Universal basic income and why it won't happen in the United States.

Apr 23, 2015

A meme that some of my transhumanist and technoprogressive colleagues have been bandying around for the past half year or so is that of a universal basic income, or at least a negative income tax. The scenario goes something like this:

Greater automation in the workplace due to the ever-greater proliferation of computers and deployment of sophisticated software means that companies have to hire and pay fewer people to do work for them. Sources of gainful employment are not assured these days (even for, say, certified Oracle admins being out of work for four or five years at a time, formerly worth their weight in platinum) so there is a very good chance that someone who's been laid off or simply cannot find work might be unemployed for several years at a stretch. The rate of advancement of automation isn't going to stop anytime soon but the number of people without jobs is going to climb, so why not make an attempt to assist them? This assistance would take the form of a guaranteed basic universal income, and would consist of everyone receiving enough money, unconditionally every year to live a comfortable life. Nobody would need to worry about paying rent, covering groceries, or paying for medical care. Folks who were in trouble wouldn't have to worry anymore (more realistically, they'd have to worry less), and everybody else would have a nice nest egg that they could put away for retirement or whatever. If you chose not to work and wanted to follow your True Will doing something like painting, writing music or becoming a gonzo citizen journalist you could do that, too, and probably make the world a more interesting place in so doing (again, without having to worry overmuch about keeping the lights on and a roof over your head).

The text that follows is why I think this will never going to happen in the United States.

Ultimately, he dominant meme in the United States of America is the Protestant work ethic, which states that working very hard, working as efficiently as possible, and living a thrifty life is good and proper and what you should do. For those who profess a Calvinist faith, this determines (in part) how blessed one is or is not. For everybody else, the kind of person you are is predicated on how much money you make and how much you own, which is believed to be a function of how hard you work. Spend two days walking around in our culture, absorbing our mass media (which tells us how to be USians), observing how we interact with one another and what we do with ourselves, and you will likely come to the same conclusion.

If you don't make a whole lot of money your worth as an individual is considered less than someone who does. People who make lots of money (for some definition of 'make') most certainly have a higher social standing. In the US, there is a very strong culture of "us" and "them" (substitute "versus" for "and" where appropriate) and this includes perceived social standing of one's peers. The bit about finding your calling in life really only matters if it brings in income; finding your true calling as a brain surgeon or corporate lawyer will win you kudos, free drinks, and backslaps at family reunions in exactly the same way that having a natural gift for painting or writing horror fiction will not. If this wasn't the case our culture would value its artists just as highly as its bankers and stock brokers and movie stars. Instead, they're looked down upon as failures, hopelessly eccentric or "special cases of the poor" that need handouts from the community just to support themselves. Funnily enough that was once considered a special thing but times have changed. If how much money you made wasn't used as a barometer of the kind of person you were there would be no stigma to needing food stamps or any sort of public assistance to get basic nutritional needs met. For that matter, I doubt that it would be so difficult to get on and stay on public assistance. Welfare is not a free ride, it's more of a tightrope act that, if you make it all the way across it can help families get out of poverty but one misstep can bring the whole thing crashing down. Stories of welfare queens, or people who got filthy rich by gaming the welfare system have been a common justification for slashing funding to public assistance for decades as well as further entrenching the idea that the kind of person you are and how much money you make are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is pretty much a hoax - one person named Linda Taylor in the 1970's was the seed of a pervasive propaganda effort that way too many swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Now too many people equate being on welfare with making so much money that it's worth it to not have a job which means that many feel perfectly justified in not helping their fellow sapient. What isn't a hoax is vendor fraud when companies and proprietors that accept welfare for payment finding ways to game the welfare system, but that's a separate post in and of itself.

The United States as a culture does not consider poverty to be anything other than a character flaw. It is not uncommon for people who are on public assistance to be characterized as lazy, cheating the system, or unwilling to get jobs. It doesn't allow for bad things happening to someone beyond their control, like a catastrophic illness or an accident resulting in bankruptcy. It doesn't permit medical or psychological trauma making it difficult for someone to hold down a job, including veterans who were unable to meet discharge requirements until they were unable to serve their country any longer. It certainly doesn't allow for other factors impacting people when least expected, like an entire economy coming apart. It doesn't allow for random chance or bad luck, car crashes, fines, or tax burdens. In point of fact, filing for bankruptcy, which is supposed to help people figure out how to pay off their debts by building payment plans or liquidating assets is now significantly more difficult to do these days, meaning that individuals and families are less able to get the time they need (or even the money they need to set up the paperwork - lawyers are expensive) to restructure their finances.

Living where I do and talking to people about the idea of a universal basic income, many people who are arguably best equipped to force the changes to make such a thing to happen are the least likely to do so. Many already cry "Socialism!" on cue like trained seals barking in a ring because they immediately leap to the conclusion that it's their money that would be used to accomplish such a thing (try it some time, you can calibrate a stopwatch with it). You'd think there were hit squads waiting for the go-code to hit the streets to start shaking each and every one of them down (there are, but they're SWAT teams and they're more concerned about people of color protesting than they are a bunch of fairly wealthy people). Giving out free money in the United States (unless it subsidizes companies (case studies here)) goes over as well as bringing pork chops to a bar mitzvah. Not that there wouldn't be money for it if it wasn't made a priority. If you look at the yearly spending breakdowns (for example, here's the one for 2014.ev) you will see that, out of $3.5 trillion US dollars 52% of that ($1.8 trillion dollars ($1,800,000,000,000)) goes to health care and pensions for US citizens (and if you have a problem with that, try telling your parents and grandparents that their Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security make them parasites... heh heh heh...) and another $0.8 trillion US dollars ($800,000,000,000us) goes to the military and defense. The National Intelligence Program fits in there somewhere, probably not in the defense budget as laid out but I don't actually know. So, consider that $495 billion-US dollars-and-some a footnote. Middling little things like education and NASA aren't even visible unless you hunt for them with a microscope.

It wouldn't take that much depending on how you did it. If every US citizen recieved a basic universal income of $2,200us every month it would take about $175 billion US dollars which could be reallocated from the ever-growing defense budget without even touching the National Intelligence Program (there, NSA, are you happy?). Just giving every person at or below the poverty line $15kus every year would cut the numbers of people on unemployment, welfare, and Social Security, and in so doing would save $150 billion dollars every year. Make it $2900us per person per month and the program would run the US budget somewhere around $910 billion US dollars (adjusted upward a little bit to bring it into the 2014 ballpark) but that would still be less than the cost of welfare and unemployment and save money in the long run. For those of us who don't sleep well at night knowing that our tax dollars go to killing people, I think I speak for at least some of us when I say that seeing our tax dollars going to help more people would be a worthwhile thing.

For everybody frothing at the mouth as they read this post, don't fret, it won't happen. There will still be modern day debtors' prisons and being poor will continue to be a crime.