Guy Standing has published a new book that became available on July 14, 2016, published by BiteBack.
The book notes that the implications of the Age of Rentier Capitalism go beyond the economic sphere as the plutocracy fund and influence political parties, while media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful individuals.The Corruption of Capitalism shows why, in the interests of democracy and our common wealth, the rise of rentier capitalism must be resisted. If it is not, we risk dire social and political consequences.
A summary from the publisher states: ”
There is a lie at the heart of global capitalism. Politicians, financiers and global bureaucrats claim to believe in free competitive markets, but have constructed the most unfree market system ever. It is corrupt because income is channelled to the owners of property – financial, physical and intellectual – at the expense of society.
This book reveals how global capitalism is rigged in favour of rentiers to the detriment of all of us, especially the precariat. A plutocracy and elite enriches itself, not through production of goods and services, but through ownership of assets, including intellectual property, aided by subsidies, tax breaks, debt mechanisms, revolving doors between politics and business, and the privatisation of public services. Rentier capitalism is entrenched by the corruption of democracy, manipulated by the plutocracy and an elite-dominated media.
Meanwhile, wages stagnate as labour markets are transformed by outsourcing, automation and the on-demand economy, generating more rental income while expanding the precariat.
The Corruption of Capitalism argues that rentier capitalism is fostering revolt, and concludes by outlining a new income distribution system that would achieve the extinction of the rentier while promoting sustainable growth.”
To view and pre-order the book online, visit: https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/the-corruption-of-capitalism
By Alexander de Roo
The 20th century was the century of social democracy in Western Europe. But nowadays the social democratic model of the welfare state is in deep crisis. This model — in which paid work is central, full (male) employment is the norm, and social benefits are dependent on performance in paid work — is no longer working and no longer appealing to voters.
The strong political position of social democracy in Western Europe has been based on the strength of labor unions. Economic changes, however, have accelerated the declining membership of unions. The strength of the various social democratic parties has thus been structurally eroded. Consumption and leisure time are becoming ever more important. These factors open the way for basic income as the economic model for the 21st century.
There is a strong relationship between the strength of the unions and the popularity of the Dutch Labor Party in national elections. In the chart below, the dotted line represents the strength of the unions, while the continuous line represents the strength of the Labor Party:
As you can see, there is a structural relationship between the strength of the unions and the electoral strength of the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA – the social democratic party of the Netherlands). The unions are slowly losing members in the Netherlands. The decline is largely due to structural changes in advanced economies. For example, total manufacturing employment in America has fallen from nearly 20 million in 1979 to 12 million today. The kinds of workers who have lost out — unskilled men, in particular — were precisely those who were most likely to belong to a union in the first place. And what has sprung up in their place further undermines unions. If you went to a factory in the 1970s, you would have seen assembly lines of people. Such workers were much more amenable to the idea of “class consciousness”. Go to a factory today and you might you find a few people monitoring robots and other whizzy bits of machinery. Add other economic changes to the mix — globalization (which makes it harder for unions to regulate work), the rise of a more flexible service sector and government policies — and the loss of union clout seems inevitable. More recent reforms to minimum wage and workplace discrimination have also reduced the need felt by individuals to belong to a union.
The decline of the Dutch Christian Democratic party
Additionally, the other political party essential to the construction of the Dutch welfare state, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), is in structural decline. Below, we see the electoral results of the CDA over the last 60 years – from an absolute majority in the 1950s and early 1960s to only 10 percent in the 2012 elections.
The blue line represents the three different Christian democratic parties in the Netherlands, which merged in 1980 to form the singular CDA – represented by the green line.
In the general election of 2006 — before the 2008 economic crisis — the CDA and the PvdA together had 46 percent of the vote. That proportion dropped to 32 percent in both the 2010 and 2012 national elections. Today, according to opinion polls, these two parties together command just over 20 percent of the vote. That is to say, the parties of the old social model have declined from 46 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2016, losing more than half their support in just 10 years.
Conclusion: Political support for the old welfare state, developed by the Labor Party and the Christian Democratic Appeal, along with the unions, has been completely eroded.
The Dutch Precariat: Almost 40 percent
“In the 21st century, technological changes are being introduced into economic and social life at a much faster pace than in the 20th century,” noted Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of Limits to Growth, in a 2012 lecture in Brussels.
One of the most important trends has been the rise of flexible work. This has been especially strong in the Netherlands. Today 20 percent of Dutch workers, amounting to 1.7 million people, are on flexible contracts. The increase seems unstoppable. Unions are demanding that politicians repair this state of affairs by restoring the old model of stable, regulated jobs through legislation.
Alongside the 1.7 million flex workers are 1.3 million people who are self-employed. At least 20 percent of these – 0.3 million people – became self-employed due to a lack of alternatives. The graph below shows the increase in flexible jobs over last 10 years, and the corresponding decrease in regular jobs. The blue bars signify the increase in the number of flex workers, while the brown bars indicate the change (usually negative) in the number of regular workers.
Additionally, there are 0.6 million people officially registered as unemployed, and 0.4 million who depend on social benefits (“Bij-stand” in Dutch). In total, 3 million people and their dependents form the Dutch precariat. Approximately 5 million people still have regular jobs – 10 percent fewer than 10 years ago. And automatization is threatening even these jobs. In the debate in The Netherlands, the position that the rise of the robots will lead to structural unemployment is still minor. However, studies like one from Oxford University show that approximately 50 percent of the jobs that exist today will no longer be secure in 20 years’ time (THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION? Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne; September 17, 2013).
Opportunities for basic income implementation are growing in the Netherlands
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo
The decline of the two old parties that built the Dutch welfare state, combined with the rise in number of the Dutch precariat, opens the way for a post-social democratic pathway. Basic income has the strongest card. In contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, large parts of the Dutch population are now receptive to the idea of basic income, given that the present welfare system is – in their eyes – no longer worth fighting for.
History of the basic income debate in the Netherlands
There was fierce debate about basic income in the 1980s and 90s in the Netherlands. The Dutch branch of BIEN, “Vereniging Basisinkomen”, was founded in 1989. Before that, an organization called “Workshop Basic Income” promoted the idea. The PvdA almost adopted basic income in its national election program in 1993 (with 40 percent in favor). Then, in 1994, there was a debate about basic income in the national government. On the side of basic income were the Minister of Economic Affairs, Hans Wijers (of Democrats 66, left wing liberals), and the Minister of Finance, Gerrit Zalm (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, right wing liberals). On the other side, the Prime Minister, Wim Kok (of the PvdA), argued successfully that basic income’s time had not yet come, claiming it to be a topic for 30 years down the line. The economic upswing of the early years of the new millennium subsequently overshadowed this discussion in the Netherlands.
The financial and economic crisis of 2008 changed the economic and political landscape. And, over the past three years, the basic income discussion has returned to the Netherlands, becoming much more intense than it was 25 years ago.
Even with the recent economic upswing, the old status quo — under which almost all adult citizens had a secure, regular job — is history. A new scheme of social security is urgently necessary. The general public recognizes this.
National poll: 40 percent in favor; 15 percent don’t know; 45 percent against basic income
In a recent national poll, 40 percent of the Dutch population declared themselves to be in favor of a basic income, with 45 percent against and 15 percent expressing uncertainty. The voters of the three left wing parties are in favor, with their endorsement breaking down as follows: GreenLeft 60 percent, the Socialist Party 54 percent, and PvdA 53 percent.
The votes of Democrats 66 are divided, with 44 percent in favor and 45 percent against. The followers of the right wing parties, by contrast, are quite clearly against basic income: 73 percent against in People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, and 61 percent against in CDA. It is interesting to note that voters of the populist right wing Party for Freedom, headed by Geert Wilders, are also divided, with 37 percent in favor, 46 percent against and 17 percent uncertain. The Party for Freedom is the biggest party in current polls.
When we hand out our basic income leaflets to the general public, about 50 percent of people take the pamphlet and react positively, while the other half ignores us. Several times a young couple, arm in arm, would pass me – the young man would nod that he was not interested, but the young woman would leave him to walk back and collect a leaflet! We have lively discussions with the public. Even young people who were not alive 25 years ago, when that first debate raged, have already a very good idea of what basic income is. I have been active in politics for 42 years and I have never encountered so much enthusiasm.
Free money for everyone
The return of the basic income idea to the Dutch debate has been invigorated by a book by the young historian Rutger Bregman (only 28 years of age), Gratis Geld voor Iedereen (Free Money for Everyone), which was published in September 2014, along with a few national television documentaries. Bregman’s influential book on basic income is now available in English, under the title Utopia for Realists.
Petition for the Dutch parliament
A petition to put basic income on the agenda of the Dutch parliament gathered 50,000 signatures over a couple of months. The intention is to generate 100,000 signatures by autumn so that basic income can play a role in the election campaign for the Dutch national elections in March 2017.
Local experiments with basic income
Several basic income experiments are planned in the Netherlands. Nineteen municipalities have officially declared their willingness to initiate such an experiment to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. Utrecht, Groningen, Tilburg and Wageningen were the first four to do so, and they are currently in conversation with the State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment in order to establish the necessary space in the law. These experiments will not comprise trials of a full basic income, even though many are based on the idea of a basic income. Instead, elements of a basic income are to be implemented in these experiments within the rubric of the current Dutch minimum welfare scheme (“Bij-stand”). More precisely, for the experiment participants, allowances will be made unconditional, allowing recipients of the minimum welfare to earn money simultaneously and thereby removing the currently existing poverty trap.
Various questions will be addresed by these experiments:
- Will people become more active if they are free to do what they want, as compared to the present situation under which they must apply for jobs and be policed?
- Will people become more autonomous?
- Will people become healthier?
- Will people be quicker to participate in paid work if they are allowed to earn in addition to receiving their allowance?
A large majority of the parliament is in favor of the experiments, but the details are still under discussion nationally, and there is a legal process that must be completed. If all goes well, the first experiments will start in January 2017.
Why have the experiments not yet started? Will there be 25 experiments in 2017?
The experiments should have already started, in fact, but the national government is very slow in giving the green light. The Dutch GreenLeft asked the national parliament in November 2015 to clear the way for these experiments. Fifteen of the 17 political groups in the national parliament said yes, with only Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Prime Minister Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy saying no. According to the latest update, the government is now working on an administrative decree which will allow the 25 most advanced municipalities to start their experiments in January 2017. That is likely to annoy the other 50 municipalities that also wish to initiate their own experiments.
Since the national elections are set for March 17th, 2017, this issue will most likely play a role in the national election campaign. It is likely that the left wing parties (GreenLeft, PvdA and, perhaps, the Socialist Party) will put forward demands for a Finnish-style experiment of basic income during the 2007 national election. One small party, the Cultural Liberal Party, is already advocating for the introduction of a basic income of €800 in the Netherlands.
Funding of basic income should be based on consumption rather than labor
The Dutch branch of BIEN has developed a model to raise VAT and environmental taxes, while removing most tax exemptions, to fund a basic income of €1100 per person. In the long run, this amount should be increased to €1400. The option of a small tax on financial transactions is also of interest in this regard. We oppose models that would fund basic income solely on an increase of taxes on labor. The Dutch Central Planning Bureau did just that in 2006, resulting in 56 percent income tax for everyone and a five percent increase in unemployment. We are instead fighting for a new calculation based on increasing consumption taxes so as to make it clear to the public that a basic income is (easily) affordable.
Alexander de Roo (firstname.lastname@example.org) was one of the founding fathers of BIEN and served as BIEN’s treasurer from 1986-2006. He studied chemical technology in Delft (1972-1978) and political science in Amsterdam (1976-1982), and was a GreenLeft Member of the European Parliament from 1999-2004.
Alexander de Roo photo credit: Bill Crompton.
Content reviewed by Genevieve Shanahan and Kate McFarland.
As the US Presidential race heats up, most of the candidates have already made their opinions known regarding Universal Basic Income. Regardless, it is imperative that the United States fund new basic income pilot programs to test how a basic income would affect the current economy.
The United States experimented with a type of basic income in the 1960s and 70s, but it is time to collect new data. This is the first step toward implementing a full UBI in the United States.
Recent pilot programs throughout the world, such as in India, have given the basic income movement ammunition to push its message, showing improved educational, health and entrepreneurial outcomes. A pilot program in the United States would show policymakers that a basic income is far superior to our outdated bureaucratic safety net.
Sign this petition to ask all of the US presidential candidates to take a pledge to fund basic income pilot programs throughout the country.
An article on basic income appeared in The Hindu newspaper recently and is potentially significant because it was written by a Member of Parliament in the ruling BJP party. Does it reflect possible government policy? No one, including Varun Gandhi, is telling. Moreover, what he means by the “need to talk about basic income” is anyone’s guess.
The article is a bit of a mish-mash of history in North America, but also includes reference to the cash transfer pilots in India. Gandhi makes the usual mention of the 1970s Canadian experiment in Manitoba with a negative income tax, but I think interested readers should examine the more recent work of Evelyn L. Forget, the author of the oft-cited study “The Town with No Poverty: The Health Effects of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiment.” (The 2008 draft version of this article has an extended discussion of the history of the idea in North America. However, the draft isn’t available on ResearchGate.)
At the University of Manitoba, Dr. Forget has a project that asks the question, “Is MINCOME useful in the development of a Basic Income pilot in Ontario and elsewhere?” She points out that the sociopolitical environment, research methods and policy context are all different now than they were in the 1970s and demanding a critical examination of the relevance of the old experiment.
From her ResearchGate site you can download an April 2016 presentation prepared for a symposium on UBI pilot design for the Ontario government. You might also access the following valuable documents: “Cash Transfers, Basic Income and Community Building,” and “The Experiment that Could End Welfare.”
Mr. Gandhi’s piece extols the virtues of a basic income but overstates his case in a number of areas—village sanitation, access to drinking water, growth of rural employment and the national economy, and the pursuit of happiness. He even makes the startling declaration that with respect to automation and the threat to work “the basic income stands out as a panacea”. With such statements you might wonder if he’s being serious, or aware that he could inadvertently be discrediting the idea with extravagant claims.
India presents complex development challenges and it’s not clear that a basic income is the best or only approach. For example, Joseph Stiglitz, who generally supports the idea of a basic income, argues that targeting the needy is a necessary trade-off when public budgets are tight. And, I wonder, when aren’t they tight?
India is home to more than one-third of the world’s stunted children. If current trends continue, by 2030 India will have the world’s highest global burden of under-five year old deaths (17 percent). It has more poor people in absolute numbers in eight states than the 26 poorest sub Saharan countries combined. The main reason for extreme poverty in rural areas lies in the still largely agrarian economy and its very low productivity due to small landholdings and underemployed farming labor. Droughts have also taken their toll. People resort to informal agricultural work because there is no alternative, or landowners need to supplement their incomes and join the landless in seeking wage labor. It is estimated that 5.5 percent of a country’s GDP will be required to provide education for all by 2030, yet in 2012, India invested 3.9 percent. Corruption is endemic.
With such a constellation of issues, interventions can quickly get complicated, producing tensions between targeted transfer approaches and universal approaches. Nutrition is one example. Pakistan is modifying its unconditional cash transfer program (the Benazir Income Support Program) so that it can better respond to—read target— the nutritional needs of women and children.
India currently addresses the underlying determinants of nutrition—food security, rural livelihoods, and sanitation—with a smorgasbord of programs that include the Public Distribution System, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), and the Swachh Bharat Mission. These centrally sponsored programs are then delivered by state governments, where there are risks of corruption or of states simply not prioritizing nutrition.
Others argue that without targeting for health, households will not get around to malnutrition or education. At the same time, studies confirm that health deficiencies lead to cognitive deficits and experts recommend that health and cognition be addressed in tandem to potentially reinforce each other.
But out-of-pocket health expenditures, especially for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) can impoverish Indian households. A recent systematic review of the global impact of NCDs on household income (Jaspers et al., 2015) found that cardiovascular disease (CVD) patients in India spent 30 percent of their annual family income on direct CVD health care.
Finally, providing equal amounts of finance on a per pupil basis is not necessarily a formula for equitable education funding. For children who enter an education system with disadvantages associated with poverty, gender, disability or ethnicity, more resources may be needed to achieve opportunities equivalent to those enjoyed by more privileged children.
As they say in India about so many things, what to do?
More information at:
Jaspers, Loes, Veronica Colpani, Layal Chaker, Sven J. van der Lee, Taulant Muka, David Imo, Shanthi Mendis, et al. 2015. “The Global Impact of Non-Communicable Diseases on Households and Impoverishment: A Systematic Review.” European Journal of Epidemiology 30 (3): 163–88
Feroze Varun Gandhi, “Why we need to talk about a basic income”. The Hindu, June 30th 2016
The following is a critical response to Brookings’ “Money for nothing: Why a universal basic income is a step too far,” by Isabel Sawhill.
Isabel Sawhill wrote a short essay about basic income, arguing that it may be a step too far. To me, what has been “too far” is precisely this present day Kafkaesque system of oppression, where poverty runs rampant (even in the so-called “rich” countries), levels of inequality are breaking records, all while societal and environmental stress reach all-time highs. Nonetheless, the article deserves a response because Sawhill manages to aggregate the most common criticisms/preconceptions regarding basic income: that we cannot afford it, that the wealthiest should not be “helped” and that without obligation people do not meaningfully contribute to society (a nuance on the trendy “people will just be lazy” argument).
So let us deconstruct each of these arguments.
“(…) logic is inescapable: either we have to spend additional trillions providing income grants to all Americans or we have to limit assistance to those who need it most.”
This logic is not inescapable. In fact, it is wrong. Financing a basic income does not just amount to thinking of an amount for the grant (say $1000 per month), multiplying it by the country’s population (319 million people) and then paying the bill (in this case, $319 billion per month, or $3.828 trillion per year). That is very bad math. A more sensible tax policy will transfer a part of the taxes collected from the relatively wealthier to those relatively poorer. Actually, the former will be net-payers of basic income, and the latter will be net-receivers of basic income. Depending on the taxation levels at a certain moment in time, this redistribution of income can even be done without any supplementary cost.
Another fallacy is this idea that a basic income could “limit assistance to those who need it most”. How would that even be possible, if the basic income is enough for basic human needs, and is universal and unconditional? Would it not then provide the assistance to those in need?1 It will, but only in a much better way than in the present system: it would do it without policing, without stigmatizing, without controlling and with much less bureaucracy. In fact, part of the money necessary to finance basic income will come from savings in conditional social assistance grants that have become obsolete, mainly because beneficiaries no longer meet their requirements (mostly means-tests). Furthermore, there are too many targeted social safety net policies in the US, which nevertheless fail to effectively eradicate poverty. In an analysis by Karl Widerquist, around 7 percent of workers live in poverty, as do 22 percent of children. The idea is that basic income can circumvent all of these conditional assistance programs, providing universal unconditional support, and reducing social assistance complexity, bureaucracy and cost.
“One option is to provide unconditional payments along the lines of a UBI, but to phase it out as income rises”
As long as one looks at basic income as an income redistribution scheme, this is just stating the obvious. As income rises, and taxes paid also rise, then on a net basis people will of course be paying for basic income, not receiving.
“Liberals fear that such unconditional assistance would be unpopular and would be an easy target for elimination in the face of budget pressures.”
Fear has never been a wise consultant, but, philosophy aside, there is no evidence that basic income would be unpopular in the US, even considering the precocious opposition from leading political figures. Plus, in the face of budgetary pressures, I do not see why basic income would be any more likely to be subject to cuts or to be targeted for elimination compared to other social security policies. Actually, as a wider policy than targeted programs, and one that would make some of these targeted programs obsolete, basic income would likely be more difficult to eliminate since more would be at stake (in comparison to just losing a tax benefit or food stamps eligibility).
“(…) poor and jobless are lacking more than just cash. They may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, suffer from mental health issues, have criminal records, or have difficulty functioning in a complex society. Money may be needed but money by itself does not cure such ills.”
Now let’s think a bit about this. What can bring on addiction or addictive behaviours? What can cause mental health issues? What can lead to criminal behaviour?
Addictions may come into a person’s life for a multitude of reasons: past traumas, family issues, health problems, professional pressure…and poverty. Poverty has been extensively shown (ex.: A primer on Social Problems, Effects of Poverty) to be a generator of many social problems, including malnutrition, health issues, economic distress and crime. So it is obvious that poverty bears a feedback relation to trauma, family unrest, health and professional pressure, although it is not the only cause of social ills — rich people also share some of society’s problems. Addiction specialists, like Katarzyna Gajewska, are also not convinced that basic income can have an exacerbating effect on addictive behaviour, due to its multifaceted nature. Meanwhile, no basic income trial test to date has found significant increases in the use of addictive substances due to unconditional cash transfers (Scott Santens, 2016). As for mental health issues, in fact, the Canadian “Mincome” experiment has found a correlation between basic income and reduced hospitalizations due to mental illness, as described in the relatively recent report by Evelyn Forget. And as for crime, hard data from the basic income pilot study in Namibia has shown a 42 percent decrease in the crime rate attributable to the distribution of an unconditional basic income for nine months.
Somehow Isabel resists the idea of a basic income on the grounds that it stems from a flawed assumption that money alone can cure society. But, looking at this evidence from the “cause” perspective, lack of money – that is poverty – is indeed at least partially causing these problems of addiction, mental illness and crime. And so money, although not a cure in itself, is bound to substantially reduce these social illnesses.
“A humane and wealthy society should provide the disadvantaged with adequate services and support. But there is nothing wrong with making assistance conditional on individuals fulfilling some obligation whether it is work, training, getting treatment, or living in a supportive but supervised environment.”
There is, actually, something wrong about a conditional social programs. Social Security in the US is very complex, particularly due to means-tested criteria. Plus, there is evidence that social security programs can lead to stigmatization (to which political and media discourse also contributes in an important way). Moreover, the worry that people will just stop working without a work obligation is unfounded – all basic income experiments to date have shown little to no work reduction on average. That’s despite the fact that most research tells us that people work too much (particularly in the US), and that is a bad thing generally. So a cut in average worked hours would actually be welcomed. And this is not even discussing the type of work performed (useful or not, meaningful or not, benefiting society or not).
“In the end, the biggest problem with a universal basic income may not be its costs or its distributive implications, but the flawed assumption that money cures all ills.“
Indeed. Money is not everything. But too many people suffer the consequences of not having enough of it on a daily basis (around 24 million in the USA alone), which is totally unnecessary and utterly avoidable. And while not having enough money makes people stressed and desperate to find more of it just to meet their basic needs, they are not enjoying the non-monetary parts of life: quality time with family and friends, leisure, acquiring meaningful knowledge, participating in public/cultural life, volunteering and so on.
More information at:
Isabel Sawhill, 2016. “Money for nothing: why a basic income is a step too far”, Brookings, June 15th 2016
Steven E. Barkan, 2012. “A primer on social problems”, Creative Commons 3.0 licence, November 29th 2012
Scott Santens, 2016. “Universal basic income is the best tool to fight poverty”, February 6th 2016
Evelyn L. Forget, 2011. “The town without poverty”, February 2011
Tyler Prochazka, 2016. “Beyond temptation: scholar discusses addiction and basic income”, January 28th 2016
Claudia and Dirk Haarmann, 2015. “Relief through cash – impact assessment of the emergency cash grant in Namibia”, July 2015
Karen Rowlingson, 2011. “Both inequality and poverty cause health and social problems – they are forces that need to be tackled together”, September 22nd 2011
Anup Shah, 2014. “Causes of Poverty”, September 28th 2014
Kate Bell, 2013. “Poverty, social security and stigma”, Poverty nº144 10-13 (Child Poverty Action Group)
Sarath Green Carmichael, 2015. “The research is clear: long hours backfire for people and for companies”, August 19th 2015
1 – That’s not to say that special needs would not be attended to, like disabilities or disease supplements. For those special needs, basic income just needs to be topped up with an extra amount which can satisfy them.
The editorial below is a response to Pranab Bardhan’s “Could a Basic Income Help Poor Countries?”
Pranab Bardhan is a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Writing on the Project Syndicate website, he is skeptical about a universal basic income in rich countries, but asks if it isn’t both fiscally feasible and socially desirable in poor countries.
Comparing applicability of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) between advanced and low-or middle-income countries, Bardhan argues that there is a better fit where “the poverty threshold is low and existing social safety nets are both threadbare and expensive to administer.” His response to his own question is still cautious. “In India,” he says, “the answer could be yes.”
Unfortunately, his argument is muddled. He correctly diagnoses the administrative chaos that is India, and identifies sources of funding for a UBI in subsidies and tax exemptions that could be ended. At the same time, he warns that existing key social welfare programs cannot all be eliminated, nor should the government get out of the business of public education, health care, preschool nutrition or employment guarantees in public works. In effect, a UBI would supplement existing programs and thereby loses its rationale as a reducer of bureaucracy.
Bardhan also paints a contradictory picture of the results, describing it as both a “reasonable basic income”, yet “severely limited,” which is why other social welfare programs can’t be discontinued. And ignoring the ample evidence to the contrary from cash transfer experiments in India, he says there is “no way to ensure that individuals would allocate enough of it to achieve socially desirable education, health or nutrition levels.”
Apparently agreeing with “prominent advanced-country economists” who warn that a UBI is “blatantly unaffordable,” Bardhan uses the United States as an example. He writes that an annual payment of $10,000 per adult would “exhaust almost all federal tax revenue, under the current system,”, and suggests that this sort of arithmetic explains the failure of the Swiss UBI referendum last month.
Invoking the specter of affordability to end debate on UBI is reminiscent of earlier and now discredited arguments that it is too expensive to do anything about climate change, which is tantamount to saying our world is short of wealth, so “Say goodnight, Gracie.”
The Global Commission on Economy and Climate makes the evidence-based argument that climate-smart cities can spur economic growth and a better quality of life—at the same time as cutting carbon pollution. Recent research (from economists, no less) has found that investing in compact, connected, and efficient cities will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate global energy savings with a current value of US $17 trillion by 2050 (Gouldson et al., 2015).
To these savings can be added reduced pollution impacts and costs. In 2013, the World Bank conducted its first-ever economic assessment of environmental degradation in India and reported the amount to be 5.7% of the country’s GDP (World Bank, 2013). And in another first-of-its-kind study conducted in 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that air pollution-related illnesses and mortalities cost $1.7 trillion annually in OECD countries, $1.4 trillion in China, and $0.5 trillion in India (WHO Regional Office for Europe, OECD, 2015).
And then there is inequality. The global inequality crisis is reaching new depths, with the richest 1% now having more wealth than the rest of the world combined. The wealth of the richest 62 people on the planet rose by 45% in the five years since 2010 to $1.76 trillion, while the wealth of the bottom half fell by just over a trillion dollars in the same period—a drop of 38% (Oxfam et al., 2016). Meanwhile the tiny elite at the top is using its power and privilege to manipulate the economic system to further concentrate returns to capital.
Paying taxes is not high on the agenda of the absurdly wealthy, and the use of tax havens and other tax-dodging practices afflicts countries of all income levels, even the poorest. It is estimated that tax dodging by multinational corporations costs developing countries some $100 billion annually, and a global network of tax havens enables the richest individuals globally to hide $7.6 trillion. As taxes go unpaid due to widespread avoidance (with political approval and support), government budgets shrink and vital public services and social programs are diminished. Levying higher taxes on less wealthy segments of society just hurts the poor and makes inequality worse.
Despite Professor Bardhan’s quick dismissal, the United States would seem to be a good test case for UBI. For a number of reasons, the country has been characterized as an outlier among developed nations. It is one of the richest in the world, but among wealthy nations it has the highest income inequality. It has high private but low public social spending, with vast differences within the country as a result of states’ rights under federalism. Public expenditures have tended to shift toward the disabled and elderly, and away from those with the lowest incomes—consistent with a widespread belief that people are poor because of laziness or lack of incentive. Tony Judt’s rejoinder is, “Anyone who thinks that the poor like living on a pittance should try it.”
There is bipartisan aversion to taxes, especially among the rich — it is difficult to imagine how much worse income inequality might be had the United States spent even less on reducing poverty. Progressive taxation that would redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor is political anathema, and taxation is increasingly regressive—the poor pay higher effective tax rates than the rich. Enforcing tax avoidance and tax evasion is correspondingly weak.
It is one of the richest nations in the world, and yet among the 35 wealthiest countries it has the second highest child poverty rate (Adamson, UNICEF, and Innocenti Research Centre, 2012). More than one in five children is food insecure, and nearly one-third of U.S. children are in a household where neither parent holds full-time, year-round employment. The cost of child poverty in economic and educational outcomes has been recently estimated to be half a trillion dollars a year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (Coley, J. and Baker, 2013).
Reducing child poverty seems sufficient in itself to justify a UBI experiment. Not only would public social assistance costs fall, but families with more income are better able to purchase nutritious meals and better housing, and support child development with higher quality family relationships and parental interactions. Some observers warn that current poverty levels combined with the growing wealth gap threaten to destabilize the US democracy and curtail the social and economic mobility of children for generations to come (Coley, J. and Baker, 2013).
Professor Bardhan would also have found money for UBI just by crossing the Berkeley campus. His colleagues at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) published a research brief in 2015, titled The High Public Cost of Low Wages: Poverty-Level Wages Cost U.S. Taxpayers $152.8 Billion Each Year in Public Support for Working Families.
Over the past three decades the share of income going to labor has been declining in most countries around the world, while the capital share has been rising. Unemployment is part of the problem. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that over 201 million people were unemployed around the world in 2014, an increase of over 31 million since the start of the global financial crisis. The ILO reports that this trend is common in all regions of the world, despite an overall trend of improved educational attainment. At the same time, wages are not keeping up with the productivity of workers. In the US between 1973 and 2014, net productivity grew by 72.2 percent, yet inflation-adjusted hourly pay for the median worker rose by just 8.7 percent. (Oxfam et al., 2016).
As the authors of the IRLE research brief point out, when jobs don’t pay enough workers turn to public assistance to meet their basic needs. These programs provide vital support to millions of working families in the United States whose employers pay less than a living wage. The researchers found that between 2009 and 2011, more than half of the combined state and federal spending on public assistance went to working families—a total of $152.8 billion per year. “Overall, higher wages and employer provided health care would lower both state and federal public assistance costs, and allow all levels of government to better target how their tax dollars are used” (Jacobs, Perry, and MacGillvary, 2015).
Next stop for UBI, the United States.
Adamson, Peter, UNICEF, and Innocenti Research Centre. 2012. Measuring Child Poverty New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.
Coley, J., Richard, and Bruce Baker. 2013. Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, Center for Research on Human Capital and Education.
Gouldson, A. P., S. Colenbrander, A. Sudmant, N. Godfrey, J. Millward-Hopkins, W. Fang, and X. Zhao. 2015. “Accelerating Low Carbon Development in the World’s Cities.”
Jacobs, Ken, Ian Perry, and Jenifer MacGillvary. 2015. “The High Public Cost of Low Wages: Poverty-Level Wages Cost U.S. Taxpayers $152.8 Billion Each Year in Public Support for Working Families.” Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
Oxfam, Deborah Hardoon, Sophia Ayele, and Ricardo Fuentes Nieva. 2016. An Economy for the 1%: How Privilege and Power in the Economy Drive Extreme Inequality and How This Can Be Stopped. Briefing Paper 210. Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International.
WHO Regional Office for Europe, OECD. 2015. “Economic Cost of the Health Impact Air Pollution in Europe: Clean Air, Health and Wealth.” WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.
World Bank. 2013. “India-Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges: An Analysis of Physical and Monetary Losses of Environmental Health and Natural Resources.” World Bank.