Would a Universal Basic Income Strengthen or Shred the Social Safety Net?

Debating the merits—and dangers—of instituting a universal basic income in the U.S.

Micah UetrichtJune 10, 2016

This is the first in a new series, Up for Debate, in which experts debate some of the most impor­tant issues with­in the Left today.

HERE’S A NOV­EL IDEA FOR HOW TO END POVER­TY: GIVE EVERY­ONE MORE MON­EY. That might sound like a fan­ta­sy, but sup­port for a uni­ver­sal basic income (UBI) is gain­ing steam. It’s been debat­ed every­where from pol­i­cy jour­nals to Viceand the New York Times, and it’s on the bal­lot or in pilot pro­grams in sev­er­al Euro­pean countries.

The basic con­cept is sim­ple: The gov­ern­ment doles out a mod­est amount of cash that estab­lish­es an income floor for every­one, whether or not they’re work­ing. The details beyond that can vary. A basic income can be dis­trib­uted to every­one regard­less of how much they make (the uni­ver­sal” piece), or it can be giv­en only to those whose income falls below a cer­tain threshold.

One’s gut reac­tion to this pro­pos­al might be sus­pi­cion — if some­thing sounds too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is, right? Indeed, pro­pos­als for a UBI are some­times prof­fered as part of an aus­ter­i­ty agen­da. Some on the lib­er­tar­i­an Right see the mea­sure as a con­ve­nient way to gut wel­fare and shrink the state, leav­ing UBI recip­i­ents with the free­dom” to spend their check how they like, but lit­tle else in the way of pub­lic assis­tance. In 1969, the idea was float­ed by none oth­er than Richard Nixon as a replace­ment for Aid to Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Children.

But the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of UBI also holds enor­mous poten­tial for pro­gres­sives. Many on the Left see it as a way to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce pover­ty and help free peo­ple from crap­py, low-pay­ing jobs — not to replace oth­er social wel­fare spend­ing, but to add to it.

UBI is not mere­ly hypo­thet­i­cal; it already exists in some forms. The state of Alas­ka already has a pro­gram sim­i­lar to a UBI, in the form of a fund that pays div­i­dends from state oil rev­enues to all Alaskan cit­i­zens. (In 2015, every Alaskan who wasn’t a con­vict­ed or impris­oned felon and had lived in the state for at least one full cal­en­dar year received a check for a cool $2,072.) And a new, pri­vate­ly-fund­ed pilot pro­gram in Oak­land — the first in the U.S. since the 1970s — was recent­ly announced.

The pro­pos­al has gained even more momen­tum abroad. Fin­land is con­duct­ing a UBI pilot project in which some cit­i­zens will receive €800 a month this year, in exchange for the elim­i­na­tion of most of its wel­fare ser­vices. Brazil has been debat­ing UBI since the 1980s, and the social demo­c­ra­t­ic Work­ers Par­ty insti­tut­ed the Bol­sa Famil­iar,” which gives direct cash trans­fers to the poor while also man­dat­ing increased edu­ca­tion, in 2003.

Is now the right time to push for a UBI? And what should it look like? We posed these ques­tions to Shan­non Ikebe, a Ph.D. stu­dent in soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley who stud­ies social democ­ra­cy and labor move­ments in Europe, and Jesse Myer­son, a left­ist activist in New York City who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about UBI.

Shan­non: The rise of seri­ous eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion about UBI in recent years presents a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Left. That dis­cus­sion offers us a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to pos­i­tive­ly artic­u­late the kind of soci­ety we want, rather than play­ing defense against neolib­er­al­ism and aus­ter­i­ty. The best kind of UBI would be set at a lev­el high enough to pro­vide a liv­able income with­out wage labor. That could empow­er us to work less, win bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions or even stop wage labor altogether.

But free­dom from what Karl Marx called the dull com­pul­sion of eco­nom­ic rela­tions” is not an easy one to achieve. Basic income below the liv­able lev­el, as is the case with many UBI pro­pos­als on the table in var­i­ous coun­tries now, does not have that cru­cial eman­ci­pa­to­ry effect. And it is unclear whether a UBI would be bet­ter than demand­ing the expan­sion of free, high-qual­i­ty social ser­vices — espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that the imple­men­ta­tion of a basic income could even be used to jus­ti­fy cuts on the oth­er parts of the wel­fare state, as con­ser­v­a­tive pro­po­nents of basic income advocate.

It is not sim­ply a mat­ter of mak­ing sure that we advo­cate for the bet­ter kinds of basic income and oppose worse ones. With a weak work­ing class, the most like­ly form of basic income to be imple­ment­ed is a regres­sive one, regard­less of the intent of left­ist sup­port for UBI.

Leg­isla­tive or ref­er­en­dum vic­to­ry for basic income on its own is unlike­ly to ward off a dis­tort­ed imple­men­ta­tion. If basic income is effec­tive enough to rad­i­cal­ly shift the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and employ­ers, cap­i­tal­ists would move to mod­i­fy it in their favor. As his­to­ri­an Ellen Meiksins Wood has demon­strat­ed, the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism is people’s depen­dence on the mar­ket for their liveli­hood, upon which capital’s abil­i­ty to exploit work­ers and make a prof­it depends. There­fore, basic income at the liv­able lev­el should be con­sid­ered as part of the larg­er eman­ci­pa­to­ry polit­i­cal vision of from each accord­ing to his abil­i­ties, to each accord­ing to his needs,” rather than a sin­gle-issue cam­paign. Its real­iza­tion — or even small steps towards it — is impos­si­ble with­out mas­sive and sus­tained mobi­liza­tions by the 99%.

Jesse: I’m glad Shan­non men­tioned Ellen Meiksins Wood’s eco­nom­ic frame­work. She not­ed that, in its ear­li­est stages, cap­i­tal­ism required cut­ting off peas­ants from their means of sub­sis­tence: land. The mass­es were then forced to sub­mit to the job market’s imper­a­tives to earn a liv­ing — above all, the imper­a­tive to com­pete. This gives cap­i­tal­ism its laws of motion”: Cap­i­tal­ism can and must … con­stant­ly impose its imper­a­tives on new ter­ri­to­ries and new spheres of life.” The pri­ma­ry social­ist goal, then, must be to pro­vide an exit from the job mar­ket. A UBI can help do that.

Shan­non doubts that a UBI alone is up to the task. Pavli­na Tch­erne­va, an econ­o­mist at Bard Col­lege, describes her­self as sym­pa­thet­ic to the moti­va­tion behind a pure” basic income, but con­cerned that it sab­o­tages itself macro­eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Imag­ine mil­lions of peo­ple drop­ping out of the labor force (thus deplet­ing sup­ply) just as mil­lions of peo­ple join the con­sumer base (thus increas­ing demand): Prices would ascend, mean­ing the basic income would no longer pur­chase the load of goods and ser­vices it was intend­ed to.

A job guar­an­tee, Tch­erne­va says, can pro­vide uni­ver­sal mate­r­i­al secu­ri­ty with­out threat­en­ing hyper­in­fla­tion by grow­ing in a down­turn, when infla­tion is extreme­ly unlike­ly, and shrink­ing in an upswing, when infla­tion is like­li­er, and by main­tain­ing a base wage not com­pet­i­tive with the pri­vate sec­tor. A job guar­an­tee would pro­vide its own mech­a­nism for lim­it­ing infla­tion — unlike a basic income.

But we shouldn’t allow our wor­ries about broad­er pol­i­cy changes to par­a­lyze us from push­ing for a UBI now. Win­ning a UBI at a low­er-than-sub­sis­tence lev­el wouldn’t be as bad as Shan­non sug­gests. Pol­i­cy blog­ger Matt Bru­enig points out that a $3,000 basic annu­al income could cut the U.S. pover­ty rate in half. All told, that would require an expen­di­ture of $930 bil­lion, or rough­ly 5.7 per­cent of GDP. As long as this pro­gram did not lead direct­ly to an ero­sion of the exist­ing wel­fare state — the con­ser­v­a­tive pro­pos­al that Shan­non men­tions — such a par­tial” UBI pro­gram alone should still serve to tight­en labor mar­kets, reduce depen­den­cy on mar­ket income and enhance leisure. In oth­er words, it would do a great deal to expand free­dom and dig­ni­ty for U.S. workers.

I favor an approach to Wood’s conun­drum that pairs a job guar­an­tee with a basic income (and, of course, a whole suite of expand­ed social wel­fare poli­cies). But now is the time for us to push for a UBI, even if oth­er social wel­fare poli­cies are cur­rent­ly out of reach.

Shan­non: A $3,000 basic income for all, with­out reduc­tion of the exist­ing wel­fare state, on its own would be a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment. Basic income, com­bined with a jobs guar­an­tee, would clear­ly be a qual­i­ta­tive leap toward a bet­ter soci­ety. But pol­i­cy pro­pos­als do not oper­ate in a vac­u­um. The key ques­tion is how a cer­tain pro­pos­al would devel­op in a giv­en polit­i­cal context.

In that light, basic income car­ries a risk that is not applic­a­ble to oth­er demands for expan­sive social pol­i­cy: It can very eas­i­ly be used as the basis to reduce the exist­ing wel­fare state. While no ambi­tious social pol­i­cy demand can avoid the risk of get­ting financed at the expense of oth­er wor­thy pro­grams, basic income is dis­tinc­tive in the sense that its very enac­tion can be seen to reduce the need for oth­er pro­grams. This is not the case with, for exam­ple, free high­er edu­ca­tion, child­care or healthcare.

Indeed, there are numer­ous neolib­er­als, from the late econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man to right-wing pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al Charles Mur­ray, who advo­cate for basic income pre­cise­ly for these rea­sons. Enact­ing a UBI that is palat­able to such right-wingers would be terrible.

Kath­leen Wynne, the Lib­er­al Pre­mier of Ontario, Cana­da, is a pro­po­nent of one of the like­li­est basic income schemes today. She is no Fried­man­ite. But cen­trists like her are fram­ing UBI as a real­lo­ca­tion of exist­ing wel­fare spend­ing rather than its expan­sion. She may be right that basic income is still an improve­ment on the dis­mal sta­tus quo of the lib­er­al wel­fare state — the uni­ver­sal” piece of a uni­ver­sal income makes it more polit­i­cal­ly secure and less stig­ma­tiz­ing than means-test­ed” mea­sures like wel­fare for poor peo­ple. But every­thing depends on the exact ver­sion that gets imple­ment­ed, and that depends on the out­come of polit­i­cal struggle.

In most parts of the world today — per­haps espe­cial­ly in the Unit­ed States — the Left is prob­a­bly not strong enough to steer a UBI in the eman­ci­pa­to­ry, rather than the neolib­er­al direc­tion. It could there­fore be bet­ter con­ceived as a longer-term goal, whose vic­to­ry should be pushed for when the sub­or­di­nat­ed class­es are much stronger and bet­ter orga­nized than they are now. In the mean­time, the demand for short­er work­ing hours would strength­en such capac­i­ties and deal with unem­ploy­ment at the same time.

The Swiss cam­paign­ers for basic income at the liv­able lev­el have run a fan­tas­tic cam­paign. Their ques­tion of what would you do if your income were tak­en care of?” helps us bold­ly imag­ine what our lives could be like in an alter­na­tive soci­ety. But the ques­tion also miss­es that cap­i­tal­ism is the main bar­ri­er to a soci­ety free from such wor­ries. Address­ing the pol­i­tics of con­sump­tion with­out the pol­i­tics of pro­duc­tion is not a promis­ing strat­e­gy, because what is to be con­sumed must be pro­duced first. I hope that we will some­day win basic income at the liv­able lev­el, as part of the post-cap­i­tal­ist future. But there are sim­ply no short­cuts to emancipation.

Jesse: Shan­non is right that the great­est hope we have of ensur­ing that a social­ist ver­sion of a UBI, rather than its lib­er­tar­i­an con­tender, even­tu­al­ly becomes pol­i­cy will be the orga­ni­za­tion, mil­i­tan­cy and polit­i­cal pow­er of the work­ing class. We also agree that the Left is not strong enough at the moment to win that bat­tle. How­ev­er, when he says that we should there­fore sub­or­di­nate a UBI in our demands until the time is right, he los­es me.

This line of argu­men­ta­tion is a less-egre­gious cousin to Hillary Clinton’s crit­i­cism of Bernie Sanders’ advo­ca­cy for sin­gle pay­er health­care, which holds that if the gov­ern­ment isn’t good enough to pass a good agen­da, the solu­tion isn’t to improve the gov­ern­ment but to wors­en the agen­da. Obvi­ous­ly, Shan­non is not against improv­ing the gov­ern­ment, but his cri­tique resem­bles Clinton’s in miss­ing the impor­tance of aim­ing high.

Pre­ma­ture demands are use­ful for coa­lesc­ing a polit­i­cal con­stituen­cy around a cogent vision. Focus­ing only on the next incre­ment, rather than sev­er­al steps down the road, rais­es the ques­tion: An incre­ment toward what?” By con­trast, demand­ing bold poli­cies that are unlike­ly to soon come to fruition impress­es a vision of a larg­er goal, a good life for which to strive, a com­pass point.” If that vision is vivid and beau­ti­ful enough, it will have the pow­er to seduce peo­ple to strug­gle for it. Thus, demands such as a basic income are them­selves orga­niz­ing tools.

She’s on the hori­zon,” the great Uraguayan writer and left­ist Eduar­do Galeano once wrote of utopia. I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk 10 steps and the hori­zon runs 10 steps ahead. No mat­ter how much I walk, I’ll nev­er reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: It’s good for walk­ing.” Why push for UBI now? Because it’s good for walking.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times and is a for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor and edi­to­r­i­al intern at the mag­a­zine. He is man­ag­ing edi­tor at Jacobin, the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty, and has writ­ten for the Nation, the Chica­go Read­er, VICE News, the Guardian and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.
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