With friends like these, who needs the UBI?

August 13, 2018

What should you do when you discover a bunch of reactionaries in favor of an idea that sounds progressive? Not what Annie Lowrey does in her new book, writes Eric Pelkey.

IN HER new book Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work and Remake the World, Annie Lowrey — contributing editor for The Atlantic — lays out the case for implementing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the United States.

She’s right to highlight the inability of the current system to provide a stable future for the majority of the country’s population, but her proposed solution is misguided and confused.

In a chapter titled “Wages for Breathing,” Lowrey defines Universal Basic Income this way: “It is universal, in the sense that every resident of a given community or country receives [a check every month]. It is basic, in that it is just enough to live on and not more. And it is income.” She traces the idea of a UBI back to Tudor England, as well as the writings of Thomas Paine.

What was once considered a fringe idea is now entering the political mainstream. Y Combinator Research, a California-based nonprofit organization, is piloting a UBI program in Oakland. The city of Chicago is reportedly considering a similar experiment. The California Democratic Party platform officially endorses a Universal Basic Income.

Author Annie Lowrey (left) discusses her book on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Author Annie Lowrey (left) discusses her book on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

Why is there growing interest in UBI, especially when we’re told by the corporate media and political establishment that the U.S. economy is booming? The answer is that, despite the rhetoric, most Americans realize that the system is fundamentally flawed and their needs aren’t being met.

For 40 percent of Americans, a $400 emergency expense would wipe out their savings. Twenty-three percent of U.S. adults can’t pay their bills every month. Over 25% have reported that they had to forgo necessary medical care in the last year due to financial constraints.

It’s understandable that people are searching for unorthodox solutions to the problems the free market clearly can’t solve.

LOWREY BEGINS Give People Money with a choice between two futures: the innovative, capitalist South Korea, which is piloting a UBI program, or the economically stagnant, totalitarian North Korea. She concludes her book with another false choice: the bleak, frightening dystopia of The Hunger Games or the high-tech, post-work utopia of The Jetsons.

Review: Books

Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work and Remake the World. Crown, 2018, 272 pages, $26.

In his Jacobin article “The Case Against a Basic Income,” Daniel Zamora provides a more apt dichotomy with regard to UBI:

No existing economy can pay for a generous basic income without defunding everything else. We would either have to settle for the minimalist version — whose effects would be highly suspect — or we’d have to eliminate all other social expenditures, in effect creating Milton Friedman’s paradise.

This is not hyperbole, as Lowrey writes favorably of Friedman’s proposal for a UBI achieved via a negative income tax, which was also endorsed by Richard Nixon. The cost of this proposal, according to Lowrey, would be “almost the same amount as spending on the EITC [Earned Income Tax Credit], Supplemental Security Income, housing aid, food stamps, welfare and the school-lunch program.”

Even the so-called “progressive” version of UBI — one championed by former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern — would “end ‘many of the current 126 welfare programs’ and cut Social Security to pay for such an initiative, along with hiking some unnamed taxes,” according to Lowrey.

Such a gutting of the social safety net and betrayal of the gains won through hard struggle by generations of American workers would be a nightmare scenario — and a dream come true for a range of reactionaries.

Charles Murray, a right-wing proponent of UBI, calls for “eliminating the existing welfare state — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, welfare, Section 8, all of it, as well as corporate giveaways and subsidies for agriculture — and replacing it with an $833-a-month credit.”

While Lowrey does have some criticisms of Murray’s particular version of UBI, she presents it — along with Stern’s — as one of many proposals, concluding that “UBI is hardly a silver bullet.” Hardly indeed.

If Murray’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the co-author of the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, a debunked case for the correlation of race and intelligence. Not only does Lowrey give Murray a platform, but she makes no mention of his history of racist policy proposals and comments.

Murray’s investment in the racial intelligence gap hypothesis has always informed his right-wing economic policies, including his opposition to affirmative action. To not mention of Murray’s racist past (and present) is misleading, especially when Lowrey’s book includes an entire chapter on the history of race in America.

Lowrey claims that UBI will help to heal America’s racial divide and bridge the wealth gap between white and Black Americans. Obviously, Murray is not a disinterested party in this conversation. But in the book, he is labeled with neutral descriptors like “libertarian economist” and “of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center think tank.”

PERHAPS BECAUSE Lowrey seems to see UBI as a way to bridge the left-right divide, she is quick to name-drop the proposal’s ideologically diverse advocates, ranging from Silicon Valley CEOs and right-wing libertarians to progressive activists and self-proclaimed socialists. This idea that UBI transcends partisan politics is one of its biggest selling points.

The broad appeal of the proposal, however, is primarily because of its ambiguity and abstraction. The devil is in the details.

The fault lines become clear once the specifics of how to implement UBI in the U.S. are discussed. How much money should be given to each American every month? How will UBI be paid for? Will payments only be provided for citizens, or will undocumented immigrants also benefit from the program?

When UBI evangelists provide detailed answers to these questions, the much-touted consensus withers away. While Lowrey does take a stance on one of these questions — she proposes $1,000 a month per person as a fair figure — she is intentionally vague on the others. All too frequently, she presents the argument about one of these crucial details and remains noncommittal.

Is $1,000 a month actually sufficient to live on, as Lowrey claims? She devotes a chapter of the book to Sandy J. Bishop, a woman living in Maine who slipped through the cracks, becoming severely impoverished through no fault of her own.

Would $1,000 a month be “just enough to live on and not more” in Maine? According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average Mainer would need to earn $2,673.60 per month in order for the “Fair Market Rent” to be 30 percent of income, as housing advocates propose as a general rule.

The report ranked Maine as the 23rd highest rent in the U.S., so getting by in states like California or New York would be even more cost-prohibitive.

Lowrey is well aware of the conflict when the UBI debate reaches the question of immigration:

A UBI would raise a difficult conversation about who “all of us” are, driving a wedge between citizens and noncitizens, between native-born Americans and immigrants and the millions and millions of mixed-status families who blur that line...It might increase anti-immigrant sentiment, and spur the adoption of anti-immigrant restrictions and policies. It might also foster the creation of a two-tier labor market, with businesses seeking out undocumented workers who would be far cheaper to hire than native-born citizens.

This is clearly a central, unavoidable question for any UBI advocate to address satisfactorily. But after three pages of acknowledging and explaining this argument, Lowrey equivocates: “There are no easy answers, especially for progressives.”

THE UBI would be hugely expensive. If each American received $1,000 every month from the government, the annual price tag would be $3.9 trillion. “Even if the government replaced Social Security and many of its other antipoverty programs with a UBI, its spending would still have to increase by a number in the hundreds of billions, each and every year,” Lowery writes.

But Give People Money has little say about the implications of that — and many of the pilot programs held up as successful examples of UBI in action aren’t immediately comparable to the U.S. context.

For example, Lowrey points to the success in Kenya of GiveDirectly, a U.S.-based charity providing no-strings-attached money instead of physical objects like clothing or mosquito nets to those in need.

While this charity is combatting extreme poverty on a global scale, it is heavily funded by Silicon Valley investors and other wealthy UBI advocates as a means of testing the viability of the program. This is completely different from a government paying for UBI by eradicating the country’s social safety net.

UBI should not be seen as a radical break with capitalism, but rather as a new and somewhat novel way for the elite to further exploit and dominate the working class.

Silicon Valley “futurists” may see a basic income as “A Capitalist Road to Communism” — the actual title of a keynote paper presented at a UBI conference, according to Lowrey — but the obscene wealth and corporate monopolies overseen by tech billionaires would remain untouched if a UBI were ever implemented.

Lowrey hints at this when she states that UBI “would ameliorate one of the worst problems with the gig economy — namely, pay that works out to peanuts — without quashing the business model.” But shouldn’t we be figuring out how to quash the gig economy business model?

Lowrey’s proposal appears, at first glance, to be utopian and idealistic, and in a sense, it is. It aspires to rescue capitalism from its inherent instability and class antagonisms while continuing the accumulation of capital in the hands of the super-wealthy. UBI is naively utopian in its aims — and unavoidably insufficient in what it would actually deliver for the majority of people in the U.S.

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