This Review was originally published in the Review of Political Economy, December 6, 2009. It’s reproduced here as originally published.
In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, by Charles Murray, Washington, DC, AEI Press, 2006, 230 pp., $20.00 hardcover ISBN 0-8447-4223-6
Charles Murray is not known as a friend of the poor. His 1984 book, Losing Ground argued that the government should ‘zero-out’ all programs designed to help the poor. His 1994 book, The Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein) used questionable methodology purporting to show that people are poor because they are less intelligent than average and that blacks are disproportionately poor because they are genetically less intelligent than whites. If racism is the belief that your race is mentally or physically superior to others, The Bell Curve is a racist book. Yet, his new book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, Murray puts forth a plan to provide more healthcare, more retirement security and more actual income to the poor with no supervision or conditions attached.
For those familiar with universal basic income, Murray’s proposal sounds very familiar. Murray calls it ‘the Plan,’ saying, ‘I have not been able to contrive a better name,’ but it is essentially a version of the program known as ‘basic income,’ which
has been widely discussed by political philosophers in the last twenty years. Basic income is a regular government-ensured grant provided to every citizen on an individual basis without a means test or work requirement. People with middle or higher incomes pay more in taxes than they receive in the grant, but everyone receives the grant in cash every month. A great deal of literature has appeared on basic income in the last twenty-five years. Basic income is similar to, but not quite the same as, the negative income tax, which was widely discussed in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s. The major difference between the two is that the negative income tax is given only to net recipients and phased out for people who earn above a certain amount, so that no one both receives a grant and pays income taxes. Both programs are ‘guaranteed incomes’ in the sense that they are designed to ensure that everyone has a small but reliable income, and both programs eliminate ‘the poverty trap’ in which some people find that they can attain a higher income by not working than by working.
Murray cites some of the literature on the negative income tax, but he appears completely unaware of the basic income literature, giving the impression that he reinvented the idea independently. When he discusses people who might drop out of the labor market, his example of what they might do is surf. This example is well-known in the basic income literature from an exchange between John Rawls and Philippe Van Parijs, neither of whom is cited by Murray. Is it a coincidence or is he merely neglecting to connect himself with that movement?
The Plan is most similar to a little-known basic income proposal by Leonard Greene, and elaborated by Irwin Garfinkel, although this connection is probably coincidental. Both Murray and Greene propose canceling everything the US government is currently doing to support individual incomes and use all of that money to finance a basic income for every citizen. The Plan is not quite a universal basic income. Only people age 21 and over are eligible, but it is a basic income in the sense that it has no means test and it is given to everyone who reaches the age of eligibility regardless of income.
Murray promoted the book and the Plan with several lectures in 2006. When questioned whether a guaranteed income is an affront to the work ethic, he responded, ‘You’re a conservative. I’m a libertarian.’ But make no mistake, Murray is profoundly conservative. His books have blamed the welfare state for everything that a conservative might find wrong with modern society, from welfare dependency though unwed motherhood to a decline in ‘man’s’ ability to craft a meaningful life. Many of the benefits he expects from the Plan align with conservative goals. He believes it will lead more people to attend church, more people to support private charities, and more of the poor to adopt the superior values of middle- and upper-class people.
Many people were shocked that a man who wrote a book arguing to zero-out the welfare state would put forward a plan for a basic income and universal health care. But it should not be completely surprising. Murray was sympathetic to the negative income tax in his contribution to Lessons from the Income Maintenance Experiments; and in What it Means to Be a Libertarian, he wrote that some form of income guarantee was the next best thing to the complete elimination of redistribution.
There is in fact a long history of free-market conservatives who have seen an income guarantee as a streamlined, conservative alternative to the complex, conditional welfare system. F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman promoted the negative income tax on those grounds, and it seems to have been part of the motivation behind Richard Nixon’s watered-down negative income tax proposal in 1970. Most recently, Governor Sarah Palin pushed through a bill for a one-time increase in Alaska’s regular basic income (the Alaska Permanent Fund) from $2000 to $3200 per person per year. The free market appeal of an income guarantee is twofold. From the point of view of taxpayers, conditional welfare programs waste a large percentage of their budgets in overhead cost that could be saved under an income guarantee. From the point of view of the recipients, the rules and constant oversight of a conditional welfare system can be humiliating and oppressive.
Murray’s earlier books give the impression he believes that the poor are unproductive, genetically unintelligent people with bad values who have babies just to get welfare checks. One might therefore wonder why he cares about freeing the poor from oppressive government supervision. The answer is that while Murray seems to believe capitalism is a near-perfect meritocracy and that the poor are genetically inferior, he honestly believes that the poor should be free and that humiliating supervision by government bureaucrats cannot make the lives of the poor better. This kind of thinking led Murray to reinvent basic income.
This book—typical of Murray’s research—seems designed to give laypersons the impression of broad knowledge while having little concern with giving that impression to people who know the field. It is a thin volume with lots of numbers and footnotes but without a deep understanding of the research he cites. His discussion of the negative income tax is a case in point. He is aware that Milton Friedman supported the idea and that experiments were conducted on it, but he misstates what a negative income tax is and what the experimental results were. He gives the impression that a negative income tax has a 100% take-back rate, meaning that for each dollar earned privately recipients lose one dollar of their grant. If so, recipients who make money in the private labor market are no better off financially unless they get a job that pays more than the entire grant (pp. 8–9; 74). Almost no one who supports the negative income tax supports this draconian variant. Friedman supported the negative income tax largely because it could be designed to eliminate the work-incentive problems of conditional welfare programs, and none of the experiments tested a 100% take-back rate. Murray also implies that the experiments found evidence that large number of recipients dropped out the labor market. In fact, none of the experiments found evidence that anyone dropped out of the labor market. The relative decline in hours for the experimental group was 2–9% among primary wage earners and up to 20% for mothers of young children, but none of this relative decline represented anyone ‘dropping out’ of the labor market. It was instead attributable to people who happened to become unemployed taking longer to find their next job. Perhaps most importantly, the relative decline of work hours was not always an absolute decline. The largest predictor of whether recipients worked was not whether they were in the experimental or control group but the health of the economy. The people who conducted the experiments concluded that the work disincentive effects were small and did not put the viability of the program at risk.
Murray has not been careful with the facts, but is his plan a good one? Is the Plan a good workable idea that people who actually have sympathy for the poor could support? The answer is mixed. It is small; $10,000 per year minus $3,000 for mandatory private health insurance minus $2,000 for possibly mandatory retirement savings with no additional provision for children’s healthcare. That is, $5,000 per year ($416.67 per month) if retirement savings is mandatory and $7,000 per year ($583.33 per month) if it is not mandatory—for each adult whether she lives alone or with children. A single parent will be able to sue for child support out of the grant to the noncustodial parent, and so might have access to something in the neighborhood of $833.33 per month for herself and her children. But even an adult with no dependents is well below the official poverty line of $9,359 if she tries to live on $5,000 a year. (Following Murray, I’m using 2002 figures.)
Murray’s typically conservative response is that they can double-up with friends and relatives and they can all go out and get jobs at minimum wage. He calculates that when you add $583.33 to the income from a minimum wage job it would get most people—even single mothers with one dependent—out of poverty. He neglects to mention that this strategy involves mortgaging their retirement savings so that they will be more than $4,000 below the poverty line in retirement if they do this every year. He also neglects to mention that he is an opponent of the minimum wage. Since the whole idea of getting rid of the minimum wage is to enable employers to pay their workers less, we can assume that all of his calculations about how well off the recipients will be after they get these jobs are overestimates. He also neglects the very possibility that unemployment might exist, that the market may not be able to absorb the millions of new entrants to the labor market he hopes to see, and that most single mothers cannot work full time or in many cases even part time.
Consider a single mother with three dependent children at ages that make it difficult if not impossible for the parent to work outside the home. Her poverty threshold is $18,307. If she’s on her own and retirement contributions are mandatory, her income ($5000) is less than a third of the poverty threshold. If she can effectively sue the father for his entire grant (an optimistic assumption), she can increase her income to $10,000. If she and the father both mortgage their retirement savings, she can get up to $14,000. That is probably enough to keep her family off the street, but it is still more than $4000 below the meager US poverty line. Murray suggests combining incomes is as a solution. If she cohabitates with another mother in exactly the same situation, their combined income is $28,000—still $1,600 below the poverty threshold for a two parent family with six children of $29,601.
The grant is too small to give a dignified life to the poor without at least the addition of a child grant, but is it better than the current system? I have to admit that on this point, I am inclined to agree with Murray. As horrible as it sounds, in most states, TANF recipients work for less than they would get unconditionally under the Plan. Many people who aren’t eligible for TANF, SSI, or Unemployment Insurance get far less or nothing at all. Even the small grant of $416.67 a month can help many people get by if it is unconditional and tax free. The Plan would save many people from the utter destitution and homelessness that they experience in the United States today. On top of that, a retirement fund of $2000 a year put into a protected savings system would make for a better retirement than many Social Security recipients experience today, and $3,000 per capita could buy basic universal health coverage, solving one of the most important problems in American society today. If the Plan were put in place now, maybe we could eventually get the benefit increased to a decent level. Therefore, despite all of its faults, the Plan would be an improvement for many people living at or near the margins in the United States.