Historical Q&A: Irv Garfinkel on the Guaranteed Income

The current debate about how a guaranteed income might work in the United States is just the most recent chapter of a conversation that has ebbed and flowed for over 60 years. Many of the idea’s earliest proponents in the 1950s and 1960s — people like Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — have passed away. But Irv Garfinkel, now the Interim Dean of the Columbia School of Social Work, participated in the early research as a young graduate student in the 1960s. In the decades since, he has continued to study and advocate for the idea.

I met Irv in the early fall of 2016 and began a conversation about the history and the future of the guaranteed income. In the summer of 2017, I asked him if he would be willing to sit down to chat about the early days of the guaranteed income movement, what he makes of the bubbling campaign today, and what the future might hold. The following is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Chris Hughes: Tell me about when you first heard about the concept of basic income or when you first got excited by the idea.

Irv Garfinkel: I was a first-year student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration’s Social Work Program. We had a retreat around 1965 where Robert Theobald, the futurist, was invited to talk. He thought that automation was going to eliminate jobs, and the solution was a guaranteed income — it wasn’t called a basic income then, I don’t think, but I wouldn’t swear to that. We all got excited. A group of four or five of us put together a regular newsletter to keep everyone up to date.

CH: From your perspective, was the need for a guaranteed income grounded in concern about automation or anti-poverty ideas like the negative income tax?

IG: It was both about the threat of automation and how to solve the problem of poverty efficiently. And the idea of a guaranteed income was closely related to the negative income tax and the child allowance. My very first publication — which I now would like to say is evidence of the phrase “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” — was a comparison of a negative income tax to a child allowance. I argued for a negative income tax, as opposed to a child allowance, because it was more target efficient.

CH: It feels like the more I learn about this period, the more it seems to have in common with today. There is this clear consensus that technology was dislocating the job market and that there was a good chance that jobs were going away. Simultaneously, there was also a group of social justice-minded folks who believed the chance to eliminate poverty was in our grasp. And then there was a third approach which was more Friedman-esque, the “let’s cash in the complicated bureaucracy and just give money” movement.

IG: Yes, all of them were there, then.

CH: The more things change, the more things seem the same. Do you agree with that?

IG: I think that is right. The one thing I would say is that the conservative side is a bit different. Charles Murray on the libertarian right favors a basic income, more generous than what Milton Friedman proposed, but like Friedman, he would like to get rid of all other social welfare programs, including social security. But now there are several highly respected conservative economists, Martin Feldstein, Gregory Mankiw, and George Schulz, along with former Secretary of State James Baker, who advocate for a social dividend as a way of distributing the proceeds of a tax on carbon. That is different from the movement in the 60s.

CH: That is more in the same vein of the Alaska model of the commonwealth which emerged in the 1970s after this initial conversation around a negative income tax.

IG: I’ve only learned about the Alaska dividend program in the past few years.

CH: Can you describe what the milieu was like around the University of Chicago or the academy in general in the 1960s, around the time when you made those newsletters you’ve shown me about the guaranteed income? It seems that there was just a real sense of almost limitless opportunity. Is that right, or am I just projecting a nostalgia on it?

IG: No, I think it is true!

CH: What was it like?

IG: Oh, it was exciting. I had been active in the civil rights movement, and we felt a real sense of momentum. When Johnson got up and said we shall overcome, it brought tears to my eyes. That was like a miracle, and so there was a good reason to be optimistic. Something major had happened in the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s, and that affected everyone. These things moved through Congress quickly. Then next up, President Johnson declared war on poverty.

CH: Did you expect to end poverty within the decade?

IG: Yes. Why not?

CH: The movement today is infused with plenty of idealism, so it is easy to imagine how heated the optimism must have been fifty years ago. If ending poverty felt like it was just in sight, why didn’t it happen? Why did the momentum die down?

IG: I think it was a social and political reaction. Almost every time you have a progressive leap forward, there is going to be a reaction. It is not only an American phenomenon, but it is pretty universal. The burst of progressive legislation was intense but short-lived. Then a reaction set in. That was true with the Progressive era and the New Deal eras. The progressive spurt lasted longer with the New Deal, but it was not quite as intense as the 1960s. The 1960s were intense regarding change and the frequency of it. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights legislation, he turned around and said that this is the end of the Democratic Party in the south.

CH: Do you think this was due to the immense blowback to civil rights advances?

IG: Yes, I think that when the Republican Party can take over the south, which is 40 percent of the population, and they succeed in riding and stirring up the blowback. Interestingly enough, if you look what’s going on now with the monuments, they are merely symbolic. Even though the North won The Civil War, the South won the peace. Taking down those monuments is a remarkable thing and is promoting good conversations that we weren’t having before.

CH: It seems like a lot of the thinking around how to make these policies work is required in the quiet periods to prepare for the moment when the burst of energy or attention arrives. Can we talk about exactly what happened with the basic income that was proposed in the 1960s? Was it that the policy was wrong, or was it that we didn’t get the moment right?

IG: Well the Family Assistance Plan was not a full UBI. The Family Assistance Plan, had it passed, would have been a step forward, but not a big step. It was income tested and not universal. I think we would have done better had we tried to get a child allowance, but by then it was off the table. Getting it back on the table would not have been easy.

CH: Who were the major players advocating for a UBI then?

IG: On the ground, there was the National Welfare Rights Organization. It comes out of Columbia University. Richard Cloward was a professor here as was his partner Frances Fox Piven. I remember inviting Richard to Chicago to give a talk at what was probably the second retreat which was a follow-up to the Theobald one. Then he invited me and George Martin, my then partner in crime, to the inaugural meeting of the National Welfare Rights Organization that he organized with Fran. The meeting was in Chicago. He and Fran were co-authors of a very famous book on welfare called Regulating the Poor. That book became the bible for the rights organization for the people who read it.

CH: That must have connected with a lot of people who were interested in cash and cash assistance.

IG: Yes. At that time, emergency needs played a large role in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program. The strategy Piven and Cloward encouraged NWRO to adopt was to get everyone to get the emergency needs to break the system.

CH: Right, open it up from the inside.

IG: Yeah, open it up from the inside. The effort was successful not in breaking the system but changing it. I would say that was good.

CH: Tracing the genealogy from the Family Assistance Plan to the earned income tax credit (EITC) is not something people often do. The EITC is a sufficiently distinct idea from the basic income, but they share a lot in common, and today when a lot of people talk about a modernization of the EITC, they bring it around full circle. The two policies seem related.

IG: I think that’s right. This is another interesting development. The Family Assistance Plan of 1972 was dead, but the multiple policies that emerged from that debate were pretty amazing. The EITC came a little later, but in 1972, food stamps got expanded nationwide. Food stamps were just a demonstration project that counties picked up leading up to that.

CH: You think nationwide food stamps were a direct descendant of the Family Assistance Plan?

IG: Zero question about it. It comes out of the yearning to eliminate poverty. The congress is heavily Democratic at that point and strangely enough, race was not getting in the way then, even though the 1968 Nixon campaign appealed to race.

CH: So you see both food stamps and the EITC as policies that emerged out of it the failure of FAP?

IG: Even more than those two. Before you got EITC, you got Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a guaranteed income for disabled and elderly people. Supplemental Security Income was passed in 1974, and it is the non-family portion of the Family Assistance Plan proposal. It is the negative income tax for the aged, blind and disabled. There is a federal minimum in SSI, and the states were allowed to supplement it. By American standards, it is pretty damn generous and remains that way today. And then comes the EITC.

CH: A guaranteed income skeptic could read that and say negative income tax and basic income might be inspiring to a small group of idealists on the left, but the real utility of the concept is to set a very aggressive goal like Social Security for all. The big goal is useful because it makes other policies seem modest in comparison — Food stamps, SSI, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and so on.

IG: I think that is right. I think the 1960s as a moment set an audacious goal for the following decades.

CH: Let’s go back to your comment the relationship between the civil rights struggle and the progress made versus than the challenges that emerged afterward. What role do you think the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the leadership of Dr. King, played in the conversation around the guaranteed income? I recently reread some of his writings from the last year of his life in his book Where Do We Go from Here? And his last sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution at the National Cathedral in Washington. He was out there for guaranteed minimum income at the moment when he was launching the Poor People’s Campaign . How did that impact how much people talked about the issue? I imagine that gave it a boost?

IG: It certainly didn’t hurt it. There were a lot of people in the civil rights movement who were uncomfortable with his focus on economics going beyond civil rights, but he was pretty persuasive. I think that he only started going in strong on economic inequality in the last year or two of his life.

CH: Yes, from 1967 to 1968.

IG: Yes. Unfortunately, his focus was not there long enough to have the impact it could have. By the time he begins to focus on economic inequality openly, the major victories in Civil Rights had already taken place. We were into the implementation of those reforms which was another battle. That is still going on today. Then, there was excitement and a feeling that victory was within reach, but the economic work came second. I was pretty young and confident. I never had that feeling again regarding social policy. When it was happening, I didn’t appreciate how important the increases in social security benefits were. I didn’t realize how big that was until I started writing about it. Now that was momentous in some ways.

CH: So after SSI and the EITC, the conversation about the guaranteed income and cash benefits seems to go to sleep for 20 years. What were you focused on during all that time? Fighting back against Reagan’s undoing of progress, I imagine?

IG: It didn’t go to sleep for me — another book that shows you what happened is Income Testing: The Case for and Against. It’s all about programs for everyone or just programs for the poor. I didn’t call it basic income, but when I get to proposals, I talk about child allowances and adult allowances, which is effectively a basic income. At some level, I would say it goes to sleep politically. That is an accurate description. In the intellectual world, I guess it goes to sleep pretty much as well.

CH: Because it feels too crazy? Because the time of 1960s idealism has passed?

IG: Yeah. I would say economists in particular never bought into an idea of a child allowance, let alone an adult allowance and were skeptical of UBI. In the economics community, they just don’t pay a lot of attention to the values that I think are crucial.

CH: So the economists definitively moved on?

IG: Yes.

CH: Interesting. And the left?

IG: Well you see it today — the left today is in defense mode. You can feel how hard it would have been to imagine anything but that for the entire 1980s.

CH: That makes sense. But then what do you make of the growing energy around this idea today, in a defensive environment for the left? How does it strike you?

IG: I think we are in a moment where we don’t know what is happening, which is good. We have a president who is diagnosable, but he is president. It is not clear if he could be re-elected, but Trump has tapped into a dissatisfaction that is very deep.

CH: What do you think that is about? How would you characterize that?

IG: It is fear is what he is tapping into. It is economic and racial and cultural — these things are wrapped together. When you are scared shitless, it is easy to be appealed to regarding hating foreigners or whoever is different racially or culturally. So that is the situation we are in.

CH: How does basic income play into that? How is it relevant?

IG: Basic income is an efficient policy, even if we didn’t have artificial intelligence or didn’t have automation. It is more efficient than what we’re doing now. It is not the only thing we need, but it should be a basic part of our social structure. It would strengthen the country enormously if we had that. If it turns out that the artificial intelligence does displace jobs en masse, you should plan on basic income. There are zero questions that would be something we need. In that sense, it is a very good insurance policy against that. I have advocated it on the basis that capitalism is a phenomenally productive system. Marx was right when he said it is the most productive system known to mankind he was right about that. But it has got problems with insecurity. Economic insecurity is the Achilles’ heel of capitalism and basic income deals with that. A social policy more broadly deals with that, but if you want to do it efficiently, basic income is a basic part of that.

CH: Right, it seems to me a key way to make capitalism moral.

IG: And also, better.

CH: More moral and better.

IG: Yes, moral and better. If artificial intelligence does reduce dramatically the need for labor in the old sense, people on a basic income will find productive ways to appoint themselves to get paid for it. Basic income will help that. It is complementary to entrepreneurship and at the local level too.

CH: So I am going to push on how optimistic you are at this moment in your career. Do you think that one day we will have an income floor for all adults in the United States of some sort?

IG: Yeah, I do. There is only one place where I am not an optimist. I think we may very well eventually blow ourselves up.

CH: Just a question of when?!

IG: I think if we are lucky we will get a basic income before then. Also, I believe this is not just optimism. This is self-serving. I believe that knowledge and evidence make a difference. Not right away necessarily, but we do learn from one another. Some country, some state will do something the way that we have made headway on in the past. We may not be the first, but we may be as well. Alaska is an interesting case study in that way.

CH: Yeah absolutely and I share the optimism. It makes me hopeful that we will get there. I don’t know if it will be in 5 years or 50, but we will.

IG: That is right. I won’t be around in fifty, maybe not five! You will be around in 50. I must say your interest in this has fired me up.

CH: I’m glad! Your leadership on the issue for decades now has inspired a lot of people, including me — I am so happy we got a chance to do this.

IG: Me too.