Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Guaranteed Basic Income

I think this may be a good idea. [Link]
Activists in Europe, most notably in Switzerland, have succeeded at injecting the idea into mainstream political debate. A recent poll showed that it has the support of nearly half of Canadians. The president of Cyprus says he’ll launch a limited version of the scheme this summer. Brazil has been giving direct cash transfers to poor families ever since passing a basic income law in 2004; pilot programs have in recent years been carried out in India and Namibia.
In the United States, the idea of handing out unconditional government allowances is seen, understandably, as a nonstarter, despite enjoying some recent buzz among policy wonks. If nothing else, in today’s political environment, it just sounds too much like a socialist fantasy. But the idea has a deep legacy in the United States that almost uniquely stitches together figures on the left and right: Its prominent supporters have included Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith, and a version initially suggested by free-market economist Milton Friedman nearly became law under President Nixon. Recently, conservatives like Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve” and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, have stepped forward to support the idea; it’s also been embraced by the “Occupy”-affiliated academic David Graeber.
“You usually don’t have people from different ends of the political spectrum getting on board with the same sort of program,” said Brian Steensland, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and the author of the book “The Failed Welfare Revolution,” about how basic income went from being a marginal academic idea to a congressional bill and back again. “There’s just something in there that’s really appealing for people from a whole range of intellectual, philosophical, and economic perspectives.”
For pragmatists on the left, cash payments to all would be the fastest way to eradicate poverty, by making sure everyone, no matter their circumstances, has enough money to live on. For the utopian-minded, it holds the promise of a liberation from work—a way to make sure that the next John Lennon doesn’t have to waste all his time lifting boxes in a warehouse. For conservatives, it is a tool for rebuilding the bonds of civil society, putting people’s fortunes back in their own hands, and wiping out the messy, piecemeal, nanny-state safety net in one swoop.
At the moment, the idea is widely seen as too radical a departure from the status quo. Working out the mechanics would be a nightmare, and even that 8-year-old might suspect—rightly—that some people would just give up working. But even if the idea isn’t politically feasible in the short term, its proponents see it as the kind of deep-seated rethinking that may soon be needed to face a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution in our current system: that as technology, outsourcing, and other structural shifts transform our economy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that national prosperity does not necessarily mean there are enough good jobs for everyone who needs one.
In that light, the viability of a solution like the guaranteed basic income—and whether it can be made palatable to Americans for whom work ethic is a prized national value—ends up coming down less to politics than to the fundamental question of how we see the role of work both in the lives of individuals and in society as a whole.

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