Interview with Topher Brennan, progressive candidate for US Senate in California
Topher Brennan is a progressive candidate from the state of California, currently running for US Senate. A self-professed “policy geek”, Brennan holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame.
Brennan recently put forth a plan for implementing a basic income with his timely essay “The case for a basic income guarantee”. In it, he provides various examples of failures within the current welfare system – specifically the SNAP (food stamps) program – and discusses replacing SNAP, as well as the group of programs known as OASDI, with a basic income.
You can read the full article here.
Dawn Howard: Please give our readers a little background into when and how you first became aware of basic income.
Topher Brennan: I’ve been aware of the concept of basic income for a long time, but I think I may have first heard about it in Robert Heinlein’s novel For Us, The Living, which I would have read back in in college, maybe even high school. I don’t remember what my initial reaction was. I may have thought “sure, that might make sense in the distant future, when everything is automated”—but by high school I was already a big fan of individual autonomy, so it wasn’t long before I figured out you could do something like that right now.
DH: Have you been following any of the current basic income pilot studies happening across the globe? If so, how do the design models and results of these pilots influence your own concept of its potential implementation?
TB: Most of the really exciting research I’m aware of is still ongoing. That said, I’m a huge fan of the charity GiveDirectly. I believe their basic income study hasn’t launched yet, but their research on one-time, no-strings-attached cash transfers provides strong evidence that when you give poor people money it really does lead to big improvements in their lives. It doesn’t all just get wasted on booze or anything like that.
I’m not sure I can claim this influenced my support for basic income—I was pro-basic income long before I knew about GiveDirectly, and the results of their research seem totally unsurprising to me. The reason the free market mostly works well is that (again, for the most part) people are pretty good at looking after their own interests. When politicians talk about creating jobs, no one retorts, “that won’t help, because the people who get the jobs will spend all the money on booze”. But when you talk about anti-poverty programs, suddenly everyone worries about that.
I should also say that when I was writing the article on basic income that I recently publish on Medium, a lot of the specifics were driven by looking at the current state of the social safety net in the United States specifically, and how it sometimes goes wrong. Basic income is a great idea no matter where you are, but I expect the implementation details will be somewhat country-specific.
DH: Given that poverty is typically considered a bi-partisan issue, how feasible would it be to implement a small-scale basic income pilot in California, given the state’s current budget concerns and overall political climate?
TB: You might be able to do it, but it would be tricky. Thanks to proposition 13 (an anti-tax ballot initiative passed when California was a much more conservative state), you’d probably need a ballot initiative to fund it. Also, because most current anti-poverty spending comes from the federal government, and the federal budget as a whole is just bigger (even in terms of percentage of GDP), I think you could shoot for a much bigger basic income right off the bat, working at the federal level.
DH: In your essay ”The case for a basic income guarantee”, you write:
“Being poor means politicians will try to micromanage your life. Politicians like to say they support helping the poor, but only the deserving, and only for things they really need. Whatever you think of that in theory, in practice, the government is bad at telling who’s deserving. It’s also bad at telling what people really need. All that happens is that we make the lives of people we’re trying to help worse, with nothing to show for it.”
Given that you recognize the desire for self-determination and autonomy among individuals living in poverty, do you feel that the government’s role is simply providing a monthly or yearly payment, or do you feel that some recipients would benefit from further education and/or government assistance in order to budget their money wisely?
TB: With education, if we’re talking about adults, people have the option of spending their basic income on education for themselves. A free $8,000 per year, for example, would make college much more affordable. The question of to what extent the government should be subsidizing college education, I think, comes down to somewhat technical issues of how much of the benefit of a college education is captured by college graduates, versus being a positive externality. I don’t actually know the answer to that question.
With K-12 education, there are some additional complications. In the United States, there are states where homeschooling is totally unregulated, and the result is some parents end up educationally neglecting their children. That’s not a win for personal autonomy—those kids didn’t make an informed choice to go without a decent education in their early years; their parents decided that for them. And basic reading and math are important skills no matter what you do with your life, so I’m pretty comfortable with the government insisting children learn them.
Which is not to say our current K-12 is perfect by any means. But when I think about things I’d hope to see fixed in the near future, I think about evening out the disparities in school funding so we don’t have supposedly public schools that are de facto private because you can only go to them if your parents can afford the absurd housing prices in the district. What the right thing to do would be, in an ideal world, if we were designing the system from scratch—I don’t know. As for helping people with budgeting, I think most people who find themselves financially strained become pretty good at budgeting in a hurry because they have to be. You can add various caveats to this—supported decision making can be very helpful for people with intellectual disabilities, for example—but the idea that what poor people really need is help budgeting, at least the way it’s often meant, is a myth.
DH: Even though libertarians, greens and independents do not make up the lion’s share of registered voters in California, libertarians in particular might find certain aspects of your campaign platform appealing and consider voting for you. However, your stance on basic income might turn them off because of its distribution model – specifically that it puts more power in the hands of the federal government. How would you respond to this type of concern from voters who do not want the government running large-scale social welfare programs?
TB: I’d dispute the premise that it puts more power in the hands of the federal government. If it looks that way, it’s because the federal policies I’d like to replace (in part or in whole) are often designed to look smaller than they actually are. I really try to avoid that, because I think it leads to bad policy, even if it would be politically convenient. For example, the federal government spends over a trillion dollars a year on so-called “tax expenditures”, where the tax code is written a certain way not because it’s the most sensible way to raise money for things the government wants to do, but in the service of some social policy or other. Tax expenditures are popular because they let politicians say, “it’s not a spending increase, it’s a tax cut!” But they can have perverse effects relative to more straightforward approaches to the same issues. I’m not always sure these consequences are unintended. Because tax expenditures are confusing, they also make it easier to sell one policy to voters and another policy to donors.
Another example is means testing of government programs. It sounds like common sense—government programs should help only those who really need it. And it’s politically convenient, since it can make a program look much cheaper on paper. But means testing is functionally equivalent to combining a much larger program with a large income tax—the tax is just hidden. And because it’s hidden, it’s more likely to be designed in a stupid way where some people wind up with a 95% effective marginal tax rate, and have little reason to, say, try to get a promotion or take on more hours.
So I try, as much as possible, to avoid these policy mistakes—even if it means more work explaining a proposal to people.
DH: Many activists within the basic income community posit that our current economic system (capitalism) is inefficient and unsustainable, and that eventually we must transition out of it. Do you see basic income as a type of incremental step toward this transition – a kind of temporary “band aid”?
TB: That’s a big question! It depends both on what you mean by “capitalism” and what happens with future technological development. The former we can argue about endlessly, and the latter I don’t think anybody knows for certain. I will say this, though—I think most people underestimate how many features of our current economic system are not the natural order of things, or even “what happens under capitalism unless someone reigns the corporations in”, but are the feature of specific government policies, which are often not well-thought-out, or which are designed to benefit the powerful rather than the average person.
Take prescription drugs, for example. I recently heard someone put this very succinctly: if prescription drugs were a free market, you’d be able to order them from Canada. High prescription drug prices are sometimes justified on the grounds that they’re necessary to fund drug research, but I think it’s pretty obvious we could find better ways to fund drug R&D than what we currently have.
And there are lots of things that are like that. So I think we could have a better, fairer economic system that would look quite a bit different than what we have right now, whether you’d end up classifying it as a variety of capitalism or not.
If you would like to learn more about Topher Brennan, you can visit his web site: www.topherbrennan.com
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