How Not to Bungle the Revolution
Universal Basic Income vs the Federal Job Guarantee
Dear elected leaders and political up-and-comers. Dear Bernie and Nina and Tulsi and Elizabeth and more. Dear Our Revolution, Poor People’s Campaign, Democratic Socialists of America, Justice Democrats, etc. Dear populists of the sort who believe in the message you speak on behalf of The People and against the pressures of oligarchs and corporate lobbyists. Dear activists, humanists, and visionary writers and thinkers.
I love you. I believe that now is finally your time to shine and help bring this country to a humane and sustainable future. I count myself among you. I bern as hot as anyone. The great pendulum of change is poised to swing back very hard in our direction. I know you can feel it. I’m excited as hell about it. I’m also nervous about the idea that we might fumble this massive opportunity.
I’m writing to you now because I want you, or rather us, to succeed in bringing that healthy future into existence. I first want you to know that I believe in single payer universal healthcare, decriminalizing marijuana, free public education, getting money out of politics, ending militarism, everything human rights, and almost all of what you stand for.
To Libertarians, Conservatives, Democrats, and everyone else, I believe that what I have to say is important for you to hear as well, because in the end we should all have a mentality of progress and human rights. I don’t find those ideals to be counter to any serious fundamental and political worldviews. What I’m going to suggest specifically to progressives here is universal.
Back to you, progressives. I’m writing to you now because I believe that many of you are very recently gathering forces behind an idea, or at least a version of an idea, that will prove to be a serious mistake. I do not want to see our nation’s wings clipped on the way to greater freedom and empowerment for every citizen, especially by an easily-adjusted set of choices in terms of messaging, platform, and policy.
This misguided idea is the Federal Job Guarantee (JG), specifically when presented as an alternative to another idea: Universal Basic Income (UBI). If you’re unfamiliar with either of these concepts, click on the links for a primer.
I know that this may be controversial to many of you, and that a JG seems like a bold, progressive home run right now, so let’s address the thoughts and questions that I suspect are popping into your head one by one. I’ll try and stay relatively brief, and sensitive to and respectful of the very real political concerns you may have. If you want to dive deeper into a longer, well-written, and more complete (though more severe) analysis of the many serious logistical and moral problems with a JG as a solo policy, I recommend you click here.
On to your questions.
“Who are you?”
I’m Conrad. Nice to meet you!
Also, I’ve been researching UBI and related policies full time for the last couple years while working on the Bootstraps Project. Essentially, our team has designed, fundraised, and implemented a small, geographically diverse, two-year basic income trial in the US geared toward documenting the impact that receiving a basic income has on the lives and behavior of the 21 Americans participating. We will share the results in a documentary series released in early 2020, just as political campaigns are really heating up and the first primary votes are about to be cast. It is our intent to help catalyze the growing UBI movement into something widely discussed and debated around dinner tables all over America, to bring the public at large into the conversation.
“People don’t want handouts.”
I totally agree. People want what is fair. They want what they deserve and what they have earned, and they want that for others as well. We human beings have a strong sense of fairness and justice built into our moral DNA. This is why it’s important to understand that UBI isn’t “free money” or “money for nothing,” as many both for and against it unfortunately tend to depict it.
Both morally and practically, UBI is not a handout; it is deserved by each and every human being. Morally, we’ve decided that a human is entitled the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but we don’t yet fulfill that promise. At minimum, Life requires food and shelter, while Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness require the ability to choose one’s path, to say “no” to a bad deal or unsuitable situation. UBI delivers that choice and that security as efficiently as possible in the form of straight cash with no strings attached. JG, on the other hand, by including the stipulation that one must work in a government-approved job in order to receive those benefits, severely limits and potentially removes that freedom of choice. When you have the “option” to either work for the state or starve, there’s no real choice. You have to take the job.
It is more appropriate to understand UBI as a dividend than as a handout. It is an equal share in the prosperity of the country, acknowledging that none of us alive today have individually created the system that allows for such prosperity. Our technology, infrastructure, laws, property, resources, and networks are mostly inherited, and the economic system we have designed allows far too much of these inherited benefits to be funneled directly to those who already have money or who are descendants of those who have laid claim to what should rightfully belong to everyone. UBI is a tweak to the system to make sure that we are acknowledging that every citizen is a rightful co-owner of what no individual should ever be allowed to claim for themselves.
Land, air, water, freedom, opportunity, and the fruits of societal and technological advancement belong in the commons; they belong to us all. Those who wish to creatively and ambitiously advance themselves by leveraging these resources should of course still be allowed and encouraged to do so, because that is how we spur innovation. However, it is only fair that the extractors and controllers of natural resources (generally corporations and landowners) should pay some form of appropriate rent or fee to the rightful owners of those natural resources (The People) for that privilege. The real handouts that we should be concerned with are the ones we give to corporations and people of wealth every day when we essentially allow them to extract from our public resources far too cheaply at the expense of the public.
Coincidentally, this type of policy mindset will also serve to disincentivize abuse of said resources and keep their use at healthy levels. For one example, a carbon cap or tax is a great way (with support on all sides of the aisle) to move toward the ecological goal of phasing out fossil fuels, and if the revenues are put directly back into the pockets of The People through a UBI rather than into government coffers, any rise in cost of living for the lower and middle classes due to rising gas prices could be more than compensated for with the extra dollars coming in. By doing this, we support everyone during our transition off of fossil fuels while also encouraging a quicker move away from them. This model of paying fees for use or exploitation of the commons (or what some refer to as “Universal Basic Assets”) could be expanded to include other forms of pollution as well as land ownership, financial transactions, broadcast spectrum usage, patent protected profits, and so on. It would finally and directly acknowledge that The People are the true owners of the commons.
“But people get dignity and purpose out of work. UBI would undermine work by making it optional, whereas JG would give people higher purpose through work.”
I agree that people find meaning through work. However, it’s very important not to confuse “work” with “jobs.” Many jobs today are bullshit jobs, providing no real value to society. Conversely, many extremely valuable forms of work are not rewarded or supported by our current labor market system. People caring for sick parents or children, full time mothers or fathers, volunteers, entrepreneurs and artists in development, students, activists, and more are a vital part of our country’s health and prosperity, but we treat them as worthless, because there is neither an employer nor a customer willing to pay them for their efforts.
The security and freedom of choice that UBI represents allows people to pursue the types of work most suited to them, that they find most valuable and meaningful. Often, that would still include finding employment in the labor market, because that’s where the most income potential still exists, but the choice to join the labor market and in what capacity must remain just that — a choice.
A JG could provide more options to some, but it would be beyond naive to expect a government program to account for and support all of the types of meaningful work people would do if given the choice. Instead, a JG by itself would end up preventing many from finding and pursuing their most meaningful and valuable form of work by robbing them of their time to do so.
Perhaps we should rebrand UBI as a “Federal Work Guarantee,” because that’s essentially what it is. Life is work, and UBI sustains life. Jobs, on the other hand, are just one small part of life. Where UBI is transformational, JG is also ambitious, but it’s fundamentally just an extension of the dying paradigm we already live in.
By the way, if you’re sympathetic to the fear that people not needing to work will lead to too much laziness and freeloading, first know that all of the data from prior and ongoing UBI experiments to date have not shown this. In fact, they showed greater graduation rates, more entrepreneurialism, higher savings, less spending on vices, fewer hospitalizations, and on and on.
Secondly, I invite you to step outside the hyper-competitive scarcity mindset we’ve all been raised in for a second and really reconnect with human nature. True human nature is to want to grow, to live comfortably, to have new experiences, and to thrive. Nobody wants to stare at a wall in a crappy apartment for 80 years, eating cheap grocery food, just because it’s possible.
It’s funny, when we interviewed thousands of people around the country for Bootstraps, we asked them what they’d do with $1,000 more per month. 99% had a fantastic answer, easily justifiable as a boon to society. Something closer to 50%, however, were worried about others wasting the money. This is a pretty big disconnect between how we perceive our fellow citizens and who they really are, and I believe it arises largely out of this myth that there’s just not enough to go around, that there must be winners and losers. The truth is that there’s enough to go around many times over. In America, our population earns and owns enough that the theoretically average family of 4 has over $1 million in assets and pulls in over $200,000 in annual income. Now does that sound like the average American family you know? Mathematically, it’s the truth. It’s just that the hoarding at the top and the further funneling upward of earnings have reached such inane proportions among such a small group of people that it doesn’t seem intuitively possible that that’s the case.
“Won’t UBI make people dependent on the government? And that would make the government huge! People don’t like the idea of Big Brother interfering in or controlling their lives.”
First off, I want to make something extra clear:
I can’t think of anything more dependence-inducing than requiring everyone who needs help to work for the State.
Also, if you really think through the functionality of a JG, it involves an enormous amount of paperwork, bureaucrats, applications, monitoring, overseeing, coordinating, etc. And, as we head deeper into an automated future, the program will need to balloon further to accommodate the additional needs of the multiplying jobless.
And what do you really think it’ll be like to apply for a government job? What will the wait be like? What if you need to pay the rent tomorrow and you don’t have your government job yet? How will the odds of getting a job you’re well-suited to shake out? What will it be like to transfer between jobs? If your boss is abusive, can you quit, and if so, what would happen? Conversely, how hard would it be for JG jobs to fire bad workers? Once you start working a $15/hour government job, how much opportunity will you really have to be able to grow into bigger and better things?
A UBI, on the other hand, if you think about it, actually represents a shrinkage of government and a reduction of dependence upon it. If it’s instituted as a universal human right and everyone is to get the same amount with no strings attached, then there is no opportunity for a government bureaucrat to make you do or prove anything for it. There’s no reason for anyone to monitor your behavior. There’s no reason to ever have to apply for it. You get it just for existing. The second you lose a job, your UBI is already there to hold you over until your next one.
In terms of bureaucracy, perhaps the closest national program we have now is Social Security, with an administrative overhead of less than 1%. UBI is like Social Security, except: it’s for everyone in equal amount, the program can be designed to be paid off as we go rather than punted to the next generation, and it does not depend on prior contributions by individuals in determining the amount of the benefit. Because of these facts, implementation of UBI only really requires the up front effort of getting everyone signed up with a bank account (being banked is itself an opportunity that many currently don’t have), followed by simple coding to auto-deposit a uniform amount to every enrollee on a regular basis, and so overhead would be significantly less than even Social Security.
What’s more, a (large enough) UBI would be able to replace some of the more inefficient and bureaucratic welfare schemes we currently have in place. Namely we could replace programs that would be more effectively handled with cash, like food stamps, unemployment benefits, and housing vouchers, but not things in which leverage is needed to protect individuals from corporations, like Medicaid and Medicare, or conditions that are above and beyond normal circumstances, like disability. By replacing the programs that can be upgraded with cash this way, in such a way that the new UBI benefits are at least equal in dollar value to the ones being replaced, we thereby would be reducing the size and intrusion of government further.
To be blunt, the government sucks at providing food, and it’s awful at providing housing, but it’s really damn good at writing checks. Essentially, a UBI takes money and power out of the hands of the government, using the government as a pass-through in a simple redistribution. Instead of letting government employees decide how it is spent, UBI deputizes each and every citizen to be their own government representative when it comes to their own financial aid, deciding freely for themselves where and how the resources would be best utilized to help them most in their lives.
“Won’t this just subsidize bad jobs and allow companies to exploit people and bring down wages on the taxpayer’s dime? Isn’t it better to provide good jobs?”
Au contraire. Perhaps there exists a reasonable argument for how JG would raise wages through competition. There are definitely some serious unintended consequences that have been pointed out in that argument, especially regarding the damaging effects government-funded industries could have on private companies in those industries, but I’ll let that be for now and focus on the UBI side of things.
Suppose you’re working a crappy, low wage job. Perhaps your boss is abusive. Perhaps your job duties are disgusting and they don’t pay you nearly what the job is worth. Why do you keep working there? Why do you accept it?
The reason you stay is because you need that job to pay rent and buy food. You do not have the power to say “No,” to negotiate for what your time is worth, because you are in an insecure position. If, suddenly, you have an inherent security that travels with you in the form of UBI, you can tell your abusive employer to screw off. You can turn down the $7 an hour for cleaning toilets and renegotiate or keep looking for something more rewarding, either financially or spiritually.
UBI is like an individual strike fund for every worker. Bad jobs won’t be able to pay lower wages under UBI. Rather, they’ll have to raise them to what the jobs are actually worth in order to attract employees who now have some individual bargaining power.
“Why would we give money to the wealthy, too? It’s unfair and makes the plan far more expensive! Shouldn’t we target the aid to right where it’s needed?”
This is a very deceptive argument that has fooled many people. It makes total intuitive sense, too. Why provide UBI to those who don’t need it? Of course that seems wasteful, even counterproductive.
But that’s not what UBI does. This argument ignores how UBI is likely to be funded. If you set up the funding in such a way that it’s paid for by the wealthy, then the extra taxes they pay each year will pay back the UBI they receive many times over. Please understand that the net effect of UBI is a distribution of wealth from the rich to the lower and middle classes. In the end, we’re not giving it to the rich; the rich are giving it back to everyone else. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or misinformed.
The problem with targeting, though well-intentioned, is that it creates humiliation and bureaucratic waste while allowing people to fall through the cracks. My understanding is that on the order of 1 in 5 people who deserve benefits in America actually receive them (if someone has a link to that data, let me know and I’ll add it).
Targeting also creates very real poverty traps, incentivizing and often forcing people to game the system in order to maintain their benefits. Because of our noble targeting efforts, we have unintentionally created a system in which people can seriously harm themselves by attempting to contribute via a job. This is extremely detrimental to our society.
For further explanation of the actual cost and the true elegance of providing basic income universally, please read this more in-depth explanation and example.
“But wouldn’t UBI create inflation?”
Nope. For one thing, I’ll point out that most UBI advocates are not proposing simply creating money to fund it. Even with money creation, which we already do and give to banks, inflation wouldn’t be the catastrophe that alarmists predict. More to the point, a UBI can be designed to effectively be a net transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, and nothing more. Inflation is a complex issue though, so here’s a more in-depth answer to that question, too.
“Ok sure, UBI sounds nice, but it’s just politically infeasible right now. We can’t be naive.”
I get it. You’re afraid of taking all of the positive work you and we have done and throwing it away on an idea that’ll get you laughed off the stage. You’re not seeing enough public energy and understanding behind UBI to make it worth sticking your neck out for. To a large extent, it’s up to The People and on basic income advocates to create that fertile ground for politicians to champion the idea. I want you to know that that’s where we’re headed. The movement has grown very rapidly these past couple years, and will only continue to do so.
I’ve never seen something grow so fast that I know of, and just now is when the movement is starting to transition from a trendy, tech-driven cocktail conversation piece to a real grassroots campaign. Parties around the world are including it on their platforms, including several in the U.S. Also in the U.S, Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign is being revived, for which basic income was a cornerstone element. In addition, the many basic income trials are starting to realize and act upon the fact that the most powerful data they can share are the real human stories of those living with basic income, because that is what inspires the public. For our part at Bootstraps, this is exactly what we’re doing. By the time people are debating in the 2020 election, these stories will be everywhere. I predict that UBI will go populist in a big way.
As the automation problem gets worse, as people get more fed up with a government that has served the wealthy before them, and as people increasingly and very publicly point out the inherent weaknesses in ideas like a solo JG, UBI will only grow faster and faster.
If you can’t see the political feasibility of coming out in support of UBI at this moment, I would at least advise you to maintain a friendly and open sympathy with the idea until we make it safer for you to come out more strongly for it. I would also advise you not to throw your weight heavily behind a JG as the big solution to all of our problems, because I believe that will seem naive and overreaching once the public understands the issue more fully, and I fear it would harm your credibility.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s any need to renounce a JG outright. There’s great value within the concept. However, I think it would be best to reframe your messaging somewhat. More on that next.
“The New Deal included a massive jobs program like a JG and it helped a whole lot of people, and this country desperately needs to upgrade its infrastructure. How will UBI accomplish that?”
Yes it did, and yes we do! There’s so much good that can be done when the government invests in its people and its infrastructure. That is a core belief I share.
However, the New Deal also missed a lot of people, and it didn’t stop the inequality problem from coming back. The smart way forward here is to embrace both! We’ve been presented with a false choice so far: either UBI or JG. Together, however, they are more than the sum of their parts.
If we picture the sustainable economy we hope to build as a house, then UBI and universal healthcare are the foundation and floor of that house. They cover the very basic physical needs of human beings. Jobs programs and things like education and transportation, while also extremely important, are the walls. It’s a fool who tries to erect the walls without a strong foundation and floor in place.
Similarly, the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs includes physiological essentials like food, shelter, health, and safety. Other needs cannot be effectively pursued until these most basic ones are met. You don’t start by giving a homeless and starving person a job. You start with food and shelter, get them feeling safe and able to clean up and get clothed, and then help them find a job. If you do it that way, many will actually find valuable work on their own and spare you the trouble.
That last detail is extremely important to recognize, because in terms of implementation, it is infinitely easier to transfer cash electronically than it is to provide people with jobs. If we first (or simultaneously) implement a UBI, and ALSO invest in jobs programs, then not only are we making sure people are still granted their freedom of choice and that the government jobs remain truly optional, but we are also encouraging a great many people to proactively solve their own problems by giving them the opportunity to invest, take risk, get further educated, start businesses, and negotiate in the labor market from a stronger footing. By having a UBI in place, JG becomes a program for those who truly want to work in a government job, which will result in better quality labor while avoiding the slippery slope toward state-run indentured servitude.
JG coupled with UBI then also becomes a much more manageable task to implement in terms of scope. As it stands now, we have tens of millions unemployed in one form or another, which is already incredibly hard to imagine a government agency handling effectively. If the automation forecasters are anywhere near correct that we’re looking to lose 50% of our jobs to machines in the next couple decades, then that problem of bandwidth will only continue to balloon out of control.
With a floor under everyone’s feet, we will have the space and cushion to adapt to these major changes, both as individuals and as a large economy. And while UBI provides a reliable foundation of security below which nobody can fall, it would only be further strengthened if we also also invest in productive jobs to create more avenues for people to improve their status in life while contributing to national prosperity.
To sum up this section, here’s my suggestion:
- We must insist upon UBI first, or at least simultaneously.
- We should most definitely still support a JG, although I might suggest calling it a jobs program without referring to it as a “guarantee,” because personally it sounds naive to me to say we can guarantee everyone a job. Some are just not capable of work, and targeted bureaucracy will always have cracks to fall through.
- We should emphasize that combining the two is not combining the cost, but rather it’s leveraging symbiotic efficiencies. UBI makes jobs programs cheaper and more effective. Jobs programs help UBI to boost the economy and individual outcomes even further.
- We must make clear that by combining the two, we truly are putting power back in the hands of The People.
- To be clear, though, if you are only going to support one of these policies, then it must be UBI, because UBI is the one that misses no one, remains efficient and implementable on its own, and represents a huge leap forward in basic human rights. UBI by itself would be the most significant progressive win of our lifetimes. JG by itself could be a disaster that hurts our credibility for decades. Both JG and UBI represent noble-minded efforts to invest in our people and economy, but UBI also establishes the abolition of extreme poverty, the guarantee of basic freedom, and a foundation of support and safety for every citizen no matter what circumstance befalls them.
“The problem is, the Right has hijacked the message of UBI as an excuse to gut a whole lot of other important federal programs.”
I’ve heard this one. It’s nonsense. Granted, some on the Right have proposed things like gutting Medicare and other necessary programs and replacing it with a universal cash payment. This is obviously stupid and easily shut down if only we stay engaged. I’ve found that many of these people proposing their own draconian versions of UBI still support a much more progressive version as well, because they still see that as a vast improvement over the paternalistic, wasteful, and perverse welfare system that we now have. They’re not wrong.
Also, even while acknowledging that some on the Right are pushing for this sort of version, the truth is that they’re a small and relatively quiet minority of the voices in the space. The idea that they have hijacked the message is a ludicrous exaggeration of their influence. What’s more, because our Progressive and Left-leaning leaders have hardly even dared to engage in the discussion for fear of the optics of it, then it’s not a fair fight to begin with. Someone can’t hijack a plane if there wasn’t a pilot in the cockpit. They would just be assuming control.
In any case, the human rights advocates are still flying the plane straight and steady. We’re bringing in more people every day, and we’re asking you to join us.
“I heard that the Silicon Valley billionaires just want to keep people subservient to them.”
That’s pretty conspiratorial, don’t you think? My general take from my encounters with Silicon Valley denizens is that they know that the work they’re engaged in, much of which in an attempt to free and elevate society, is actually leading us toward a lot of pain because of the way we’re handling it. They’re aware that in a society in which safety and stability is predicated on people selling their labor, their work of rendering that labor obsolete is directly harmful to people. They have consciences. And thinking as the engineers they are, they want to fix the system’s design so that they can continue the work they love and still sleep at night knowing that they’re helping free up society rather than obsoleting people into destitution and fomenting revolution.
That’s Silicon Valley as a whole I’m talking about. I also tend to assume the billionaire elites of the tech world have consciences, too. I like to give the benefit of the doubt that human beings operate much like I understand human beings to operate, even if they have a lot of money. It’s systems that I think need addressing much more than individuals.
However, if there truly are several mustache-twisting super villains out there who believe that a UBI will keep people subservient, then they’re just not very good at being villains. In fact, they’re terrible at it. Supporting a policy change to make sure your slaves and enemies will receive no-strings-attached money on a regular basis, largely taken from your own income, is an absolutely awful way to keep people under your thumb. It’s just bad villainy. It’d be like a CEO trying to silence the opinions of their employees by giving them the majority of shares of stock in the company and the majority of representation on the board.
I say we let these hypothetical bungling bad guys believe what they want to believe, be grateful for their miscalculated yet influential support, and move on with our work. They are not a problem.
“If we give people money, then it will mostly just end up back in the hands of the rich anyway.”
I hear this a lot, and it’s a logic that baffles me. My answer is so what? It’s already in their hands now. Why not allow it to buy tens of millions of people the essentials they need in the meantime, improving their lives and opportunities while boosting local economies all around the country? And also, the more people start getting their essentials covered and catching up on what they need and lack, the more they actually will be able to save and invest, so wealth will indeed start to shift in the longer term. UBI may not be the whole solution to wealth and income inequality, but it’s a huge step, and it’s the first and most important one.
“Ok maybe people running in 2020 and beyond can start gradually working it into their platforms, but what about people running right now? It’s an election year!”
I feel you. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for you to be an outright UBI proponent in your current campaign. I recommend you just don’t draw a line in the sand. Your work doesn’t end the day you get elected, after all, and I imagine you will want to have your credibility as highly regarded as possible when it comes to getting things done in office. Feel free to use what works for you or is helpful to you from my messaging above. That way, when the public is standing up and demanding UBI first and foremost, you won’t be on record for having spoken out against it during your campaign.
“It’s a complicated subject, and many more questions come up when it’s being discussed. How would we handle the messaging around all of it?”
I’m glad you asked. It just so happens that I’ve collected (and created) an extensive list of links to useful answers to such questions at the end of this article. Please feel free to use this as a UBI handbook of sorts. My writing, specifically, has been almost entirely focused on developing simple and compelling public messaging. If you have any one question you don’t know how to answer, scroll down these links, and you should be able to find the answer. The link to Scott Santens’ FAQ, in particular, is very robust. If none of the articles below or in Scott’s FAQ answer your question, please feel free to reach out to me directly at email@example.com and I’ll provide an answer or connect you to someone who can.
It’s very important to me that we get this right, folks, because I’m telling you, UBI is going to be the great human rights fight of our generation and maybe the next. We’re in the middle of a massive shift in how our economy and society works, and we’ve got to be smart and proactive about it. Incrementalism and doubling down on old paradigms will lead us to much unnecessary suffering, and we need our leaders to be bold and visionary.
I believe in you, and I believe in us.
In love and solidarity,
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Our Grand Experiment
If you’re interested in helping Deia and me build the grassroots movement for UBI in America with our ambitious socio-economic experiment and documentary film series BOOTSTRAPS, please check out the work that Deia and I are doing, give what you can to the production fund (managed by Kartemquin Films), and invite others to do the same. All contributions are tax deductible.
A few of my favorite UBI articles by others:
On the Basics of Why UBI — Scott Santens
On How to Pay for UBI — Scott Santens
An Invaluable FAQ for All of Your UBI Questions — Scott Santens
On the Rich History of UBI — Karl Widerquist