Universal Basic Income, Social Policy and the Trump Term

What Are We Looking At? An Outsider’s Inside-Observation.

The Capitol in Washington DC, February 2017

“Official Visit”

I am lucky enough to be part of a Swiss group that was invited by the US Department of State to visit a number of individuals sitting in the administration, in think tanks as well as in the academic context. Summarizing the trip, I will focus on what my impressions towards the future of social policy and Universal Basic Income (UBI) in particular are.

The primary reason for the invitation by the State Dept. was our work with innovative policy in a number of fields including foreign policy, women-related policy, as well as UBI and social policy back home in Switzerland. We were asked specifically to share our strategic and executive models on producing and sharing policies. Most of us use a crowdsourcing model not only to advocate our causes but also to produce output and specific policy proposals. The Swiss crowdsourced think tank “Foraus” is a perfect example for that: a base of more than 1,000 mostly young volunteers are shaping the Swiss foreign policy scene for a while now. The referendum on UBI last year and the movement that was started along with it is another example of a new way to design and influence policy. The travel program in that sense was designed to learn from each other.

We started our trip — where else? — in Washington DC. The new administration is beginning to settle in now. At the State Department and basically at every other institution we visited, I sensed a lot of uncertainty: What will the main focuses be in the foreign policy and social policy sector? Who will manage to influence the agenda and with what strategies? You could sense these questions in particular in large liberal leaning think tanks like the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Brookings. “We basically don’t know how we’ll manage to influence the policy making process at this point”, a senior fellow from CAP told me. What has been visible so far were “attempts trying to stop the worst” — but it seems still unclear how to strategically organize an opposition. Not to mention a dominant new vision or paradigm for the future.

Trump and Universal Basic Income?

A Room at the US Department of State

I was surprised hearing some advocates for UBI express hopes for the Trump administration to take UBI serious along the lines of unconventional thinking. Still, I was open minded to the possibility and wondered if these chances were real. So, being invited at the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation with a bunch of policy fellows and some executive staff seemed like the best chance to get a sense of the intents in social and economic policy during a Trump presidency. The links between Trump and Heritage are more than obvious. It was commented publicly with Trumps list for supreme court justices, which he more or less copy-pasted from a publicly provided Heritage draft. The feeling and the evidence of strong bonds between Trump staff and Heritage were confirmed in our meeting. “At the moment, we lose almost half of our staff to the new administration”, I heard a Heritage staffer say. Of course, there hasn’t been any official account on any alliance due to Heritage’s “unpartisan nature”, but it is undeniable that the connection is strong and in many ways unique. At least, I haven’t heard about any other policy organization that has as deep ties and influence on policy decisions at the current administration (other than individuals from the business world).

In taking a closer look at the agenda and the proposals on social policy , there is one underlying principle across all accounts: cut expenses. Although Heritage hasn’t been considered as a traditional conservative player, their social policy suggestions seem very much so comparing to Republican policy efforts in the tradition since Reagan. Reading the “Blueprint for Reform” (which I urge that everyone read) and talking to some strategists (who I cannot quote directly), there is a clear notion to reform Social Security and Medicaid which contribute “dangerously” to the “spending and tax crisis” in the United States. The answer to that would be to direct these programs “strictly to those most in need”. It might still be unclear what that exactly means but it is no mystery that it will put low income folks heavily under pressure. More specific, on the note of “Welfare towards Independence”, Heritage proposes that “able-bodied adults who receive cash, food, housing and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits”. Particularly, they seem not happy with how things work with the Food Stamps program, adding that receiving nutritional benefits should be “reformed to include work requirements”.

Heritage: Grassroots and establishment at the same time?

In that context, I can only state the obvious: the notion of an Unconditional Basic Income not only seems the be the opposite of what Heritage wants to achieve, it basically defines a complete different principle and method to tackle the social issues we face today. Instead of a more restrictive and exclusive apparatus to make sure people stay on track to their (nonexisting) jobs, like Heritage suggests, UBI would be a strategy to redefine the role of social welfare as such. As much as a UBI directed policy would open up social transfer to all of us, it would reduce the role of governments to dictate what individuals should define as their work. To suggest that government should even bargain an existential necessity like food on the basis of the government’s definition of work seems not only unfair and dangerous to me. It seems also highly ineffective from a state’s point of view.

But most of all: it’s scary like hell! Although Congress won’t allow every suggestion, there’s still a good chance part of these policies will be put in motion. How will the anger and the fear of an even worse off lower middle class feel like if today’s economic failure led to Trump?

At the Table Or On the Menu?

Protest in Philadelphia, Mid-February 2017

The success of a nationalist right-wing movement like Heritage not only derives from its smart messaging towards an increasingly fearful white middle-class. As I learned, Heritage’s donor base is as large as over half a million members, and they get involved in the process of policy making in local groups. I am convinced that this is part of the reason of the overall success and I urge everybody to learn as much from it as possible. Creating policy has to be more than 30 board members sitting together in a room with a 100 million dollar annual budget and deciding what’s next.

On the other hand, my trip revealed another side of American politics that truly reveals some hope. It is rooted in civic engagement and in everyday people standing up for social justice. In a weekly protest in front of the Philadelphia offices of Sen. Pat Toomey (Rep.), a young woman summarized: “Either you’re at the table or you’re on the menu.” She captures a feeling I sensed in a number of people from all backgrounds and, more importantly, she speaks up to it. The important question really seems to be if and how progressives can organize themselves in order to make actual policy impact.

UBI? Yeah! But, Which One Do You Mean?

I have seen it. Poverty in Washington DC. Photo: J. Lawler Duggan / Washington Post

The problem with focusing too much on resistance and reactionary messaging is the lack of creating a new vision. I observed a lot of hesitance towards bold ideas like UBI or even the thought of working on proposals in this direction. The Brookings paper on UBI and related policy by World Bank researchers with the announce to be “open minded about UBI” builds an prominent exception in established policy circles. It symbolizes the chance to act now and seriously think about something we thought will never be reality but might just be the only option.

The smart move of the DC-based libertarian think tank Niskanen Center to open up to proposals like UBI despite an undoubtedly fiscally conservative background is very interesting. And it is essential in order to build UBI as a bipartisan prospect. Not by surprise, Sam Hammond told me they watch UBI research with lots of interest. With an “actual and an up-to-date set of data it will be much easier to argue for unconditional cash transfer in a political arena.” I agree, but I asked myself: what data and with which kind of agenda is the data produced?

An exciting development are the effort towards Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) in order to test unconditional cash transfers in different contexts. I am very excited about GiveDirectly and their amazing efforts to create a large database to measure some macroeconomic data as well as data on the question how UBI will affect work incentives. Even more so, talking to Rohit Naimpally at MIT’s J-PAL (Poverty Action Lab) in Boston, I’ve got the sense that RCTs might be a very important step to better understand how UBI could be designed effectively. But after some thinking and some ongoing debates, I am getting more and more convinced that these trials should not only address an isolated target group, e.g. be directed solely on the poverty issue. The trials in Finland and the Netherlands are perfect examples of RCTs that will tell us a lot about welfare-trapped groups that are currently depressingly pressured by their respective states to force them back to the job market.

I am sure that these trials will be able to draw some insights and send some important messages in the direction of more humane social safety net. But what do they tell us about low/middle/high income receivers comparatively getting unconditional payments? What about UBI’s influence looking at the macro level? In experiencing the universality of UBI as maybe the most driving component of the debates in Switzerland, I am not sufficiently satisfied with where this seems to go at the moment.


The Swiss Crew!

There are many questions about UBI we cannot test at all. But in doing so anyway, I suggest we make sure we build a sufficient solid ground in terms of the data collection. Because it will determine very much how and exactly what kinds of policies we will be able to build on top of it. I am very interested in discussing how UBI trials could be designed in a way that’s ideal and helpful to advance the conversation.

For me, another takeaway from our trip has been the necessity of new, inclusive models in the process of policy making. We can already witness a rise of inclusive and co-organized advocacy groups. But when it comes to the production of policy and political influence, think thanks are still run with a very traditional set of rules and techniques.

When it comes to shaping the policies of the future, and UBI is the best example, I have my doubts we will succeed in old structures.