Saturday, June 18, 2016

Guaranteed Income 2016 Update

Added to my post on the Guaranteed Income 2016 is reference to a new column in the New Yorker that takes a positive view of proposals for what the author calls the Universal Basic Income.

Friday, June 17, 2016


"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," was the historic line by Barry Goldwater that inflamed the 1964 Republican convention.  But his widow says that even Barry would be appalled by the Donald.

What would be his reaction? she was asked.  "Yuck," was her reply.

Barry would be appalled by Mr. Trump’s behavior — the unintelligent and unfiltered and crude communications style. And he’s shallow — so, so shallow.’”

Levine said she generally finds Trump’s candidacy “crazy and inappropriate”: “I can't believe we are doing this as a country," she said of Trump.

Other Republicans were also running the other way, and there was some noise again about trying to deny him the nomination at the Republican convention in two weeks.  Some of it driven by disgust but much of it by Trump's ocean-floor negatives in recent polls. As a Politico story began: In 2016’s race to the bottom, Donald Trump is going to find out if you can become president when two-thirds of Americans don’t like you — and a majority can’t stand you.  

Another day, another fantastic revelation about Trump's greed--this time a Washington Post story about his financial ties to Russia.  So the Republican party candidate is not only involved in a mutual admiration society with the dictator of an historic and growing adversary, he's financially in bed with their oligarchs and their likely criminal enterprises.

The WAPost also details Trump's relationship with mentor Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy's right hand man and pretty much the personification of twisted evil in the darkest days of the 1950s. "Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize."

In his NY Times column entitled A Week for All Time, Timothy Egan writes:"They will remember, a century from now, who stood up to the tyrant Donald Trump and who found it expedient to throw out the most basic American values — the “Vichy Republicans,” as the historian Ken Burns called them in his Stanford commencement speech."

Another dark political shadow passes over the western world with the murder of Jo Cox, a prominent young British MP and leader, an advocate for humanitarian causes and immigration, by a man who--it was revealed today--has direct and long-standing ties to a US neo-Nazi organization.  In this murder he may even have used a gun that he made himself from instructions obtained from this group.

It is widely reported that he shouted "Britain First!" as he shot and stabbed this 41 year old woman outside a library.  It is the slogan of a far right group that stages anti-Muslim demonstrations, adopted by some opponents of the UK's membership in the European Union, which is up for a vote next week.

It is of course echoed in Donald Trump's new slogan, "America First!" which itself was first used by Nazi sympathizers in the US in the late 1930s.

And while Trump's latest inflammatory and racist statements have been met with almost universal condemnation from even Republican politicians,  polls show that a bare majority of the public disapproves, and by a slight margin, Trump is preferred over Clinton to handle an "Orlando-like attack."

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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Bigot Who Would Be President

The spectacle of Donald Trump's attempt to become President of the United States continues to boggle the mind as well as chill the blood.

 He now faces an apparently unrelentingly hostile news media, which is not only finally reporting more fully on his incessant river of lies, but is doing so without the traditional patina of respect.

His latest pronouncements on terrorism and immigration have joined nearly all of his recent mouthings in being roundly condemned by Democrats (with President Obama winning particular praise for his latest dismemberment of Trump's positions, without ever naming him) but also Republicans who are actually supporting him for the office he seeks.  It's political surrealism every day.

Recent investigative reporting by the New York Times and USA Today reveal some further dimensions of dishonesty and sleaze in his business dealings, including stiffing small businesses and possibly using real estate projects to pay his personal debts.  Trump responds, not with any factual defense, but by accusing the media outlets and banning them from covering his campaign events.

Trump jumped on the Orlando massacre as an opportunity, plainly saying that his numbers always go up after a terrorist attack.  But this time he appears to have overplayed his hand. "For months, some progressives have worried that a terrorist attack could tip the election to Trump, because he might be seen as an avatar of strength," wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker. "That attack came on Sunday, and, after Trump’s scapegoating reply, those worries have eased. A Bloomberg poll released Tuesday showed Clinton leading her Republican rival by twelve percentage points; fifty-five per cent of likely voters polled swore that they would “never” vote for the casino mogul. It’s hard for Trump to be seen as a protector when it isn’t clear whom he would be willing to protect."

The poll he cites was taken half before Orlando and half afterwards.  (Wallace-Wells also makes the point that the killer's motives aren't limited to foreign terrorists. "Mateen’s bigotry, in the descriptions collated in the news reports, belonged to a familiar American strain, sometimes animated by religion but sometimes not."  He appears to have been a bigot, just as Trump expresses his own bigotry.)

A Washington Post poll (taken before Orlando) affirms the disdain with which many many Americans view Trump's candidacy.  "There is no equivalence" as the Plum Line puts it, between Hillary's relatively high negatives and Trump's stratospheric negatives.  Fewer than one-third of all Americans have a favorable view of him.  "Trump is viewed unfavorably by 73 percent of moderates; 77 percent of women; 89 percent of Hispanics; 88 percent of nonwhites; 75 percent of voters under 40; 59 percent of whites; 71 percent of white college graduates, 67 percent of white women, and even 52 percent of white men and 53 percent of non-college whites."  The only group that gives him a slight edge of favor is non-college white men.

Another poll in California suggests that Bernie voters are sufficiently motivated by the rise of Trump to come home to vote for the Democratic nominee, and this is even before Sanders gives his public support.

Yet every day brings news that renews the sentiments of a Jonathan Chiat column headline from way back a week or more ago: A Trump Presidency Just Got a Lot Less Likely — and a Lot More Terrifying.

Common Sense, Common Good

The weariness in the voice and demeanor of President Obama when he first talked about the Orlando gun massacre illustrated what he has often called his biggest disappointment in office, the failure of the federal government to enact the most basic controls over deadly rapid-fire semi-automatic guns, or access to them.

On Wednesday Senate Democrats began an old-fashioned talking filibuster on guns while actual negotiations were going on about a bill that would at least prevent those on terrorist watch lists from buying these guns so easily. For awhile it seemed the dimensions of this massacre finally broke some common sense loose from the political rigidity--the polaritics--of Washington.  Even Donald Trump and the NRA made encouraging noises on this subject, but at least by Wednesday's end, actual effective legislature looked almost as far from reality.  (Although a late report suggests that Republicans will allow some unspecified gun control bills to be voted on.)

But as on so many other problems that more local officials must deal with, states have led on banning assault weapons, especially since Newtown.

While the Orlando massacre has again dramatized divisions on this and other issues, it also has revealed some soul searching on homophobia and on how the media glorifies mass killers (just as this one checked the Internet during the standoff inside the club to see how his mass murders were being covered.)  It also evoked a sense of community beyond just the various geographical, identity and ideological "communities" in response to the victims.  Common sense for the common good may still be on the other side of polaritics, but empathy at least is evoked and alive when specific human beings are the focus.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

An American Tragedy

In the wake of the mass killings in Orlando and the twisted response by Donald Trump, President Obama's widely quoted remarks on Tuesday were sometimes characterized as a tirade.

But those impassioned words were a fraction of what he said, and came at the end of a report on a National Security Council meeting on the progress of counter-ISIL efforts.  The meeting had long been on the schedule, but as President Obama said, inevitably the available information on the Orlando shootings dominated the discussion.

No current information suggests that the American-born shooter was directed by any foreign group, though he was apparently familiar with the ideology of ISIL and other terrorist organizations principally from Internet sites.  This comports with the information news media are reporting, of a very tangled state of affair with this particular man.

The full remarks (transcript here; video here) catalog efforts, many of them successful, to destroy ISIL where it lives.  But ISIL prospers from the sense of oppression, and President Obama was justifiably angry with Trump's policies that would oppress Muslim Americans as well as deny immigration on the basis of a religion--enacting precisely the policies that ISIL could use as evidence of oppression, to stir many new converts.  (This was his focus, rather than Trump's less that subtle implication that the President is an ISIL sympathizer if not co-conspirator.)  Hillary Clinton in Pittsburgh made similar points in her direct refutation of Trump's speech (I haven't read it, but here's the Times report.)

Trump, very Republican-like, needs everyone not to know the strenuous efforts the Obama administration has made and its many successes in weakening ISIL, or else his implications would appear ridiculous.  Their charges insult not only Obama but the entire US national security apparatus, our armed forces and our global allies.

As for mass shootings that include those perpetrated by self-styled political terrorists,  there is something that can be done to substantially reduce the risk of these events.  It's something supported by police and military leaders.  From President Obama's statement:

"Enough talking about being tough on terrorism. Actually be tough on terrorism, and stop making it easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons. Reinstate the assault weapons ban. Make it harder for terrorists to use these weapons to kill us. Otherwise, despite extraordinary efforts across our government by local law enforcement, by our intelligence agencies, by our military, despite all the sacrifices that folks make, these kinds of events are going to keep on happening. And the weapons are only going to get more powerful."

Whether the potential perpetrator is a political terrorist or a person with heavy psychological problems or both, reducing easy access to weapons that one person can use to kill and severely wound 100 people in minutes is an obvious and fairly simple move.  As was painfully obvious in President Obama's first statement on the Orlando gun slaughter, the continuing failure to do this continues to be an American tragedy.