Universal Basic Income is Probably Not the Future of Welfare

If for no other reason, universal basic income — that is, the idea to replace the current means-tested welfare system with regular, unconditional cash payments to every citizen — is remarkable for the eclectic support it receives. The coalition for universal basic income (UBI) includes libertarians, progressives, a growing chorus of Luddites, and others still who believe a scarcity-free world is just around the corner. Based on its popularity and the growing concerns of coming economic upheaval and inequality, it’s tempting to believe the centuries-old idea is a policy whose time has finally come.

Personally, I’m not sold. There are several obstacles to establishing a meaningful universal basic income that would, in my mind, be nearly impossible to overcome as things stand now.

For one, the numbers are pretty tough to reconcile.

According to 2017 federal guidelines, the poverty level for a single-person household is about $12,000 per year. Let’s assume we’re intent on paying each American $1,000 per month in order to bring them to that level of income.

Distributing that much money to all 320 million Americans would cost $3.84 trillion, approximately the entire 2015 federal budget and far greater than the $3.18 trillion of tax revenue the federal government collected in the same year. Even if we immediately eliminated all other entitlement payments, as libertarians tend to imagine, such a program would still require the federal government to increase its income by $1.3 trillion to resist increasing the debt any further.

Speaking of eliminating those entitlement programs, hopes of doing so are probably far-fetched without a massive increase in taxation. A $1,000 monthly payment to every American — which again, would consume the entire federal budget — would require a lot of people currently benefiting from government transfers to take a painful cut. For example, the average monthly social security check is a little over $1,300. Are we really going to create a program that cuts benefits for the poor and spends a lot of money on the middle class and affluent?

In spite of the overwhelming total cost of such a program, its per capita impact would be pretty small, since all the cash would be disbursed over a much greater population than current entitlements. For this reason, its merit as an anti-poverty program would be questionable at best.

Yes, you can fiddle with the disbursement amounts and exclude segments of the population — dropping minors from the dole would reduce the cost to around $2.96 trillion — to make the numbers work a little better, but the more you do that the less universal and basic it becomes, and the more it starts to look like a modest supplement to our existing welfare programs.

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Universal basic income’s problems go beyond the budget. If a UBI was somehow passed (which would likely require our notoriously tax-averse nation to OK trillions of additional dollars of government spending), it would set us up for a slew of contentious policy battles in the future.

Entitlement reform, already a major preoccupation for many, would become a more pressing concern in the event that a UBI of any significant size were implemented. Mandatory spending would increase as more people draw benefits for more years and continue to live longer. Like the entitlements it may or may not replace, universal basic income would probably be extremely difficult to reform in the future.

Then there’s the matter of immigration. If you think reaching consensus on immigration policy is difficult in the age of President Trump, imagine how it would look once we began offering each American a guaranteed income large enough to offer them an alternative to paid work. Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle estimates that establishing a such a program would require the United States to “shut down immigration, or at least immigration from lower-skilled countries,” thereby leading to an increase in global poverty.

There’s also the social aspect to consider. I don’t want to get into it too much because everybody’s view of what makes people tick is different. But it seems to me that collecting money from the government doesn’t make people especially happy or fulfilled.

The point is, part of what makes universal basic income appear realistic is the political coalition backing it. But libertarians, progressives, and the rest of the groups superficially united behind this idea have very different opinions about how it would operate and very different motivations for its implementation. When you press the issue and really think through the consequences, the united front for universal basic income begins to crack.

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Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty about universal basic income that appeals to this author’s libertarian sensibilities. I think there’s a strong argument for reforming the welfare system in a way that renders it more similar to a basic income scheme, namely replacing in-kind payments and some subsidies with direct cash transfers. Doing so would, as advocates of UBI claim, promote the utility of the money transferred and reduce government paternalism, both goals which I find laudable.

I should also note that not all UBI programs are created equal. Universal basic income has become something of a catch-all term used to describe policies that are quite different from each other. The negative income tax plan Sam Bowman describes on the Adam Smith Institute’s website is much more realistic and well-thought-out than a system that gives a flat amount to each citizen. That it is neither unconditional nor given equally are its two greatest strengths.

However, the issues of cost and dispersion, both consequences of UBI’s defining characteristics, seem to me insurmountable. Unless the United States becomes dramatically wealthier, I don’t see us being able to afford to pay any significant amount of money to all or most people. We would need to replace a huge amount of human labor with automation before this plan can start to look even a little realistic. Even if that does happen, and I’m not sure that it will anytime soon, I think there are better things we could do with the money.

This article originally appeared on Merion West.

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No, the Interest on Your Student Loan Isn’t Too High. In fact…

It seems like more often than not I’m opening these blog posts with an apology for a multi-week hiatus. Since nobody’s emailed to check on my well-being, I can only infer my readership has gotten on fine without my wonk-Jr. takes on public policy and other matters of high import. Fair enough; but don’t think your demonstrated lack of interest will spare you from a quick update.

Actually, it’s all good news: I’ve been having fun learning R (a statistical language), looking for a new apartment, and testing the limits of a 27-year-old liver. I saw Chance the Rapper and a Pirates game in Pittsburgh, which was awesome. The last article I wrote had some real success and was republished in several places, even earning a shout-out from John Stossel:

The big update is that my stint as a (purely) freelance writer has mercifully drawn to a close; I now write for a non-partisan public policy group. In fact, this very blog was one of my strongest selling points, according to my manager. It just goes to show you, kids: if you toil in anonymity for two years, eventually something will go your way.

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Okay, enough about me. Let’s talk about a topic close to the heart of many millennials: student loans. More specifically, I want to talk about the interest rates charged on undergraduate student loans.

That interest rates are too high is, unsurprisingly, a common gripe among borrowers. If I had a nickle for every twenty-something I’ve overheard complain that the federal government shouldn’t profit off student loans…well, it still wouldn’t cover one month’s interest. However, this sentiment isn’t limited to overqualified baristas; popular politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders–and even unpopular politicians–have publicly called for loans to be refinanced at lower rates and decried the “profiteering” of the federal government. From Bernie Sanders’ website:

Over the next decade, it has been estimated that the federal government will make a profit of over $110 billion on student loan programs. This is morally wrong and it is bad economics. Sen. Sanders will fight to prevent the federal government from profiteering on the backs of college students and use this money instead to significantly lower student loan interest rates.

Under the Sanders plan, the formula for setting student loan interest rates would go back to where it was in 2006. If this plan were in effect today, interest rates on undergraduate loans would drop from 4.29% to just 2.37%.

It makes no sense that you can get an auto loan today with an interest rate of 2.5%, but millions of college graduates are forced to pay interest rates of 5-7% or more for decades. Under the Sanders plan, Americans would be able to refinance their student loans at today’s low interest rates.

As one of those debt-saddled graduates, and one of the chumps who took loans at a higher rate of interest, I would obviously be amenable to handing over less of my hard-earned money to the federal government. But as a person concerned with the larger picture, I have to say this is a really bad idea. In fact, rates should be higher, not lower.

First of all, the progressive case for loan refinancing or forgiveness only holds up under the lowest level of scrutiny. Such a policy would overwhelmingly benefit borrowers from wealthy families, who hold the majority of student loan debt. Conversely, most defaulters hold relatively small amounts of debt. Fiddling with interest rates shouldn’t be confused with programs that target low-income students, like the Pell Grant, which are another matter entirely and not the subject of my criticism.

More to the point, the federal government probably isn’t making any money on student loans. Contrary to the claims of Senators Warren and Sanders, which rely on estimates from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and put federal profit on student loans at $135 billion from 2015-2024, the Congressional Box Office (CBO), using fair-value estimation, shows student loans costing the federal government $88 billion over the same period.

The discrepancy between the CBO and GAO figures comes from the former’s inclusion of macroeconomic forecasts. Essentially, the CBO thinks the risk of default on student loans is higher than the GAO does, due to forces beyond individuals’ control.

Evidence suggests it’s unwise to underestimate the risk associated with student loans. According to a study by the liberal think tank Demos, nearly 40% of federal student loan borrowers are in default or more than 90 days delinquent. Add to that the fact that student loans are unsecured (not backed by collateral or repossessable assets, like a car or house), and they start to look like an incredibly risky venture for the federal government, and ultimately, taxpayers.

That conclusion is deeply unpleasant, but not really surprising if you think about it. Ever notice how the interest rates on private student loans–approximately 10% of the market–are much higher? That’s not because private lenders are greedy; it’s because they can’t lend at the rate of the federal government without losing money.

This is all important because the money that finances student loans has to come from somewhere. Be it infrastructure upgrades, federal support for primary education, or Shrimp Fight Club, the money spent on student loans isn’t available for competing priorities. This is even more important when you consider the loss the federal government is taking on these loans, the cost of which is passed onto future taxpayers in the form of higher taxes or lower spending. Since higher education is only one among infinite human desires, we need to decide how much of our finite resources to devote to it. Properly set interest rates are one way (probably the best way) to figure that out.

The irony, of course, is that doing so would require the government to act more like a private lender–the very thing it’s designed not to do! Our student loan system ensures virtually anyone who wants to study has the money to do so, regardless of the likelihood they’ll be able to repay. One of the nasty side effects of this indiscriminate lending is a large amount of distressed borrowers, who now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of digging out from under a mountain of debt they likely shouldn’t have been able to take on.

More so than other forms of government spending, student loans have specific, discernible beneficiaries: the students who get an expensive education financed by the taxpayer at below-market rates. Sure, you can argue there’s some spillover; society does benefit from having more highly-trained workers. But most of the time, highly skilled labor is rewarded with higher wages. That being the case, is it really too much to ask for borrowers to pay a level of interest that reflects the actual cost of issuing their loans?

Yes, this would be discouraging for some: particularly those who want to pursue non-remunerative fields of study. That’s not such a bad thing; higher interest rates would steer people away from obtaining degrees with low salary expectations, which would–by my reckoning–reduce rates of delinquency and default over the long term. They would also help mitigate some of the pain of defaults when they do happen.

But–you might protest–you can’t run the government like a business! And sure, a lot of the time, you’d be right. However, I really think this is one area where doing so is appropriate–even desirable. Hear me out.

When the government can fund itself through profitable investments rather than zero-sum transfers, it should. If we’re going to have a government of any size (and few suggest that we shouldn’t), then we need to pay for it. Which sounds like the preferable way for that to happen: voluntary, productive, and mutually beneficial investments in society; or the forceful appropriation of private resources? I’m not suggesting the former could entirely replace the latter, but when it can, I think it absolutely should.

Astute readers will realize if the government decides to lend profitably, it will have to compete with private lenders, which would cut into its margins and make its presence in the market redundant. So maybe it’s just a pipe dream. But if profitable lending isn’t possible, the federal government should at least try to minimize losses. One way or another, that means higher interest rates.