January 04, 2018

#BasicIncome vs guaranteed employment

I have blogged several times in the past year about basic income, guaranteed income, universal basic income, or whatever terminology you use. As you can see, I even created a theme logo for relevant blog posts.

But it's always been skeptical, in the very best use of the term.

From the beginning, I've said I oppose any libertarian or tech-neoliberal versions of BI that would use it to eliminate current safety net items. I've been skeptical of a basic income guru or priest like Scott Santens for not being more skeptical of such versions, for not being upfront about its costs on a regular basis, and for being not just optimistic, but in the neighborhood of crack-smoking for how easy it will be to get this done.

I have also challenged Santens' version of BI for being specifically geared to the tech-neolib "gig economy," which has problems of its own that BI won't fix but that OTHER governmental, regulatory changes could fix. Also, such fixation ignores that driving more workers toward a "gig economy" only empowers corporations more — corporations who would then be more empowered to either yank back BI gains or else make the taxes to pay for BI more regressive.

Related to that, I have stressed in detail that BI is only one tool, no more, in what working Americans need in terms of real government support — and that single-payer national health care is more important. That link, in turn, has extensive extracts from a long Boston Review piece that offers the skeptical critiques of libertarian or tech-neoliberal versions of BI in even more depth than I have.

Related to THAT, in noting BI is NOT a magic wand, my skepticism of him has increased based on some of his Twitter followers.

As far as specific versions of not just neoliberal or tech-neolib income in the abstract, but very specifically, what Santens himself supports, I reject using BI to get rid of unemployment benefits, to replace any part of Social Security, to replace disability benefits or other such things. Instead, keep the first, strengthen the second and fix the third.

(I still follow Santens on Twitter, but use various filters, as I do with some others.)

So, if BI is that problematic, at least in America — it may be less so elsewhere, but color me at least somewhat skeptical there — but the idea behind it is of such yearning hope, is there anything better?

Jacobin offers an emphatic yes with its backing for guaranteed employment.

One point it makes is one I partially, at least, agree with — the semi-hysteria over "here come the robots" of Santens and other BI advocates. I think that Jacobin may be overplaying the hype angle, myself, but at worst, the degree of the problem is at the midpoint between it and the BI crowd, and it's probably not even there.

Now, the pluses?

First, Jacobin notes that it — let's call it GE for short — has an even older pedigree than BI, going back to Huey Long's "Share the Wealth." Related to that, I would add that there don't seem to be any libertarians or tech-neoliberals in either past or present supporting GE. That means one doesn't have to put a "selected versions" filter on it. That, in turn, pushes it ahead of BI right there.

Second, the authors note that GE would likely fight poverty more quickly than BI. They tie this into another issue with Santens — that his basic BI of $300 a month or whatever isn't much, and that if he wants to talk "real" BI, as I've already noted, it's massively expensive.

Third, the above points, plus others, mean that GE should be easier to implement. And, if you increase the minimum wage and also index it to inflation, you address other problems.

The idea of focusing on a guaranteed job does run somewhat counter to James Livingston's "No More Work," so arguably, Jacobin is being more capitalist than the best versions of BI. (Santens says BI is "neither capitalism nor socialism," which I find somewhat facile.)

That said, this is where two forks of pragmatism trump one of idealism.

I believe GE will be easier to implement than any basic version of BI.

I believe GE would return more benefit than any basic version of BI.


paintedjaguar said...

I still don't understand why this discussion about BI/GE continues to be presented as "Vs" rather than "In combination with". It bears repeating that a large portion of the population is unsuited for full-time employment, and that the current so-called safety net is wholly inadequate. Universal, socialized healthcare is a necessity. Unfortunately I no longer expect to see any of this remedied during my lifetime. In the short term, I predict that the slogan of "Medicare for All" will be used to sell some sort of public/private ACA redux (US Medicare is neither universal nor single-payer).

When you say "targeted" are you thinking about something along the lines of the Friedman/Nixon "negative income tax"?

In regard to financing of BI, one scheme was described several decades ago by James S. Albus in his "Peoples' Capitalism" which basically proposes solving the issues of automation via a sovereign wealth/investment fund, aka "owning the means of production". His original 1976 edition is free to read or download at:

Also relevant is Henry George's "Progress and Poverty", both in regard to ideas about government financing/wealth distribution and also in pointing out certain problems inherent in both BI or GE as solutions to inequality.
Several versions freely available online at:

Updated editions of both these books are also available on Amazon, etc.

Gadfly said...

Painted: You're right that it doesn't have to be "either/or" — I was just framing the issue in terms of preferences.

In reality, yeah, none of this is likely in the US in our lifetimes. If it WERE, though, and I had to go by preference, national health care would come first. And, in preferences, GE would come before BI because ... there's no libertarian version of GE.

Santens has talked about Henry George and land taxes before. i got somewhat into the weeds on that one one previous piece, mentioning issues of the feds running a federal land tax and what if federal land or property tax structures conflicted with state ones, etc.

Gadfly said...

A sovereign wealth fund for the US would be very interesting. Given budgetary mismanagement in DC, I'm not sure how safe it would be from raiding, a la Al Gore's "lockbox."

Santens has said that money from a carbon tax could be used for BI as a way of remitting it to the public, but I think that if we ever get that (also idealistic), it should first be reinvested in environmental-specific public projects.


On the idealism angle, I think GE would be easier to get past Congress from Depression-era past example plus the idea that it includes "work" and would thus palliate the Protestant work ethic itch.