Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. MillerOctober 02, 2019

In the 1520s, economic hardship forced destitute Europeans into the streets. In response, city governments banned begging and gave money to the poor. In the Belgian town of Ypres, a group of Franciscan and Dominican monks sued, saying the plan threatened mendicant brothers, who depended on charity. A theological court in Paris ruled that Ypres could keep its new social program—as long as begging for alms remained legal.

That decision helped give birth to the modern welfare state, from the so-called Poor Laws in 16th-century England and the first state pensions in 19th-century Germany to the New Deal in the 1930s and Europe’s post-World War II nanny states.

In Ypres, the church “was also concerned that somebody was challenging its monopoly on charity,” the Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs told me. “Also, the idea seemed too Protestant.” In Germany, a priest named Martin Luther had been recommending secular solutions to poverty.

If Mr. Van Parijs is an authority on the ancient theology of proposals becoming policy, it is because, for three decades, he has been one of the world’s chief priests of a revolutionary idea that could shake up people’s economic and moral lives far more than the town of Ypres’s modest initiative: cash for everybody, an idea known as universal basic income, or U.B.I.

Here is how U.B.I. would work. A government would raise enough money, through taxes and cuts in existing social programs, to give every single legal resident under its roof a regular cash allowance. Everybody would get this money, regardless of their wealth or income: you, your mom, Bill Gates. The payments would be made for life. There would be no requirement to work or prove good behavior or character to obtain the money. You could spend the money on college, fencing lessons, trips to Thailand, marijuana or your mortgage. And you could take any job you wanted—without a change in your U.B.I. stipend.

Under that umbrella, a range of possible payments and conditions has been considered, from an extra allowance of $1,000 a year while maintaining the current safety net to scrapping all existing welfare programs and paying people $2,000 a month.

The time is ripe for U.B.I., Mr. Van Parijs said, because the toxic combination of growing inequality, automation and a “more acute awareness of the ecological limits to growth” demands bold policy proposals that reinforce human freedom, justice and dignity.

Everybody would get this money, regardless of their wealth or income: you, your mom, Bill Gates.

It sounds woolly and utopian, but Mr. Van Parijs is no longer just an ivory tower thinker shouting into the wind. He has found an audience running scared from the robot revolution. According to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in 2017, half the world’s jobs could be automated using “currently demonstrated technologies,” amounting to “almost $15 trillion in wages.”

That would be an upheaval in people’s lives and the cause of painful shortages in lives around the world that could match the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Great Depression and World War II. Left unresolved, the chasm between the tech-savvy, robot-rich elite and the restless masses who are underpaid to cook, clean and drive for them is likely to keep getting wider, seeding damaging dystopias of riot and revolution.

Beyond the Welfare State

That is the main reason U.B.I. is having a moment, even if no country has yet made it national policy. A U.S. presidential candidate, the tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, has made U.B.I. a centerpiece of his campaign. Hillary Clinton thought about including it in her platform in 2016. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, promoted U.B.I. in a commencement speech at Harvard. There are pilot programs underway in places from India and Finland to Brazil and New Jersey. Switzerland came close to passing a U.B.I. law in a national referendum. A flurry of new books, including ones by Mr. Yang and Mr. Van Parijs, press the case.

“Never before has the time been so ripe for the introduction of a universal, unconditional basic income,” Rutger Bregman, a Dutch popular historian, writes in Utopia for Realists. “Greater flexibility in the workplace demands that we also create greater security.” The adage “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat” is now “abused as a license for inequality,” he concludes.

A U.B.I. would open a new, third chapter in the story of state aid for the economically excluded that began in 16th-century Europe. After public assistance, which helps the poor, and social insurance, which pools revenue to provide things like health care and pensions, U.B.I. would introduce the concept of a state dividend, a part of the communally generated wealth available to everybody. In the United States, where social programs usually involve giving services (like health care) or vouchers (like food stamps), handing out cash would mark a philosophical shift.

In the United States, where social programs usually involve giving services (like health care) or vouchers (like food stamps), handing out cash would mark a philosophical shift.

“We benefit very unequally from what was freely given us by nature, technological progress, capital accumulation, social organization, civility rules, and so on,” Mr. Van Parijs writes in his excellent and authoritative treatment with Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income. “What a basic income does is ensure that everyone receives a fair share of what none of us today did anything for, of the huge present very unequally incorporated in our incomes.”

Left-Right Appeal

Matt Bruenig, the founder of the People’s Policy Project, a Washington-based, left-wing think tank, estimates the United States controls $100 trillion of collective wealth, including land, resources like oil and copper, and intellectual property. “If we owned the country’s wealth collectively you could just pay everybody a dividend from that wealth out of a common fund,” he told me.

Despite its appeal to Mr. Bruenig and others on the left, U.B.I. is also attractive to many conservative thinkers, a right-left synch that gives U.B.I. a fighting chance. Libertarians argue that it emphasizes freedom while redistributing wealth more efficiently and fairly. “U.B.I. is far less paternalistic than traditional welfare, which often treats the poor like 10-year-olds receiving an allowance,” Michael Tanner, a fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote this year.

And with capitalism having beaten communism last century, policymakers in this one are looking for solutions that are redistributive but also permit open markets and consumer choice.

Policymakers are looking for solutions that are redistributive but also permit open markets and consumer choice.

The first explicit case for a U.B.I.-type scheme was made by the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Paine in his book Agrarian Justice, published in 1796. He proposed a “national fund” to pay everybody 15 pounds when they turned 21, and 10 pounds a year to everybody over 50. “It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for,” wrote Paine.

In the United States, U.B.I. first gained significant popularity in the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a “guaranteed income.” The dignity of the individual, he said, “will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon proposed a so-called negative income tax: The government sets a minimum revenue level and pays people the difference between that and their income. Over 1,000 economists, including the libertarian icon Milton Friedman, supported the idea, but it did not get through Congress.

Catholic Social Teaching and U.B.I.

The current wave of enthusiasm seems to have a better chance of generating actual policy. Bishops and other church leaders are following the debate over U.B.I. but will not make an explicit endorsement. “There is no Catholic economic system,” Charles Clark, a professor of economics at St. John’s University in New York City, wrote in a paper published in 2017. “The church tries to engage and humanize any social order it finds itself in; it does not seek a theocracy.”

“The church tries to engage and humanize any social order it finds itself in; it does not seek a theocracy.”

But U.B.I., he and other theologians told me, seems to match the core principle of Catholic social teaching that everybody deserves enough to live on.

U.B.I. follows the thinking of key documents like “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical that affirmed the right to a living wage and to unionize. It is important, the pope said, “to look upon the world as it really is.”

A commentary St. John Paul II wrote marking the 100th anniversary of that encyclical, called “Centesimus Annus,” foreshadows our current anxiety: “A traditional society was passing away and another was beginning to be formed, one which brought the hope of new freedoms but also the threat of new forms of injustice and servitude.”

One of the biggest fears around a policy that pays people no matter what they do is its impact on work. Studies indicate U.B.I. schemes do not hurt employment. Still, there is something about giving people money for nothing that, to many, feels disordered and joyless. In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes, “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” In Genesis, God says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.”

The New Testament, however, also affirms our dignity as children of God no matter what we do with our days. In Lk 12:24, Jesus says: “Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds!”

One of the biggest fears around a policy that pays people no matter what they do is its impact on work.

And it is easy to forget that Genesis was not referring to office work. “Work in the Catholic tradition means all valuable human activity,” said Kate Ward, a professor of theology at Marquette University. A U.B.I. “raises the question of celebrating the value and the dignity of work.” That includes things like rearing a child, gardening and volunteering at a homeless shelter. “It’s anything where we emulate God’s creativity. U.B.I. is a great way to provide a safety net for everybody and allow that,” she said. “Catholic thought has always had a suspicion that some jobs are alienating to human nature.” A U.B.I. would give workers leverage to refuse jobs that demean them.

Critics and Skeptics

To be sure, some theologians are skeptical about U.B.I. “It is well intentioned, but I think this would be an enormous mistake because it doesn’t display a preferential option for the poor,” said David Cloutier, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America. “For us to say we’re going to accept an economy where people don’t work is troubling.” If current welfare schemes are flawed, he said, “we should fix those problems instead of giving money to people who don’t need it.”

Compared to existing programs, a U.B.I. would direct “a much larger share of funds to younger, non-disabled workers and to families without children,” Hilary Hoynes and Jesse Rothstein of the University of California Berkeley write in a deep analysis of U.B.I. published last year.

Their paper reflects the skepticism of many economists about U.B.I.

A basic income with meaningful revenues would be too expensive, these critics say. If you gave $1,000 a month to every American, that would cost almost $4 trillion, 60 percent more than the current level of social welfare spending. “The kinds of U.B.I.s often discussed would nearly double current total spending on the ‘big three’ programs,” Ms. Hoynes and Mr. Rothstein write, referring to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The government would have to increase tax rates and cut existing welfare programs, a tough political sell.

If you gave $1,000 a month to every American, that would cost almost $4 trillion, 60 percent more than the current level of social welfare spending.

And, to be sure, in the short term, there is still little chance that U.B.I. could be a viable political platform in any country. Switzerland came the closest to implementing a guaranteed basic income scheme, but in 2016 the plan was defeated at the ballot box. In polls, Europeans are mildly enthusiastic and Americans downright skeptical.

U.B.I. could also flood the economy with too much cash, triggering inflation. Supporters say the trick here is to not simply print money but rather maintain current rates of tax and redistribution. A stable money supply is not supposed to cause inflation. In addition, they say the increase in the number of people who can afford consumer goods will stimulate growth in supply.

A U.B.I. plan would force authorities to adopt tougher immigration policies. You cannot hand out cash and not expect the world to knock on your door. A nation or community implementing a U.B.I. is likely to attract interest from migrants, not all of whom it could admit. Even liberal proponents of U.B.I. would endorse new immigration restrictions.

“A citizens’ income, like the right to vote, would be limited to those who are citizens,” explains Mr. Clark, the St. John’s economist. “The moral requirement is that we welcome the stranger, not that we make them citizens.”

Experiments and Evidence

Not surprisingly, some of the firmest supporters of U.B.I. control the tech companies automating and imperilling jobs. In a commencement speech to Havard in 2017, the Facebook founder Mr. Zuckerberg said:

Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like G.D.P., but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.

We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.

In his book The War on Normal People, Mr. Yang, who remains a longshot candidate in the 2020 presidential race, argues that every American over 18 should receive $1,000 a month, a program he calls the “Freedom Dividend.” Mr. Yang concedes the plan would be pricey but not as expensive as, say, a revolution. He would pay for it by cutting back spending on welfare programs and imposing a 10 percent value-added tax. In Europe, he points out, many countries have V.A.T.s around 20 percent.

A U.B.I., Mr. Yang argues, would allow Americans who lose their jobs to artificial intelligence to retrain, empower women working at home and promote “the things that make us human” over corporate profits. Under most current welfare schemes, recipients receive a monthly check. When they get a job, that money stops. A basic income scheme would let them keep their government allowance, giving them, some argue, more of an incentive to work. A basic income would allow governments to save money in the administration of its other social welfare programs because they would no longer have to choose who gets help and who does not.

There is also a feminist argument in favor of basic income. A large amount of work never gets compensated, like taking care of children and managing the home. Most of that work is done by women. Under a basic income plan, women “would benefit far more than men,” said Mr. Van Parijs, and it would “reduce the pro-male bias in the distribution of earnings and of social insurance benefits.”

A useful explainer on the economic arguments around U.B.I. is Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded, by Guy Standing, a British economist who has collaborated with Mr. Van Parijs.

U.B.I has never been implemented in a national economy, so economists study its potential impact by looking at smaller-scale cash transfers, as well as current pilot programs. The results are mostly encouraging, although skeptics point out that it would be impossible to scale up targeted short-term programs to every single citizen.

U.B.I has never been implemented in a national economy, so economists study its potential impact by looking at smaller-scale cash transfers, as well as current pilot programs.

In Alaska, for example, residents have received allowances from the state’s oil revenues, typically $1,000 to $2,000 per year per person, meaning $8,000 for a family of four. An analysis of those payments by economists found that the checks did not decrease people’s willingness to work and actually increased part-time work.

In the 1970s in Dauphin, Canada, as part of an academic research project, residents were offered the equivalent of around $20,000 a year for a family of four. Total work hours declined a few percentage points, but domestic violence, hospitalizations and drop-out rates all declined, according to academic research.

In Europe, unlike the United States, governments have long experimented with cash transfers. In the 1990s, my parents received $3,000 a month in today’s dollars from the Belgian government as part of a policy aimed at increasing birth rates. The cash meant my mother could cut down on her part-time work and spend more time at home.

There is a famous example of an American cash transfer program: the G.I. Bill. After World War II, over 15 million soldiers received a free college education, zero-interest loans and cash, $20 a week for up to a year. That amounted to 15 percent of the federal budget in 1948, but the program paid for itself many times over in tax revenues.

In this decade, as U.B.I. and other cash transfer programs have become more fashionable, a growing number of nongovernmental organizations and governments are adopting cash transfer programs as a preferred way of helping impoverished people.

There is a famous example of an American cash transfer program: the G.I. Bill.

In Kenya, a charity called GiveDirectly has given money to residents in several hundred villages. In her book Give People Money, the journalist Annie Lowrey describes how the program has helped residents improve their education and health and start businesses.

One man named Fredrick Omondi Auma, she writes, used the money to patch “up his life and, as an economist might put it, made the jump from labor to capital.” He bought his own motorbike to give taxi rides and “started a small business selling soap, salt, and paraffin in a local town center; bought two cows, one of whom had given birth; and opened a barbershop in the coastal city of Mombasa.”

Most important, the money liberated people from the vicious stress that poverty imposes on people, limiting their self-esteem and dreams. As Ms. Lowrey points out, a study by researchers at Princeton University concluded that financial stress, on average, can create “a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep.”

In Finland, the government recently tried removing conditions from a sample of welfare recipients. A number of people received their welfare checks without having to prove they were looking for a job. “In the short term, they were less motivated, but over time, they became more motivated than average,” said Mr. Van Parijs.

A Utopian Campaign

When I was looking for sources for this story, I discovered that one of the people I most wanted to talk to resides two blocks from my parents in Northeast Brussels.

In July, I was visiting my family, and the 68-year-old Mr. Van Parijs, whose wispy white hair and cropped beard suggest a Hollywood wizard, invited me over for a chat in his townhouse garden. It was a breezy, warm summer evening. Birds chirped. The professor welcomed me with his wife Sue—together, they have four grown children—and poured me a Chimay, a thick, dark ale brewed by Belgian monks.

U.B.I. seems like a good idea but may be too utopian by nature?

Mr. Van Parijs is not a businessman or politician but an Oxford University philosopher who has also taught at Harvard. He is also a dreamer who loves cycling and, in Brussels, is known for a successful campaign to ban cars downtown. He calls himself a “non-believing Christian.” It was while teaching at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve in 1986 that he co-founded the Basic Income European Network, or BIEN, which is French for “good.”

U.B.I., I started, seems like a good idea but may be too utopian by nature?

“Many things were utopian by nature to start,” he answered. The right of women and poor people to vote, for example. “You couldn’t go anywhere to study universal suffrage before it was introduced, but there were still people campaigning for it.”

But what about unintended consequences, I asked. This would change incentives for everybody.

“You could say that the existence of our pension system has had a massive impact on our societies by giving a feeling of security throughout a career,” he said. “But it started very modestly,” he explained, referring to Otto von Bismark in 19th-century Germany. “It was totally utopian until Bismark introduced state pensions. And that seemed to work, so they increased the levels. And the French said if the Germans can do it, we can do better. And that’s how it started.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nora Bolcon
4 years 6 months ago

This is an excellent article. I do believe we may want to consider this idea seriously in the USA.

It is a shame how many people seem to live to work on jobs they hate because they feel stuck. This is a waste of what people do best - create, imagine and invent.

I do not like the various comments how women will be so much happier to stay home with kids if they are paid to do so. The correct result should be that the parent who is most desiring to be the homemaker (not necessarily moms - or not in my case -I had the chance - No thanks! but my husband wished we could afford to have him stay home instead of send our kids to daycare.) So we still need to mature on the issue - women are not more naturally nurturing than men. This belief is false and is a harmful stereotype which cages women.

This article reminds me of Sweden who pays its people actual salaries to go to college and get Masters degrees and doctorate degrees and they come out debt free (or they used to). My friend who lived in Sweden during this time said she never met a poor or uneducated Swede.

Bill Niermeyer
4 years 6 months ago

Absolutely rediculous. Scrapping all existing welfare programs and paying people $2,000 a month. These people do not want to work to begin with so paying them to sit in front of their TV's or on the street corner causing trouble does nothing but harm to the common good. Also paying those with means is unfair for those who are already poor. The poor would not be helped at all by a program like this since it would also encourage them to not work but live off the common teet.

Christopher Lochner
4 years 6 months ago

"These people do not want to work..." So, have you met anyone to whom you can attribute this sloth? Or are you just being nasty and belittling a group because you are doing so well? We just had the Scriptural reading concerning Lazarus; are you the rich man?

Judith Jordan
4 years 6 months ago

Bill Niermeyer--
The majority of people on welfare are children and the elderly. What jobs would you propose for them?

Nora Bolcon
4 years 6 months ago

Actually, most people want to work in some area, especially if they are not raising a bunch of kids (in which case, that can be a full-time job itself).

In Sweden, they pay (or they used to a few years back) the citizens full tuition for all college and graduate degrees and even multiple graduate degrees and the government also pays, for the students, a living wage salary, while in school. This allows the students to concentrate on their studies and often people would gain multiple graduate degrees. Sweden had this alongside other benefits like universal healthcare, and government funded daycare. The result of this was a highly educated population that could easily find extremely lucrative work anywhere in the world.

When people can just learn, and create (if they are more of the inventor sort of person), and work in fields they truly care about, they often achieve far more for themselves than if they must produce just to survive. Also, because people usually have natural talent most for the work they enjoy, being able to afford to do what truly excites and fascinates the person, often ends up with the best skilled people doing what matters in society. I would much rather have the heart surgeon whose passion is heart surgery than go to the heart surgeon who could best afford the schooling and wanted to be wealthy so he/she became a heart surgeon. So this is how these methods also help the country. The country ends up with the best skilled and most passionate specialists in every field making it to the top of their fields for the betterment of all.

People get lazy on welfare because they barely make enough to pay for cheap food and an apt,. in a not great neighborhood, and they see no way to get adequate schooling, training, or opportunities to work in positions they actually like and ones that pay a good wage and give them a chance to succeed. Also, with most welfare programs, if you start a job and begin making a little bit more than poverty level funds, in the U.S., we cut you off welfare and all your benefits immediately. So, in the U.S., many just stop trying to succeed.

With some of these "pay everyone a livable base salary", especially if universal health care and day care is already in effect too, then there is purpose to trying, hoping, and bettering yourself so you can have a great future for yourself and your family.

I don't see any of these "base salary to all" plans working if we do not have universal health coverage already in place as well. $2,000 a month is what some people pay over a couple of months time if they have poor quality health insurance or no insurance at all so without healthcare cost taken care of many will not succeed on just Universal Base Salaries the same is true of daycare costs. That is rather like putting your finger in one leaking hole only to have the dike spring a leak somewhere else.

James Schwarzwalder
4 years 6 months ago

Let's see. Does Saudi Arabia have a guaranteed basic income for all? How is that working out? Do they import foreign labor so native Saudi's don't have to work? Perhaps we should remove Saint Joseph the Worker feast day from the liturgical calendar. I thought Saint John Paul II was really into the "Dignity of Work." Let's see now what this cash could be spent on. Cigarettes, marijuana, booze, gambling, pornography, donations to Planned Parenthood, and the list goes on and on. The flip side of a UBI would be a personal individual tax cut or tax credit. Oh, we can't push that in America Magazine, that's too Republican an idea. How about depositing UBI into a 401K for everyone starting at birth? Why bother with taxing the public to pay for UBI? Just have the Federal Reserve make a book keeping entry and either roll the presses printing money or just do a direct deposit into every citizens bank account. It's only a computer entry anyway.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

It cannot work because it doesn’t solve the basic problem, making sure all who can are contributing. Wealth is not something that exist on trees or in the ground but the total production of a society. This will lead to less. It also depends on a regressive tax system. So my guess is that in a short time people will figure both these things out out and there will be wide resentment. Sounds good though. Free money always does. That is what Willie Sutton said on why he robbed banks.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

If you took all the money from all the billionaires in the United States you wouldn’t have enough to pay the deficit for even one year. Sorry folks money doesn’t grow on trees. There is not a major poverty problem in the United States any way. If you disagree then let’s discuss that. There will always be people that have it very hard. But just how many and what is meant by hard?

Vincent Gaglione
4 years 6 months ago

“…. making sure all who can are contributing…” What exactly do you mean?
By most standards what we find in the USA are wealthy corporations and individuals flouting communal responsibilities by finding ways to circumvent their social obligations under the tax laws. Even the poorest people in the USA pay proportionally more taxes, in other words a greater tax burden, than their wealthy fellow citizens through sales taxes. I hope you concur and that’s what your statement meant.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

Thank you for asking what I meant. I wasn’t talking about taxes but production of goods and services. The wealth of a society is its total production of which all share in some way. Wealth is not money. Money is a claim on these goods. If the system encourages less production there will be less wealth and then the money will have less value.

Jerome Kiley
4 years 6 months ago

This topic really interests me, and I'd be glad to discuss it more somewhere.
I have a problem with the whole thesis, as it's missing - as I find most analyses of economic policies today do - a most important aspect of modern money. Namely, since gradually being detached from commodities over the 20th century, US currency has no intrinsic value. So, we can't talk about it in absolute terms, only in relative terms. Giving everyone $1000 is the same as giving everyone $1M, is the same as giving everyone $0. It is the same as giving everyone $x, where x can be any number. It makes no difference, because although everyone ends up with x more dollars, everyone ends up with the same relative dollar value that they started with. (This is also lost in the minimum wage theme, from people who are both for and against.)

I notice that the author compares the proposed UBI to a work in 1796 about justice, while ignoring the reality that money in those days had an absolute value. It could be exchanged - by guarantee of the government - for some fixed commodity. (That is, if the money wasn't made of a commodity (gold, silver) itself that had intrinsic value.) Paper currency was, essentially, a deed to property owned by the government. And so, to give people a minimum amount of money from the govt was to give them property from the government.

Today's US currency is no longer a deed to any property at all. It is simply a number attached to a low-value piece of paper, or to a coin made out of a low value commodity, or simply to an electronic digit of light on a screen. And those papers and coins and digits can be printed and fabricated extremely cheaply and quickly, so the amount of actual money can be raised practically at will and without any cost. This couldn't be done when those bills had to be backed by actual property!

The effect is that money supply is completely unhinged from anything absolute, and it is simply a number that can be fluidly increased at will. The bottom line effect is that prices are free to rise without limit! Salaries, prices, wages - everything monetary can keep rising without limit! Back in 1796, money represented real things, and the more money you had, the more of those actual things you had. (And there were limits to those things, which created a connection to !) But now, money is just a number relative to the moving target of prices, which are set in the market by competition (i.e., how much your neighbors have), soooo … everything is relative. This is the important point that makes UBI a very bad idea.

Nothing about our present-day money is ever absolute - everything is now *relative*. No matter how much you increase the minimum (in this case, the minimum starting income for everyone; in the case of the minimum wage, the minimum hourly income for workers), everything will just *shift upwards relative to it* and *nothing will change* as far as purchasing power. When everyone has more money, it doesn't mean that everyone has more purchasing power. The money supply can be correspondingly adjusted according to market demands by the will of government-guided institutions, to continue whichever monetary policies they have been embracing, and this allows prices to simply shift commensurately upward with the increase in everyone's cash in hand.

Let's say you and 3 other people each have $100,000 and are bidding on a house to buy. The sale price will be a bit over $100k, right? (depending on how much one of the bidders can stretch beyond their means.) But now let's say you give everyone an extra $10k. Well, then, the price would be just over 100 + 10 k, as the bidders would simply *all* have an extra $10k. And they wouldn't be able to move 'up' to a better house at $110k, because the folks who had been bidding on *that* house would *also* get an extra 10k, and would bid up that price to over $120k. And so on and so on. The overall effect is just a *shift in numbers and no change in tangible results*. There's no redistribution of property. In fact, take all those numbers I mentioned and multiply the numbers by 10, and the situation has not changed at all.

What makes the UBI worse is the proposal to couple it with a reduction in direct assistance to poorer people. That assistance is actually something that can have an effect, because it is *selective* assistance, meaning it changes the amount of money the poor have *relative* to others.
In sum, UBI is a bad idea. I would support a minimum allowance of *property*, but not of money. The value in present-day currency is not how much money you have. It's how much you have *relative to others*. Although any fiscal policy change can shake out some minor short-term effects during its transition (opportunities for opportunists like the given African example), giving everyone the same chunk of money has no effect on anything in the long run. And any working on limits to *minimums* (wage, or allowance) has absolutely no effect without also - get ready for the American blasphemy - working on limits to the *maximums*. Finding a creative and fair way to give people a property allowance could do that. "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low." (Lk 3:5)

4 years 6 months ago

Jerome you make a good point, but you forget that this is a redistribution of wealth, not printing more money. It's money already in the economy and it's locked up in liquidity of the top income earners of the country. They are not spending it on basic things. They've taken care of that long ago. They are reinvesting and getting richer and richer at an exponential rate that technology allows.

There are more regular people than these all stars. A UBI gives the middle and lower class more purchasing power. It's the working class that creates markets that drive the economy.

People who don't want to work will always be existing. People who have families and want to work hard to achieve their dreams for their families are much greater in number.

lynne miller
4 years 6 months ago

My thinking exactly! Instead of reducing the amount currently given in welfare or other programs, institute a tax on the wealth of the upper several percent, thereby reducing (a little) the income discrepancy that is so terrible in this country.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

Eventually in a couple years the wealth will disappear. Money represents the total production of society. This system will not encourage people to produce more but actually less.. So the government will start deciding who should produce what and all the problems of socialism will set in and oppression and chaos will result. You need a system that encourages productivity. This is not it.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

All the wealth from all the billionaires would pay for about 1 year and then there would be no billionaires left. Then it would be the multi millionaires but this will run out too in a short time. Sounds nice but cannot possibly work. Right now most of the so called poor are well off by global standards and certainly by past standards. Maybe what has been happening till now is the answer.

Crystal Watson
4 years 6 months ago

It's a good idea and from what I've read, it would be a successful way to raise people from poverty. Most well-off conservatives have no idea what it's like to be poor or the difference just a little extra cash could make. And they wouldn't care, because they are so stuck in the puritan work ethic (and the deserving luck ethic) that their heads explode when poor people got no-strings help from the government.

Michael Bindner
4 years 6 months ago

The way economists recommend to get people out of poverty is to give them more money. The question is how.

Michael Bindner
4 years 6 months ago

The negative income tax originated with Milton and Rose Freidman. It became the Child Tax Credit. With the EITC, it is the biggest chunk of family support spending. Still, it is not adequate. It should be refundable, distributed with pay and be adequate for a middle class lifestyle, roughly $1000 per month. Now THAT'S PRO-LIFE! Mothers or fathers at home should also get a refundable tax credit.

UBI has a doctor problem. Everything cannot be automated. Until no one must work, every one who can should either be working or working on themselves through free education from ESL to MPA and no citizenship requirement. Either way, the wage or stipend should be at least $20 per hour. Tax subsidies for low wage labor are a transfer to employers and their customers, especially to the CEO class. Investors only get a normal profit. When worker wages are kept low, upper and middle management get the spoils. Minimum wages and higher marginal tax rates stop that incentive.

The response to automation will only occur when there is no peasant labor to exploit. The best way to deal with both is employee-ownership and control of the workplace, with cooperative consumption, education, finance, medicine and human services, possibly using a much more democratic Church as a partner. This system would be internationalized by employee-owners with subsidiaries and supply chains. Once that occurs, we can shift from war to space exploration. Every military pilot would rather be an astronaut.

And the wealthy? The debt is not a per capita thing. Liability for it is based on ability to pay income tax. Paying too little now puts the children of the rich on the hook, not the public.

Historically, the factor between income tax and national debt is between 6 and 9. It is currently 13. Using most recent data (updated tax distribution data comes in November) has the top 0.1% on the hook for $3.5 Trillion. The next 0.9 for the same (total top 1% is $7T). The next 9% owe $6T. The next 40% owe $5T. The bottom half owe $570 Billion. The top 1409 families alone owe $610 Billion. $40 Billion more than 70,000,000 households! Of course, some says this shows that the poor should pay more. What it actually shows that the poor are not paid enough to owe more. Stressing debt liability by the rich will have them fight for equality on their own.

Michael Bindner
4 years 6 months ago

And yes, I have a book or 10 about how to do this.

Michael Bindner
4 years 6 months ago

Note that MLK was exploring the concepts of Henry George, which funded a citizens dividend from a 100% Land Value Tax. George did not like Pope Leo's approach. Chesterton did, which started a movement called Distributism, focusing on subsidiarity and solidarity. Major Douglass pushed Social Credit, which had adherents in western Canada. Cooperatives are also on the menu, from the Farm Bureaus and Land O Lakes (both started by my great grandfather, Silas Locke Allen and his associates) to Mondragon. The ESOP movement and Silicon Valley tech businesses are an echo of this movement.

Silas was a Lincoln Republican, rather than a Taft Republican. Note that much of Lincoln's program is an echo of, not a reaction to, Marx. Indeed, Lincoln and Marx corresponded.

Jim Smith
4 years 6 months ago


Jim Smith
4 years 6 months ago

How discreet and low key is the way this article presents the topic.

Not so me. I am sure it is evil and harmful and will resist with my last breath any effort to introduce it into the country of my birth and residence.

Essentially it is global scheme of printing and distributing money not backed by assets and not created by labour and energy.

Hyperinflation, food scarcity and civil war. Look at Venezuela.

Michael Bindner
4 years 6 months ago

Agreed, power must be distributed, not just money.

The current global scheme is Bitcoin. The fact's value is soaring proves it is a Ponzi scheme. You can even buy bitcoin at a supermarket coin collector.

Jozef Schmidt
4 years 6 months ago

The basic unconditional income is from title related to the reality of automation. It is not a social benefit. The basic problems of automation are:
* concerned groups with a parallel network offering income, recruited from those who have not accepted or lost their employment in automation process
* overall change in the content of management activities
* the emergence of a whole new type of theoretization and education, not yet taken, you see that automation brings with it information technology, which will mean a change in school education
These already existing problems solves the basic unconditional income.

Jozef Schmidt
4 years 6 months ago

I am grateful for publishing article, because Huff.Post, or Basicincom.org, or the open Wiki ignored my post. If the article was general I would not say here, but I did not record suchlike and solution view anywhere. So I consider it a censorship of free innovative ideas.

The importance of the approach I put forward in the article is therefore that automation in Basic income, from the beginning of automation, leads for first time to positive advance effect on us as direct supply.

Mike Macrie
4 years 6 months ago

Will never pass in the US, the distribution like tax cuts would not likely be equal but distributed out based on income earned. In other words, the Rich gets Richer and the Poor gets Poorer.
A better idea would be to provide Universal Health Care to all Americans to keep Americans Healthy to work and volunteer in jobs that Americans don’t want to do now. A Government Jobs program would also be better where people are paid for work done. If you ever rode Amtrack and looked at the garbage along the tracks approaching cities, you would see meaningful work needed to clean up our environment.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 years 6 months ago

Bill Gates had a better suggestion for dealing with AI dislocation. Impose a tax on the machines which take away jobs to keep funded not only current benefits promised but to enable the targeted expansion of training programs for dislocated workers.

E. Commerce
4 years 6 months ago

I think there is merit in considering this. There are pros and cons to ponder. How do people on Social Security currently spend their time? Some volunteer, some get depressed. Some travel. Some begin new careers. Some fade away. The idea of basic income de-links personal survival from servitude to a job. What is left is what you do because you actually want to do it. Automation is a real threat to our economic system in terms of paying jobs. It is also potentially a great, liberating thing for humanity, where a world can be envisioned with all the stuff needed for survival, and people with time available to distribute it, so poverty potentially could end. Yet, if the nanny state feeds all, it can also fail to do so. What then? Will we have robbed ourselves of the inner strength we need to survive? How has communism fared? It would be a social experiment with huge, and maybe irreversible implications.

Crystal Watson
4 years 6 months ago

We can see this somewhat in people who are wealthy. Having unlimited money means you have almost unlimited options and choices. The choices people make when they can choose anything reveals who they are ... Trump, for instance, is a greedy tyrant, while others are philanthropists.

Douglas Fang
4 years 6 months ago

UBI will one day come, but I don’t think it is feasible yet for some time. The supply and demand are too unbalanced today for UBI. In many science fiction novels, the concept of UBI is very popular. In the future, as service and manufacturing will be so complicated that it will be done mostly by robots and a few experts, there will be not enough jobs for everyone that wants to work. The majority of the population will live on UBI and there is a term for them: “the basics”.


Stanley Kopacz
4 years 6 months ago

Robots can build televisions but robots don't buy televisions. THAT does not add up. And now AI. It's ok to require people to work if work exists for people to do. But this isn't the world in which I grew up.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

At the moment, there are more jobs than people. And infrastructure rehab/building has not gotten off the table. The last 150 years have been one creative destruction after another with major dislocations and then employment in new areas. May come to an end but the US has been here before. An aside: three restaurants near where I live have closed because of lack of help and a local landscaper said he could get to us next May. Not enough workers.

James Schwarzwalder
4 years 6 months ago

I am somewhat surprised at the the volume of pessimistic thinking regarding how robots are going to make human work largely obsolete. The U.S. is largely a "services economy" with manufacturing and agricultural employment a small percentage or fraction of what it once was. Finance, Insurance, Real Estate, Research, Medical, Engineering, Science etc. have created an enormous number of new jobs. People are creative and new industries come "on line" all the time. I don't think that advocates of the Green New Deal intend everyone to sit on a park bench enjoying the scenery while collecting a UBI. Then again maybe they do.

Charles Erlinger
4 years 6 months ago

I would like to offer a different approach to analysis of the universal basic income idea. The approach simply inquires whether the proposed solution is relevant to the proposed problem.

The first five or six paragraphs of Mr. Miller’s report are devoted to laying down the major premise that advances in automation and technology in general are causing fear. But fear is a response to perceived loss of something dear and highly valued. In this case the thing of value is jobs, presumably jobs currently remunerated by money or other tangible means of survival.

The minor premise is that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a substitute for money or other tangible means of survival otherwise made available through work at jobs.

The conclusion is that UBI, therefore, allays the fear generated by the actual or potential loss of jobs due to advances in technology including the automation of jobs.

The soundness of this approach, it seems to me, is dependent on the major premise, that is, whether fear is well founded that advances in technology and automation necessarily and without exception cause that which is feared as laid out in the major premise. It is the necessariness and exceptionless characteristic which would qualify this assertion as being universal enough to be offered as a major premise justifying a purported universal conclusion.

In the 1970’s just as data processing was transitioning from the punch card or paper tape input to the computer department for overnight processing by batch programs to produce finished reports of detailed calculations and even impressive summary documents suitable to be place on the chief executive’s desk, the desk top terminal was being made available to clerks and professionals alike in the accounting and financial analysis and reporting departments of corporations large and small.

Something very similar was happening in scientific, engineering and manufacturing environments.

Subject matter experts in activities as different one from another as customer service representatives interacting simultaneously with customers on the phone and the computer which was sometimes far away, on the one hand, and aerospace engineers interacting simultaneously with satellites aloft via radio telemetry and computers on the ground, also sometimes far away, could be observed almost everywhere one cared to look.

Computer and communications hardware and software systems were being sold for millions of dollars on the assurance by sales reps that hundreds of jobs and their associated wage and benefit costs would be eliminated, and elaborate “payback time” models were developed and displayed in attractive brochures. Skepticism by boards of directors was swept away as investments were approved.

Some wise business leaders in close contact with the second most important stakeholder group in their enterprises, namely the employees, understood that it would be prudent to bring the employees on board the moving train of technology change early, anticipate that jobs would be changing in character if not in number, and opened opportunities to those who were not afraid, to undergo cross training into the new occupations that were developed.

In the meantime, enterprising graduate students looking for dissertation topics in Economics discovered that research into the impact of technology change on aggregate employment opportunity totals offered a lot of promise. After a relatively short period of research, papers began to be published indicating that, while work had certainly changed, aggregate job numbers did not change proportionately. And eventually what became evident was that the most prudent of the industry leaders had prepared their employees by investing in them in the form of subsidized education and literally free on the job classroom training at full salary.

On the other hand less far sighted employers faced employee and community unrest and sometimes overt opposition.

Community local governments reacted to the changing environment in similarly different ways. Some funded local junior colleges, often with assistance from local business, to offer college level training for the previously non-existent types of jobs that were replacing or drastically altering ways of work in local industries. These efforts carried some communities not only through periods when technology was drastically changing the nature of the work available, but also through minor business downturns and recessions. I once asked a junior college teacher who was teaching a technically challenging subject to both day and evening classes during a recession, whether the students were experiencing difficulty finding work. He said “Are you kidding me? I have employers calling me every day looking for students graduating from my classes.”

Other local governments did virtually nothing. Their towns now feature boarded up storefronts and abandoned dwellings.

I could go on, but will end by suggesting that the premise used to justify UBI be examined a bit more critically.

The latest from america

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinApril 17, 2024
A student works in his "Writing Our Catholic Faith" handwriting book during a homeschool lesson July 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register)
Legally, the students at St. John Bosco are considered homeschooled. But their in-person school days, during which the students wear uniforms, are much like those at any other small school.
Laura LokerApril 17, 2024
In a speech at his weekly general audience, Pope Francis said that the cardinal virtue of temperance “lets one enjoy the goods of life better.”
Pope FrancisApril 17, 2024
Organizers of the archdiocese‘s restructuring process have pointed out that there are far more seats available in the pews in the city than people attending Mass, and there are more funerals than baptisms.