in Chief of Forbes
  • Ajit Pai, Donald Trump’s FCC Chairman
  • David Boaz, Vice President of the Cato Institute
  • Stephen Hicks, Senior Scholar for the Atlas Society (devoted to Ayn Rand)
  • Katherine Mangu-Ward, Editor at Large for Reason

Andrew Yang is friends with Scott Santens. He’s apparently also friends with these other people. Does it seem like your crowd? Do you trust this gang to construct any policy in a way that protects and defends the interests of the vulnerable?

France tried electing a “radical centrist” in 2017. It got labour market reforms that made life for workers more precarious, regressive taxes on diesel fuel, and then this:

And do you know what else Macron claims to find interesting? Basic income:

Interviewed in the popular radio and TV show Bourdin Direct, Emmanuel Macron, the French Minister for Economy, said he believed in the principles behind basic income and thought the topic deserved to be investigated further:

“Basic income is an interesting idea. The debate shouldn’t only be about being pro or against, but I think it’s an idea we should investigate further. Why? Because it means giving the possibility to everyone to have a starting point in life. This is the idea of basic income. There is also the idea of having a basic capital [a one-off payment given to everyone] for all persons of a certain age.”

He went on:

“Ultimately, it refers to what philosophy we have of our society. Personally I believe in freedom, I believe in openness (…) I think the role of the state is to recreate conditions of equality at every moment in one’s life: at school, when starting one’s professional life, and when life accidents occur, through social standards and social benefits and education policy for unemployed persons (…). But I don’t believe in egalitarianism, rather I believe in equal opportunities; and the idea of basic income or basic capital for all goes in this direction and I’m interested in this.”

Please don’t elect an American Macron. The man’s net rating is nearly -40 for a reason:

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