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OPINION: The Basic Income Guarantee Becomes a Rorschach Test in the U.S. Media

The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) recently became a part of a flurry of discussion on the internet and in the media, when Jesse A. Myerson, of Rolling Stone Magazine, included it in a list of “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” This ensuing discussion reveals a lot about the many different ways people see BIG.

The other reforms on the list were a guaranteed job, a land value tax, a sovereign wealth fund, and a public bank. Myerson framed the reforms as liberal, progressive ideas that should be especially appealing to the more-free-thinking millennial generation.

Soon after, Dylan Matthews, of the Washington Post, had the brilliant idea of reframing all five reforms as conservative proposals. Although his introduction clearly spelled out what he was doing, the reaction in comments and elsewhere was telling. Democrats tended to oppose the ideas, and Republicans tended to support them, even thought Democrats and Republicans who read Myerson’s piece had opposite reactions.

Ezra Klein, also of the Washington Post, wrote an article discussing the inconsistent reactions attributing it to framing (people react differently to a questions depending on how it was asked) and to trust (as a shortcut for paying closer attention, people often react differently to ideas depending on who supports or opposes those ideas).

A good example of framing came out between two other authors writing in response to Myerson. Before the two articles about framing were published, Matt Breuenig brought up Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend and made a favorable comparison between it and communism. John Aronno, of Alaska Commons, writing after but apparently without knowledge of the two articles about framing, responded to Breunig by arguing that the Alaska Dividend was not communism, but “the owner state.” That’s an excellent frame.

Emily Swanson, of the Huffington Post, got into the discussion by conduction a poll, purported to show, “What People Really Think Of Rolling Stone’s 5 Reforms For Millennials.” The poll could do nothing of the kind, but I’ll get to that. First, let’s see what it could do.

Swanson asked, “Would you favor or oppose expanding Social Security to every American, regardless of age, to guarantee a basic income to every American?” She found, among Americans as a whole, opposition beat support by a margin of 54 to 35 percent. Among people under 30, the margin was narrower, 44 to 40 percent. BIG was favored by 53 percent of black Americans, 54 percent of Democrats, and 19 percent of Republicans.”

What does all this say about BIG and its political prospects?

Start with Klein’s framing issue. Klein would be mistaken to attribute the difference in reactions solely to irrationality and intellectual laziness on the part of the readers of the two pieces. The two proposals were not identical. Matthews’s conservative version of the proposal stressed scrapping the welfare system and replacing it with BIG. Myerson said nothing about scrapping anything. Furthermore, Myerson stressed that the BIG should be enough for people to live on, while Matthews did not mention anything about how large it could or should be. It’s true that some BIGists—if I may use that term for supporters of BIG—propose replacing most or all of the welfare system with a BIG, and probably all BIGists agree that at least some welfare state programs can be replaced if the BIG is large enough. However, if a conservative stresses scarping just about everything the government is currently doing to help the poor to replace it with a BIG—of undetermined size—liberals have good reason to be skeptical. Similarly, if a liberal proposes an enormous new program without mentioning any disliked programs it could replace, people who believe in a smaller government sector have good reason to be skeptical.

Even if the Matthews’s conservative version of Myerson’s reforms isn’t quite as telling as Klien makes it out to be, the framing and trust issues are real, and they certainly explain part of discrepancy Klein recognizes. This issue poses a challenge for BIGists. It has something to offend everyone. People to the left-of-center might see it as great help to the poor, but they might see it as an underhanded strategy to undermine what we are already doing for the poor. People to the right-of-center might see it as a more cost-effective alternative to the welfare state, but they might see it as a major expansion of it, and they might think it is an affront to the work ethic. In America, people to the left-of-center might think that too, and even if they don’t, they might think that they should back some other program not vulnerable to the anti-work ethic allegation.

If both sides frame it in the way most favorable to them, perhaps a large coalition behind it is possible. If both sides frame it the way most negative to them, perhaps an equally large coalition against it is possible. Either way you present it, you risk one side tagging it as a proposal from that other untrusted side.

Now turn to Swanson’s poll. The results are actually good news for U.S. BIGists. The idea has been so far off the political radar for so long, just the fact that somebody is asking the question shows progress. The 19-point margin of 54 to 35 is a large deficit to overcome, but it is not insurmountable. It puts BIG at about the same place same-sex marriage was in 2002 (according to Nate Silver). Given the current early-stage of activism for BIG, we should expect a deficit to overcome.

However, Swanson’s poll cannot tell us what people really think about BIG or any of the other reforms she asked about. Swanson was reacting to Myerson’s piece only. She was not reacting to the articles that revealed the enormous framing problem, and she made no attempt to address the framing issue. It would be interesting to see the results of polls framing the question differently. But even this couldn’t tell us what people really think. As Swanson admits, people tend to react negatively to proposals of an enormous change from the status quo. There is some reason why democratic governments have the programs they do at any given time, and hopefully this has something to do with their popularity. People, using caution, tend to be skeptical of major unfamiliar proposed changes to the political system. As people learn more about BIG—which hopefully they will—they’re beliefs will likely change and solidify. What happens then depends on many factors including the framing and trust issues that Klein discussed and hopefully also good argument and well researched evidence.

All this discussion shows many options about how to promote BIG, but it doesn’t give any easy answer for what strategy will be most effective.

-Karl Widerquist, Doha, Qatar, January 27, 2014

Below are links to the articles related to the recent media discussion over this issue:

Jesse Myerson, “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For: Guaranteed Jobs, Universal Basic Incomes, Public Finance and More,” Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014.

Matt Bruenig, “A Spectre Is Haunting Alaska—the Spectre of Communism,” Policy Shop: Demos, January 5, 2014.

Matthew Bruenig, “Conservatives are losing their minds over economic reforms that already exist,” Salon, January 6, 2014.

Dylan Matthews, “Five conservative reforms millennials should be fighting for,” the Washington Post, January 7, 2014.

Ezra Klein, “The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington,” the Washington Post, January 10, 2014.

John Aronno, “Alaska’s Permanent Fund Isn’t Communism, It’s the Owner State,” the Huffington Post, 01/13/2014.

Emily Swanson, “Here’s What People Really Think Of Rolling Stone’s 5 Reforms For Millennials,” the Huffington Post, 01/13/2014.

-Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images via Rolling Stone Magazine

About Craig Axford

Craig Axford has written 92 articles.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

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