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.
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.
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.
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.
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.