If UBI is the Answer, What is the Question?
Lenny Mendonca

A provocative piece and great debate to be having. Couple thoughts:

  • It’s not fair to focus on low unemployment rates as a claim that we don’t need an income floor in the US. Whether you think machines are taking the jobs or not, economists and analysts agree that work is becoming more contingent, part-time, and unreliable, and there is little to suggest this trend will change. For recent analysis of how the poor live today that hits the need for an income floor carefully, Luke Shaefer’s $2 a Day: Living on Nothing in America is a masterpiece.
  • It seems like you have a belief that government programs are by their nature better than investing cash in the poor themselves. The existing evidence base from limited US studies and nearly all international studies suggests that it’s not so clear cut. I for one would prefer fewer “job training” investments that assume that government understands what the jobs of the future will be, and more direct cash to the poor who I think are on balance savvier about what they need to learn. For some quick-hits that government job training just doesn’t work, see this, this, and this, amongst many others.
  • I agree with thearguments about the high cost of a basic income if you assume $12k per person to start at a national level. Even there, Andy Stern’s book unpacks how this could be paid for. But I also think it’s worthwhile to realize that a lot of people who support the basic income (myself included) think we could start much more conservatively or create an income floor, similar to what was done with the Mincome experience in Dauphin, Canada in the 1970s. These programs still have many of the major attributes of universality, but are dramatically less expensive.
  • The claims that a basic income is wildly unpopular and that it is bad social science claims seem unfair to me. For the most part, people don’t know what a basic income is in the US, making it very difficult to poll on. We have much work ahead to understand how best to talk about this idea, but to say that it’s unpopular suggests that people even know what it is, which isn’t yet true. And the bad social science claim just feels like it hasn’t considered the mountain of evidence to the contrary.

All that said, I agree it makes a lot of sense to think about how to expand existing cash-based programs like the EITC — and the work of Golden State Opportunity has been pioneering. And very much agree that we have to wrestle with the exorbitant cost of housing as part of a basic income solution. At the end of the day, it feels like we share many of the same values and goals — would love to continue the dialogue.