what if you’re missing something really, really important?
I love you. I’m an unabashed berner. Let’s get that straight right off the bat. I love your policies, your emphasis on grassroots and power to the people, your dogged persistence, and your unflappable integrity. I have one of your 2016 campaign tee-shirts near the top of my drawer and a 2020 sticker on my car. You inspired me then and you inspire me today. I love the way you insist “Not me. Us.”
So then, I wonder, why is it so important that it’s US? What is it about We the People, whom you (and I) strive to recruit in this great progressive revolution, that is so valuable? How powerful are WE, really?
I believe, and I think you might agree, that OUR potential for impact is enormous if we, as individuals and as a people, can only rise to it.
But how much of bandwidth, energy, time, and money can we really expect the average American to give when the average American is scrambling to keep up with bills, living a flat tire or a broken ankle away from financial ruin?
When the average American doesn’t feel safe in her tomorrow, she cannot fully join in our revolution today.
The fact that you’ve recruited so many of us into active participation in this movement, despite all our distractions and fears, is nothing short of astounding, and it makes you a hero to me.
But Bernie, I’m just going to say it. You’re missing the boat on one absolutely critical idea: Universal Basic Income. I know that you’ve considered it and taken various stances on it at various times. I beg you to hear me out.
First, UBI is not an alternative to other progressive policies.
That’s a false choice that we’ve been presented. We must reconsider UBI as a fortification to and foundation beneath our other efforts. I wrote a much more detailed piece on what my vision of a holistic platform for human rights and sustainability would look like, and it looks a lot like your platform plus UBI. I’ll simplify it here in this letter in terms of how every single one of your hallmark causes would be made stronger with a UBI underneath.
In terms of my credibility, I’ve researched UBI full time for the last several years, interviewed dozens of experts from many professions on the matter, and witnessed UBI in action in a nationwide trial I designed and am currently managing for the upcoming docuseries Bootstraps.
One could write a similar letter to Liz Warren, AOC, and other progressive heroes too, by the way. One could even appeal to conservative, liberal, and libertarian leaders about how every one of their policies that are intended to uplift the American people would be upgraded with UBI just the same. As UBI advocates from all political leanings are fond of saying: it’s not left or right, it’s forward.
However, Bernie, you’re up at the top of my list, and this letter is for you.
You love to make an example of Canada’s universal healthcare system. It’s clearly superior to ours, and Canadian doctors certainly prefer working within it for the better care it allows them to provide, but they will also tell you that they often wish they could just prescribe cash. It’s no coincidence that the Canadian Medical Association officially endorsed UBI by a wide margin. Universal healthcare is essential for our peace of mind and well-being, but we could vastly reduce the severity and prevalence of illness by directly reducing two of the largest causes of poor health (and high healthcare costs): poverty and stress.
Financial security is the best preventive medicine.
If we remove the worst of insecurity on an immediate and individual basis, we will have turned off a major source of the gas fueling the fires of obesity, heart disease, and our mental illness epidemic in America.
The Fight for $15
To give credit where it’s due, you’ve already improved countless lives by pressuring mega-corporations to do the right thing, but a minimum wage hike misses a lot of people, too. Those who are unemployed would not be helped by a wage hike, and the effect felt by those who are employed would also be very unpredictable. The greatest beneficiaries of $15/hr are those currently working at minimum wage who are able to keep their jobs and their hours. A bump from $7.25 to $15 is very significant, but what about someone already making $14? Would they just get a $1 bump up to $15 or maybe a little more due to upward market pressure? It’s hard to say exactly. What about those making $20? How much benefit would they feel, if any?
By comparison, $1,000/month in UBI equates to about a $6/hr raise for everyone, employed or unemployed. Nobody is missed. And that $6/hr is based on a 40-hour workweek. For someone working 20 hours, it’s a $12/hr raise. We should still couple it with a good minimum wage, but UBI is a much more effective way to uplift everyone toward a livable income.
Contrary to what seems to be the understanding of some of your advisory team, a good UBI is absolutely a redistribution from the wealthy to the rest of us, and rightly so. With a smartly-funded UBI, over 70 or 80 percent of the population would be on the receiving end of net positive income, with the largest benefits being retained proportionally by those with greatest need. This oft-misunderstood fact, that it is a redistribution, is also why UBI is far less expensive than most people realize.
Speaking of affordability, you speak well and often about what percentage of Americans owns how many percents of the economy, and it certainly paints a stark picture, but it’s hard to wrap one’s head around such numbers with respect to a $20 trillion economy made up of 325 million people. I prefer to make the same argument a bit more personalized and point out that our nation’s total household assets amount to around $280,000 per person and our national household income is over $50,000 per person. That means that the “average” American family of four theoretically has over a million dollars in wealth and receives a couple hundred thousand dollars in annual income. It seems absurd when looked at this way, yet that’s how rich we are as a nation, by the numbers. Suddenly $12,000 a year doesn’t feel so much like socialism as it feels like a little bit of justice. We could afford UBI multiple times over if we really wanted to.
I’m prepared to demonstrate all of this in more specific numbers, too. I’ve spent over a year creating a UBI Calculator that will allow people to analyze the effects of various UBI proposals on their personal finances as well as on the national economy. Andrew Yang’s plan, which leans heavily on a VAT tax, is one way to fund a UBI, but it’s certainly not the only way. Carbon taxes could fund part of a UBI. AOC’s 70% top income tax could work similarly. Warren’s wealth tax, too. Want to redirect some of our bloated military budget? Why not toward a UBI? There are many options to fund UBI, and in every case, to varying degrees, the net effect is the redirecting of money that is currently being siphoned up to the shareholder class back to the rest of us in the poor, working, and middle classes, where it should have gone in the first place.
The question shouldn’t be whether to implement a UBI, but how best to do so.
The Federal Job Guarantee
Plain and simple, a Job Guarantee needs to be truly optional. If it’s a choice between taking a government gig and watching your kids go hungry, then it isn’t a choice at all. But if the American people at large were empowered by way of a UBI to pursue their own entrepreneurial, artistic, and community values when they so chose, a significant percentage of the unemployment problem could take care of itself as many people forge their own productive paths. Those who then chose to take advantage of a Job Guarantee program would be the ones most excited to do the important work of building out our green infrastructure and whatever else we’d design jobs programs to invest in and support. With a UBI underneath, the Job Guarantee would become a more logistically manageable, moral, and effective program.
The Dignity of Work
Some people extol the “dignity of work” as a reason not to “pay people for nothing,” because people need purpose in life, and “free money” would supposedly rob them of that purpose. This sort of thinking strikes me as highly confused.
The truth of human nature is that everybody is inherently and internally driven by the search for purpose. All of us want to work, grow, shape our worlds, and be remembered. In short, we all want to matter. This is our primary motivation as homosapiens from the day we as flailing-limbed infants first knock over some object and realize with great elation that it was us who did that! We human beings derive great joy from impacting the world around us (or as behavioral psychologists refer to it, from “being a cause”). Rather than seeking to direct and enforce this drive, we largely just need to support it and get out of the way.
The problem is that our current system squashes those aspirations by forcing people into roles in which they may not find their sense of purpose. Then comes apathy, despair, and escapism. We must be wary not to seek to restrict support to those who demonstrate an unwillingness to work in some specific way that we have designed, but rather to nurture them in the work they choose to pursue. Additionally, we can provide strong options for those who still need or desire it through things like jobs programs.
What’s more, life IS work.
We must escape this outdated thinking that the only work of value is that which either an employer or a customer is willing to pay money for. From raising strong, polite, and curious children, to staying fit and getting good sleep, to obeying the law, to cleaning one’s house, to volunteering and activism, to caring for sick family members, even to maintaining dental hygiene, life itself is work. At some level (enough to survive), all of this work should be acknowledged and supported unconditionally so that people can go on doing it well.
Education fails at multiple stages, so let’s start from the beginning.
- How do we get parents more involved in their kids’ education from an early age? We free up their time, mental bandwidth, and ability to pay for educational opportunities by reducing their economic insecurity. Also, notably, UBI has demonstrated an outcome of reduced domestic violence in trials, fostering a far better learning environment for kids.
- How do we get more high schoolers to stick it out and graduate? We make it so their families can afford to pay bills without them dropping out to take jobs.
- How do we get more people able to pursue higher education and internships? We subsidize every student’s room, board, and other expenses throughout their studies.
UBI does all of these to a significant degree. On top of that, yes, we still need to reduce the bloated costs of college, we should probably make public education tuition free through undergrad and trade schools at least, and we should consider student debt forgiveness options.
A well-designed and truly “universal” basic income would be distributed on a per-citizen, not per-household, basis. In a two-parent household, each would get their own basic income each month or week and decide whether or not to pool it together after the fact.
Consider the implications of that. How many women have been stuck in violent or otherwise abusive relationships because they didn’t have the financial security to leave? If a man controls the finances, how can a woman get away, especially if she also has the well-being of children to worry about?
In a world with UBI, any woman could get a fresh start the second she needs to. She’d know that she and her kids would neither go hungry nor would they need to apply and wait for support from some organization before making moves.
Also worth noting is that the majority of unpaid labor that has gone on throughout our history — emotional labor, childcare, elder care, household responsibilities, and more — has been performed by women. It’s important that this real form of labor be acknowledged for its real value to society by supporting it with real money. Nothing speaks louder or changes power dynamics faster than plain old cash, because cash is power in our society.
What could strengthen a union more than individual security for every one of its members? What is UBI but a permanent strike fund for every individual? What can UBI provide but additional confidence and leverage in the act of collective bargaining? UBI might be the strongest way to revive and revitalize our unions.
There’s a good reason the drafters of the Green New Deal mentioned basic income by name in their first writing of it. They know how crucial economic justice will be in this fight. Unfortunately, they flubbed the messaging on the first go-round, took a lot of flak for it, and removed that specific language from the current draft. However, the more generalized economic justice language that remains is still very much in the spirit of UBI, even if its authors haven’t yet found the right words to link the two.
In order to fight effectively for our climate and our future, we will need the leadership of those in disadvantaged communities who face the disproportionate brunt of climate breakdown’s devastating effects, and in order to expect this of them, they will need our continued support as well as compensation for the extra burden they bear. Those on the front lines generally don’t have the luxury of being full-time activists. They are often people who lack income security more than most.
Also, in terms of one piece of immediately actionable legislation, it’s an absolute no-brainer to fund a UBI dividend in part with a carbon tax or cap, and the more aggressive the better. However, if we don’t distribute the revenue as a dividend, then the poorest among us will be the ones who most feel the extra cost at the pump, and we might (deservedly) find ourselves with a whole lot of yellow vests in the streets. Alternatively, if people in poor circumstances receive more in UBI than the extra energy and transportation expenses they incur due to such a tax, they come out ahead financially while we’re all incentivized in the switch to a low carbon lifestyle.
We must not attempt to solve climate change on the backs of those least culpable, least able to afford it, and most detrimentally affected by it.
On the flip side of taxing the pollution of our environment and the extraction of our resources, we could also further build a universal income foundation with renewable energy. If the Green New Deal aims to construct massive solar and wind energy infrastructure, then what better place to direct the self-replenishing revenue from these publicly-owned resources than straight to the people? We all “own” the sun equally, after all. Why shouldn’t we share in its never-ending productivity? In terms of political will, our entire energy transition and sustainability policy could be rapidly accelerated by directly investing the public in it.
Of course, UBI is not an alternative for all of the other direct legislation we need — fracking ban, single use plastic ban, stricter recyclability standards, moratorium on new fossil fuel pipelines and plants, phase-out of existing infrastructure, etc. — but it’s a powerful addition to the arsenal.
Speaking of pipelines, how many more Americans would have supported the protesters at Standing Rock and the many other lesser-known pipeline protests if they didn’t feel the need to keep their heads down to focus on their livelihoods and immediate needs? Consider that no Job Guarantee would ever pay such activists for the important and patriotic work that they currently do at their own physical and financial risk. Protest is among our most vital civic functions today (especially today). With a UBI to lean on, how many fewer of us would tuck our tails, lower our eyes, and mind our own business when a powerful person or organization needs to be stood up to? How much stronger would every single movement become?
Speaking of Standing Rock, I remember reading about two police officers who turned in their badges because they just couldn’t stomach the orders they were being asked to carry out. I wonder if they quickly found new work or if their families suffered for their principles.
How many more wanted to walk away, do you imagine, but lacked another marketable skill-set and had kids and a mortgage to worry about? How many bit their tongues and swallowed their consciences and kept the rubber bullets flying and freezing water flowing? How many still have nightmares?
In a society that guaranteed economic security, we’d all be more empowered to walk away from what we find morally repugnant and to defend what we see as noble and just.
It’s good to teach integrity, but it’s another thing entirely to subsidize it.
Another thing that’s easier to do with your head up and eyes forward is to get democratically engaged. It takes time and energy to get informed, get to the polls, and stand in that line, let alone becoming proactive in a movement. While we fight to end gerrymandering, undo voter suppression, and expand voter enfranchisement, a UBI could free up our people to get involved at a whole new level.
Getting Money out of Politics
What faster way to start combating the corrupting influence of special interest money than to simply drown it out? How scary would the Koch brothers be, really, if we were a nation of several hundred million people each feeling financially secure enough to throw $27 not only toward flagship campaigns like yours, Bernie, but also to every local campaign and cause we care about?
We see irrational vitriol every day on the street and on social media, over every social and political issue, as our country’s crisis of intolerance and hate intensifies. Even people who mostly agree seem eager to tear each other down over small differences.
It’s a barbaric, winner-take-all mentality we’ve developed, growing up in this loser-gets-nothing system. We see xenophobic, supremacist, hyper-religious, and other such fundamentalist groups sprouting up with the goal of snuffing out perceived threats as quickly as possible.
Many would love to righteously thrash these various haters in return, but isn’t this all just hate? Wouldn’t we do better to absorb and reform those of spiteful mentalities so that we don’t have to go on trying to “defeat” them for the next several generations?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as heartbroken and sickened by the resurgence of neo-Nazis as the next person — I was at Charlottesville and was almost hit in that car attack — but I will always insist that people are people, and we must strive to understand them as such. We were all born as wide-eyed babes, and somehow we got to where we are and what we believe today. So what has caused some of us to become so hateful?
Mostly, it’s fear.
It’s fear of the loss of power, the loss of control of our circumstances, loss of livelihood, of safety, of purpose. Many of us are indeed losing these things, but not because of people with brown skin, accents, or nonconforming sexual preferences or gender identities.
How many fewer of us would turn to acts of intolerance and succumb to extremist arguments if we were feeling financially secure? When we’re all more safe, it will become harder to conceive of others as threats to that safety.
Let’s continue to stand up to hate every day, and let’s legislate to directly protect our citizens, from police body cams to anti-discrimination laws, but let’s reinforce all of those efforts by ensuring that everyone has a solid floor on which to stand. When we do that, we just might be able to unite this country.
The American Dream
Last but not least, let’s talk about the now almost-mythical American Dream. UBI is the most efficient way to guarantee opportunity and choice to every single American, plain and simple.
UBI is power to the people, distilled. No frills. No barriers.
It’s not too late
Bernie, you still have plenty of time. Your platform can evolve today and now. You don’t even have to lead the way for once. You’ve met Andrew Yang on the campaign trail. Please don’t write him off, even though he’s suspended his campaign, because more and more of the American people are listening to him every day, and he has a lot to say. I hope you’ll hear him and join in the conversation, bringing your progressive fire to it.
Above all, I implore you, Bernie, to imagine how UBI can strengthen everything you stand for by strengthening everyone you stand with and stand up for.
As you say: “Not me, us.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I want us all to be able to show up and do our part alongside you in the enormous task of righting this drifting, listing ship. Imagine all of our daunting challenges — from corporate influence to the climate to our health and education to economic injustice — faced by several hundred million pairs of eyes and borne on the shoulders of several hundred million Americans, lifting in unison.
In love and solidarity,
Want to read more? Here’s a handy list of links to all my Medium pieces on basic income.