Charles Murray is an academic given to racist pseudoscience and an alleged meritocrat who embraces Sarah Palin, but politics make for strange bedfellows, so he’s currently aligned with liberal progressives and Silicon Valley libertarians in promoting Universal Basic Income.
Beyond the questions of if UBI is the right tack to take during the early stages of the Digital Age and whether it’s fiscally feasible, there’s the matter of how it would be executed if we were to do it. A hammer can be a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and UBI could be a means to mitigate a struggling Americans or it could be a punitive measure. Even a grandmother-murdering machine like P90X bro Paul Ryan might get excited about Basic Income should he be able to use it to dismantle all other safety nets, Social Security included. Even for retired folks who never made great salaries, replacing Social Security with a UBI check would markedly reduce their incomes, which are pretty bare existences to begin with.
Not really surprised that Murray is in this camp as well, hoping to seem like a big-hearted person worried about technological unemployment while he’s really jonesing to do away with the so-called “welfare state.” In his WSJ “Saturday Essay” on the topic, he writes, “The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare.” Think of all the jobs this would create in the funeral-parlor sector!
When people learn that I want to replace the welfare state with a universal basic income, or UBI, the response I almost always get goes something like this: “But people will just use it to live off the rest of us!” “People will waste their lives!” Or, as they would have put it in a bygone age, a guaranteed income will foster idleness and vice. I see it differently. I think that a UBI is our only hope to deal with a coming labor market unlike any in human history and that it represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.
The great free-market economist Milton Friedman originated the idea of a guaranteed income just after World War II. An experiment using a bastardized version of his “negative income tax” was tried in the 1970s, with disappointing results. But as transfer payments continued to soar while the poverty rate remained stuck at more than 10% of the population, the appeal of a guaranteed income persisted: If you want to end poverty, just give people money. As of 2016, the UBI has become a live policy option. Finland is planning a pilot project for a UBI next year, and Switzerland is voting this weekend on a referendum to install a UBI.
The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.
First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all other transfer payments and the bureaucracies that oversee them. If the guaranteed income is an add-on to the existing system, it will be as destructive as its critics fear.
Second, the system has to be designed with certain key features. In my version, every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. Three thousand dollars must be used for health insurance (a complicated provision I won’t try to explain here), leaving every adult with $10,000 in disposable annual income for the rest of their lives.•
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