In reading the recent piece by Daniel Zamora at Jacobin and some of the reactions to it, I’ve been struck by how limited the conversation about universal basic income (UBI) is. For the uninitiated, UBI is fairly straightforward–instead of having social programs like welfare or food stamps which people qualify for on the the grounds that they fall below some income threshold, UBI gives everyone a set minimum income. UBI has fans and detractors across the political spectrum because depending on how it’s constructed it could be made to do very different things. Some on the right want to use it to reform welfare and some of the left want to use it to make work optional. Some in both camps want to use it to help workers displaced by automation or outsourcing. The key problem with the conversation is that it tends to be based around whether we could or should implement UBI now, or very soon. This misunderstands what makes UBI interesting. Properly understood, UBI is not about today. It’s about capitalism’s endgame–what the world looks like when capitalism truly exhausts itself.
I am a huge fan of Netflix’s House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a ruthless political anti-hero. Here’s the trailer, if you haven’t seen it. It’s really good:
I launched into the 3rd season yesterday and was fascinated by Underwood’s “America Works” proposal. Very minor spoilers here–Underwood plans to eliminate or restructure America’s entitlement programs, using the money saved to create 10 million jobs, which will apparently cost $500 billion. Now, this is a television show. There are no CBO reports to look at, no detailed policy analyses or public policy research, but I want to dig into this and take the opportunity to explore some of the issues with entitlement programs.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between international relations theory people and economic theory people. It is rare that a single person finds himself facile with both disciplines and this tends to introduce blind spots in thinking. One of the biggest blind spots concerns the future role of manufacturing in geopolitics. Many people believe that cheap wages in places like China will ensure a strong US-China trading relationship and reduce the chance of future security competition. They think China will rise peacefully. These people are missing an important economic trend–the decreasing relevancy of the US-China wage gap and the inevitability of “reshoring”, the relocation of manufacturing back into the rich countries from whence it came.
The Swiss are apparently going to hold a vote on a rather radical proposition–giving every Swiss citizen a universal monthly income of 2,500 francs (about $2,750), for an annual income of 30,000 francs (about $33,000). For perspective, this amounts to about twice what an American working for the federal minimum wage would earn annually if he were to work 40 hours a week every week without any breaks. I very much doubt that the Swiss will vote for this proposal due to how very radical it is, but I’d like to discuss the implications it would have for Switzerland if they were to do so and contemplate what a similar program would do in the United States.
Today I had a lecture that introduced an interesting idea, one I think worth sharing and discussing–universal basic income (hereafter referred to as UBI). UBI is a radical alternative to the present welfare system existent in most western countries. In most societies, welfare is conditional on a demonstration of effort to gain employment–it has a work requirement. UBI proposes that the work requirement be scrapped and that welfare be provided to all citizens irrespective of need so that everyone has a sufficient standard of living such that employment becomes a life choice rather than a life requirement.