A basic income is less than meets the eye

A basic income — the concept of everybody getting a regular check from the government regardless of circumstance — is one of those ideas that sound wonderful on the surface but proves to be much less so once we examine the details.

An idea that seems to have gained more traction recently, a basic income is a liberal utopia. It even has its proponents on the Right, including Chicago School godfather Milton Friedman. That alone ought to require us to pause for thought.

A basic income, also sometimes called a universal income, can be defined as a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirements, paid on a regular schedule. Everybody gets this money, on top of their regular earnings.

Northern lights in Suomussalmi region, Finland (photo by Damon Beckford)

Northern lights in Suomussalmi region, Finland (photo by Damon Beckford)

That sounds good, doesn’t it? The devil, of course, is in the details. And, as just noted, a basic income has support from Friedman and hard-line libertarian outfits like the Cato Institute. Friedman gave a talk on this topic (he called his version a “negative income tax”) in 1968, in which he said:

“The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need. Rather than as now by requiring them to come before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may spend x dollars on rent, y dollars on food, etc., and then be given a handout.”

Conservative economists, and certainly Friedman, who remains an icon of the hard Right, are hardly known for wanting government to help anybody (except capitalists). So what is behind this? We are talking here about the economist who helped military dictator Augusto Pinochet implement “shock therapy” in Chile, the result of which was the poverty rate skyrocketing to 40 percent while real wages declined by a third. One-third of Chileans were unemployed during the last years of the dictatorship and the privatized social security system was so bad for Chilean working people that someone retiring in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had they been in the old government system.

And let us not forget the extreme violence that was required to implement Friedman’s neoliberal dreams, with the total of those killed, jailed, “disappeared” or forced into exile totaling tens if not hundreds of thousands. Friedman claimed that he gave only “technical economic advice” and that Chile’s economic and political policies were totally separate, but also wrote that people who demonstrated in favor of human rights at his speeches were “fanatics.”

A back door to cutting services and wages

A basic income is popular among some right-wing economists because such an income would replace social services and provide a subsidy to employers who pay wages below a living level. The Marxist economist Michael Roberts puts this plainly:

“[P]aying each person a ‘basic’ income rather than wages and social benefits is seen as a way of ‘saving money,’ reducing the size of the state and public services — in other words lowering the value of labour power and raising the rate of surplus value (in Marxist terms). It would be a ‘wage subsidy’ to employers with those workers who get no top-up in income from social benefits under pressure to accept wages no higher than the ‘basic income’ which would be much lower than their average salary.”

Although it would likely be difficult for capitalists to force down wages on current employees remaining in their jobs in the short term, a basic income would enable bosses to cut pay to new hires. A prospective employer could easily offer reduced wages on the basis that the prospective employee already has financial support via the basic income. Few interviewers would likely say that so blatantly, but “market pressure” would cut the price of labor, which would remain a commodity in a fully capitalist economy. With starting wages offered to new employees reduced, eventually pressure would build on longer-term employees to accept wage cuts, too.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Already, low-wage employers like Wal-Mart receive massive subsidies that enable it both to rack up gigantic profits and pay its workers wages below subsistence levels. The spectacle of Wal-Mart workers holding food drives so they can eat might well be replicated on a much larger scale when the basic income proves to be worth less than the value of unemployment benefits and other social-welfare programs, combined with downward pressure on wages.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain notes that unions would not be able to counteract such downward pressure on wages:

“Unions do have some power, but it is limited to working with favourable labour market forces to get higher wages and better working conditions. When, however, labour market conditions are against them the most they can do is to slow down the worsening of wages and working conditions. If all workers got a basic income from the state of £5000, let alone £10,000, a year, this would change labour market conditions in favour of employers. In pay negotiations they would point to the state payment as evidence that they did not need to pay so much in wages or salaries to maintain their employees’ accustomed standard of living. The workers and their unions would realise this and the negotiations would be about what the reduction in wages and salaries should be.”

It won’t make capitalism kinder or gentler

Bargaining over wages in the best of times is no more than negotiating the terms of your exploitation. “Market forces” — which are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — will operate just as pitilessly with a basic income because neither a basic income nor collective bargaining over wages touches in any way the social relations of capitalism. A capitalist’s profit derives from paying employees a fraction of the value of what they produce; the inequality that results from that (and the relentless competitive pressure on capitalists to expand on pain of dying) will exist as long as capitalism exists. A basic income would have no effect on this.

A basic income bears some resemblance to the concept of “block grants,” a particular obsession with right-wing politicians in the United States. Block grants are money that would be handed to lower levels of government by the federal government to be dispersed as local officials wish with no accountability as a substitution for money that is ear-marked for specific social programs. These are continually proposed as a back door to dismantling social programs. Similarly, a basic income would be a cash transfer for recipients to pay for whatever services or needs they might have in a private market system, assuming they have adequate total income to obtain it, rather than having services provided for free or at subsidized cost as a public service on the basis of need, as a civilized society ought to do.

The use of the “market” to determine social outcomes would only increase. In other words, more neoliberalism! More people being unable to meet their basic needs would result as wealth would become more of a determinant of results.

Demonstration for a basic income in Berlin, November 2010 (photo by "PD")

Demonstration for a basic income in Berlin, November 2010 (photo by “PD”)

It is also argued that a basic income could disproportionally affect women. The feminist economist Barbara Bergmann countered advocates of basic income who argue that such payments would enable parents to stay home with young children by pointing out that women disproportionally are the stay-at-home parents, to the detriment of their long-term earning potential. Thus a basic income would make women more dependent, not less, she wrote:

“Many if not most employers have come to see women as likely to be continuous labor force participants, not inevitably destined to leave the work force, and therefore as people worth training, worth putting into jobs leading to promotion, worth considering for promotion. This kind of progress would be reversed if a higher proportion of women withdrew from the labor force when their first child was born. For this reason, the full-blown implementation of Basic Income schemes in the near future should not appeal to those for whom gender equality is an important goal.”

Nor would the weakening of health care systems that would be a likely result of cutting social services do any better in fostering equality. Professor Bergmann wrote:

“Both the welfare state and Basic Income reduce inequality of condition. But the welfare state does so with greater efficiency, because it takes better account of inequalities due to differences in needs. If I need an expensive operation and you don’t, giving both of us a Basic Income grant will not go far to make our situations more equal. Only the provision of health services has the chance of doing that.”

Would governments really increase spending?

Those who advocate for a basic or universal income do so on the basis of affordability — there would not be a strain on the treasury, presumably because a spur to consumer spending would boost the economy. But is this so? A hard look at the numbers is not encouraging.

In all types of capitalist societies, from the neoliberalism of the United States to the social democracy of Sweden, the costs of a basic income would far outstrip current spending on social welfare programs.

In the U.S. an annual figure of $10,000 is often bandied about as the appropriate level for a basic income. If this sum were paid out to every U.S. adult, it would cost about $2.4 trillion. That total vastly outstrips current spending on social programs. A Wall Street Journal analysis (hostile to a basic income for the expected conservative reasons) suggests that scrapping income support for the poor, disabled and unemployed, and eliminating veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, Medicare and other health care subsidies would save a composite $1.5 trillion — and likely be quite unpopular.

It could be argued, as the Journal wouldn’t, that money for a basic income could come instead from other sources, such as eliminating massive corporate subsidies, drastically cutting the military budget and even printing money to go toward people instead of the trillions of dollars conjured out of thin air by central banks for “quantitative easing” programs that do little other than fuel stock-market bubbles and inflate speculators’ assets. But for that to happen an immense popular movement would be required, and the enormous effort that would be poured into such a movement would better direct its energies to much more thorough-going changes.

Thus, realistically, a basic income that could hardly be lived on (likely far less than $10,000 annually for United Statesians if it actually came into existence) would be paid for by an effective elimination of the remaining social safety net. Hardly a desirable outcome.

No better prospects where the safety net is stronger

This dynamic would hold in countries with better safety nets. In Canada, a basic income of $10,000 per person would cost 17 percent of Canadian gross domestic product, more than twice what all levels of government in Canada spend on social benefits. Toby Sanger, a Canadian economist who works with unions, argues that any basic income, due to its expense, would soon cease to be universal. He writes:

“Any fiscally sustainable basic income program with an adequate level of benefits would need to be income tested or subject to relatively high clawback or tax rates and so wouldn’t end up being universal and unconditional.  While such a program would be fiscally feasible, it would be subject to many of the same problems with the existing social assistance system that many basic income advocates want to escape.”

Simply instituting a basic income, even if it were fiscally possible, in itself doesn’t address the structural causes of poverty. Mr. Sanger writes:

“While lack of financial resources is of course a primary aspect of poverty, simply providing more money won’t eliminate poverty alone. Social exclusion, inadequate access to education, public goods, opportunities, networks, lack of political influence and many other factors contribute to a persistent of poverty. Systemic racial, gender, class, and ability-based discrimination have resulted in higher rates and a persistent of poverty among women, racialized Canadians, Aboriginal peoples, differentially abled and among those whose families were poor.”

Even a country with generous social-welfare programs like Sweden would find the institution of a basic income difficult. Professor Bergmann calculated that sending a basic-income check equal to a poverty-line income to all Swedes not already recipients of government programs would require about 15 percent of gross domestic product. Doing that, while retaining current benefits, would require higher taxes. As a result:

“[I]f an extra 15 percent of GDP were added to cash payments by government to households, those extra funds would have to be taxed away from households’ wage and property income now devoted to buying consumer goods, now 32 percent of GDP, leaving households just 17 percent of GDP as their net reward for their participation in the production of the entire GDP. That could hardly be tolerated.”

A previous experiment in Canada

Advocates of a basic income often point to the experiment conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, in the 1970s. A University of Manitoba economist, Evelyn Forget, recently studied the results (a new Conservative government ended the program and the intended government study was never performed) and found positive results. Hospitalization rates declined, more adolescents stayed in school and workforce participation remained steady.

But the experiment in Dauphin, a town of about 12,000 people, wasn’t actually a basic income. There was an income eligibility rate, meaning that only about 30 percent of the town residents actually got a check. A family of four could receive $15,000 per year on top of whatever benefits were already in place. So this was a case of living in a lucky spot.

Mount Meager volcanic complex, British Columbia (photo by Dave Steers)

Mount Meager volcanic complex, British Columbia (photo by Dave Steers)

The province of Ontario, under a Liberal administration, announced this year that it would conduct an experiment in a basic income, to be conducted in selected towns to be determined. But the provincial government has hinted this may be intended as a way of reducing benefits. Its explanation in the budget for this proposal states: “The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports.”

Finland is going forward with its own experiment. The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is soliciting input on a program that would provide €560 per month tax-free to 2,000 people in a mandatory test case that would run in 2017 and 2018. The ministry, in a press release, first states it seeks to determine if a basic income would “promote employment,” but then hints at a desire to cut benefits:

“The basic income experiment is one of the activities aiming to reform social security so that it corresponds better to the changes of working life, to overhaul social security to encourage participation and employment, to reduce bureaucracy, and to simplify the complicated benefits system in a sustainable way regarding public finances.”

We live under capitalism, and we don’t get something for nothing, regardless of advocates issuing statements calling for a basic income without any cuts to existing benefits. The measures of democracy and social welfare that have been obtained are a direct result of social movements and the work of activists. They are not gifts handed down to us.

Liberals and social democrats ought to be careful for what they wish. Our energies can better go toward the creation of a sustainable economy that provides for human needs with jobs for all who need them, rather than begging for extra crumbs (that might turn out to be fewer crumbs) from capitalists’ tables.

Social security cuts: Work until you drop

A social movement to preserve Social Security has never been as urgent as it is today. Tempting as it might be to send a dictionary to the White House explaining the difference between “compromise” and “capitulation,” we should not be overly generous — Barack Obama’s intention to gut Social Security is not so much a pre-emptive capitulation as it is yet another demonstration of his adherence to neoliberal ideology.

By now, such a demonstration should not be necessary. Remember that one of the president’s first appointments was Lawrence Summers, who once wrote a memo while chief economist at the World Bank advocating industries creating toxic waste be transferred to Africa because the continent is “vastly UNDER-polluted” (emphasis in original). Professor Summers’ appointment in 2008 as President Obama’s leading economic adviser after his career of promoting Reaganite, neoliberal policies, including leading the Clinton administration’s deregulation of banking and scrapping of regulations for derivative contracts, set the tone for what was to come.

Let us not fall out of our chairs — neoliberal austerity is a bipartisan policy. Voters alternate between their dominant parties in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, yet the train stays in motion. Fans of the movie Avatar likely remember an early scene in which Sigourney Weaver’s character mocks the macho, militaristic approach of the Marines who intend to unilaterally take the mineral “unobtainium” from the Pandora natives by bulldozing their homes and forest. Her intention was to negotiate with the natives and have them agree to give up their homes and forest.

Note that there was no difference in the goal of the Marines, exemplar of the conservative approach, and that of the would-be negotiator, representative of the supposedly more enlightened approach. I remember thinking to myself while watching Avatar that Ms. Weaver’s character represented the Democratic Party wing of neoliberalism. Indeed, Democrats and their “left-of-center” counterparts among the world’s advanced capitalist countries — even parties in Europe that call themselves “socialist” — routinely implement ever more harsh policies that punish working people to further enrich the wealthy.

So we have something here bigger than Barack Obama and whatever character flaws he might be perceived as possessing. Republicans want to privatize Social Security — the ultimate dream of Wall Street and good for industrialists, too, as retirements become a quaint relic of the past. More people are forced to remain in the job market longer; more competition for jobs means lower wages and more profits. President Obama simply wants to phase this in more slowly.

Photo by A. Blackman, England

Photo by A. Blackman, England

Specifically, President Obama is unilaterally offering Republicans the first step in the gutting of Social Security — reducing benefits. His method to do this is to change the formula for calculating cost-of-living increases from the standard Consumer Price Index to a different methodology known as the “Chained Consumer Price Index,” under which the rate of inflation is lower.

In the standard CPI, the basket of goods used to calculate inflation does not change. In the “Chained CPI,” items that rise in price are substituted with a cheaper product under the theory that consumers will switch to lower-priced alternatives. That may sometimes be so, but such actions do not alter the fact that the desired product is more expensive and thus represents the true extent of inflation. Nor does it account for the fact that many high-cost expenses, such as rent and electricity, don’t have readily available alternatives.

If they want inflation to be less, they shall make it so

This substitution of the standard CPI for the “Chained CPI” is a long-standing demand of Right-wing ideologues, and President Obama has offered it to them on a silver platter. The New York Times, the first to report of the proposed Social Security cuts (and which, uncharacteristically, called the cuts cuts instead of using a euphemism), anonymously quoted Obama administration officials who intimated that this was part of an elaborate plan to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. The Times quoted an official as claiming:

“That means … that the things like [Chained] C.P.I. that Republican leaders have pushed hard for will only be accepted if Congressional Republicans are willing to do more on revenues.”

But the president’s offer contains far more cuts for working people and retirees than attempts to make corporations and the wealth pay taxes at a slightly more reasonable level. The Times reported:

“He will propose more than $600 billion in new revenues — his last offer had called for $1.2 trillion in taxes — mostly by limiting to 28 percent the deductions that individuals in higher tax brackets can claim. Congress has ignored that idea in past years. Deficits would be reduced another $930 billion through 2023 as a result of spending cuts and other cost-saving changes to domestic programs. … Mr. Obama’s proposed spending reductions include about $400 billion from health programs and $200 billion from other areas, including farm subsidies, federal employee retirement programs, the Postal Service and the unemployment compensation system.”

That sounds like a whole lot of new austerity. Austerity hasn’t been working out so well in Europe, where, for instance, eurozone unemployment is at 12 percent and rising. That, sadly, is not the point. The ongoing economic crisis is an opportunity for corporate executives and financiers to push through what they’ve always wanted anyway. An oft-quoted summation of this thinking was offered several years ago by Stephen Moore of the far right Club for Growth and the Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

Both groups are dedicated to cutting taxes for corporations and putting an end to any social safety net. The Club for Growth founder is connected to groups like the Heritage Foundation and to Tea Party impresario Dick Armey, while the Cato Institute recently experienced a power struggle in which the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, ousted the leadership for being insufficiently severe. Cato sent six alumni to the Bush II/Cheney administration, four of whom served on the latter’s Orwellian named “Commission to Strengthen Social Security.”

A better slogan than ‘work until you drop’

Because “work until you drop” is not an effective slogan to rally people to your side, Wall Street financiers and those opposed to social safety nets float scare stories that Social Security will soon run out of money, and you’d do better putting all your money in the stock market. Neither is true. Let’s start with the second of these two mythologies. In 2005, I researched the historical performance of the U.S. stock market for an article published in Z Magazine and found that the gains are small, when adjusted for inflation, and the gains only materialize when bubbles are near their peak.

As bubbles peak about once every 35 years, it is difficult to time these just right. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.
  • Yesterday’s Dow closing of 14,673, when adjusted for inflation, is almost precisely double that of its 1965 peak, but a 100 percent gain over 48 years isn’t terribly dazzling.

And with the price/earnings, or P/E, ratio, of the S&P 500 Index now at 18.35, stocks are again over-valued when measured historically. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Five times in history this ratio, which is a company’s yearly profit divided by one share, has surpassed 20; each time was followed by a crash.

The biggest canard, however, is how financial chicken littles frame their case. The claim that Social Security will run out of money in perhaps three decades is based on predicting a low rate of future stock-market gains while the claim that privatizing Social Security will produce more money is based on predicting a rate of future stock-market gains double that of the former rate.

There are examples of privatizing social security systems, and the results have been a bonanza for financiers and disastrous for retirees. In Chile, where the privatization was done at the end of a gun barrel during the Pinochet dictatorship, a worker who retired in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had he or she been able to stay in the old system. The six companies that administer the private plans, not coincidentally, constitute one of Chile’s most profitable industries.

It took tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of arrests, torture sessions, “disappearances” and exiles to implement Milton Friedman’s Chicago School shock therapy in Chile. Nowadays, such levels of violence are not necessary as elected governments implement neoliberalism in a series of measured doses, and four decades of incessant propaganda has acculturated the peoples of the world to the ahistorical idea that “there is no alternative.” Violence nonetheless remains the system’s handmaiden, as the coordinated crushing of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the tolerated rise of fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece demonstrate.

There is an alternative — ceasing to placing your hopes in parties that disagree only over the best method to implement neoliberalism, whether the one’s candidate sneers at “government-dependent” voters or the other’s candidate makes speeches vowing to tackle inequality while acting to make it worse. Change comes social movements, not from elections.