Opinion

Three big misconceptions about Yang’s Freedom Dividend 

As US presidential candidate Andrew Yang continues to outperform expectations, his signature policy proposal, the Freedom Dividend or Universal Basic Income (UBI), is receiving increased scrutiny. Some of the criticisms are well warranted, while others are misconceptions based on a flawed understanding of how basic income would operate.

The following addresses some of the primary misconceptions regarding Yang’s plan.

UBI is too expensive

The cost issue is one of the most persistent misconceptions about basic income.

A basic income system would have a built-in clawback through the tax system. In Yang’s case, a portion of the clawback comes through the opt-in system that would substitute cash-like welfare programs for the Freedom Dividend, such as food assistance. However, most of the burden of the clawback would be on the wealthiest families who would pay more in taxes than they could receive from basic income

As I have noted previously, the UBI clawback can be both direct and indirect. For example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires families to pay back some or all of their healthcare subsidies at the end of the year if their yearly income exceeds a certain amount. A UBI system can similarly create a phase-out in the income tax system. 

Considering Yang’s Freedom Dividend is opt-in, it is likely that many wealthy families would not opt to receive the dividend anyway. 

Indirect clawback mechanisms could include Yang’s proposed Value Added Tax (VAT). The VAT is effectively a national sales tax, meaning even lower-income people would pay back a portion of their basic income depending on how much they spend their dividend on taxed goods.

Yang has said he would exclude many essential items from the VAT, though. Calculations show the VAT combined with UBI would have a net positive effect on purchasing power for low-income individuals.

Any taxes paid on the UBI would be used for the following year’s dividend, meaning much of the money is repeatedly recycled through the system. The additional amount that is redistributed to lower-income families is called the “net cost” or real cost of basic income. The net cost is the amount the government would actually redistribute every year under UBI.

Factoring the clawback, the real cost of basic income to the government would be approximately $539 billion annually, according to Georgetown Professor Karl Widerquist. This is less than 25 percent of existing entitlement spending.

UBI would have the same cost as a Negative Income Tax (NIT) when factoring the clawback, but the sticker price of the gross cost creates a false impression of a higher cost for UBI. NIT is not universal — it only provides the subsidy to those who qualify, making the cost appear lower than UBI. When I asked Yang whether he would support NIT to avoid the cost misconception, he said NIT would be a step in the right direction.

UBI would cause inflation

The inflation misconception has been around for many years, but it has become more convincingly debunked since I first wrote about it nearly three years ago. 

It is essential to note that Yang’s plan is redistributing existing cash, not printing new cash. For every dollar spent, there must be a dollar taxed first, which would offset inflationary pressures.

As Karl Widerquist noted, basic income is no different than other welfare programs in terms of increasing demand for goods. Denmark has one of the most generous welfare states in the world, but they also consistently experience a low and stable inflation rate below two percent.

In the United States, food assistance, which can be freely spent like cash on most food items, has not produced inflation in food prices. On the contrary, research from the London School of Economics shows in states with higher take-up of food stamp assistance, prices have dropped and there is greater product variety relative to those areas with lower food assistance take-up. This is because suppliers respond to increased demand with more competition entering the market.

Thus, the guaranteed demand from basic income could generate higher levels of competition that brings down costs for low-income people. 

In Alaska, which has a small Universal Basic Income funded by oil revenues, inflation has been lower than the U.S. average since the program started. Other research in Mexico demonstrates that directly giving cash does not produce inflation.

Since the United States is a globalized market, any short term demand spike creates an economic profit that is resolved by increased production, bringing the price down in the long-run. 

In fact, the United States is experiencing unusually low levels of inflation. Contributing factors could include the Amazon.com effect, automation, immigration, and global trade. Basic income would not change these underlying factors keeping a hold on inflation.

The main area where there could be meaningful inflation in the medium term is the cost of rent because there is a fixed supply of land. 

Basic income could empower more people to move and find other options. Renters would have a better bargaining position with their landlord if they had a guaranteed dividend than if they are desperately clinging to their job.

In the long-run, greater purchasing power from low-income people should induce more homebuilding and open up a greater share of unoccupied housing. That said, the high cost of rent exists now in many areas and should be addressed as a separate policy issue.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any inflation from UBI could completely wipe out the improved purchasing power from the dividend, let alone make people worse off.

UBI would cause laziness

The problem of laziness is one of the most thoroughly debunked misconceptions about UBI. Among those who closely study cash transfers, many no longer consider labor participation an interesting research question because the results consistently show no effect. Those who have read the relevant research and are still convinced that basic income causes laziness will likely never be persuaded otherwise.

As I reported in 2016, “The Overseas Development Institute just released the largest meta-analysis of cash transfer programs ever, spanning 15 years of data and 165 studies. The main takeaway is that studies show a consistent reduction in poverty measures. Perhaps an even more important conclusion is that most evidence showed an increase in work participation after receiving the basic income.”

Many specific examples from across the developmental spectrum corroborate the conclusion that basic income would not meaningfully reduce work. In Finland’s basic income experiment, there was no negative effect on work. Iran’s generous basic income did not reduce overall work but did cause some young people to substitute their time for more schooling. In Alaska, their partial basic income did not reduce overall work. On the contrary, Alaska’s basic income increased part-time work due to the increased demand generated by a basic income.

With a permanent basic income, there is reason to believe that a healthier and more productive labor market will emerge. For example, the Finland experiment showed basic income recipients were happier and more trusting overall. Many polls indicate that individuals would use the basic income to gain additional skills, spend time with family, volunteer, and engage in freelancing.

If the poor are no longer clinging to a job for survival, they can more freely find a job where they can be the most productive. They will also have more bargaining power to demand better working environments. 

Most importantly, basic income would allow greater time and mental energy to be focused on the most important job in society: caregiving. Volunteering and caregiving provide enormous economic and societal benefits that are not recorded in GDP because they are typically unpaid. 

Basic income gives people the right to say no to exploitation. But the most revolutionary aspect of UBI is that it finally gives everyone the opportunity to yes to their passions.

About Tyler Prochazka

Tyler Prochazka has written 86 articles.

Tyler Prochazka is a PhD candidate in Asia Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He is the features editor of Basic Income News and the chairman of UBI Taiwan. Support my work with UBI Taiwan: https://www.patreon.com/typro Facebook.com/TaiwanUBI @typro

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.

4 comments

  • Sally Mitchell

    Mr Yang will empower the people with his policies and I have already got him in my mind as the new President of America because I want a new leader like him to follow suit in Australia. We desperately need one

  • For many of us, a guaranteed monthly allowance would change everything, to be able to pay ones bills without leaning on family members, to be able to shop for food at stores that are within walking distance instead of having to walk all day to get to and from a store that takes ebt benefit cards….it would be amazing…what I hear from people on my level is they are afraid this new move would cause them to lose medical coverage, and most people these days are on some kind of medication it seems….the first thing they say is “But How Will I Pay For My Meds!?!” If theres protection for them on that issue, they’ll jump on the band wagon.

  • gespil

    If the UBI is the real UBI then it is great, because it will deliver all the benefits predicted.

    It is time to educate the experts that there is a difference between different UBI proposals and there is only one real UBI design in terms of eternal Sustainability and Sufficiency..

    Yang’s UBI is fake because it is based on taxing the transacted Wealth.
    The real UBI is always paid by the accumulated Wealth!
    Alaskan UBI is fake too ( it is paid by a company which is not owned by the Alaskan people, therefore they do not get the profit from the sale of their oil. … … and the oil will run out within a century)

    Consumption, investment, earning, selling are all examples of ‘transacted’ wealth, which can be taxed to pay for many other appropriate projects but not for a sustainable and sufficient UBI.

    The only correct way of funding the real UBI is from the accumulated Wealth.
    The real UBI is always paid by the accumulated Wealth under public or private control !

    The real UBI is about dignified existence which means different things in different technological eras, therefore the real UBI is independent from the level of technological development of the society.
    The real UBI only depends on the available wealth, however Yang’s and all other UBI proposals I have seen try to make a UBI to depend on the transacted wealth.

    The plan for the real UBI :
    1) Strict control of the borders. (Wealth enters easy but does not leave easy; people leave easy but do not enter easy)
    2) Introduce the real UBI ( take from the accumulated Wealth instead of the transacted wealth to pay for the real UBI).
    3) let the free market decide how much the UBI must be and what is considered Wealth.

    Yang’s UBI does not prevent the increase in Wealth disparity. Only the real UBI does that.

    (Under Yang’s UBI plan,
    10k worth of Wealth must be transacted to create 1k of survival rations for one single individual.
    It means, the poor would “beg” the Wealthy to never stop transacting lavishly.

    UBI based on transacted wealth means that people feel fine with our presidents sitting in some corner wondering if their wealthy donors who elected them will be wiling to spend enough this year so that the poor could receive some survival rations, or if the wealthy do not wish to spend enough then the presidents will have to decide what social programs to cut this year.

    Your hope that the wealthy always spend lavishly is the hope of a dog believing the master will feed it well.
    )

    The real UBI is a tool for perpetual redistribution of sufficient Wealth to guarantee a dignified existence to every citizen existing within a society.

    My vote is for ANY candidate who taxes perpetually the accumulated wealth of the wealthy and then uses the revenue to provide dignified existence for the citizens and then, eventually, releases the power of control by giving the revenue directly to the citizens as the real UBI .

    • James

      How do you define “Accumulated wealth”.

      I’m not going to lie, a red flag goes up whenever anyone says something is the “fake” version of something and another thing is the “real version” as in real life things are very rarely so neat and tidy. It’s usually the case that different approaches have different advantages and disadvantages.

      When you tax people you disincentivise people from doing that thing. A VAT with exceptions for essential goods essentially disincentivises people from buying luxury goods, or super fast cars, etc. This is perhaps a positive things because it redicrects labour away from merely making the mega wealthy a tiny bit more comfortable.

      There are many different ways you could define “Accumulated wealth” but if you look at someone like Elon, most of his wealth is actually in shares for Tesla. The country needs tesla to have that money really so you don’t want to tax his wealth whilst it is still in Tesla. So instead of taxing “Accumulated wealth” you could tax when he converts those shares into cash? What about people who have large buildings? What about people sitting on piles of cash? Do we want to discourage people sitting on cash (I think so a bit, but during times of recession, people saving money is helpful).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.