June 14, 2017

#BasicIncome: ONE tool in a working-class arsenal, no more

Basic income. Can it really be “the thing” to address what ails the American working class, as well as the gray- and white-collar middle class?

I offered up my initial thoughts a couple of weeks ago, and since then, have had further time to reflect, and further stimulation to do so.

A number of further thoughts on basic income have been provoked by this excellent piece from the Boston Review and the nearly dozen responses to it.

Basically, it has sharpened and deepened my thoughts about what types of basic or guaranteed income are good, and what are not. It’s also, skeptically, sharpened my thoughts on its likelihood, especially that of a non-libertarian version.

It’s also sharpened other thoughts.

I’m afraid that some touters of basic, or guaranteed, income, view it as “the tool” in the arsenal to fix all the problems of late Western capitalism. It’s not.

And, if you’re at the point where every employment-related problem, let alone larger workforce and income problem, seems like a nail and GI seems like your hammer, you’re probably going to have problems.

Scott Santens, while he seems nice and earnest, also may be an "everything's a nail" person on this issue.

And, the hunger for people to read about and hear about basic income? That still doesn't justify an "everything's a nail" approach.

On the other hand, with this primer about how basic income will not be inflationary, he at least seems to give a hat tip to problems not readily addressable by BI.

That said, enough about Scott for now. While he’s a visible evangelist for basic income, this blog post is about Brishen Rogers’ thoughtson basic income in Boston Review, to repost the link, approximately a dozen responses to him, and my thoughts on the whole schmeer. Let’s dive in.

Rogers notes that in both the original piece and his response to the critiques. BI or GI has to be one tool that’s part of a broader arsenal. And, for the rights of labor, especially here in the US where both Republican and neoliberal Democrats have seen fit for its powers to continue to be gutted, GI is not going to address that. 

I largely agree. Basic income will not be big enough to provide major leverage to workers on a variety of issues, whether minimum wage, their own personal working conditions, job safety or other things. For smart, conscientious employees, it may be a moderate catalyst to a fulcrum they've already developed through other means, but that's about it.

With those notes on Rogers' essay (without by any means claiming that's a detailed summary), let's look at some of the responses to him, and my takes on tyem.

The first response is by Patrick Diamond. A sample at the core of his ideas:
Neoliberal advocates of basic income celebrate the idea because, in the words of Charles Murray, it would be a “replacement for the welfare state.” Market liberals argue individuals could use their basic income to purchase services currently provided through the state: education, pensions, healthcare, unemployment insurance, childcare, and so on. Thus perversely (and contrary to the intentions of many of its advocates on the left), basic income might end up encouraging the marketization of the public sector, while limiting the funding available for social investment.
That's an interesting concern right there. It's not one that I had thought about before this, but now that it's been broached, I can certainly see it. I'm sure the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would present this as a "public benefit," and that Zuck himself would make this a keystone of his non-running (sure) for president.

The second response is from Annette Bernhardt. A snippet: 
A truly progressive agenda …  needs to expand beyond the current fixation on automation.
While mitigation and bargaining over impacts are important, ultimately the progressive goal should be governance: a seat at the table when decisions are made over which technologies are developed in the first place and in pursuit of which goals.
Agreed that, while there are legitimate concerns about automation, they still seem somewhat overblown. In any case, whether overblown or not, without a labor seat at the table, labor can't weigh in. German-type workers' participation on boards, etc. would be a much bigger tool here.

The third response is by Tommie Shelby. A few of his thoughts, which focus on racial issues and income and employment, and what BI might or might not do there:
One of the basic problems with the current work-welfare regime is this: many of the ghetto poor who have submitted to its requirements nevertheless remain poor. They simply become part of the working poor, often serving the private needs of the well-off—performing the roles of maids, nannies, dishwashers, maintenance workers, and so on. Others fall back into poverty because of recessions and economic restructuring. And because many of the schools available to the ghetto poor are so substandard, they do not allow for opportunities to develop marketable skills, limiting upward mobility.  … 
Therefore one of the strengths of basic income is that it would empower marginalized black workers by enabling them to refuse demeaning, insecure, exploitative, and low-paying jobs. They could do so without having to live in degrading forms of poverty and without having to bear the risks of the underground economy. Basic income would deal a real blow to ghettoization and mass incarceration. It would not solve all problems of racial or economic injustice. But any civil rights–labor alliance should seriously consider fighting for it.
To the degree this is true, I say Amen. But, many libertarians and neo-racialists like Charles Murray want to replace the entire safety net with a base-level guaranteed income. Watch it, and them, Tommie, more than you did in this pied.

The fourth response comes from Peter Barnes. His focus is on just what level of "income" basic income will actually provide and this is an important issue indeed, especially per what I said about Shelby's response.
What is the difference between the two levels of universal income, and why does it matter? A base income of, say, a few hundred dollars a month does not have the same economic, political, and moral ramifications as a basic income of, say, $1,000 a month. The latter, at least in some places, offers enough to survive on; the former decidedly does not. And while the latter is a dream of many, it is far too expensive—and threatening to our work ethic—to be enacted in the United States any time soon.
Rogers said the same, about the VERY heavy political slog needed for a true basic income. That said, as far as geography, I'm with Santens on this. Basic income should not be adjusted for cost of living, certainly not cost of housing. Liberals — and beyond — need to confront directly that blue states are more economically unequal, overall, than red states. Besides, this is a way of empowering rural and small town America.

My other main personal thought is the same as in my original piece.

If we’re talking about just a “base” income, then we absolutely cannot use it to lessen or further weaken the current “safety net.”

The fifth response is from Juliana Bidadanure. She goes even further down the road of worry about specific acolytes of Murray or worse. 
(B)asic income could be “designed to serve white nationalist ends,” Rogers worries. The policy could be sold as part of a package including harsher anti-immigration policies. Prisoners and ex-cons could also be denied basic income, which would further entrench basic income as a right that privileges white Americans. This concern is not specific to basic income though. Far-right populist parties often embrace the welfare state in an exclusionary and xenophobic manner.
She goes on to talk about international basic income, in part, but by no means mainly, to reduce the immigrant pull that “basic income in one country,” to riff on Stalin, might have.

If REALLY done right, this would involve flipping the IMF and World Bank on their heads and REQUIRING that part of their assistance packages in the developing world include an insistence on basic income.

That would be ideal, but, that's got even less chance of happening than does getting basic income adopted here in the US.

The sixth response is by Dorian T. Warren. Going beyond Shelby on racial issues, he tries to get reparations in the back door, it seems:
There is, in fact, a model of basic income which is not only acceptable but preferable to common proposals: the Universal PLUS Basic Income. It is identical to most basic income proposals but includes a pro-rated additional amount for black Americans over a specified period of time. The Universal PLUS Basic Income draws on the concept of “targeted universalism” in designing social policies.
That would NEVER fly. Or if basic income itself would never fly, this would never-squared fly. And, per what some class-based leftists like Doug Henwood have said, that undercuts the rationale for affirmative action and other things that have been deemed payment in lieu of reparations.

And, thus, it wouldn't fly with me personally.

The seventh response is from Diane Coyle.

Hers, briefly? Don’t be a Luddite or an overdone alarmist about robots stealing jobs. She notes the differences between US and elsewhere on some economic issues.

The eighth response is by Philippe van Parijs.

He talks about empowerment effects.
Of course, the actual monetary value of the basic income matters. But even a basic income that amounts to less than the current level of means-tested social assistance for people living alone would make a significant difference. At that level, the right to conditional benefits over and above the basic income would need to be kept, so as to prevent poor households from becoming worse off. But the secure access to a modest income that can be relied upon even if one gives up a job voluntarily and that can be combined with other income would broaden the options of the worst off and thus increase their power. Such a modest basic income could not eradicate poverty on its own. But it would be more than the “baby step” discussed by Rogers, namely a basic income for parents or a universal child benefit of a sort that already exists in a number of countries.
Again, it's all about how big basic income is.

The ninth response is from Connie Razza.

Briefly, she says “the question of the redistribution of power is vital.”

The tenth response is from Roy Bahat

He talks about the emotional insecurity that accompanies job insecurity.
The biggest ill a basic income might heal is fear. 
With a basic income, a spouse can leave a domestic abuse situation. With a basic income, a writer might write, an actor might act, and our culture might reflect the breadth of our peoples’ lived experiences. With a basic income, an entrepreneur might put a few dollars into opening a family business.
However, unless the payment level of basic income is set pretty high, and see the caveats above, no, it can NOT help that much with this, and it can NOT help nearly as much as national health care can. Period. End of story. Per average co-pays on health insurance today, national health care with no co-pay on getting the insurance would itself be worth as much as $200-$250 a month of basic income and offer at least as much actual security.

And, I'll be doing another blog post in a couple of weeks about the "top tool" in the arsenal, if one can only get one tool passed.

The eleventh response is from David Rolf and Corrie Watterson
Companies could earn a label or certification by registering with a worker-led nonprofit organization, adhering to certain labor and employment standards, and agreeing to audits by the certifying organization.
It sounds good, but I'm not sure how much power it would have in the US unless a lot of other change happens. Plus, such issues can become "gamed." Even if not gamed, we've seen unions willing to become management pets in the past.

Rogers responds back to the critiques, to end the piece. 

He starts by getting back to his first main concern.
I have not seen a single quote from a tech leader or thinker to the effect that “basic income is a great idea, but we also need a high minimum wage and much stronger unions.” In fact, while I was drafting this response, Harvard Business Review published a piece tracing how information technologies have exacerbated income inequality by encouraging outsourcing and the growth of new mega-firms. But its proposal to help low-wage workers is through a negative income tax; it never once mentions minimum wages or collective bargaining.
We all know Silicon Valley is highly neoliberal to put it politely, or often tech-libertarian.

Indeed, I see Mark Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for “exploring” basic income (no, Scott Santens, not FOR basic income, but for “exploring” it) and I wonder what’s up his sleeve. I also wonder despite current disclaimers, if a presidential campaign isn’t part of what’s up that sleeve.

Rogers then continues in this vein while also addressing the issue of tech-related job loss.
Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for basic income is having some detrimental effects on the ground. When foundations and think tanks flood the zone with research into the “Future of Work” (now a genre of its own), research into the realities of work today can go unfunded. That has happened to some of my colleagues. Similarly, as it becomes common sense that workers’ largest challenge is automation, basic labor standards and worker organizing seem futile since higher wages will just hasten the robots’ arrival. This is a false choice. I agree strongly with Coyle and Bernhardt that those concerned about inequality should embrace technological development and steer its path.
He says he appreciates Warren, but believes his own ideas are NOT race neutral, and in a good way.

And, his nut grafs
To be clear, I agree fully with Bidadanure—and Warren, van Parijs, and many others—that “everyone should have an unconditional right to be free from basic economic insecurity.” I just disagree that organizing around basic income is obviously the best strategy to advance that goal in the United States. 
Why? First, because a basic income cannot substitute for social insurance, and social insurance remains meager in the United States.  … Second, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we cannot hope to pass an egalitarian basic income in the United States without changing the power structure.
And, with that, he is OK with “alienating libertarians.” And alienating their refusal to challenge power structures, or, in many cases, their willingness to reinforce them while using basic income to fob off challenges.

That said, Rogers says that we should still push the ball forward.
None of this means we should abandon basic income research or organizing, or that we should give up on steps toward it. These include universal child credits, elder credits, and even state-level efforts in places such as California, where labor and the left are already strong. But it does mean we should, as I wrote, “be clear-eyed about the policy’s justifications, merits, and limits.” That, in my view, is the path to economic security for all.
This all said, BI is part of the solution, I believe. Just not the only tool, and probably not the primary tool.

Cheezed-off neoliberals like Neera Tanden and the rest of Center for American Progress don’t want to admit even that, though.

The Center for American Progress, true to its neoliberal roots and worried about "the dole," proposes a "guaranteed job" idea instead.

But, this itself has a number of actual or apparent problems. (The author's list is not entirely accurate, and his approach to such concerns seems to be more from the right than the left.) 

And, if we are rightly going to see BI as one tool in our arsenal, this is important.

Santens approaches being simplistic about this in other ways.

He notes the problems with food stamps (TANF) and Medicaid being made into state block grants by "the politicians." Well, first, they didn't start that way, and second, who's to say that, without strict "lockboxing," that basic income couldn't end up that way?

This is another reason basic income is just one tool.  Fix the various parts of the safety net, too.

I do agree very much with Santens here, that BI should NOT be adjusted to housing costs. And I agree with why.

We don't need to subsidize pricey areas. And, all they'll do is get pricier yet.

New York City, indeed, offers more opportunity than Des Moines, Iowa, let alone Elko, Nevada.

Based on 1 and 2, it's also not politically smart to subsidize highly blue areas at the expense of red areas.

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Updates:

First, the fact that Zuckerberg is touting basic income is another reason to be wary of many versions of it, especially his own. (Interesting that Mark Cuban loathes it.)

Second, Santens still leaves me uncertain about his ultimate stance when he presents BI to a bitcoin conference (video).

And Dylan Matthews, in a wide-ranging, mostly good sometimes iffy piece, notes other problems.

There's the Charles Murrays of the world, who want to gut the existing safety net even more than liberatarians, for example. Surely, other economic-thinking paleoconservatives agree. And, even allegedly liberal union leader Andy Stern wants to use BI to cut at least parts of that net, and cut Social Security. That said, this is far from the only reason I put "alleged" in front of liberal with him.

Stern has other issues. He, along with Murray (with Murray the reasons are obvious) doesn't want a BI that includes kids.

Overall, Matthews brings a good deal of largely well-placed pessimism. And, part of his solution is well-based on that. That's both for a targeted version of BI within the US safety net perhaps being a better starting point, and a more comprehensive BI in the developing world helping both it and the whole world.

That said, Matthews has his own neoliberal interpretation problems with our current economy and labor system. Does automation raise wages? For computer and robot programmers, sure. For the employees who work with the robots? Maybe. For those replaced by robots? Not at all.

We should have his pessimism about elements of BI, yes. But, they shouldn't be run through his own version of a neolib filter.

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New update:

I don't make Twitter a total echo chamber, but, Santens make me wonder yet more how much he's in the libertarian tank when he follows both Turning Point USA and its founder, a founder who is an extremely hardcore libertarian.

Per my "one tool" and per Turning Point's Charlie Cook vehemently opposing single-payer national health care, it's at least time to put back up my Twitter filters about basic income. And I may mute Santens.

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