A Simple Solution to End the Labor Shortage in Five Minutes

A Simple Solution to End the Labor Shortage in Five Minutes

By Guest Blogger, Bitch Bastardly

Workers aren’t working for the wages we’re offering as much as they used to. Five million fewer Americans are working now than were working in June of 2019. That’s 3.33% of the U.S. labor force—a shortage! Think about what that means: 3.33% fewer pool boys at the spa, 3.33% fewer caddies at the country club, 3.33% fewer ball girls at the tennis club. Just the other day, I had to wait more than 30 minutes for my lobster bisque. Today, I called my service, and they couldn’t schedule anyone to clean my house until the middle of next week! If this keeps up, who’s going to iron my shirts? It’s a crisis.

All this is happening even though most businesses are still offering a very generous $7.25 per hour and, in some cases, even more. At that rate, a single parent only needs to work one-and-a-half jobs to get herself and her child out poverty. Then she’ll only need two more jobs to pay for the childcare she needs for the time she spends at her first job.

Despite this wonderful generosity, some workers have the audacity to suggest employers could end the labor shortage by paying higher wages. Some even suggest improved working conditions. That’s class warfare! We don’t need that radicalism here.

I suggest a simple solution—a small extension of our well established way of doing things—and it will literally eliminate the labor shortage in 5 minutes.

Privatize the atmosphere. The problem with the air we breathe is that nobody owns it! People take it for granted that they can inhale air any time they feel like it as if they have some natural right to breathe. That’s communism! And that never works. Poor people won’t appreciate the air they breathe until they pay for access to it from a corporation, until they know the police will arrest them if they steal the air from its natural owner—the American corporate sector.

This simple solution is in accord with the American way of doing things. We don’t usually give anything to poor people unless they work for it or prove they can’t work. Why are they getting such a valuable thing as breathing rights for free? Because they need it? People need food, shelter, and clothing; we don’t give them access to the resources they need to produce these things for themselves. Only naked savages do that. In civilized countries like ours, people don’t get access to the resources they “need” until they go to a boss and say I will work for you all day to get the money to buy the stuff I need to live.

Bitch Bastardly
Bitch Bastardly

This free atmosphere policy is unnatural and unamerican.

Imagine what a privatized atmosphere will do for the labor shortage? Once workers who are “looking for a better job offer” lose the right to inhale and exhale without the permission of the owner of the atmosphere, they’ll learn the truth of my motto, no job is a bad job, right quick. Like a good member of the lower class, they’ll do what they’re told and they do it in five minutes. If they don’t do it, they pass out and die. But that’s their choice. That’s what freedom in the free market is all about. People who don’t own resources, choose to work for people who do, or they choose not to use resources. If that means homelessness, hunger, or malnutrition, that’s their choice. This simple solution simply adds another choice: suffocation.

Imagine all the jobs a privately owned atmosphere will create in the banking sector as workers who can’t find a job before they pass out seek loans to buy breathing rights? Years of interest payments and collections will follow, generating banking sector profits that will trickle down to everyone.

The atmosphere’s new corporate owner will really clean up our environment. They’ll use their Supreme-Court-given free-speech rights to make all the campaign contributions it takes to get Congress to pay them money to remove pollutants from the atmosphere they own. And think of all the jobs that will create!

They’ll file suit in federal court to get the police to stop polluters. Right now, the government allows polluters to dump dirty chemicals into the air whenever they want. If the atmosphere was owned—as nature intended—by a wealthy campaign contributor, the government would stop polluters. No one has the right to dump pollution into the atmosphere you breathe unless they pay for that right from a private, for-profit corporation.

When corporations own resources, the consumer is sovereign, so you’ll be free to choose exactly how much pollution would get into your lungs. If the people want cleaner air, all they need to do is use their combined bidding power to make it more profitable to sell them clean air than to sell polluters the right to dirty up the air. If you think global warming is real, you can offer money to the corporation to get them to stop that too. It’ll be an old-fashioned bidding war, you versus the polluters, and may the deeper pocket win—it’s the American way.

And the best thing is that, whoever wins, the atmosphere-owning corporation will make lots of money, and that’s good for everybody, because what will they do with that money? They’ll spend some of it and that will create jobs. They’ll invest the rest and that will create even more jobs!

And what will people do with all the money they make in those jobs? They’ll buy the right to breathe, of course. But when they get home and take a deep breath, they’ll know they earned it, because they bought it from whatever corporation owns the right to tell them it’s OK to breathe. That’s the freedom of the free market.
-Bitch Bastardly, June-July 2021

For information about the Indepentarian blog, contact Karl@widerquist.com
For information about Bitch Bastardly, just make it up.

The Prehistory of Private Property: Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

The Prehistory of Private Property: Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

The book, the Prehistory of Private Property by Grant S. McCall an me, examines the origin and development of the private property rights system from prehistory to the present day to debunk three widely accepted false beliefs about the private property system: that inequality is natural, inevitable, or incompatible with freedom; that capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system; and that there is something “natural” about the private property system. That is, the normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world in which we live support a capitalist system with strong, individualist, and unequal private property rights. The book reviews the intellectual history of these claims and demonstrates their importance in contemporary political thought before reviewing the history and prehistory of the private property system to address their veracity. In so doing, the book uses thorough anthropological and historical evidence to refute these three claims. The book shows that societies with common-property systems maintaining strong equality and extensive freedom were initially nearly ubiquitous around the world, that their claims to common ownership were consistent with appropriation-based theories, and that the private property rights system was established through a long series of violent state-sponsored aggressions.

This post summarizes the book, chapter-by-chapter.

1. Introduction

This chapter previews the book, explains the importance of debunking the three claims, the usefulness of examining the intellectual history of how they became so important in political thought, and the value of reviewing the prehistory and early history of the private property system to debunk them.

2. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part One: 5,000 years of clever and contradictory arguments that inequality is natural and inevitable

This chapter reviews the history of the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable, showing that different versions of it played a role in differently unequal societies from prehistory to modern times. Inequality has been attributed to the divine favor of gods, to leaders actually being gods, to the belief that only hierarchies are capable of maintaining peace; to the intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority of the upper class; to the need to reward useful behavior; and to many other questionable beliefs. The parallels between the uses of the inequality hypothesis are striking. Although predominant ideologies in virtually all unequal societies agree that inequality is natural and inevitable, they can’t agree why inequality is natural and inevitable, and they all use this natural-inequality hypothesis to justify force in order to maintain inequality.

3. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part Two: Natural inequality in contemporary political philosophy and social science

This chapter shows that the belief in natural inequality survives in many guises in contemporary social science and political philosophy—most especially in social contract theory and in “freedom-based” arguments for unequal private property rights in natural resources and the things people make out of them. The parallels between contemporary and historical justifications for inequality are striking. They all use the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable to justify coercive rules to maintain inequality, but they all present conflicting explanations why inequality is inevitable. This observation itself raises doubt about this claim and provides reason for empirical historical analysis of whether the natural inequality hypothesis is true.

Grant S. McCall

4. How small-scale societies maintain political, social, and economic equality

This chapter uses anthropological and historical evidence to debunk what the authors call the natural inequality hypothesis—i.e. the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable and/or that inequality is the inevitable result of respecting negative freedom. It examines land-tenure and property systems in a wide-variety of societies known to history and anthropology. It shows that many societies maintained very high levels of social, political, and economic equality for extremely long periods of time while protecting negative freedom at least as well, if not better than, contemporary property rights-based societies.

5. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Market Economy

The negative freedom argument for the market economy relies on the belief that capitalism delivers greater freedom from interference and coercion than any other system. This chapter shows that this claim cannot be established in pure a priori theory and that “propertarians” (people who use this argument) have so far failed to establish it empirically. Section 1 shows that the establishment and maintenance of the private property system involves an empirical tradeoff of liberties that most versions of the negative-freedom argument ignore. Section 2 considers and rejects a priori attempts to use a rights-based conception of freedom to resolve that tradeoff. Section 3 considers other possibilities for resolving the tradeoff in pure theory and concludes that it must be addressed empirically. Section 4 explains why a particularly useful way to examine that tradeoff is to make an empirical comparison of the freedom experienced by people in the market economy and the hunter-gatherer band economy.

6. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Hunter-Gatherer Band Economy

This chapter presents an empirical argument that the hunter-gatherer band economy is more consistent with negative freedom than the market economy. Although freedom is difficult to measure, the freedom of people in band societies dominates the freedom of the least free people in capitalist societies. There is no form of coercion, interference, force, non-contractual obligation, involuntariness, or aggression, to which people in band societies are subject and from which lower- and middle-class people in capitalist society have been freed. Lower- and middle-class people in capitalist societies are subject to forms of coercion, force, and so on that do not exist in band societies. The independently wealthy might have more liberties than people in band societies, but if so, their additional liberties come at the cost of fewer liberties for middle- and lower-class people. Therefore, the market economy—as usually conceived—fails to deliver the highest equal freedom. The potential advantage of large-scale societies is in promoting opportunity, not in protecting freedom. If the private property system is to be justified against other systems, it must be justified on the basis of opportunity, not on the false claim that it promotes negative freedom.

7. Contemporary Property Theory: A story, a myth, a principle, and a hypothesis

This chapter argues that rights-based justifications of unequal private property systems rely on an empirical claim that the authors call, “the individual appropriation hypothesis.” That is, if people were allowed to appropriate resources, in the absence of interference, an unequal, individualistic property rights system would develop. It essentially means that the private property rights system is natural and that collective property systems are unnatural and tend to be established only by interfering with individually appropriated property rights. Propertarians who try to distance themselves from empirical claims tend either to fall back on this claim or to fall into tautology and/or special pleading.

Karl & Hobbes

8. The History of a Hypothesis

This chapter reviews the intellectual history of the individual appropriation hypothesis from its seventeenth-century origins to the present to show how it became a background assumption in contemporary political theory. The history of appropriation theory and the appropriation story are intertwined with the history of the hypothesis.

9. The impossibility of a purely a-priori justification of private property

This chapter assesses attempts to justify specifically private property rights on an a priori basis. It shows how such attempts either resort to special pleading or fall back on one or another version of the individual appropriation hypothesis. It demonstrates that arguments based on negative freedom, opportunity, inequality, market power, self-ownership, and the Lockean proviso all fail to rule out a property-owning government. Even Loren Lomasky’s explicit attempt to remove empirical claims from the theory involves both special pleading and the appropriation hypothesis.

10. Evidence Provided by Propertarians to Support the Appropriation Hypothesis

Chapters 7-9 have shown that propertarianism requires some version of the (set of) empirical claim(s) we call the individual appropriation hypothesis. Some propertarians actually have provided evidence in favor of it. This chapter reviews that evidence, showing that it is superficial and inconclusive. A more thorough investigation is needed. Therefore, this chapter sets up the following five chapters, which provide that investigation.

The Prehistory of Private Property

11. Property Systems in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

This is the first of four chapters examining the origin and development of property rights (private, public, collective, common, and other) in order to investigate the individual appropriation hypothesis and related claims outlined in Chapter 7. Section 1 considers whether appropriation theory applies to animals. Section 2 explores the broad variation of systems of territoriality among modern human hunter-gatherers and uses the results to think about territoriality among the earliest human occupants of most of the globe. Section 3 argues that nomadic hunter-gatherer bands appropriated most of the world’s land in ways that were consistent with all or most appropriation criteria contained in natural property rights theories. In contradiction to propertarian theory, these original appropriators chose not to establish individual private property—neither in land nor in other goods. Land was a common, and food and tools were subject to requirements to share.

12. Property Systems in Stateless Farming Communities

One appropriation criterion, the requirement that appropriators mix their labor with the land, bypasses nomadic foragers and gives the first ownership claims to the first people to clear and farm the land. This ubiquitous appropriation story uses this ethical principle in tandem with the empirical claim that the first farmers established private land ownership systems to support the claim that private property is a natural development. The evidence presented in this chapter shows it is not so. The origin of private property occurred long after the origins of agriculture. Private ownership and individual appropriation play no role in small-scale stateless farming communities. Small-scale swidden agriculturalists clear the land together and choose to establish nothing like the supposedly natural private property system. Early farming societies had complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, and at least partly collective land-tenure systems with a significant commons in the sense that individuals retained one or another kind of access rights to land for different purposes.

13. Property Systems in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern States

This chapter shows that no period of private, individual appropriation is found in the formation of states. Early states had land-tenure systems in which political elites—kings, pharaohs, lugals, etc.—were considered the owners of all of the land in their kingdoms and subjects had various forms of usufruct rights for farming or other practices. The beginnings of individual private property occurred gradually, long after the formation of states, not with individual acts of appropriation but with elites using their political power to name themselves or their underlings as owners of assets. Even then, private landownership did not become the dominant property rights system in ancient or medieval times. Communal village agriculture remained the most common system in state societies throughout the world until the early modern period.

14. The Privatization of the Earth, circa 1500-2000

The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously through appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion and violence. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.

15. The individual appropriation hypothesis assessed

The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously by appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion, violence, and dispossession. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.

16. Conclusion

This book has told six histories: the intellectual histories of three widely believed empirical claims, and the political and economic histories that refute those claims. The natural-rights-based argument for strong, unequal private property rights relies on false empirical claims about equality, freedom, and the origin and nature of property rights in the past and as a stand-in for some kind of imagined universal human nature. A society that will be more consistent with the protection of all individuals from violence, coercion, and interference will have to find some way to ensure that each individual has direct and unconditional access to the resources necessary to survive. We suggest Universal Basic Income as an important policy to help achieve that goal.

Enzo & Karl at the PPA+ Conference, Amsterdam 2019
Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ Conference, Amsterdam 2019

Possibilities and Pitfalls of Basic Income Experiments

This article briefly discusses the findings of my book
A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens
Published by Palgrave Macmillan 2018[1]

UBI Experiment, Namibia, 2009

            If the public debate over Universal Basic Income (UBI) is going to benefit from the many UBI experiments happening around the world, the journalists, policymakers, and citizens involved in the debate need to understand what UBI experiments can and—more importantly—what they cannot do. UBI experiments can increase our knowledge of some of UBI’s effects, but they cannot do what many journalists, citizens, and policymakers seem to expect them to. In December 2016, MIT Technology Review perfectly illustrated the common overblown expectations of UBI experiments when the ran the headline: “In 2017, We Will Find Out If a Basic Income Makes Sense.”[2] As much as we might want UBI experiments to be definitive tests of UBI’s efficacy, there is no some crucial piece of information that experiments can find and that will make the difference in most people’s decision whether to support or oppose the introduction of UBI.

            Social science experiments are not like medical experiments. A vaccine trial, for example can directly address the bottom-line question of interest to just about everyone: is the vaccine is safe and effective? Researchers can conduct a random control trial (RCT) by selecting an “experimental group” of—say—1000 people who get the real vaccine and a “control group” of 1000 people who get a placebo. They observe both groups to see whether the experimental group is less likely to contract the disease and more likely to suffer medical complications. Vaccine trials are imperfect tests. RCTs might have difficulty determining whether the vaccine is truly safe and effective in the long run, among people of all ages, and for people with all possible complicating risk factors, but reporting differences between the control and experimental group in an RCT gives people useful and relatively straightforward information on the bottom-line question that interests them about vaccines. If comparison of the experimental and control groups indicates that a vaccine is both safe and effective, people should take it. If that comparison indicates it’s either unsafe or ineffective, people should not. If there is good reason to believe the test is inconclusive, researchers should conduct more tests.

            We can give a UBI to an experimental group for a while and compare their behavior and life outcomes to a control group but that comparison is not a test of UBI in the sense that a vaccine trial is a test of the vaccine. If a UBI experiment is not a test, what is it? It is an indirectly and often inconclusive method of increasing our knowledge of some but not other aspects of UBI. UBI experiments cannot be decisive tests in the way vaccine trials are because they say much less about the long-term effects of a fully implemented, national UBI program than vaccine trials do about the long-term effects of a fully implemented, national vaccine program, and because to the extent RCT findings do say something about a national program, ethical disagreement affects how we evaluate those effects.

            Unlike a vaccine, UBI has many effects that depend heavily on how people interact with each other in local and national markets and in nonmarket settings. The change in behavior of one randomly selected worker who receives UBI might be very different from the change in behavior of 100 million workers who all receive UBI. Employers’ reaction to the changes in behavior of one randomly selected worker with a UBI might be very different from their reaction to the changes in behavior of 100 million workers who all have UBI. The educational effects of experimental UBI on one randomly selected five-year-old child in a 3-year UBI might be very different from the educational effects on 5 million five-year-old children in a country that has a fully implemented UBI, which will be in place for their entire school career.

UBI Rally, New York, 2019

            The things we want to know about UBI are far more complex and difficult to observe than the things we want to know about vaccines. How much will UBI raise beneficiaries’ incomes once they and other people they interact with their behavior in reaction to UBI and to each other’s reactions? How much will that increased income raise beneficiaries’ welfare—according to what measures of welfare? Will beneficiaries react to UBI in ways that make it more expensive or in ways that policymakers believe are desirable or undesirable? What is the relative ethical importance of each of these factors in evaluating UBI?

            Ethical disagreement affects how we evaluate almost all of UBI’s effects. For example, if the experimental group works less than the control group is that a good thing because it empowers disadvantaged people to command better wages, to demand improved working conditions, to pursue more education, or to spend more time with their families? Or is it a bad thing because it allows them to violate some principle that non-wealthy people must work as much as possible? Empirical findings are vulnerable to spin and misuse if people use them not to help make up their minds but as ammunition to support their already considered beliefs on issues like these.

            UBI experiments will produce better or more quantifiable information about some effects than others. This innocuous fact makes the experiments vulnerable to the streetlight effect—drawing attention to questions that are easier-to-answer but less important at the expense of questions that are harder-to-answer but more important. For example, RCTs might be able to say something about the short-term effects of UBI on economic insecurity, but that information does not answer the questions we really want to ask about economic security, such as whether new born children whose families will never face food or housing insecurity because of a national UBI tend to grow into heathier, better educated, happier, more productive, and more pro-social adults than children who grow up with food, housing, and other economic insecurities.

            RCTs can answer the question of whether the control group works more hours than the experimental group, but they can’t answer whether employers will respond to a national UBI by offering better wages and working conditions and whether these workplace improvements will partially reverse the initial decline in labor hours. Like a bright light, UBI experiments will draw the attention of everyone—even the most rational, knowledgeable researchers—toward quantifiable numbers produced by the comparison between the control and experimental groups and away from the more important but hard-to-answer questions.

            Partly because of the complexity of UBI’s effects and partly because of ethical disagreement, UBI does not lend itself to a simple, bottom-line question analogous to the question of whether vaccines are safe and effective. In the medical sense, UBI is both safe and effective. UBI will raise the incomes of net beneficiaries without holding them to any obligation to work or prove they are needy, and it will not make them break out in hives or develop any other medical complication. The central disagreement about UBI is not over the unknowns but over the ethical value of its well-known effects: is it right or wrong for a government policy to raise the incomes of low-income people whether or not they work? It is reasonable for people to have made up their minds one way or the other based on their answer to this ethical question.

            Little if any empirical investigation addresses the question of whether UBI can significantly raise net-beneficiaries’ incomes whether or not they work, because there is overwhelming evidence and very little disagreement that it can; the disagreement is whether it should. Empirical investigation of the effects of UBI does little to settle that basic moral disagreement. We could ask the question, is a UBI of $X sustainable, but for most relevant levels of X, that question is in little doubt and the answer to it will only be decisive for the group of people who support a UBI of $X if it is sustainable. UBI opponents and skeptics are not by-and-large driven by the belief that proposed levels are unsustainable. If they were, the political debate would be made up of UBI supporters who disagree about how high it should be.

            The above issues make it impossible for researchers to formulate a bottom-line question analogous to whether a vaccine is safe and effective or to give a definitive answer to any of the bottom-line questions of interest to people with different ethical positions. The ethical evaluation of the many tradeoffs involved and even the question of whether some effects should be considered positive or negative are in the eyes of the beholders.

            That being the case, why do people conduct UBI experiments at all? People conduct UBI experiments partly for strategic political reasons and because even with all these difficulties, more knowledge is better than less. Not everyone has a strong opinion about UBI, and reasonable people who do have strong opinions remain open to changing their minds about it or about some aspect in light of new knowledge.

            But information is not knowledge. More information only produces better knowledge if people understand it and its relevance. The researchers who conduct experiments do not have the ability to clear up all the potential misunderstandings discussed above. Researchers are trained to conduct experiments and report their findings to other specialists. To the extent that researchers present their findings to nonspecialists, it is usually to help them understand the research on its own terms—e.g. this is what an RCT is; this is a control group; this is an experimental group; these are the measured differences between the control and the experimental group. If laypeople’s eyes haven’t already glazed over, they almost certainly will when researchers add a bunch of caveats about the limited relevance of that comparison. As caveats get longer, journalists, policymakers, and citizens become more likely to skip to the numbers. A full understanding of the caveats is likely to leave people disappointed at how little experimental findings indicate about the actual market effects of a fully implemented, long-term, national UBI program.

            Researchers could combine their experimental findings with evidence from other sources and use tools such as simulation models to translate differences between the control and experimental group into estimates of actual market outcomes. They could combine these results with yet more data and modeling to connect estimates of market outcomes to estimated answers to the various bottom-line questions relevant to people with differing ethical positions. But this would involve doing several more nonexperimental studies in addition to the UBI experiment. And their results would be driven more by the assumptions of those models and those other sources of evidence than by the actual findings of the experiment they are reporting on.

            My recent book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, examines the difficulty of conducting and reporting the results of UBI experiments in an effort to help researchers, policymakers, and citizens gain as much useful knowledge as they can from the information UBI experiments do provide.[3] This article is an attempt to summarize some of the most important arguments from that book.

            The book discusses several general problems that virtually any UBI experiment will have to deal with: community effects, long-term effects, observer effects, the streetlight effect, the difficulty of separating the effects of the size and type of program being studied, the practical impossibility of testing a genuine UBI under most circumstances, and the problems created by using a means-tested program as an experimental approximation of UBI.[4]

            Although the book does not take a position on whether people should or should not conduct UBI experiments, it discusses the scientific and strategic reasons for having or not having experiments and the record of past experiments in achieving their goals. Virtually all experiments have succeeded in gathering useful information. Not all have successfully led to a more-knowledgeable public debate over UBI. For example, experiments conducted in the 1970s were badly misunderstood, and their findings were often misused by people intentionally or unintentionally misleading the public.[5] From UBI supporters’ point of view, some experiments have been a strategic success in building the movement and others have not. Arguably, the 1970s experiments had a negative effect on the movement at the time but are having a positive effect on the movement today. Experiments conducted in Namibia and India about 10 years ago appear to have had a large positive effect in building the worldwide UBI movement. The effects of the more recent experiments remain to be seen.[6]

            The book’s goal is not to criticize contemporary experiments but to offer some useful analysis for the people commissioning, designing, conducting, reporting on, and reading about them. To get the most out of an experiment, all of those people need to know what questions about UBI’s effects are important to the debate in the relevant political context, what questions about UBI’s effects are answered by the experiments, and most importantly what the experiments findings do and to not indicate about the important issues in the UBI debate. Researchers and journalists conducting and writing about current and future experiments need to understand how their finding have been misunderstood and misused to make their findings relevant to the contemporary debate.[7]

           The book discusses the surprisingly complex political economy that has brought about UBI experiments as a response to a movement more interested in the immediate introduction of UBI than the experimentation with it. UBI experiments are a risky strategy for the UBI movement, but as long as UBI remains a political longshot, experiments present the possibility of shortening the odds.[8]

            Anyone deciding to go forward with a UBI experiment should be aware of the inherent complexity of the material and the differences in background knowledge of the people involved. They should, therefore, also be aware that the results are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misuse, and they need to come up with strategies to increase understanding and decrease misuse as much as possible.

            That’s a difficult task. The book can do no more than begin the attempt to come up with those strategies. The book recommends the following. Treat experiment(s) as a small part of the effort to answer the questions necessary to evaluate UBI as a policy proposal. It is not enough simply to explain the experiments on their own terms (what is an RCT; what is a control group; what is an experimental group, etc.) with a list of caveats on their limits. Experiments don’t have to be conducted in conjunction with other research efforts to answer all the questions about UBI, but experiments in isolation must not be presented as saying very much at all about UBI as a policy. The true value of an experiment is its small contribution to this larger effort. For nonspecialists to understand this, someone needs to help them understand the limits of experimental methods and the additional evidence that would be necessary to connect experiment findings to the things they actually want to know about a fully implemented UBI program.[9]

            In addition to many more specific suggestions, the book stresses four broad strategies to help experiments enlighten the discussion of UBI.

  1. Work backwards from the public discussion to the experiment and then forward again. Anyone commissioning, conducting, or writing about experiments should respect the national or regional discussion of UBI. Find out what people most want to know. Design a study oriented as much as possible toward the questions that are important to that discussion with careful attention to the extent to which experiments can and cannot contribute relevant evidence and the extent to which nonexperimental data and modeling can help.[10]
  2. Focus on the effects rather than the side effects of UBI. The streetlight effect has led past experiments to focused on quantifiable side-effects, such as labor effort and cost at the expense of more important but less quantifiable issues, such as whether UBI has the positive effects on people’s long-term wellbeing supporters predict.[11]
  3. Focus on the bottom line. Although the public discussion varies enormously over time and place, and not everyone agrees on any one bottom line, the desire for an answer to questions is ubiquitous. Therefore, experimental reports must address how people with different ethical positions can use the results toward making an overall evaluation of UBI as a long-term, national policy. Experiments alone cannot provide enough evidence to answer a bottom-line question, but researchers can relate all of their findings to it. Citizens and policymakers often need a great deal of help to understand that relationship meaningfully.[12]
  4. Address the ethical controversy. Researchers cannot resolve the controversy over the ethical evaluation of UBI, nor should they try. But they do the public a disservice by ignoring it. They can better head off spin by recognizing the controversy and explaining what the findings mean to people who hold different ethical positions that are common locally and internationally.[13]

            The overall cost-effectiveness of a fully implemented, national UBI is probably the closest thing to a bottom-line question relevant to people on all sides of the relevant ethical disagreements, but issue-specific bottom-line questions for any variable of interest are also relevant. [14] The book discusses claims made by supporters and opponents and tries to identify testable empirical questions about those claims. Several empirical claims that should not be ignored cannot be tested on an experimental scale. Evidence about these claims will have to come from other sources, which will have to be combined with experimental evidence to connect any experimental findings any relevant bottom-line question.[15]

            Although experiments alone cannot conclusively answer any questions about a national UBI, the book identifies many claims that UBI experiments can examine if only partially, indirectly, and/or inconclusively. It discusses the implications these limitations have for conducting a study and communicating its results.[16] The book does not take a position on the question of whether UBI experiments should or should not be undertaken. That answer depends on the particularities of the local political context. The question is not whether to have an experiment. Experiments are happening right now all over the world. The question is how to learn the most from them.[17]

            The book concludes with a discussion of how to work forward from the experimental results to the public discussion with the awareness of the role those claims play in the political economy of the UBI discussion so that they might be explained in ways that overcome communication barriers and reduce the problems associated with misunderstanding and misuse of experimental findings.[18]

            I wish I could say this strategy fully resolves the problem, but that isn’t possible. A social science experiment is a very limited tool, and its implications are inherently difficult to understand. The effort to treat experiments as a small and incomplete part of a wider effort to answer all the important empirical issues about UBI will help but won’t eliminate misunderstanding.[19]

            There will always be gaps in understanding between the people involved in the discussion of such a complex issue and such complex evidence. If a nonspecialist learns everything specialists know, they become a specialist. But experimentation and communication can always be improved. I hope this book, this summary article, and this special issue make a small contribution to that effort.


[1] This article summarizes and draws heavily on the book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, Karl Widerquist, Palgrave Macmillan 2018. I summarized that book very differently in the article, “The Devil’s in the Caveats: A Brief Discussion of the Difficulties of Basic Income Experiments,” Karl Widerquist, CESifo Forum 19 (3), September 2018, 30-35.

[2] Jamie Condliffe, “In 2017, We Will Find out If a Basic Income Makes Sense,” MIT Technology Review, December 19 2016.

[3] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments.

[4] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments pp. 19-42.

[5] Karl Widerquist, 2005. “A Failure to Communicate: What (if Anything) Can We Learn From the Negative Income Tax Experiments?the Journal of Socio-Economics 34 (1): 49–81; Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments, pp. 43-56.

[6] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments, pp. 57-70.

[7] Ibid., pp. 77-92.

[8] Ibid., pp. 71-76.

[9] Ibid., pp. 11.

[10] Ibid., pp. 11.

[11] Ibid., pp. 12.

[12] Ibid., pp. 12.

[13] Ibid., pp. 12.

[14] Ibid., pp. 93-98.

[15] Ibid., pp. 99-114.

[16] Ibid., pp. 115-130.

[17] Ibid., pp. 141-144.

[18] Ibid., pp. 145-150.

[19] Ibid., pp. 12.

Basic Income March, New York, 2019

NAMIBIA: Wilfred Diergaardt Dies

Wilfred Diergaardt, a long-time leader of the Basic Income movement in Namibia, died of Covid-19 earlier this month. One December 22, Claudia and Dirk Haarmann, sent the following announcement of Dieragaardt’s death:

It is with a very sad heart that we have to share with you that this morning Rev. Wilfred Diergaardt passed on.

He has been a dear brother and comrade in the struggle for social justice in the Namibian Basic Income Grant campaign and in the fight against HIV-AIDS. His passing on leaves a devastating gap for his family, friends and society at large, which is currently beyond comprehension.

He was hospitalized with COVID-19 on the 8th of Dezember and was treated the last days in the ICU. His wife Cynthia informed us this morning and asked us to convey this sad news to you as colleagues and friends. Please keep her and the family in your prayers! 

You can reach her and the family at: blessingouma2014@gmail.com

Yours in Christ,

Claudia & Dirk

See also UEM mourns the death of Pastor Wilfred Diergaardt and Lutheran churches call for Basic Income Grant in Namibia.

Wilfred Diergaardt
BRAZIL: UBI Makes Progress

BRAZIL: UBI Makes Progress

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is making significant progress in Brazil, according to the following letter former Senator Eduardo Suplicy sent to leaders of BIEN. (See also: Maricá one step from Universal Basic Income):

my dear friends of BIEN:
 
Let me inform you what I consider another positive step in favor of the Citizen’s Basic Income, Universal and Unconditional. Yesterday we had municipal elections in all Brazilian cities.
As a candidate for being reelected citycouncilman I got 167.552 votes, the most voted candidate for a citycouncilman in the city of São Paulo or in any other city of Brazil.
 
It is also a very good news for the objectives of BIEN that the Mayor of Maricá, Fabiano Horta of the PT (Worker’s Party), who has started the institution of a Basic Income, has been reelected with 88% of the votes. Since December 2019, ¼ of the population of 162 thousand people, 42.500 inhabitants started to receive a Basic Income of 300 mumbucas per month, a social money (each mumbuca is equal to one real – each dollar is equal to R$ 5.42). By December 2020, ½ of the population will be receiving it and by 2024 the whole population of Maricá will be receiving the Citizen’s Basic Income.
 
I have already informed you that last July 21st, 220 federal deputies and senators formed the Parliamentary Front in Defense of the Basic Income. The President João Henrique Campos invited me to be the President of Honor due to the fact that I am the author of the Law 10.835/2004 that institutes, step by step, starting with those most in need, the Citizen’s Basic Income.
 
Therefore, Brazil is moving, step by step, towards  UBI.
 
My best regards, o abraço amigo,
 
Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy