22 January 2015

Perspective on ‘A Basic Income for Everyone is Not Affordable’ – Part 2

This blog-post is a continuation to the posts

Top Economist says: “Universal Basic Income is Not Affordable”
Perspective on ‘A Basic Income for Everyone is Not Affordable’ – Part 1

Read them first for context.

In this blog I’d like to conduct the thought experiment of playing out the assumption that a basic income can be provided to everyone unconditionally – to then see what possible problems might occur and assess: if it is affordable – is it do-able?

First point to consider here is that to organize such a money stream – you’ll quite likely have to use income taxes as a source of funding. And that’s where I foresee possible problems. Income taxes today are a touchy subject, because everyone feels they have earned their income. If part of it is let go of and allocated towards ‘the common good’ – that’s cool, so long as people feel that it is justified. Considering the basic income as one of the expenses, where a person will now receive this income regardless of how much they work – you’ll most probably run into resistance and if it were to be established – resentment towards those who choose to simply live off a basic income. Sure – everyone will receive it, so even if one works and part of one’s salary goes towards funding a universal income, one will equally be paid out a basic income. For some that may mean receiving back more than what one paid in taxes. But for others, it will square out or they’ll still pay more taxes than the basic income amount. Inevitably this will lead to resentment, because we’ve for decades lived within the paradigm that money is something you should earn. So – for some to pay for others’ income entirely – no strings attached – may be easier in theory than in practice. So – yes, the numbers may work out, but that doesn’t mean you’ll receive the approval of the majority and get a green light to manifest a universal basic income system.

When it comes to income taxes and resentment, consider the current state of the welfare state – the complicated rules, the intricate web of conditions to qualify – the conditions set to ensure a person ‘deserves’ the support given. This complexity didn’t come falling out of the sky – it exists because people demanded it to be so. Although the ideas of unconditionally giving money to everyone and of giving up a part of one’s income to realize such a situation are noble ones – it’s worth asking the question if we as a society live up to that nobility. Herein a follow-up question could be: and if we do provide an unconditional basic income funded through income taxes – what is to say we will not end up right where we started, with ever increasing demands placed on those who do not ‘contribute’ to society in the conventional way of taking up employment and in one way or another being part of the national economy?

Apart from resentment, we have to also consider the dimension of what effect funding an unconditional universal basic income will have on employment. Herein I’m not referring to what effect it will have to create a support structure within which anyone will be guaranteed an income regardless of work efforts and whether that will induce people to simply stop working. Rather – I’m looking at the ‘message’ that is sent out by taxing the incomes of those who work, from the perspective of it being interpreted or having the same effect as punitive measures. For instance, in basic income experiments, the effect on unemployment was negligible or only significant in relation to certain individuals, such as youngsters, students and mothers – where it can be argued that this is not such a bad thing – they will be able to focus on other activities, such as educating themselves or raising their children, which will have long term benefits for society and the economy as a whole. But within those experiments, only the ‘receiving’ aspect of a basic income was tested – the ‘giving’ aspect of a basic income was not. Within the experiments, money was made available by governments or organizations and the effects of receiving the income were observed. What didn’t happen, was taking a small village or town that was approximately representative of the national population and taxing incomes in that village in such a way as to generate enough funds to redistribute it equally among everyone, where the amount given to each one is sufficient to live off of. In that scenario, one might have observed a greater shift from employment to unemployment, simply to be on the side of those that ‘benefit’ rather than those who work and pay for others to benefit.  It is this effect on unemployment that Paul De Grauwe was referring to in his article.

I’ll continue in my next post.


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