Interview: Obama’s chief economist discusses skepticism of basic income
Written by: Conrad Shaw, Bootstraps Documentarian
About a month and a half ago, on March 22, the podcast debate forum Intelligence Squared (IQ2) held a debate regarding universal basic income (UBI) in New York City. Being a denizen of New York and a relatively recent and enthusiastic recruit to the cause of UBI advocacy (my partner Deia and I are undertaking an ambitious film project about it), I was eager to go and see this debate play out. I was even more excited when I found out that a recent interviewee and new friend of ours, labor legend Andy Stern, former head of the SEIU union, was to be one of the debaters. This was a chance for a large audience to be presented with the idea of UBI in a thoughtful and cogent way. Andy would be teaming up with libertarian Charles Murray to defend the motion that “Universal Basic Income is the Safety Net of the Future.” Their opponents were to be Jason Furman and Jared Bernstein, Barack Obama’s and Joe Biden’s top economic advisors, respectively.
The outcome of the debate was far less satisfying than I’d hoped it would be. In short, UBI got spanked. IQ2 judges the winner of a debate to be the side that sways more of the audience in their favor. Before the debate, 35% of the audience were for the motion, 20% against, and 45% undecided. Afterward, the numbers were 31% for, 61% against, and 8% undecided. This means that not only did UBI fail to convince any of the undecideds, but some of those who were for it switched sides. As someone who’s putting a lot of effort into making the case for UBI to the American people, this felt like a foreboding omen of what could come as the UBI discussion begins to take the national stage. For something I considered to be so obvious and beneficial, so necessary, to be, instead, so handily quashed was confusing and painful. In order to understand the reaction of the audience, we did some of our own polling of the audience before and after, and I’ll go into why I think the results turned out the way they did below.
I’d had some uneasiness going in, of course. For one, Charles Murray is a persona non grata among many UBI advocates (and others) for attitudes he’s expressed in the past toward disadvantaged populations, suggesting in his book The Bell Curve that intelligence is the primary factor in predicting societal outcomes like pregnancy out of wedlock and crime. That line of thinking, seemingly discounting outright the imbalances many perceive in our society, makes me very uncomfortable. Sure, intelligence factors in, but I also think it foolish to ignore the factors of class, race, and gender, as well as the neighborhood one grows up in. I’ll admit that my information about Mr. Murray was mostly hearsay with a bit of Wikipedia research on my part, so I didn’t truly know what to expect. To some UBI advocates, Murray is the devil, not to be given a platform from which to spout his evil message, and so, quite understandably, I was worried that the debate could be taken down unproductive and perhaps even bigoted paths.
Despite this caricature of Charles, however, he proved to be a shrewd advocate of basic income in the debate. Although he is libertarian, he stuck to lines of argument that did not put off the debate’s mostly liberal Manhattan audience. In the end, he made some lovely appeals to human decency and equality and got a warm reception from the audience. At one point, he even defiantly rejected Mr. Bernstein’s scoffs that he was naive to think people in neighborhoods and communities would be more helpful to each other under a system of security provided by a basic income. It was not lost on me that this “villain” was the one in the room most loudly protesting for the existence and prevalence of basic human decency and of our ability to trust in other human beings, when people are given the chance to be secure.
So Charles wasn’t the issue on that day.
Andy’s arguments were sound and compelling as always, taken in and of themselves. He has an empathetic and adaptive approach, and I’ve become a deep admirer of his ability to think outside the box in a changing world, even when it threatens to overwrite his legacy. In his book, Raising the Floor, co-written with Lee Kravitz, he makes a compelling case as to why labor unions are no longer a tool that will suffice to fight the labor market inequality and disruption many expect moving into the future, even though his most lauded achievements to date are tied to his labor union efforts. It takes a very strong and humble individual to take a pronounced lateral step from his life’s work like that when being confronted with uncomfortable evidence that it has become insufficient.
However, while Andy’s and Charles’s arguments were valid and compelling, they simply were not enough in the context of this debate. They weren’t sufficient to persuade the audience in the face of the arguments and the pedigrees of their opponents. Over and over again, Jason or Jared would dismiss the concept as utopian or idyllic. “$12,000 is great! Why not $25,000, or $50,000, or a million?” is a paraphrase of something Mr. Furman said once or twice that struck me as especially disingenuous.
For the most part, though, the opponents provided honest, albeit predictable, complaints regarding the costs and logistics of distributing UBI, and asserted that it was simply too expensive, that it would amount to taking from the middle class to pay the poor, and that some lower-class people (especially those with children) would lose out under the UBI scheme Andy proposed. Disagreeing with much of this assessment, I awaited the response that would put those claims to rest in the minds of the audience, but they didn’t come. Andy and Charles chose to pursue more ideological arguments than economical and logistical ones, and the audience roundly took that to mean that the math really wasn’t there.
Our conversations with audience members after the event made clear to us that this was the issue that swayed them. They came in hopeful, and many were leaning toward this strange concept of UBI, and then the chief economic advisors of their political heroes and most powerful men in the world walked out and dismissed it as numerically, arithmetically infeasible, and that claim was not rebutted. If you watched the debate, you may have noticed a rather dashing yet awkward young man in a checkered shirt, trying not to appear unhinged while asking the second audience question (at 1:01:23), in an effort to steer the discussion toward specific and practical ways that could be implemented to pay for a real, workable, UBI. That slightly agitated fellow was me, and my question wasn’t really answered at the time, except with the outright assurance by the opponents that my suggestions simply would not be enough.
I felt a little nauseated during the final tallying phase, because I sensed the spanking coming. These people needed to hear that this is not just an idealistic plan, but an intelligent plan, and the details weren’t provided for them to believe in that.
In the end, I thought all of the debaters did a fine job presenting their arguments. Andy and Charles hit the old beautiful points on human rights, human nature, and the promise of a world of security that I had hoped they would, and they also sounded the alarm bells about the impending threat of automation to our workforce. Jason and Jared displayed a wealth of experience as well as real compassion for those in need in our society. I sensed a lot of room for common ground. I felt that the real issues that might remain, if the money issue could be resolved, would be 1) a disagreement around how to administer aid in general, in essence whether people could be trusted with cash and freedom over bureaucratic in-kind giving, and 2) the dilemma of political feasibility, whether in working up the will of the people or that of the Congress.
I also thought the debate format was one of the best I’ve seen, with incredibly delicate and intelligent moderation executed by John Donvan, who struck me as funny, nimble, and fair. Deia and I were truly honored to be there and thrilled that UBI was getting real time in the national dialogue.
The format, however, still left one major thing to be desired for me. It was still a debate. Debates are made for winning, and throughout this one you can hear both sides often plea “and that’s why I want you to vote for my side.” I much prefer a discussion to a debate, with no declared winners or losers. If the only thing to be gained is a bit of mutual growth and understanding, I think we can all get to the work of progressing a little faster.
Actively keeping my cool after the final applause, I hovered maybe 12 feet from Jason Furman and his friends and admirers until I could politely poke my head in and beg him for an interview. I already had about 453 questions in mind. He graciously accepted without a second thought, which went a long way in elevating my estimation of a man who had just stepped on my heart and ground it into the dirt a little.
A few weeks later, Deia and I were on a bus from New York City to Washington D.C. to interview not only our first opponent of UBI, but a man who had batted it down so very effectively and seemingly effortlessly. I was nervous, thinking about how new at interviewing I am. Was this going to be a gotcha interview? Should I try to catch him with his words somehow? As I doubted whether I could pull that off, even if I wanted to, in the end I decided that I really just wanted to tap into his very real working expertise of the American economy. This man is an extremely valuable resource, a wealth of knowledge, it occurred to me. Come to think of it, as a chief advisor of one of my greatest heroes (yes, I love me some Obama), and someone who was instrumental (along with Andy Stern, I might add) in passing some very consequential legislation, I reminded myself that Jason Furman, then, is also a hero of mine. He even shared a freshman dorm room with Matt Damon, another major role model in my acting and filmmaking pursuits. Oh crap. Was I going to geek out and ask awful fanboy questions about all his friends or about his D.C. battle stories? Would I be that kind of interviewer?
But enough of my inner monologue. We’re here to talk about UBI, about the economy, about a nation’s growing pains and long-established shortcomings, and about truly progressive solutions to bring greater empowerment, dignity, and democracy into the lives of over 300 million people.
Still, a large part of me expected to walk out of our interview frustrated once again.
In his very first comment, Mr. Furman expressed regret that he hadn’t emphasized during the debate that he is very much open to discussing the merits of direct cash benefits as opposed to in-kind ones, and that his main criticism of UBI was, in fact, the universality of it. This was immediately a change in tone indeed, and it set me at much greater ease about the plan I had made for my line of questions:
1) I would start from a premise, a proposed national implementation scheme for UBI taken as sort of a “best of” from the many versions Deia and I have come across in our interviews, plus a few tweaks of my own, and would establish that all questions in this interview should be considered in the context of this proposed system rather than any other conceptions of UBI floating about.
2) I would walk Mr. Furman, one item at a time, through a list of potential sources of revenue that I was aware of and ask him, in his experienced opinion, what each of those sources could bring in.
The “wonkiest of wonks,” as Mr. Furman has been called, was happy to oblige this approach. He would make no promises, and these were all to be understood as ballpark estimations, but he would give his best effort.
Although my ideas have evolved slightly since publishing an article that included a nascent version of them, a little while back, my proposal for implementation still generally holds the same. This is a simplified version of it. None of these ideas are groundbreaking within the basic income movement, and many others would likely venture forth a very similar scheme:
- $12,000 per year per adult, delivered at least monthly (preferably weekly) via direct deposit to individual accounts (not as cumulative sums to joint or family accounts)
- $4,000 per child, paid to each child’s guardian, until 18 or age of emancipation, whichever comes first, with a percentage (I suggested 25%) being kept in a trust for the child to access at emancipation, when they would also begin to receive the full $12,000. (Note: It has since been argued to me that all of a child’s money in a UBI program should be accessible to the guardian as needed, and any baby bond type program would be better kept as a separate program, and I’m open to that as well.)
- Current welfare programs should not be directly axed so much as allowed to naturally phase into obsolescence. For example, if every American’s basic income were high enough to disqualify them for food stamps, then food stamps would naturally disappear, and the food stamp bureaucracy along with it. This would follow the basic rule of “do no harm,” in that the benefits an individual received under a UBI must be at least as valuable as welfare benefits previously received, and so at the very least nobody would be worse off financially, and now the aid would be guaranteed and permanent instead of something for which one must perpetually qualify, and instead of something that would be lost upon earning more income elsewhere.
- The total cost of this plan, given the current population and demographics of the U.S., would be approximately $3.3 trillion.
This plan immediately differed in a couple major ways from the plan Mr. Furman argued against at the IQ2 Debate, the plan Andy and Charles were using as their premise. Most notably, Andy’s plan did not provide any basic income for children. This was Furman’s primary complaint against that plan, in fact, because it would in essence act more beneficially toward singles or those without children than toward families. A family of five would fare worse than a family of four, all other things being equal. Furman stated to me outright that this one change made him much more amenable to the plan I proposed.
The major remaining issue now was the same issue I imagine Andy was hoping to mitigate by leaving children out of his plan: the price. Andy’s plan was $1.8 trillion to my $3.3 trillion, and if Furman painted Andy’s cost as naive and fundamentally unfeasible, mine must be delusional. But he was willing to go through the numbers, and I felt good that he was now at least in support, morally, of the structure of the benefits and the effect they would have on the American people.
So how, then, do we pay for it?
Let’s start simple. Funded with the most blunt instrument possible, this $3.3 trillion price tag would require levying approximately a 20-25% flat tax (depending on how you choose to approximate it) on top of our current progressive system. In other words, every American would pay an additional 20-25% on whatever income they earn outside of the basic income. In a worse-case scenario of a 25% flat tax, this would create a break-even point of $48,000 for an individual. Citizens earning less than this break-even point would be net beneficiaries of the system (in essence, the individual earning $48,000 would pay an extra $12,000 in taxes and receive $12,000 in basic income). The break-even point for a family of four would be $128,000. The less you make, the more of your basic income you end up keeping.
Of course, this means that people above the break-even point would be net contributors, paying more into the program than receiving from it, and most would agree that levying even a small amount of extra taxes on someone making $50K-$60K is neither ideal nor easy to sell politically. Even though it would already represent a net benefit for more than 60% of the country, and even if it would essentially eradicate extreme poverty and homelessness, and even if it would give every American enough security to know they won’t ever end up in the streets, we should be able to do better than $48,000, right?
And so if we want to do this intelligently, we shouldn’t simply slap a flat tax on top of the system we already have and call it a day. We should pay for as much of the UBI as possible through other means in order to drag the necessary flat tax percentage down. If we can lower it to 15%, for example, then the break-even point for individuals would become $80,000. At 10%, it would be $120,000. For families of four, it would be $213,000 and $320,000, respectively. At that point you’d have to be in the top 10%-20% of the country to not be receiving extra money off of UBI. So, let’s try to work in that direction.
Does all of this still sound numerically far-fetched? How could 90% of the country directly profit off of a system like this? The money has to come from somewhere, right? Does this amount to pure socialism? I had the very same instincts at first, and so some back-of-the-napkin calculations were necessary for me to even decide whether UBI was idle fantasy or worth looking into further.
The reality truly is numerically far-fetched in the opposite direction, and it’s just not yet widely understood the extent to which that is the case. The extremely wealthy make so much more money than the rest of Americans that funding a UBI is more than feasible. Just as an example, if we went full socialist and we took all of the net worth and income that households in this country own and make, that we know of, and divided it evenly between all Americans, we could give every man, woman, and child each around $280,000 in savings and an income of $55,000 per year.
Think about that for a minute, or twelve. That includes children, the homeless, and retirees. That would be over a million in the bank and a yearly income of $220,000 for every family of four. That’s how rich the rich are. That’s what has been hidden from us. If we’re asking for zero redistribution of already-owned wealth and only $12,000 of that $55,000 in income per person per year so that nobody starves in the street, it’s not only possible, but it’s simple. It’s a matter of public awareness and political will. It’s a matter of priorities and values. Homelessness and poverty are choices made not by their victims, but by the very structure of our society. Every time we feel a pang of guilt at walking by a homeless person on the street, it should be accompanied by a stab of outrage, because we have the power, today, to fix it. If we don’t each stand up and fight for it, we are each complicit in the pain of so many.
Also, bear in mind that UBI won’t solve the problem of massive income inequality. The very wealthy will remain the very wealthy. Poverty will still be a force to be reckoned with as automation disrupts labor markets. Further changes to our system will undoubtedly be needed. But a UBI can ensure that nobody need be on the street, and that everyone can live in dignity while we wade through the transformational societal changes on our horizon. Many will still struggle, but no one will have zero. It won’t guarantee anyone luxury, but everyone will have options.
The Devil in the Details
With the bigger picture numbers laid out, we then must delve into the finer points of financing a basic income. Here is where Mr. Furman and all of his up close and personal experience re-enter the picture.
You can listen to the interview and/or read the transcript to see for yourself what we came up with and how it unfolded. These numbers, I’ll note, are very rough estimates, and they seem to me to trend in a more conservative direction. In many cases Furman was not comfortable venturing a guess at all, and so I left those out. Here’s a summary of his estimates in trillions:
In essence, even with many potential forms of revenue discounted (including the ones I forgot to bring up, like a VAT tax, a wealth tax, etc.); with arguably conservative estimates given all around; with zero accounting for potential positive benefits in areas of stimulus, crime reduction, health improvement, etc.; and with only a 10% flat tax added, we came up with ⅔ of the $3.3 trillion needed for my proposed plan. That would be enough for on the order of $7,000 per adult and $2,700 per child each year. This, to me, represents an amount I would be ecstatic to see in any legislation coming up, an amount that would deal a tremendous blow to poverty in America and act as a significant empowering agent for Americans.
Again, many will point out that these numbers are all very fuzzy. Of course they are. The intent here is to show that the scale of the funding is feasible. If you disagree with the values, then let’s sit down and hash out what they truly should be and see what total we arrive at.
No doubt Furman saw where I was going with this line of inquiry, and in the end I imagine that’s why he affirmed that he’d rather see that same money going toward a childless EITC or other, more targeted forms of getting cash to people. This implies to me that, in the end, the financial feasibility of a UBI is not the real issue for him. At the heart of his hesitance is valid concern over the method of delivery of aid, and at the heart of that delivery system lies an issue of faith. Who do we trust more with money, our government or our people, and to what extent? I daresay that nobody wants the government having a hand in all of our day to day decisions, and yet most of us will recognize the need for a certain amount of regulation and oversight to protect us from the large and insensitive forces of capitalism to which we are vulnerable as small individuals. Furman apparently leans more in the direction of relying on government to determine how money should be spent. Those in favor of UBI put more of their trust in individuals. Both parties seem to me to lie not too far from each other on the spectrum, just on opposite sides of center. Then there are those who are far more extreme in either direction.
I certainly can’t blame Furman for his inclinations. We’re talking about his legacy, after all, and the liberal government has arguably managed to affect measurable, positive change, raising many out of poverty who would be there without any bureaucratic aid. It will take great strength of character for our country and our civil servants to see where we need something drastically new and better than our tried methods, and, as Andy Stern did when he stepped away from the SEIU labor union, to bravely and humbly take that lateral step away from our legacies. We must abandon the hope that a benevolent bureaucracy will save us from our ills and instead invest in deputizing our people to enhance their own well-being and create more opportunities for themselves. Our social safety net has served to arrest our fall in many ways, and so it has been beneficial, but people are falling through the holes of that net, and some people have missed it entirely. It’s time to retire the net and replace it with a floor. As a people, we can stand on a floor. We can walk on a floor. We can build upon a floor. Have you ever tried building on a net?
UBI is about putting the money in the hands of the citizens to choose for themselves how to spend it best. It’s about removing the middle-man, the father figure, and the teacher, instead trusting individuals and communities to step up to the plate and invest in themselves in the wisest ways they can. Basic income is, quite simply, power to the people boiled down to its most simple essence: cash. And cash is nothing more than our expression of security.
If we can drive the conversation beyond semantics and distractions to these very fundamental principles, and if we can carry out this discussion civilly and with respect for all political leanings and backgrounds, I believe that implementing a universal basic income will emerge as an irrefutably sensible solution moving forward, passed by wide, nonpartisan popular support. What I encountered most in our interview with Mr. Furman was agreement, and we have had much the same experience with every American we engage in this discussion, be they liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, or other. Almost everyone, pro or anti, Furman included, expresses great interest in seeing the results of the ongoing basic income trials going on all over the world. This gives me great hope.
(Note: Speaking of basic income trials, we’re doing one of our own for our documentary BOOTSTRAPS. Our aim is to share with the public the human stories of real Americans from all walks of life receiving a basic income for two years. If you count yourself among the many who are either supporters of UBI or who are unsure about it but would be very interested to see the results, please consider contributing to our crowdfunding campaign. Every dollar will go toward our pilot, meaning into the bank accounts of the subjects of our film. Our production budget will be raised and administered separately. If you’re interested in being involved with or helping the production, you can contribute to the production fund or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Image from iq2 UBI debate website.