Reconsidering Universal Basic Income

Recent events have caused me to revise my assessment of universal basic income (UBI), which I’d previously written off as a utopian pipe dream. I’m still skeptical that it would be a good idea, but I’m more convinced than previously that it’s possible.

I had the opportunity to write an article on this. Here’s a quick summary, broken down by subject area:

Politics

  • The salience and popularity of UBI has increased massively in recent years. In 2011, Rasmussen Reports conducted a survey that found just 11% of adults favored a universal basic income. When they asked the same question this past April, that number had jumped to 40%.
  • Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang and a slew of tech executives have been proselytizing the electorate of the imminent obsolescence of human labor. Covid-19 may have exacerbated that: many of the jobs destroyed by the pandemic are not predicted to return.
  • The financial stimulus provided by the CARES Act has been popular, and there are calls from the public and prominent figures for its continuation. And while unemployment has risen sharply since March, poverty has actually fallen. I feel like this bodes well for the policy idea of giving people money.

Economics

  • I used to think any universal basic income program would be prohibitively expensive. But I think I underestimated our capacity for deficit spending, borrowing, and “printing” new reserves. I’m not saying we can do any of this without limit, but I feel less confident about where that limit is now.
  • Persistent low inflation, a feature of the last decade or so, is key to financing this level of public spending. As The Economist put it in July, “The absence of upward pressure on prices means there is no immediate need to slow the growth of central-bank balance-sheets or to raise short-term interest rates from their floor around zero.”

Sociology

  • This may be the one area where the case for UBI looks worse than it did previously. In the wake of summer’s unrest, it’s become more obvious that work plays a valuable role as a method of soft social control. (This is in keeping with the theories of UBI proponents who claim that work prevents people from mass organizing, though perhaps the other side of the coin.) If I were a national politician, I might be wary of the effects of greatly diminishing the role of work in society.
  • But there’s at least one reason to cautiously infer some sociological benefit too. A survey conducted by the CDC in June found a shocking 10.7% of the general population—and 25.5% of 18–24 year-olds—had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. (The benchmarks for these figures are respectively 4.3% and 11%.) The same survey found “only” 4.7% of unemployed people had experienced suicidal ideation during the same interval. Maybe the UBI-esque conditions brought on by pandemic relief are responsible for the counter-intuitive gap?

All told, I still don’t think we’ll see a universal basic income at any large scale for a long time, if ever. But the idea can’t be dismissed out of hand so easily anymore. Who knows how the winds will blow in ten or twenty years?

Read the full piece here.

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