Ben­jamin M. Fried­man

Ba­sic In­come: A Rad­i­cal Pro­posal for a Free So­ci­ety and a Sane Econ­omy by Philippe Van Par­ijs and Yan­nick Van­der­borght

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ben­jamin M. Fried­man

Ba­sic In­come:

A Rad­i­cal Pro­posal for a

Free So­ci­ety and a Sane Econ­omy by Philippe Van Par­ijs and Yan­nick Van­der­borght. Har­vard Univer­sity Press,

384 pp., $29.95

The loss of jobs in a high-tech­nol­ogy so­ci­ety—and, more than that, the down­grad­ing of skills re­quired and there­fore of the wages paid for many of the jobs that re­main—are likely to be the pri­mary eco­nomic and so­cial chal­lenges fac­ing the United States over the com­ing gen­er­a­tion. The ques­tion is not whether mil­lions of would-be work­ers will be chron­i­cally out of work. Un­less an out­sized le­gal min­i­mum wage sup­presses the avail­abil­ity of en­try-level jobs, most Amer­i­cans will find some­thing to do. But far too many of the jobs they will end up tak­ing will pay them too lit­tle to support what our so­ci­ety con­sid­ers a mid­dle-class stan­dard of liv­ing.

The widely touted prospect of driver­less ve­hi­cles is just one ex­am­ple, but it is il­lus­tra­tive. A half-cen­tury ago, the lead­ing op­por­tu­nity for Amer­i­cans with­out a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion to earn a mid­dle-class in­come, with health and other ben­e­fits, was work­ing on a fac­tory floor. But there are many fewer such jobs in the US today—only 8 per­cent of the coun­try’s la­bor force works in man­u­fac­tur­ing—and fewer still for em­ploy­ees with­out ad­vanced tech­ni­cal train­ing. In most areas of the coun­try, the best op­por­tu­nity for these work­ers is now driv­ing a truck.

Only con­vinced fu­tur­ists en­vi­sion FedEx and UPS vans rac­ing around the na­tion’s cities any­time soon with no hu­man in­side. But in the fu­ture, what will the hu­man on board be do­ing? Most likely, not driv­ing the van but run­ning pack­ages up to peo­ple’s doorsteps and then push­ing a pic­ture icon on a touch screen to con­firm that de­liv­er­ies have been com­pleted—not so dif­fer­ent from what the cashier at a McDon­ald’s now does. For just this rea­son, the wages those no-longer-driv­ers re­ceive also won’t be much dif­fer­ent from McDon­ald’s wages.

Driver­less trucks are still some dis­tance in the fu­ture, but the re­duc­tion of the skills re­quired in the work­place as a re­sult of new tech­nol­ogy is al­ready a re­al­ity for mil­lions of work­ers be­yond McDon­ald’s. Today more than 15 mil­lion Amer­i­cans work in some form of re­tail trade. But apart from the most up­scale stores, the job is not what it used to be. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of bar­code scan­ners (be­gin­ning in the 1970s), most re­tail sales clerks no longer need to know the store’s in­ven­tory, look up prices, keep track of what’s sold in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate re­order­ing, or even make change in a cash trans­ac­tion. The job now mostly con­sists of swip­ing ob­jects past a scan­ner and letting a “smart” cash reg­is­ter do the rest. A sim­i­lar process is un­der­way in re­tail-level in­vest­ing and fi­nan­cial plan­ning. In­stead of talk­ing with a bro­ker, many Amer­i­cans now ex­e­cute stock trades them­selves via E-Trade, and au­to­mated “robo-ad­vis­ing” is be­gin­ning to take over the more com­pli­cated job of help­ing in­vestors al­lo­cate their funds among dif­fer­ent as­set classes. Even the ven­er­a­ble Black­Rock, the world’s largest money man­ager, has been ac­quir­ing smaller firms that rely on com­puter al­go­rithms rather than in­vest­ment pro­fes­sion­als to man­age their clients’ funds. In­creas­ingly, jobs in re­tail in­vest­ing are be­com­ing di­vided be­tween high-end pro­fes­sion­als who pro­vide so­phis­ti­cated ad­vice and ser­vices to in­vestors with large port­fo­lios and get paid ac­cord­ingly, and peo­ple who do rou­tine fol­low-up work for smaller ac­counts and earn very lit­tle. More­over, that fol­low-up work can be done from Ban­ga­lore just as eas­ily as from Bos­ton or New York or Chicago, and it of­ten is. The re­lent­less ad­vance of ro­bot­ics and other ap­pli­ca­tions of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in the work­place is re­duc­ing the skill level re­quired for a wide range of other jobs as well. With a GPS, driv­ers for ride-shar­ing ser­vices no longer need to know a city’s streets. In many ware­houses today, com­put­ers man­age the work­ers, dis­play­ing on a screen which items to re­trieve and where to put them. The hu­mans’ main ad­van­tage is the greater flex­i­bil­ity of their hands.

Like the Lud­dites in Bri­tain’s cot­ton in­dus­try two hun­dred years ago, these work­ers’ prob­lem will not be no job but rather a no-skill job, one that re­quires lit­tle of them and there­fore pays them lit­tle in re­turn. For the Lud­dites, the threat was a new, tech­no­log­i­cally im­proved loom that re­quired less skill to op­er­ate. With their ex­per­tise sud­denly re­dun­dant, the weavers saw their wages drop ac­cord­ingly. Woody Allen fa­mously quipped that 80 per­cent of life is show­ing up. Most Amer­i­cans’ jobs today re­quire a lot more than just show­ing up, and what they earn is well above the raw value of their pres­ence. When work be­comes mostly just show­ing up, the wage will re­flect it.

The Lud­dites’ fears of per­ma­nently lower wages were proven wrong, but not be­cause their cam­paign to smash up the new looms suc­ceeded. They were wrong be­cause, over time, ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy did more than just elim­i­nate hu­man la­bor and en­able un­skilled work­ers to re­place skilled ones. It also de­vised new ways to ac­com­plish age-old ob­jec­tives. Rail­roads, then cars and trucks pow­ered by the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine, and in time air­planes re­placed horse-pow­ered ways of mov­ing both peo­ple and goods.

New tech­nolo­gies also in­tro­duced new goods that many peo­ple then wanted, and there­fore that work­ers got to pro­duce: from ra­dios to tele­vi­sions, from com­put­ers to cell phones, from elec­tric light­ing to elec­tric shavers and even elec­tric tooth­brushes. Mak­ing those new goods, as well as op­er­at­ing and ser­vic­ing them, re­quired more skill than what the Lud­dite weavers had. And the wages for those jobs were higher as well.

Over time some ver­sion of this process will pre­sum­ably play out again. Tech­no­log­i­cal change trig­gers two coun­ter­vail­ing pro­cesses in the la­bor mar­ket: au­tomat­ing tasks pre­vi­ously per­formed by la­bor, and cre­at­ing com­plex new tasks for which la­bor is es­pe­cially well suited and per­haps ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.1 Both are eas­ily vis­i­ble in today’s econ­omy. For ex­am­ple, with ATMs and com­put­er­ized screen­ing of mort­gage ap­pli­ca­tions, re­tail bank­ing re­quires many fewer em­ploy­ees than be­fore; but those that re­main are mostly per­form­ing more so­phis­ti­cated tasks. What mat­ters for the kind of work peo­ple do, as well as for the wages they earn, is the bal­ance be­tween the two op­pos­ing pro­cesses.

For now, au­to­ma­tion is pro­ceed­ing rapidly, but most new jobs do not in­volve com­plex la­bor-in­ten­sive tasks that would war­rant above-av­er­age pay. As a re­sult, wages are stag­nant de­spite a strong in­crease in em­ploy­ment (15 mil­lion net new jobs cre­ated thus far in this decade), and the com­pe­ti­tion for jobs that re­quire spe­cial­ized skills gets fiercer each year. Le­gions of would-be lawyers, beau­ti­cians, and com­puter pro­gram­mers can’t find work in the fields

1

For a clear tech­ni­cal ex­po­si­tion, see Daron Ace­moglu and Pas­cual Restrepo, “The Race Be­tween Ma­chine and Man: Im­pli­ca­tions of Tech­nol­ogy for Growth, Fac­tor Shares and Em­ploy­ment” (Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search, Work­ing Pa­per No. 22252, May 2016). for which they’ve trained and strug­gle to pay off the loans they took out to pay for their train­ing. The one job that ev­ery­one be­lieves will mul­ti­ply in the years ahead is nurs­ing home at­ten­dant. If the United States oc­cu­pied some planet of its own, even the nurs­ing home aides would even­tu­ally earn higher wages, in ef­fect shar­ing in the pro­duc­tiv­ity gains that oc­cur else­where in the econ­omy. The wages for nurs­ing home jobs would have to rise, along with wages in other in­dus­tries, or no­body would take them. But in the US an un­end­ing stream of new im­mi­grants is will­ing to take such un­skilled jobs. (Al­though Pres­i­dent Trump por­trays his ef­forts to halt that flow as a boon to Amer­ica’s skilled fac­tory work­ers, in fact those most likely to ben­e­fit are un­skilled work­ers who would then face less com­pe­ti­tion for jobs in el­der care, lawn and tree trim­ming, house paint­ing, and a va­ri­ety of sim­i­lar pur­suits.) At the same time, there is an ef­fec­tively in­fi­nite sup­ply of off­shore la­bor to take up both skilled and un­skilled work that needn’t be done lo­cally—rang­ing from call cen­ter oper­a­tors to com­puter pro­gram­mers to cor­po­rate au­di­tors.

As a re­sult, the na­tion’s la­bor mar­ket con­tin­ues to bi­fur­cate, sep­a­rat­ing the work­ers lucky enough to get the high­skill jobs our econ­omy has newly cre­ated (and get paid ac­cord­ingly) from those stuck with jobs for which au­to­ma­tion has taken away the need for skills and that there­fore pay very lit­tle.2

What to do in the face of this chal­lenge is fast be­com­ing the cen­tral eco­nomic pol­icy ques­tion of our time. Sim­ply letting the mar­ket op­er­ate means con­sign­ing ever more Amer­i­cans to deskilled jobs, at low wages, whether or not they are ca­pa­ble of skilled work. We would be on our way back to what the English econ­o­mist James Meade, half a cen­tury ago, de­scribed as “an im­mis­er­ized pro­le­tariat of but­lers, foot­men, kitchen maids, and other hang­ers-on.”3 More ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, to pre­pare more peo­ple for the com­plex tasks re­quired by our new tech­nol­ogy, will surely help. But it will suc­ceed only to the ex­tent that the spe­cial­ized train­ing matches the needs of the tech­nol­ogy.

A dif­fer­ent strat­egy, which has drawn support es­pe­cially out­side the United States, is not to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion but to make it less eco­nom­i­cally painful through some kind of in­come trans­fer pro­gram. The one now at­tract­ing the most at­ten­tion—per­haps be­cause of the grow­ing re­al­iza­tion of how much of the la­bor force in ad­vanced economies will likely find their jobs in­creas­ingly threat­ened by new tech­nol­ogy—is to pro­vide in­come trans­fers not just to

2For ev­i­dence of the bi­fur­ca­tion of the US la­bor mar­ket, see, for ex­am­ple, David H. Au­tor and David Dorn, “The Growth of Low-Skill Ser­vice Jobs and the Po­lar­iza­tion of the US La­bor Mar­ket,” Amer­i­can Eco­nomic Re­view, Vol. 103, No. 5 (2013).

3J. E. Meade, Ef­fi­ciency, Equal­ity, and the Own­er­ship of Pri­vate Cap­i­tal (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 1965), p. 33.

those in need (as de­fined by some societal stan­dard) but to ev­ery­one.

Within the past year Fin­land in­tro­duced a “ba­sic in­come” on a highly lim­ited, ex­per­i­men­tal ba­sis (only two thou­sand par­tic­i­pants, in a pop­u­la­tion of 5.5 mil­lion), and the idea is gain­ing some support in other coun­tries too. Last year Switzer­land held a non­bind­ing na­tional ref­er­en­dum on such a pro­posal (it lost, with 77 per­cent vot­ing against), and groups in other Euro­pean coun­tries, as well as South Africa, have en­dorsed the idea. Some in the US have ex­pressed in­ter­est as well. Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg ad­vo­cated a “univer­sal ba­sic in­come” in the com­mence­ment ad­dress he gave at Har­vard this past spring. Many of the alumni present took his do­ing so to sig­nal his am­bi­tion to fol­low an­other bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man into elec­toral pol­i­tics. Now, in Ba­sic In­come: A Rad­i­cal Pro­posal for a Free So­ci­ety and a Sane Econ­omy, Philippe Van Par­ijs, an econ­o­mist and ethi­cist, and Yan­nick Van­der­borght, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist—both Bel­gians—have laid out at some length a com­pre­hen­sive case for a univer­sal ba­sic in­come. Al­though the ad­jec­tive “univer­sal” is miss­ing from the ti­tle of their book, that as­pect of the pro­posal is es­sen­tial to their ar­gu­ment. Es­pe­cially in Amer­ica, un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, food stamps, free school lunches, and sub­si­dized hous­ing all come with some stigma at­tached. By con­trast, So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care, avail­able to all cit­i­zens who reach a cer­tain age (cur­rently sixty-six for So­cial Se­cu­rity and sixty-five for Medi­care), do not. Nor does free pub­lic school­ing, avail­able to all chil­dren. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght would, in ef­fect, ex­pand So­cial Se­cu­rity pay­ments to ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing chil­dren, with the per-per­son pay­ment in­de­pen­dent of any prior con­tri­bu­tions or earn­ings.

As the sub­ti­tle of their book sug­gests, their un­der­ly­ing ar­gu­ment is not just eco­nomic but philo­soph­i­cal. At the eco­nomic level, Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght ex­plain the fa­mil­iar prob­lem of dis­cour­ag­ing work that is in­her­ent in many ex­ist­ing wel­fare pro­grams. Peo­ple who have no job and live on var­i­ous kinds of govern­ment ben­e­fits lose that support once they go to work and their in­comes rise. At the same time, what they earn, above some min­i­mal level, is sub­ject to tax. In many cases the im­plicit tax rep­re­sented by the loss of ben­e­fits and the ex­plicit tax on earn­ings from the prospec­tive job, taken to­gether, sub­ject a per­son de­cid­ing whether to go off ben­e­fits and take a pay­ing job to an ef­fec­tive tax rate well above what top-bracket earn­ers pay. The re­sult is a dis­in­cen­tive to work. Wel­fare el­i­gi­bil­ity re­quire­ments of­ten cre­ate fur­ther dis­tor­tions, like dis­in­cen­tives to marry (a sin­gle mother may get more ben­e­fits), or in­cen­tives to have more chil­dren (ben­e­fits may be based on the num­ber of chil­dren). Economists and oth­ers have strug­gled to de­vise ways to mod­ify the tax code and many wel­fare pro­grams to blunt these per­verse ef­fects. But even with care­fully de­signed el­i­gi­bil­ity re­quire­ments and pro­vi­sions like the US earned in­come tax credit, the prob­lem is in­escapable. A univer­sal ben­e­fit, paid to ev­ery­one, whether work­ing or not, re­gard­less of in­come or age or mar­i­tal sta­tus, would avoid many of these dis­tor­tions. The more novel ar­gu­ment the book ad­vances is that a univer­sal ba­sic in­come would pro­vide a new kind of eco­nomic free­dom. Most ob­vi­ously, any­one would be free not to work. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght mostly en­vi­sion peo­ple tak­ing ad­van­tage of this op­tion for fam­ily rea­sons, or to ac­quire fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, or to take low-paid (or even un­paid) in­tern­ships. But they ac­knowl­edge that some peo­ple would sim­ply choose not to work, re­ly­ing on their no-ques­tion­sasked guar­an­teed in­come to support them­selves. In the au­thors’ view, a cru­cial fea­ture of the pro­gram is that the in­come is “un­con­di­tional in the sense of be­ing obli­ga­tion free, and not be­ing sub­jected to a will­ing­ness-to-work test. The vol­un­tar­ily un­em­ployed are no less en­ti­tled to it than the em­ployed and the in­vol­un­tar­ily un­em­ployed.” The au­thors see this cen­tral fea­ture of univer­sal ba­sic in­come as a form of em­pow­er­ment for “those who cur­rently have least,” max­i­miz­ing their “power to con­sume” as well as their “power to choose the sorts of lives they want to live.” In ef­fect, Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght turn the usual lib­er­tar­ian ar­gu­ment on its head. Many con­cep­tions of so­ci­ety based on in­di­vid­ual free­doms and equal treat­ment of all cit­i­zens have a cer­tain ap­peal in prin­ci­ple, but in prac­tice work to the ad­van­tage of those in so­ci­ety who com­mand the great­est eco­nomic re­sources. (Ana­tole France archly noted that “in its ma­jes­tic equal­ity, the law for­bids the rich as well as the poor to sleep un­der bridges.”) The dis­in­cen­tive to work is nor­mally a large part of the ar­gu­ment against both wel­fare pro­grams and the taxes that pay for them. In con­trast, for Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght the at­trac­tion of a univer­sal ba­sic in­come is not only that it elim­i­nates dis­tor­tions to peo­ple’s in­di­vid­ual eco­nomic de­ci­sions but also that it “boosts as much as is sus­tain­able the mar­ket power of those with the least mar­ket power, and thereby... their abil­ity to re­sist sub­ju­ga­tion to bosses, part­ners, or bu­reau­crats.”

This ex­panded free­dom would do more than just re­duce work, how­ever. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght also ar­gue that with a no-con­di­tions in­come many peo­ple would take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue em­ploy­ment that they find ful­fill­ing but that of­fers lit­tle eco­nomic re­ward, or even none at all. In some cases, not just these in­di­vid­u­als but so­ci­ety at large would ben­e­fit. More peo­ple with en­ergy and talent would feel free to take low-paid jobs, or sim­ply vol­un­teer, as school­teach­ers or so­cial work­ers or mu­seum guides. More as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs would be free to start busi­nesses, more would-be in­ven­tors could stay home in their base­ment work­shops, and more would-be nov­el­ists and po­ets and play­wrights could ex­plore their creative po­ten­tial. Maybe the econ­omy would re­ward them, but even if not, they would all have the ful­fill­ment of try­ing, and over­all in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity would in­crease. Al­though the au­thors do not em­pha­size the con­nec­tion—they would fa­vor a univer­sal ba­sic in­come un­der prac­ti­cally any eco­nomic cir­cum­stances— the po­ten­tial ap­peal of such a pro­gram is all the greater in a world of longterm un­em­ploy­ment and re­duc­tion of skilled work re­sult­ing from ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy. If there are not enough de­cent jobs avail­able, peo­ple could choose not to work with­out hav­ing to suf­fer pri­va­tion. (Even the def­i­ni­tion of em­ploy­ment would be­come fuzzy: Is a full-time writer who never suc­ceeds in sell­ing any of his nov­els “em­ployed”?) And for those who take the many jobs in which tech­nol­ogy has re­duced the need for skills, at least they could then af­ford a liv­ing stan­dard above what their wage alone would sus­tain. Ei­ther way, the goal “is not just to soothe mis­ery but to lib­er­ate us all.”

Es­pe­cially in Amer­ica, one im­me­di­ate ob­jec­tion to any pro­posal for a univer­sal ba­sic in­come comes from just this fea­ture, which Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght see as its fore­most at­trac­tion: the free­dom it would pro­vide ei­ther not to work at all or to ap­ply one’s ef­fort along lines that the econ­omy does not re­ward. At­tach­ing re­li­gious value to work as one’s “call­ing,” even when that ac­tiv­ity has noth­ing di­rectly to do with re­li­gion, dates back to Luther and Calvin. (It is no mere turn of phrase when the au­thors write of “de­sacral­iz­ing paid work.”) Four hun­dred years later, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt was ap­peal­ing to deeply rooted Amer­i­can val­ues when he re­ferred, in his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, to the “moral stim­u­la­tion of work.”

Today the moral value of work re­mains a be­drock of most Amer­i­cans’ think­ing. And while there is de­bate over how well the econ­omy’s wage struc­ture re­flects so­ci­ety’s pri­or­i­ties— and even if it does, whether those pri­or­i­ties are well placed—most Amer­i­cans draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween work­ing and merely in­dulging in some hobby. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght’s paean to the free­dom not to work, and to some ex­tent also the free­dom to de­cide for one­self what con­sti­tutes worth­while work, has less affin­ity with Amer­i­can val­ues than with Euro­pean ones. A more prac­ti­cal dif­fi­culty, which the au­thors rec­og­nize but do not re­solve, turns on how to treat chil­dren, and even spouses. If the pay­ment is gen­uinely univer­sal, “paid to each in­di­vid­ual, and at a level in­de­pen­dent of that in­di­vid­ual’s house­hold sit­u­a­tion,” a fam­ily of four would re­ceive four times what a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual would get. Four times the amount that would ad­e­quately support one per­son liv­ing alone seems un­nec­es­sar­ily gen­er­ous for the fam­ily, while one fourth of what the fam­ily could live on would fall well short of a lone in­di­vid­ual’s need. The per-per­son pay­ment that Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght ten­ta­tively tar­get—one fourth of a coun­try’s per capita in­come, or for Amer­i­cans today just un­der $15,000

an­nu­ally—seems in­tended to steer in the mid­dle of this dilemma, but it sat­is­fies nei­ther side.

More­over, dis­tor­tions of the kind fa­mil­iar from ex­ist­ing wel­fare pro­grams would arise as well. A non­work­ing cou­ple could in­crease their fam­ily in­come from $30,000 to $90,000 by hav­ing four chil­dren. His­tor­i­cally, many coun­tries have ac­tu­ally sought to cre­ate this in­cen­tive, us­ing “na­tal­ist” poli­cies like per-child bonuses and sub­si­dies to en­cour­age a higher birth rate. Few peo­ple would ad­vo­cate such a pol­icy for the US today. In­stead, in­ter­est in a “univer­sal child al­lowance” mostly re­flects a de­sire to al­le­vi­ate child poverty and to re­move the wel­fare stigma for low­in­come fam­i­lies.

A more pow­er­ful con­cern, for Euro­peans no less than Amer­i­cans, is whether a univer­sal ba­sic in­come is af­ford­able. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght’s dis­cus­sion of the cost of any such scheme is co­gent and de­tailed. Fin­land’s ex­per­i­ment, with 2,000 par­tic­i­pants re­ceiv­ing €560 per month, costs only $15 mil­lion per year. Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght’s tar­get of $15,000 a year for ev­ery Amer­i­can would cost $4.8 tril­lion—far more than today’s bud­get for the en­tire fed­eral govern­ment.

The au­thors con­clude that at least for now, and prob­a­bly for some sub­stan­tial time to come, cost at this level is too great to make a univer­sal in­come pro­gram fea­si­ble, ei­ther in the US or else­where. (By con­trast, in the poor­est coun­tries, a univer­sal ba­sic in­come, at an af­ford­able level, might well help erad­i­cate ex­treme poverty.)4 They there­fore rec­om­mend a much more mod­est pay­ment, well be­low what would be nec­es­sary to en­able a fam­ily, or even more so an in­di­vid­ual liv­ing alone, to sur­vive. (They note that “a ba­sic in­come is not by def­i­ni­tion suf­fi­cient to cover what could be re­garded as ba­sic needs.”) Their hope would then be to ex­pand the pro­gram by steps, as so­ci­ety’s abil­ity and will­ing­ness to pay for it in­crease, un­til it even­tu­ally reached full scale.

Here, how­ever, the ar­gu­ment runs into mul­ti­ple con­tra­dic­tions. To be­gin, Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght re­peat­edly make the fa­mil­iar point that a univer­sal ba­sic in­come would not cost as much as it might seem be­cause once it is in place, ex­ist­ing wel­fare pro­grams would be un­nec­es­sary. The net cost would then be the amount of the per­per­son pay­ment times the coun­try’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion, mi­nus the cur­rent cost of all wel­fare pro­grams, in­clud­ing the support those pro­grams pro­vide as well as the cost of the bu­reau­cracy needed to run them.

But the au­thors also ac­knowl­edge that with the more mod­est pay­ment they rec­om­mend for now, wel­fare pro­grams would have to re­main in place. The cost of the univer­sal ba­sic in­come would then be sim­ply the to­tal cost of send­ing a pay­ment to ev­ery­one, whether needy or not. Hence the at­tempt to make the scheme af­ford­able, given the ex­ist­ing lim­i­ta­tions, ends up re­in­forc­ing its un­af­ford­abil­ity by re­mov­ing what the au­thors hold out as a ma­jor source of avail­able fund­ing. More­over, if ex­ist­ing wel­fare pro­grams

4See John McArthur, “How To End World­wide Poverty By 2030,” Good, Is­sue 37 (Sum­mer 2016). con­tinue, with all their dis­tor­tions and as­so­ci­ated stigma (es­pe­cially in Amer­ica), two of the au­thors’ main ob­jec­tives would be un­ful­filled. In con­trast to Calvin, who wrote that “ad­ver­sity is a sign of God’s ab­sence, pros­per­ity of his pres­ence,” Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght be­lieve that most of today’s needy cit­i­zens are poor for rea­sons that are not their own fault, much less the re­sult of di­vine dis­fa­vor. But if the ex­ist­ing wel­fare pro­grams re­main, so too will the stigma and the per­verse in­cen­tives that come with them.

Even the most fun­da­men­tal el­e­ment of the au­thors’ ar­gu­ment—the as­so­ci­a­tion of a univer­sal ba­sic in­come with “the gen­uine ca­pac­ity to do what­ever one might wish to do”—falls away if the per-per­son pay­ment is too small to pro­vide mean­ing­ful support. No doubt a few thou­sand dol­lars a year would en­able some peo­ple to take lower-pay­ing jobs than they could oth­er­wise. But this could be achieved with the help of any of a va­ri­ety of ex­ist­ing pro­pos­als, such as wage sup­ple­ments for new high school grad­u­ates or sub­si­dized ap­pren­tice­ships.

Eval­u­at­ing the rel­a­tive mer­its of those pro­pos­als, per­haps with a univer­sal ba­sic in­come added to the list, is surely worth­while. But it seems un­likely that pay­ing out money to ev­ery­one, not just new grad­u­ates and ap­pren­tices, and whether work­ing or not, will end up be­ing the best way to serve these ends. Pre­sum­ably for just this rea­son even Fin­land’s much-touted ba­sic in­come ex­per­i­ment is not ac­tu­ally “univer­sal”; only peo­ple out of a job and al­ready draw­ing un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits (which the ba­sic in­come pay­ment re­placed) were el­i­gi­ble. The same con­cern ap­plies to pro­pos­als for a univer­sal child al­lowance. It is far from clear that pay­ing out money to mid­dle­and even high-in­come fam­i­lies is the most ef­fec­tive way to ad­dress Amer­ica’s shame­fully high rate of child poverty. More im­por­tant, a mod­est an­nual pay­ment will not ful­fill the au­thors’ grander, “eman­ci­pa­tory” aims. The novel ar­gu­ment they make for a univer­sal ba­sic in­come rests on its cre­at­ing a more in­clu­sive so­ci­ety and pro­vid­ing “the real free­dom to flour­ish, through work and out­side of work,” whether in or out­side the mar­ket econ­omy. The ver­sion of the scheme that they even­tu­ally pro­pose will not de­liver on these lofty ideals.

Van Par­ijs and Van­der­borght have done the dis­cus­sion of a univer­sal ba­sic in­come a great ser­vice. They have set forth, clearly and com­pre­hen­sively, what is prob­a­bly the best case to be made today for this form of eco­nomic and so­cial pol­icy. But to de­liver the ben­e­fits its sup­port­ers hold out for it, the in­come paid must be sub­stan­tial— un­der al­most any likely con­di­tions, too great for a so­ci­ety like ours to af­ford. And im­ple­ment­ing it at a smaller level, as the au­thors rec­om­mend, would de­liver few of the promised ben­e­fits yet still cost enough to present a se­ri­ous hur­dle. For now, a univer­sal ba­sic in­come re­mains a utopian vi­sion. We will have to ad­dress the chal­lenge of tech­no­log­i­cal un­em­ploy­ment and deskilling in some other way.5

5This es­say was sug­gested by my long­time friend Bob Sil­vers. I am sad that he is no longer here to give it the ben­e­fit of his wis­dom and in­ci­sive edit­ing. I miss him.

Work­ers at Trav­elKhana, an In­dian startup that books food or­ders for train pas­sen­gers, Noida, Ut­tar Pradesh, Septem­ber 2016

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