Friday, June 17, 2016

The Guaranteed Income 2016

For the past 40 years, nobody wanted to hear from the Guaranteed Income, which was once a live proposal and even a live possibility in the 1960s, as a way of circumventing the social disaster in the likely future of large numbers of people losing their jobs and income, because of what was then called automation.

But some folks--mostly academics and Europeans--kept up the conversation, though it could also be uncharitably characterized as a lot of academic noise with some signal.  Then this year, somewhat in response to growing wealth disparity, the idea resurfaced.

There are various names for it--Basic Income Guarantee (BIG, which holds an annual conference and has a website), Universal Basic Income, Guaranteed Income, etc.

One version of it actually made it onto the ballot in Switzerland, not because politicians proposed it but because the idea got 100,000 Swiss signatures.  The proposal was soundly rejected, though the vagueness of the proposal as well as its novelty probably didn't help.  But pilot project versions are proposed or in the works elsewhere in Europe.  There's also a pilot project for the very poor in Kenya and Uganda.

The Swiss debate did recycle basic arguments for the idea--the impact of automation, the economic consequences of large drops in consumer demand due to lost incomes.

In many ways it is still such a novel idea that the New York Times got the topic of the Swiss measure wrong, and it's a good bet that even well-informed Swiss citizens didn't fully understand it.  It is however getting some hearing in the US.

Though initially proposed by economists with no particular political ax to grind, it has usually been supported from the left, most notably by Martin Luther King, Jr. From the right the objection was easy: it's money for nothing, sapping initiative, etc.  (Although the actual objection might be closer to making wage slavery and almost free labor a thing of the past.)  But certain rightists, such as Charles Murray, are now behind their own version.  However, his proposal is basically an efficiency measure aimed at replacing all existing social programs, including Social Security.  No hidden agenda there.

There are Libertarian versions, and the idea is reportedly percolating in Silicon Valley.  But once again, it depends on what's actually being discussed.  In the NY Times, columnist Eduardo Porter argues against a "universal" income proposal--i.e. giving everybody in the country a set amount --regardless of their current wealth.  Which is the easiest proposal to destroy, so it's almost a straw man.   (His other objections are in this dialogue.)

What the idea originally meant I believe was a guaranteed minimum income--that is, a guarantee that annual income won't be less that a certain amount.  Billionaires wouldn't get it, or at least wouldn't get to keep it.

So it seems a long way to go to something practical.  But as a basic idea, it has a certain elegance as a solution to real and growing problems.

First, there's current need.  The stupidities of the Consumer Price Index apparently says that the cost of living is not increasing (at least, that's how Social Security interprets it--no cost of living increase this year.)  But a new study says what people outside the wealth bubble already know--the costs of everyday purchases are rising, and taking more of small and fixed incomes.  Fixed costs, like higher and higher rent, that don't make a dent in big budgets, soak up a perilously greater percentage of the small.

Second, the reason the guaranteed minimum income was first proposed is already a reality, and is likely to get worse.  While certain politicians want to blame the economic troubles of a former working class growing into an underclass on immigration and bad trade deals, the reality is more complex--and apart from things like corporate greed taking jobs to countries where near- or actual slave labor is available, a big cause is robots.  And the trend is "engineering the labor out of the product"--i.e. more robots, and automation of tasks performed not only by factory workers and clerks but skilled office, medical and even professional occupations.  So the future those 60s folks envisioned is getting here fast, and for a growing number of people, already here.

There is the somewhat different problem of the virtual economy--the online centers of wealth--employing relatively few people, and putting a lot of other people out of work (like freelance print journalists I could name.)  In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford notes that General Motors peak earnings were $11 billion in 1979, when it employed 840,000 (union) workers.  In 2012 Google cleared $14 billion, with fewer than 38,000 (mostly nonunion) workers--some of them very well paid, and a lot not so much.  That's a lot of purchasing power gone from the economy, as well as a lot of waste.

In terms of the economy, there's the worry that in the event of a new recession, the usual fiscal tools aren't available (you can't reduce 0% interest rates) and the current support programs aren't going to be sufficient to prevent a steep rise in poverty and further wounds to the economy from less consumer spending.  So something that doesn't exist now will be needed.

Even without steep recession, some economists argue that we can't depend on technology to continue to fuel economic growth, for society at large and certainly not for a great many people.

The guaranteed income idea was always meant to fulfill a social as well as economic need, and indeed, an opportunity for an affluent society to free humans from the increasingly unnecessary and coercive burdens of working for the money to live.  The benefits in human freedom and creativity to make the choice to pursue work and ideas without being forced to serve the self-interests of people in power  might also mean great benefits to human society, and even the economy.

There's also the idea of a revived WPA, supported by the likes of economist Robert Reich, as government employment for public works, which often goes by the name of infrastructure.  There might even be some combination of guaranteed minimum income with public service.

Taking it from a different direction, the time may come fairly soon, under the pressure of the climate crisis and its effects, that the idea of a guaranteed minimum income will seem  like a sensible transition to a radically different economic order in the future.

Update:James Surowiecki's column in the New Yorker summarizes in better depth the history and current status of Guaranteed Income (which he calls the Universal Basic Income or UBI) proposals and concludes: "If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary." He starts the column with a real world successful experiment in Canada in the 1970s I wasn't aware of.

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