When Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang introduced his “Freedom Dividend,” a plan to give every adult in the United States an unconditional $1,000 per month, he did so by prophesying a world in which you, the average worker, are no longer necessary.
The machines are coming for your jobs, Yang argues on his campaign site and in most public forums. None of your livelihoods are safe under the new world order promised by automation, but this policy will keep you afloat in the face of autonomous vehicles and robotic warehouse workers.
The business-casual tech entrepreneur’s run may surprise pundits by fighting on past the primaries or fizzle beyond the ability of his devoted Yang Gang’s ability to revive it, becoming a digital ghost on message boards lamenting what could have been.
An undeniable outcome, however, is the current prominence of universal basic income (UBI) — Freedom Dividend’s generic brand name — in the national discussion.
In theory, UBI is simple: The federal government gives every single citizen money to use as they will. In practice, UBI is a concept much like Medicare For All — an idea in which the utility and effectiveness will depend on the details of its policy design.
In her 2018 book “Give People Money,” economic policy journalist Annie Lowrey argues that policymakers should start thinking hard about how to create a UBI policy that could help ameliorate the job-killing effects of automation, end poverty as we know it and improve societal cohesion.
That’s a lot to put on a single policy proposal, but UBI’s strength and reach lies in its simplicity — with existing administrative infrastructure, the U.S. government could transfer that cash to every person in the United States without applications or eligibility criteria and in so doing eliminate destitution in the richest country in the world.
Lowrey didn’t begin as a UBI proselytizer.
“When I first heard the idea, I worried about UBI’s impact on jobs,” she writes in the introduction, envisioning millions of people dropping out of the labor force, foisting the taxable base onto an ever-smaller group of workers required to buoy the rest.
As the robot-driven jobs apocalypse promised by automation revolutionizes the workforce, would it mean paying people to be idle rather than investing in their retraining?
Would such a policy become a bait-and-switch, handing over cash but removing the rest of the U.S. social safety net, such as it is, to the detriment of the lowest-income individuals and families?
As Lowrey’s research took her to a remote village in Kenya, a diner in Pittsburgh, the countryside of India’s Jharkhand province or the outskirts of the Las Vegas strip, the revolutionary possibilities of a well-designed UBI became clear.
Giving people money does more than keep them from starving, Lowrey argues.
It could increase workers’ power, allowing them to leave bad jobs without fear of poverty or go back to school to prepare for a different position. It could compensate child and elder care that people — mostly women — do for free, work that makes the paid labor market possible. It could help repair a social safety net riddled by racism and eligibility gaps that leave people ostracized and frozen in despair.
It also restores dignity, removing the paternalism and discrimination found in both private and public-sector aid.
As with all policies, the outcomes will be defined by the design.
One of the strange things about UBI is that its adherents come from across the political spectrum. It’s been championed by known hippies such as the Libertarian-leaning Chicago School of Economics’ Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. The federal government contemplated a negative income tax during the administration of flower-child Richard Nixon.
While those programs could result in bolstering low earners, they are often paired with cuts to the existing safety net rather than reforms.
Even progressives today talk about ending “many of the current 126 welfare programs” and slashing Social Security to pay for a $1,000-per-month transfer.
Lowrey is skeptical.
“Even some progressive proposals for a UBI might end up doing little for poverty and nothing for inequality,” Lowrey writes.
Paying for such a program, and deciding who gets it, could be challenging. A universal $1,000 transfer would cost $3.9 trillion, a hefty price tag. One possibility is raising taxes — a value-added tax, higher corporate taxes, a wealth tax, higher income taxes at the top margins are all avenues that could be explored.
Or, Lowrey says, don’t worry about it too much — as many left-of-center thinkers point out, the country fusses over paying for social programs, but not a $700 billion military. The potential inflationary impacts of such spending are not addressed.
“Give People Money” is a deceptively slim volume, counting in at 274 pages. It’s even shorter than that. Footnotes produced by Lowrey’s meticulous research take up nearly a quarter of the book. The author weaves takeaways from dense economic studies with expert interviews and deeply personal narratives to convince the reader that UBI — while hardly a panacea — may not just be the policy we need, but the one society deserves.
“Here, poverty in the United States is a choice. Stagnant middle-class incomes are a choice. Technology-fueled mass unemployment is a choice. Racism is a choice. The patriarchy is a choice,” Lowrey writes. “This is not to discount how deeply entrenched existing policies, interests, and tendencies are — but to recognize that while they might be entrenched, they are not immutable.”
That’s something to be hopeful about.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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