The political economy of a universal basic income

So you should read these two posts by Max Sawicky on proposals for a universal basic income, because you should read everything Max Sawicky writes. (Oh wait. Two more!) Sawicky is a guy I often agree with, but he is my mirror Spock on this issue. I think he is 180° wrong on almost every point.

So you should read these two posts by Max Sawicky on proposals for a universal basic income, because you should read everything Max Sawicky writes. (Oh wait. Two more!) Sawicky is a guy I often agree with, but he is my mirror Spock on this issue. I think he is 180° wrong on almost every point.

To Sawicky, the push for a universal basic income is a “utopian” diversion that both deflects and undermines political support for more achievable, tried and true, forms of social insurance.

My argument against UBI is pragmatic and technical. In the context of genuine threats to the working class and those unable to work, the Universal Basic Income (UBI) discourse is sheer distraction. It uses up scarce political oxygen. It obscures the centrality of [other] priorities…which I argue make for better politics and are more technically coherent… [A basic income] isn’t going to happen, and you know it.

I don’t know that at all.

Sawicky’s view sounds reasonable, if your view of the feasible is backwards looking. But your view of what is feasible should not be backwards looking. The normalization of gay marriage and legalization of marijuana seemed utopian and politically impossible until very recently. Yet in fact those developments are happening, and their expansion is almost inevitable given the demographics of ideology. The United States’ unconditional support for Israel is treated as an eternal, structural fact of American politics, but it will disappear over the next few decades, for better or for worse. Within living memory, the United States had a strong, mass-participatory labor movement, and like many on the left, I lament its decline. But reconstruction of the labor movement that was, or importation of contemporary German-style “stakeholder” capitalism, strike me as utopian and infeasible in a forward-looking American political context. Despite that, I won’t speak against contemporary unionists, who share many of my social goals. I won’t accuse them of “us[ing] up scarce political oxygen” or forming an “attack” on the strategies I prefer for achieving our common goals, because, well, I could be wrong about the infeasibility of unionism. Our joint weakness derives from an insufficiency of activist enthusiasm in working towards our shared goals, not from a failure of monomaniacal devotion to any particular tactic. I’ll do my best to support the strengthening of labor unions, despite the fact that both on political and policy grounds I have misgivings. I will be grateful if those misgivings are ultimately proven wrong. I’d hope that those who focus their efforts on rebuilding unions return the favor — as they generally do! — and support a variety of approaches to our shared goal of building a prosperous, cohesive, middle class society.

I think that UBI — defined precisely as a periodic transfers of identical fixed dollar amounts to all citizens of the polity — is by far the most probable and politically achievable among policies that might effectively address problems of inequality, socioeconomic fragmentation, and economic stagnation. It is not uniquely good policy. If trust in government competence and probity was stronger than it is in today’s America, there are other policies I can imagine that might be as good or better. But trust in government competence and probity is not strong, and if I am honest, I think the mistrust is merited.

UBI is the least “statist”, most neoliberal means possible of addressing socioeconomic fragmentation. It distributes only abstract purchasing power; it cedes all regulation of real resources to individuals and markets. It deprives the state even of power to make decisions about to whom purchasing power should be transferred — reflective, again, of a neoliberal mistrust of the state — insisting on a dumb, simple, facially fair rule. “Libertarians” are unsurpisingly sympathetic to a UBI, at least relative to more directly state-managed alternatives. It’s easy to write that off, since self-described libertarians are politically marginal. But libertarians are an extreme manifestation of the “neoliberal imagination” that is, I think, pervasive among political elites, among mainstream “progressives” at least as much as on the political right, and especially among younger cohorts. For better and for worse, policies that actually existed in the past, that may even have worked much better than decades of revisionist propaganda acknowledge, are now entirely infeasible. We won’t address housing insecurity as we once did, by having the state build and offer subsidized homes directly. We can’t manage single-payer or public provision of health care. We are losing the fight for state-subsidized higher education, despite a record of extraordinary success, clear positive externalities, and deep logical flaws in attacks from both left and right.

We should absolutely work to alter the biases and constraints of the prevailing neoliberal imagination. But if “political feasibility” is to be our touchstone, if that is to be the dimension along which we evaluate policy choices, then past existence of a program, or its existence and success elsewhere, are not reliable guides. An effective path forward will build on the existing and near-future ideological consensus. UBI stands out precisely on this score. It is good policy on the merits. Yet it is among the most neoliberal, market-oriented, social welfare policies imaginable. It is the most feasible of the policies that are genuinely worthwhile.

Sawicky prefers that we focus on “social insurance”, which he defines as policies that “protect[] ordinary people from risks they face” but in a way that is “bloody-minded: what you get depends by some specific formula and set of rules on what you pay”. I’m down with the first part of the definition, but the second part does not belong at all. UBI is a form of social insurance, not an alternative to it. Sawicky claims that political support of social insurance derives from a connection between paying and getting, which “accords with common notions, whether we like them or not, of fairness.” This is a common view and has a conversational plausibility, but it is obviously mistaken. The political resilience of a program depends upon the degree to which its benefits are enjoyed by the politically enfranchised fraction of the polity, full stop. The connection between Medicare eligibility and payment of Medicare taxes is loose and actuarily meaningless. Yet the program is politically untouchable. America’s upwards-tilting tax expenditures, the mortgage interest and employer health insurance deductions, are resilient despite the fact that their well-enfranchised beneficiaries give nothing for the benefits they take. During the 2008 financial crisis, Americans with high savings enjoyed the benefits of Federal bank deposit guarantees, which are arranged quite explicitly as formula-driven insurance. But they were reimbursed well above the preinscribed limit of that insurance, despite the fact that for most of the decade prior to the crisis, many banks paid no insurance premia at all on depositors’ behalf. (The political constituency for FDIC has been strengthened, not diminished, by these events.) The Federal government provides flood insurance at premia that cannot cover actuarial risk. It provides agricultural price supports and farm subsidies without requiring premium payments. Commercial-insurance-like arrangements can be useful in the design of social policy, both for conferring legitimacy and allocating costs. But they are hardly the sine qua non of what is possible.

Sawicky asks that we look to successful European social democracies as models. That’s a great idea. The basic political fact is the same there as here. Policies that “protect ordinary people from the risks they face” enjoy political support because they offer valued benefits to politically enfranchised classes of “ordinary people”, rather than solely or primarily to the chronically poor. Even in Europe, benefits whose trigger is mere poverty are politically vulnerable, scapegoated and attacked. The means-tested benefits that Sawicky suggests we defend and expand are prominent mainly in “residual” or “liberal” welfare states, like that of the US, which leave as much as possible to the market and then try to “fill in gaps” with programs that are narrowly targeted and always threatened. Of the three commonly discussed types of welfare state, liberal welfare states are the least effective at addressing problems of poverty and inequality. UBI is a potential bridge, a policy whose absolute obeisance to market allocation of resources may render it feasible within liberal welfare states, but whose universality may nudge those states towards more effective social democratic institutions.

It is worth understanding the “paradox of redistribution” (Korpi and Palme, 1998):

[W]hile a targeted program “may have greater redistributive effects per unit of money spent than institutional types of programs,”other factors are likely to make institutional programs more redistributive (Korpi 1980a:304, italics in original). This rather unexpected outcome was predicted as a consequence of the type of political coalitions that different welfare state institutions tend to generate. Because marginal types of social policy programs are directed primarily at those below the poverty line, there is no rational base for a coalition between those above and those below the poverty line. In effect, the poverty line splits the working class and tends to generate coalitions between better-off workers and the middle class against the lower sections of the working class, something which can result in tax revolts and backlash against the welfare-state.

In an institutional model of social policy aimed at maintaining accustomed standards of living, however, most households directly benefit in some way. Such a model “tends to encourage coalition formation between the working class and the middle class in support for continued welfare state policies. The poor need not stand alone” (Korpi 1980a: 305; also see Rosenberry 1982).

Recognition of these factors helps us understand what we call the paradox of redistribution: The more we target benefits at the poor only and the more concerned we are with creating equality via equal public transfers to all, the less likely we are to reduce poverty and inequality.

This may seem to be a funny quote to pull out in support of the political viability of a universal basic income, which proposes precisely “equal public transfers to all”, but it’s important to consider the mechanism. The key insight is that, for a welfare state to thrive, it must have more than “buy in” from the poor, marginal, and vulnerable. It must have “buy up” from people higher in the income distribution, from within the politically dominant middle class. Welfare states are not solely or even primarily vehicles that transfer wealth from rich to poor. They crucially pool risks within income strata, providing services that shelter the middle class, including unemployment insurance, disability payments, pensions, family allowances, etc. An “encompassing” welfare state that provides security to the middle class and the poor via the very same programs will be better funded and more resilient than a “targeted” regime that only serves the poor. In this context, it is foolish to make equal payouts a rigid and universal requirement. The unemployment payment that will keep a waiter in his apartment won’t pay the mortgage of an architect who loses her job. In order to offer effective protection, in order to stabilize income and reduce beneficiaries’ risk, payouts from programs like unemployment insurance must vary with earnings. If not, the architect will be forced to self-insure with private savings, and will be unenthusiastic about contributing to the program or supporting it politically. Other programs, like retirement pensions and disability payments, must provide payments that covary with income for similar reasons.

But this is not true of all programs. Medicare in the US and national health care programs elsewhere offer basically the same package to all beneficiaries. We all face the same kinds of vulnerability to injury and disease, and the costs of mitigating those risks vary if anything inversely with income. We need not offer the middle class more than the poor in order to secure mainstream support for the program. The same is true of other in-kind benefits, such as schooling and child-care, at least in less stratified societies. Family cash allowances, where they exist, usually do not increase with parental incomes, and so provide more assistance to poor than rich in relative terms. But they provide meaningful assistance well into the middle class, and so are broadly popular.

Similarly, a universal basic income would offer a meaningful benefit to middle-class earners. It could not replace health-related programs, since markets do a poor job of organizing health care provision. It could not entirely replace unemployment, disability, or retirement programs, which should evolve into income-varying supplements. But it could and should replace mean-tested welfare programs like TANF and food stamps. It could and should replace regressive subsidies like the home mortgage interest deduction, because most households would gain more from a basic income than they’d lose in tax breaks. And since people well into the middle class would enjoy the benefit, even net of taxes, a universal basic income would encourage the coalitions between an enfranchised middle class and the marginalized poor that are the foundation of a social democratic welfare state.

Means-tested programs cannot provide that foundation. Means-tested programs may sometimes be the “least bad” of feasible choices, but they are almost never good policy. In addition to their political fragility, they impose steep marginal tax rates on the poor. “Poverty traps” and perverse incentives are not conservative fever dreams, but real hazards that program designers should work to avoid. Means-tested programs absurdly require the near-poor to finance transfers to people slightly worse off than they are, transfers that would be paid by the very well-off under a universal benefit. However well-intended, means-tested programs are vulnerable to “separate but equal” style problems, under which corners are cut and substandard service tolerated in ways that would be unacceptable for better enfranchised clienteles. Conditional benefits come with bureaucratic overhead that often excludes many among the populations they intend to serve, and leave individuals subject to baffling contingencies or abusive discretion. Once conditionality is accepted, eligibility formulas often grow complex, leading to demeaning requirements (“pee in the bottle”), intrusions of privacy, and uncertain support. Stigma creeps in. The best social insurance programs live up to the name “entitlement”. Terms of eligibility are easy to understand and unrelated to social class. The eligible population enjoys the benefit as automatically as possible, as a matter of right. All of this is not to say we shouldn’t support means-tested programs when the alternative to bad policy is something worse. Federalized AFDC was a better program than block-granted TANF, and both are much better than nothing at all. Medicaid should be Medicare, but in the meantime let’s expand it. I’ll gladly join hands with Sawicky in pushing to improve what we have until we can get something good. But let’s not succumb to the self-serving Manichaeanism of the “center left” which constantly demands that we surrender all contemplation of the good in favor of whatever miserable-but-slightly-less-bad is on offer in the next election. We can support and defend what we have, despite its flaws, while we work towards something much better. But we should work towards something much better.

I do share Sawicky’s misgivings with emphasizing the capacity of a basic income to render work “optional” or enable a “post-work economy”. Market labor is optional for the affluent already, and it would be a good thing if more of us were sufficiently affluent to render it more widely optional. But securing and sustaining that affluence must precede the optionality. Soon the robots may come and offer such means, in which case a UBI will be a fine way to distribute affluence and render market labor optional for more humans than ever before. But in the meantime, we continue to live in a society that needs lots of people to work, often doing things they’d prefer not to do. Sawicky is right that workers would naturally resent it if “free riders” could comfortably shirk, living off an allowance taken out of their tax dollars. A universal basic income diminishes resentment of “people on the dole”, however, because workers get the same benefit as the shirkers. Workers choose to work because they wish to be better off than the basic income would allow. Under nearly any plausible financing arrangement, the majority of workers would retain value from the benefit rather than net-paying for the basic income of others. Our society is that unequal.

Like the excellent Ed Dolan, I favor a basic income large enough to matter but not sufficient for most people to live comfortably. The right way to understand a basic income as a matter of economics, and to frame it as a matter of politics, is this: A basic income serves to increase the ability of workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions. Market labor is always “optional” in a sense, but the option to refuse or quit a job is extremely costly for many people. A basic income would reduce that cost. People whose “BATNA” is starvation negotiate labor contracts from a very weak position. With a basic income somewhere between $500 and $1000 per month, it becomes possible for many workers to hold off on bad deals in order to search or haggle for a better ones. The primary economic function of a basic income in the near term would not be to replace work, but to increase the bargaining power of low income workers as a class. A basic income is the neoliberal alternative to unionization — inferior in some respects (workers remain atomized), superior in others (individuals have more control over the terms that they negotiate) — but much more feasible going forward, in my opinion.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 19th, 2014 at 6:35 am PDT.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.