Features; Opinion

The American Dividend: In the Name of Prosperity

Written by: Conrad Shaw

There is an idea out there. It is of the transformational variety. It exists in various forms and goes by many names: universal basic income, basic income guarantee, negative income tax, citizen dividend. All of these monikers highlight important aspects of this concept. “Universal” because it applies to everyone with no conditional requirements. “Basic” and “guarantee” to emphasize that, rather than subsidizing luxury or ease, it’s about guaranteeing the right to simply live in dignity and security. “Negative income tax” to illustrate that tax structures can be understood and utilized not only as a way to extract money from the people, but also as a means of fair predistribution to those being underserved by our system. “Citizen” to encourage taking ownership of one’s community and obligations. “Dividend” to emphasize that it is not a form of charity, but a return on an investment, the rightful entitlement every one of us has to our proper share of this country’s resources and opportunities.

“A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”


-Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN)

This idea, if you haven’t heard of it before, is the simple premise that the government (composed of the people) would deliver a regular, guaranteed, and unconditional amount of income to every person in a society. Some argue that only citizens should receive it, some say legal residents, some suggest only adults, and some insist that every breathing human within the borders deserves the payment. There are valid arguments for all of these viewpoints, and I hope that soon enough we will have the good fortune of debating at great length these strategies on the national scale, because it will mean that the very premise has been accepted into our hearts and consciences as both essential and moral moving forward.

For that to happen, the idea must first inspire the support of the people as a whole, and because the United States is a nation of pride and marketing savvy, nothing sells here without a good, cohesive pitch. As a first order of business, we should settle on a name for our American version of this policy, and I have a suggestion:

The American Dividend

“American” because the only requirement is that you, in fact, are a part of this great country, and we will recognize that with your “Dividend,” your carried interest in the investment you and your family have made and continue to make in this country by merit of your participation in it.

On to the details. Perhaps alarm bells are ringing and red flags are waving for you right now. “That sounds like socialism,” you might point out. I freely admit that it is a socialistic policy, and I argue that an appropriate amount of socialism is essential in a successful and just society – even a capitalist one. We seem, in America, to cling to the naive idea that we can or should only have one or the other, socialism or capitalism. That idea has run its course; we must have both. Neither of these simple, broad ideologies is robust enough to run our complex economy alone, because our economy is not only one of markets, but also of human beings. Markets run by the laws of supply and demand, and are greatly motivated and spurred on by capitalism, the great incentivizer. A purely socialized, redistributive society in which all citizens received the same reward regardless of their contributions could squash the immense growth, motivation, and innovation that capitalism fosters. Human beings, though, survive and thrive by the natural laws of inalienable rights, defined and set out by and for ourselves as entitlements to which we are guaranteed by dint of nothing other than our humanity. Socialistic regulations are required to make sure we adhere to these natural laws. Healthcare, for example, must eventually be socialized and untethered from the need for financial means, because no supply and demand curve can fairly measure the value of health. The demand is infinite, because a sick or dying individual will agree to pay any amount for even a chance at survival. This is where capitalism fails. It eventually localizes far too much power in the hands of the few, the owners of property and corporations, and we find ourselves in a situation closer to extortion than free markets.

My argument even leaves aside our very significant problem with automation. As we continually and irretrievably lose massive chunks of our labor market to machines, these pressures toward economic inequality will exponentially intensify. Properly addressed, however, these same technologies could provide abundance to society rather than greater scarcity and insecurity.

The answer to the question of growing complexity in human and economic markets is not to throw away our hard-won structure as a total failure, but rather to keep tweaking the capitalism/socialism balance to calibrate it to the changing needs of the times. In determining what should be socialized, we can tie it all back into life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Written deep within our American values, these freedoms are the inheritance of all people regardless of circumstance, be it race, culture, gender, age, or financial means. Life requires, at the very least, food, shelter, and health. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness require the ability to choose one’s path without fear of harm or retribution from any authority, and without fear of starvation. Our system has never fully guaranteed these things, and so we have not yet managed to fulfill our constitutional mission statement. The American Dividend can be used to ensure those rights. It can guarantee all people the ability to feed and house themselves as well as the power to say NO to any path in life that doesn’t serve their interests, be it a line of employment or an unhealthy relationship.

If we understand that we have always lived in a blended society of both socialism and capitalism, we can let go of our distrust of these words, our reflexive labeling of them as inherently evil or good, and instead see them simply as tools in the constant balancing act of governance.

Let’s address the two main sticking points the American Dividend will encounter: 1) the fear/resentment of subsidizing laziness by paying hard-earned money for others to sit around and do nothing, and 2) the very prudent concern that it might be simply infeasible to fund a program of such broad scope – essentially the fear that we can’t afford to guarantee these rights to all.

Paying for Sloth?

As to subsidizing laziness, this fear is created and nourished by a skewed perspective in the American capitalist culture that money is the driving motivator for work. We place the dollar on a pedestal far above all others, but money does not deserve this worship. The adage that money is the root of all evil is myopic. Insecurity is the root of evil, and money, or more accurately the lack thereof, is merely our means of expressing and comprehending insecurity. Whereas money is nothing but a tool, poverty is a force. It is the lack of freedom. Because we have been inculcated our entire lives with the idea that money represents value and merit, we have fallen into a misunderstanding of our fellow human beings. We have descended into the weary and preoccupied mind’s fallacy of “othering.” This is to say we have allowed ourselves to perceive the other members of our society as opponents, statistics, enemies, leeches, and threats to our own security. When we are in constant competition mode, we forget the other players for the sake of the game.

When we take the time to truly examine and understand our neighbors, compatriots, brothers, and sisters, however, we see that they are merely reflections of ourselves. We all have hopes and dreams; we all want to be special; we all want to contribute. The current system, which clumsily attempts to reward valuable effort but often disincentivizes hard work and ethics, leads people to despair and apparent laziness, sapping their motivation. In its current form, welfare assistance disappears the moment someone gets a job and increases their income, creating welfare traps. Additionally, other societally valuable endeavors like child-rearing, home healthcare, the arts, furthering education, and entrepreneurialism aren’t deemed worthy of any kind of salary in this economy. They can only be done on faith, at a loss, and at risk of harm to oneself. Throughout human history, a great majority of the movers and shakers of the arts, sciences, and business have had the luxury of pursuing their passions without earning an income from an employer because theyither came from means or they gained access to a benefactor. Wouldn’t it be something new and remarkable if those rich in inspiration and motivation but lacking an inheritance or extreme risk tolerance weren’t forced to spend years of their lives struggling to survive, seeking funding, essentially asking permission from corporations and the owner class in order to pursue the realization of their visions? With guaranteed security and the freedom to choose one’s work and define one’s value, people will contribute their best selves, and we can slowly change our national ethic from one of taking and hoarding to one of contribution. Productivity increases, health improves, and crime decreases in a society that chooses not to allow poverty, thereby permitting its members to be more effective versions of themselves. “Survival job” should not be a term, and a gun to the head is not nearly as effective a motivator in the long term as the ability to pursue meaning in life.

But the Cost!

Now comes paying for it all. Let’s do some simple, back-of-the-napkin, ballpark math for the numerically inclined. To immediately raise every American above the poverty line, we could provide a dividend of $12,000 per year to every adult and $4,000 per year to every child. That’s a bit under $3.25 trillion, which is certainly a huge number, but it’s not a direct expense. Think of it this way: the US GDP is approximately $18 trillion. If a simple across-the-board tax increase was levied on every American to raise that full amount for the dividend, a flat tax plopped down on top of our progressive system, that would mean about an extra 18% in taxes we’d each pay. That may sound like a lot, but since every taxpayer would also be receiving an extra $12,000 in income, then everyone making under $66,000 would come out ahead to some degree. At the $66K breakeven point, an individual would be paying $12K in extra taxes to receive the $12K in dividends. You can plug $66K into this US income percentile calculator and see that this represents over 75% of all Americans who would receive more money under this policy than they would give in taxes to pay for it, thereby directly profiting at the same time as we strive to completely abolish extreme forms of poverty and homelessness. That in itself should make the American Dividend a no-brainer.

However, a uniform tax levy like this is far from the only source of funding at our disposal. We could fund a large part of the American Dividend in many other ways. Taxes on the use of resources can chip in quite a bit. Taxes on carbon, pollution, minerals, timber, land value, and other natural resources acknowledge that we all own the land in equal share and would simply require companies profiting from and often damaging our commonly-owned property to repay the costs we bear by permitting them to do so. This would also discourage abuse of resources and incentivize more ecologically sustainable innovation. Very small taxes on financial trades would both reduce harmful speculation currently performed on a massive scale by large institutions with black box algorithms –  encouraging long-term investment in its place – and it would acknowledge that we all own the financial system in this country and deserve a return from its continued function. Cutting tax exemptions that benefit the wealthy  almost exclusively — scrapping the social security tax cap, raising unearned income tax rates to at least the level that earned income bears, cutting the home mortgage deduction, and a host of other such measures — would fund a significant part of the dividend. These measures are long overdue in any case and would represent a strong step forward against the economic injustice in our current system. Finally, raising the income tax rates on those in the very top brackets would acknowledge the fact that these earners have attained their position not only through intelligence and merit, but also through the good fortune of living within a system that allows for a few to leverage their positions to reap enormous returns — a system of laws, infrastructure, and opportunity that has been built over the course of generations, a system that each of us owns in part and deserves a share of. Factor in these methods, and we could pay for much of the dividend. As an example, if we paid for a third of the dividend this way (an entirely feasible amount according to the economists with whom I’ve spoken), it would bring the necessary tax increase down to around 12% and the break-even point to everyone making under $100K. Plug that into the calculator and see for yourself that more than 88% of the country would directly and immediately profit from the American Dividend under this scenario. Someone out of a job or unable to work would receive the full $12,000. Someone making $50K would come out $6,000 ahead. Someone breaking even at $100K will know that they are part of a stable system that will protect them should their fortunes turn for the worse. So, while it will end extreme poverty as we know it, the American Dividend is clearly not just for the extremely poor. It is for all Americans.

What’s more, we haven’t even factored in the savings yet. When people are secure, healthcare costs fall, crime drops, and entire welfare programs can eventually be phased out. This pushes the break-even point even further upward. This is not yet even accounting for the benefits reaped from fueling innovation and entrepreneurialism. Also, unlike the failed policies of trickle-down economics under which much of the money this country makes lands in wealthy bank accounts and simply sits there, money given to the lower classes is generally spent immediately on necessities and better quality of life, equating to a massive boost in the overall economy as businesses gain new customers across the board. It would be presumptuous to predict the actual magnitude of these windfalls, but I would bet you the American Dividend, in very short order, would begin to pay for much of itself.

Bear in mind this is not a panacea, and we mustn’t perceive or promote it that way. The American Dividend will not immediately usher in a new Utopian Age, and there will still be some that need help, but it has the power to effectively end catastrophic poverty and homelessness. It will grant all Americans a real shot at the American Dream. It will mean a simpler governmental system, a change of social and cultural ethics, and a betterment of individual quality of life across the board. And we have the means to do it. All we need is the political will of the people to stand up and demand it.

Give it to Me Straight

So tell me, if this idea of an American Dividend can: 1) end homelessness and catastrophic poverty, 2) establish and reinforce basic human rights and security across the nation, 3) improve healthcare outcomes and reduce costs, 4) reduce crime, 5) encourage entrepreneurialism, 6) act as an economic stimulus, AND 7) result in an immediate net income gain for the vast majority of the population… tell me how can this idea not sell? How can it not sweep the nation? Tell me it’s not an issue of marketing savvy.

And tell me, now that you’ve seen my arguments about the wider economic implications, what would you do with your Dividend? Take a little time and play out the thought experiment. Now imagine what your brother, mother, sister, father, son, daughter, friend, neighbor, boss, coworker, employee, or passing acquaintance would do with it? What would each be able to contribute? What would your community look like? What would America look like?

It’s time for the American Dividend.

Check out our upcoming film, Bootstraps, at www.bootstrapsfilm.com


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