What can be (un)done?

Okay, bear with me on this (or skip the math examples and shoot down to the break).

Say you want to add the following fractions: 2/3x + 5/y. Doing so is no great difficulty, as any high school student can attest. Multiply the top and bottom of each fraction by the other’s denominator, ensuring they have a common term. Then you can add the numerators. That looks like this:

2/3x + 5/y = 2y/3xy + 15x/3xy = (2y + 15x)/3xy

However, if I’d given you the end result and asked you to reverse engineer the original expression, that would be quite a bit harder. (If you don’t believe me, try to rewrite (8x + 7)/(x2 + 3x + 2) as the sum of two fractions with constants in the numerator.) To do so, you have to use a process called “partial fraction decomposition,” which I bet few high school students or adults are familiar with.

Consider another example. Let’s say we have a function f such that f(x) = 5x2 + 3x + 10, and we want to take its derivative. To do so, decrement each exponent by one and multiply the coefficient of each term by the original exponent:

f'(x) = (2*5)x2-1 + (3*1)x1-1 +(10*0)x0-1 = 10x + 3

Once again, however, if I ask you to do the reverse—to find the anti-derivative of 10x + 3—it’s a different story. You have to undo the same process: divide each coefficient by 1 + the current power of each term of x (in this case, respectively 1 and 0) and reintegrate an x into each term. If you do that, you get this:

10x +3 = (10/2)x1+1 + (3/1)x0+1 = 5x2 +3x + C

But this isn’t what we started with: our original equation was 5x2 + 3x + 10! When we took its derivative, we ended up multiplying the 10 by 0 (because 10 can be written in terms of x as 10x0). In doing so, we irrevocably destroyed the information that would give us the final term of the quadratic. We know it’s something, so we write it as C per convention.

This post isn’t actually about math. I think there’s a worthwhile sociological metaphor to be had: in both cases above, it’s easier to go forward than backward, and in the second example, it’s actually impossible to completely return. There is a strain of thought that major public policy decisions should be taken with little hesitation because “if it doesn’t work, we can always try something else.”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

In a particularly inspired Slate Star Codex blog post, Scott Alexander offhandedly rejects the common characterization of the body as a well oiled machine. Instead, he likens it to a careful balancing act that could easily be thrown off kilter.

People always talk about the body as a beautiful well-oiled machine. But sometimes the body communicates with itself by messages written with radioactive ink on asbestos-laced paper, in the hopes that it’s killing itself slightly more slowly than it’s killing anyone who tries to send it fake messages. Honestly it is a miracle anybody manages to stay alive at all.

Scott Alexander, Maybe Your Zoloft Stopped Working Because A Liver Fluke Tried To Turn Your Nth-Great-Grandmother Into A Zombie

I’d argue that what’s true for the organism is true for the super-organism. Complex society is basically a miracle. The stars have to align for it to form, and it can degrade with comparative ease. When we alter it, there’s no guarantee that going back to the status quo is easy or even possible. Sometimes information may be lost permanently in the transition, while unintended consequences can linger for decades.

The decline of marriage rates among low-income households is a great example. The advent of means-tested welfare programs in the 1960s is widely thought to have dissuaded many lower-income women from marriage through the effective imposition of high marginal tax rates.1 (Their benefits would decrease faster than household income would increase if they married, so it made economic sense not to marry.) This has had all kinds of nasty second-order effects,2 which is why welfare reform in the 1990s explicitly attempted to counteract this unintended consequence—but largely to no avail.

Post-industrial America offers another example. The fortunes of former manufacturing towns in the northeast and mid-west have been almost uniformly bleak since de-industrialization. (If you haven’t yet, seriously, read Sam Quiñones’s DREAMLAND.) There have been and continue to be efforts to reverse this downward trajectory: innumerable economic development programs, paid relocation programs, home-buyer subsidies, corporate tax incentives. But no amount of grant funding or wealth transfers alone can replicate the conditions that created prosperity in those areas. The money was only one part of the equation.

As frustration with the societal status quo increases, people will become more pro-action biased. I don’t necessarily think this is bad—it could be great! But it would be a mistake to proceed without caution where sociological elements are concerned. Introducing a universal basic income, for example, could change… a lot. And there’s no guarantee we could ever go back.

  1. This isn’t the only hypothesis put forth, nor are explanations for this phenomenon necessarily mutually exclusive. Pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad makes the case that the collapse in men’s wages (also) played an important role.
  2. The consequences of the decline of marriage have different valence depending on who’s doing the analysis. There are plenty reasonable-enough takes on why the decline of marriage is good. I think the most reasonable analysis is that it’s a mixed bag generally, but for lower social classes, the results have been less ambiguously destructive. Having been raised in a rather unstable cohabitating household, I’m personally rather attuned to the drawbacks, but that’s just me.

Human Mobility is Key to Fighting Poverty

Some sixty years into the “war on poverty,” government welfare programs remain the subject of much scrutiny. As the Trump administration unveils a new tax plan, fresh off numerous attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, perennial questions about whether the government is doing enough to reduce poverty have resurfaced.

This debate often focuses almost exclusively on poor Americans, and solutions mostly center around the redistribution of resources via government transfers. On many levels, this makes sense; on the first count, non-Americans don’t vote, and politicians tend not to pay much attention to groups that cannot help them win elections. Secondly, the government’s ability to act on poverty is somewhat limited — it can try to create policies that facilitate wealth, but it cannot actually produce wealth on its own. Spreading around some of the surplus is therefore an attractive option.

But from a utilitarian and humanitarian perspective, this debate represents a missed opportunity. Limiting the conversation to wealth transfers within an already wealthy nation encourages inefficient solutions at the expense of ideas that might do a lot more good for a lot more people: namely, freeing those people, who are not at maximum productivity, to pursue opportunity.

Between the EITC, TANF, SNAP, SSI, Medicaid, and other programs, the United States spent over $700 billion at the federal level in the name of alleviating poverty in 2015. A 2014 census report estimates that Social Security payments alone reduced the number of poor Americans by nearly 27 million the previous year. Whatever your stance on the long-run effects of welfare programs, it’s safe to say that in the short term, government transfers provide substantial material benefits to recipients.

Yet if the virtue of welfare programs is their ability to improve living standards for the needy, their value pales in comparison to the potential held by labor relocation.

Political boundaries are funny things. By crossing them, workers moving from poor to rich nations can increase their productivity dramatically. That’s not necessarily because they can make more products or offer better services — although that is sometimes the case as well — but rather because what they produce is more economically valuable. This is what economists refer to as the “place premium,” and it’s partly created by differences in opportunity costs between consumers in each location.

Median wages of foreign-born US workers from 42 developing countries are shown to be 4.1 times higher than those of their observably identical counterparts in their country of origin. Some enthusiasts even speculate that the elimination of immigration restrictions alone could double global GDP. The place premium effect can be powerful enough to make low-skilled positions in rich countries economically preferable to high-skill immigrants from poor nations.

We have a lot of inequality in the United States, and that often masks the fact that we have very little absolute poverty. Even someone who is poor by American standards (an annual pre-transfer income of about $12,000 or less for a single-person household) can have an income that exceeds that of the global median household. Even with relatively generous government transfers, we probably would not increase their incomes by more than triple.

On the other hand, because they start with lower incomes, this same effect allows low-earning immigrants to proportionally increase their standard of living in a way that can’t be matched by redistribution within a relatively wealthy population. For example, the average hourly wage in the US manufacturing sector is slightly over $20; in Mexico, it’s around $2.30. Assuming a manufacturer from Mexico could find a similar position in the United States, their income would increase by around 900%. To provide the same proportional benefit to a severely poor American — defined as a person or household with an income under half the poverty threshold — could cost up to $54,000.

What’s true across national borders is true within them. Americans living in economically desolate locations could improve their prospects by relocating to more prosperous and opportune areas. Indeed, this is exactly what’s been happening for decades. The percentage of Americans living in cities has increased steadily, going from 45% in 1910 to nearly 81% by 2010. Nor is relocation exclusively a long-term solution. During oil rushes in Alaska and North Dakota, populations within the two states exploded as people flocked to economic activity.

Recently, however, rates of migration have been dwindling. Admittedly, there are fewer barriers to intra-national migration than immigration. But there are still things we might do to make it easier for people to move where the money is.

One obvious solution would be to encourage local governments to cut back on zoning regulations that make building new housing stock less affordable. Zoning laws contribute heavily to the rising costs of living in the most expensive cities, leading to the displacement of poorer residents and the sequestration of opportunity. As with immigration, this poses a bit of a political problem — it requires politicians to prioritize the interests of the people who would live in a city over those of the people who currently live there — the ones who vote in local elections.

Relatedly, we might consider revising our approach to the mortgage interest deduction and other incentives for homeownership. While the conventional wisdom is that homeownership is almost always desirable because it allows the buyer to build equity on an appreciable asset, some studies have found a strong positive correlation between levels of homeownership and unemployment. The upshot is that tying up most of one’s money in a home reduces the ability and desire to move for employment, leading to unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Whether or not to buy a home is the buyer’s decision, but these data cast doubt on the idea that the government should subsidize such behavior.

If the goal of policy is to promote human well being, then increasing mobility should be a priority for policy makers. As a species, as nations, as communities, and as individuals, we should strive for a more productive world. Allowing people the opportunity to relocate in the name of increasing their output is a near-free lunch in this regard.

But while the economic dream of frictionless markets is a beautiful one, we live in a world complicated by politics. It’s unrealistic to expect politicians to set aside the concerns of their constituents for the greater good. I will therefore stop short of asking for open borders, the abolition of zoning laws, or the removal of the mortgage interest deduction. Instead, I offer the humbler suggestion that we exercise restraint in such measures, striving to remove and lessen barriers to mobility whenever possible. The result will be a freer, more equal, and wealthier world.

This article originally appeared on Merion West

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.


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.


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.