Thinking Utopian: How about a universal basic income?

In light of the recent Oregon Medicaid study, several people have discussed the idea of taking parts of the social insurance system and replacing them with cash benefits. This naturally brings up the debate about whether it should be a policy goal for the United States to adopt a universal basic income (UBI). These poverty-level targeted incomes are universal and unconditional, so everyone would get them regardless of their income, status or work participation. Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews wrote an overview of universal basic incomes and some proposals for such a system last year.

(Flickr/ToGa Wanderings)

(Flickr/ToGa Wanderings)

Though establishing a basic income was once at the forefront of politics, it has since become more of a Utopian, abstract project. But sometimes it is helpful to step back from the day-to-day wonk work and think Utopian.

First, what are some advantages of providing a universal basic income? To those on the left, a UBI would create greater equality by ending poverty and providing a minimum living standard. It would also increase bargaining power for workers, who could demand better working conditions with a safety cushion. As Erik Olin Wright argues in Envisioning Real Utopias, such bargaining power “will generate an incentive structure for employers to seek technical and organizational innovations that eliminate unpleasant work,” which would “have not just a labor-saving bias, but a labor-humanizing bias.”

The fact that it is universal is crucial. This eliminates income traps that can cause severe work disincentives. A UBI answers the Foucauldian critique about the welfare state being a way for the state to stigmatize and control marginalized populations. There are no state officials determining whether or not a single mom “deserves” help or drug tests and other invasive, humiliating requirements. Others see UBI as a way of recognizing the value of decommodified caregiving and other cooperative, non-labor activities, by making sure there is space in the economy to both reward and carry them out.

Meanwhile, a few conservatives have advocated a form of basic income for a different set of reasons. The right likes basic income because it would allow for the removal of many overlapping and piecemeal government programs, such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, as well as programs the government directly runs. Charles Murray has advocated a universal basic income of $10,000 for every person, and paying for it by ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, virtually all transfer programs and certain tax breaks. Also, if you squint really hard, you could see a libertarian argument that a basic income compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

Eliminating poverty is an essential part of any egalitarian project, and a universal basic income could finish that in one move. But the question then becomes: What projects would still animate the left? And how would a universal basic income influence those projects?

One project would be to make sure merit goods are sufficiently provided to everyone who needs them. There are certain goods that we owe to each other -- education, health care, a secure retirement  -- and it isn’t clear that the private market is capable of providing a basic minimum across society. In addition, the government has unique abilities that allow it to provide these goods more efficiently. Medicare is able to hold down costs better than private insurance, and Social Security is working significantly better than 401(k)s or private pensions in providing income security in old age. These programs work very well, and as Ezra Klein noted, they are part of the solution, rather than the problem, to providing health care and security in old age.

If these programs were removed in a tradeoff to get a universal basic income, it would be a significant step back. So some people, like Barbara Bergmann here, think that we should focus on building a better system of social insurance and public goods with the government’s limited resources, rather than replacing it with a minimum income.

Another somewhat related focus of the left is the issue of decommodification, or whether certain goods should be provided through market logic. As Naomi Klein argued in "Reclaiming the Commons," one goal for the left is to oppose “the privatization of every aspect of life, and the transform­ation of every activity and value into a commodity.” This has a long history on the left; Daniel Rodgers argued that a major focus of early 20th century progressives was “to hold certain elements out of the market's processes, indeed to roll back those parts of the market whose social costs had proved too high.”

According to this line of thought, the goal isn’t to ensure a sufficient amount of market access and purchasing power, but instead to remove markets from the way people interface with certain goods, such as education or health care. As the welfare-state theorist Gøsta Esping-Andersen argued, decommodification is defined as a situation in which “a service is rendered as a matter of right, and when a person can maintain a livelihood without reliance on the market.” A UBI would delink survival and subsistence from the labor market, advancing this goal.

Another project is to expand the say workers have in their workplaces. This includes not only unionization, but also a more general project of democracy that doesn’t end once you walk through your employer’s door. As Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg and labor attorney Moshe Marvit have argued, labor organizing needs to be considered a basic civil right.

It seems clear that a universal basic income would help workers by giving them more bargaining power. But others worry that a UBI would encourage workers to leave the labor force rather than voice grievances and demands, and that it would make changing labor practices more difficult. For instance, some feminists argue that a universal basic income would simply reinforce and solidify an unjust gendered division of labor.

In addition to social insurance, the modern, post-New Deal state has two other large roles. There’s a regulatory role in setting the rules of markets and checking market failures. And there’s a macroeconomic role, offsetting the short-term business cycle and investing for long-term prosperity. A UBI would probably make little difference in the regulatory functions of the state, but it could revolutionize the macroeconomic ones. It’s an easy mechanism through which to stabilize aggregate demand using helicopter drops, and could force innovations and productivity gains by industry to balance out workers’ new power.

Given that we should consider it a major win if Congress makes it through the year without the GOP forcing a default on the national debt, right now doesn’t seem like the ideal time for Utopian thinking. But taking a moment to think Utopian shows that the core projects of balancing what markets do in our economy and the general commitment to democracy would still continue, and could even be amplified, with a universal basic income.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he focuses on financial regulation, inequality and unemployment. He writes a weekly column for Wonkblog. Follow him on twitter here.

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