A recent survey of economists at leading institutions purports to show that 58% oppose a universal basic income, while only 2% support it. However, the survey asked specifically about a UBI that replaces all other social insurance programs and is paid only to adults over 21. Many opposed these qualifications, not UBI itself.
On Tuesday, June 28, the IGM (Initiative on Global Markets) Forum released the results of a survey on “universal basic income” distributed to the Economic Experts Panel — a panel consisting only of “senior faculty at the most elite research universities in the United States” chosen to be diverse in their specializations, locations, and political orientations.
Out of these economics experts, 58% either “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with a description of a specific universal basic income policy, while only 2% “agreed” and none “strongly agreed”. (The remainder were either “uncertain” or had no opinion on the matter.)
At first blush, such results are apt to shock and disappoint supporters of basic income. However, as with any survey, attention to the detail is key: what, exactly, were respondents asked?
In this case, respondents were asked to rank their opinion on the following statement on a five-point scale (or declare no opinion):
Granting every American citizen over 21-years-old a universal basic income of $13,000 a year — financed by eliminating all transfer programs (including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, housing subsidies, household welfare payments, and farm and corporate subsidies) — would be a better policy than the status quo.
Presumably, this particular policy proposal comes from Charles Murray, who endorsed exactly this in a recent Wall Street Journal feature.
Even before looking at the survey responses, we should take pause here: Charles Murray is a controversial figure even among — perhaps especially among — supporters of UBI. Left-leaning advocates tend to regard Murray and his proposals as “downright undesirable”, to use the phrase wielded by Daniel Raventós and Julie Wark in their June 15th article in CounterPunch.
Last January, to give another example, an article in Jacobin argued that a UBI “could do little to achieve egalitarian objectives — or even backfire badly” if the policy poorly designed. The author presented Murray’s proposal as an example of “non-liveable” basic income, due to its low amount and concurrent elimination of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
With this in mind, then, it should not be too surprising that several economists in the IGM Forum also took issue with the proposed elimination of all other benefits — but not UBI per se — when explaining their votes of “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree”. Some even expressed support of policies closely related to UBI. For instance, Richard Schmalensee (MIT) said, “A properly designed negative income tax could be part of a better policy, but replacing everything is a bad idea.” Similarly, Eric Maskin (Harvard) replied, “A minimum income makes sense, but not at the cost of eliminating Social Security and Medicare.” And Christopher Udry (Yale) opined that UBI could work if “coupled with universal health care and tax reform … but we are far from that.”
Larry Samuelson (Yale), who responded as “Uncertain”, stated, “There is much to recommend a universal basic income, but specifically a 13k income while ending all other transfers is difficult to assess.”
The proposed restriction of the UBI to adults over 21 worried other economists — such as William Nordhaus, who said, “And the children get nothing? The basic idea is sound but too simplistic as stated.” Likewise, Robert Hall (Stanford) simply offered, “Limitation to people over 21 can’t be the right answer.”
This is not to suggest, of course, that all of the economists surveyed were inclined to support a basic income (but just not Charles Murray’s version). Some did express opposition to UBI itself, and for reasons that we might expect: it’s too expensive, it might discourage work, it’s not necessary given current welfare programs, and “Bill Gates would get 13k, which is crazy.”
Nonetheless, it’s striking that many explanations of “Disagree” responses did not criticize UBI per se, and were sometimes even implicitly (or explicitly!) supportive.
Not all respondents gave explanations of their answers. However, looking through the list of economists surveyed, it’s further notable that the Murray-inspired UBI proposal elicited disagreement and uncertainty from some others who have previously expressed support of basic income. For instance, the Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton voted “Disagree”, despite having recently come out in favor of “basic income grants”. Even distinguished MIT Professor Abhijit Banerjee — who is an advisor for GiveDirectly’s basic income pilot and recently wrote a compelling case for UBI in The Indian Express — voted “Uncertain”.
Thus, supporters of UBI — and especially those on the left-side of the political spectrum — should not be discouraged by this particular poll, despite its purportedly showing that only 2% of a forum of economics experts “support a universal basic income”.
If there’s anything to concern us about this survey, it should be the implicit conflation (in its headline) of the general idea of UBI with Charles Murray’s specific, and very controversial, proposal.
On the other hand, the economists themselves do not make this conflation — and, indeed, their responses serve as a reminder of the danger of tying the idea of UBI to any one particular policy implementation.
As basic income researcher Jurgen de Wispelaere writes in a recent blog post,
Agreement at the level of the general idea amongst opposing political factions is often hailed as a virtue of the basic income proposal. However, once we move from idea to policy implementation, persistent disagreement may return with a vengeance.
This is an important message, and one which the IGM Forum survey illustrates well.
“Universal Basic Income,” IGM Forum, Chicago Booth, June 28, 2016.
Thanks to Asha Pond for reviewing a draft of this article.
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