As US presidential candidate Andrew Yang continues to outperform expectations, his signature policy proposal, the Freedom Dividend or Universal Basic Income (UBI), is receiving increased scrutiny. Some of the criticisms are well warranted, while others are misconceptions based on a flawed understanding of how basic income would operate.
The following addresses some of the primary misconceptions regarding Yang’s plan.
UBI is too expensive
The cost issue is one of the most persistent misconceptions about basic income.
A basic income system would have a built-in clawback through the tax system. In Yang’s case, a portion of the clawback comes through the opt-in system that would substitute cash-like welfare programs for the Freedom Dividend, such as food assistance. However, most of the burden of the clawback would be on the wealthiest families who would pay more in taxes than they could receive from basic income
As I have noted previously, the UBI clawback can be both direct and indirect. For example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires families to pay back some or all of their healthcare subsidies at the end of the year if their yearly income exceeds a certain amount. A UBI system can similarly create a phase-out in the income tax system.
Considering Yang’s Freedom Dividend is opt-in, it is likely that many wealthy families would not opt to receive the dividend anyway.
Indirect clawback mechanisms could include Yang’s proposed Value Added Tax (VAT). The VAT is effectively a national sales tax, meaning even lower-income people would pay back a portion of their basic income depending on how much they spend their dividend on taxed goods.
Yang has said he would exclude many essential items from the VAT, though. Calculations show the VAT combined with UBI would have a net positive effect on purchasing power for low-income individuals.
Any taxes paid on the UBI would be used for the following year’s dividend, meaning much of the money is repeatedly recycled through the system. The additional amount that is redistributed to lower-income families is called the “net cost” or real cost of basic income. The net cost is the amount the government would actually redistribute every year under UBI.
Factoring the clawback, the real cost of basic income to the government would be approximately $539 billion annually, according to Georgetown Professor Karl Widerquist. This is less than 25 percent of existing entitlement spending.
UBI would have the same cost as a Negative Income Tax (NIT) when factoring the clawback, but the sticker price of the gross cost creates a false impression of a higher cost for UBI. NIT is not universal — it only provides the subsidy to those who qualify, making the cost appear lower than UBI. When I asked Yang whether he would support NIT to avoid the cost misconception, he said NIT would be a step in the right direction.
UBI would cause inflation
The inflation misconception has been around for many years, but it has become more convincingly debunked since I first wrote about it nearly three years ago.
It is essential to note that Yang’s plan is redistributing existing cash, not printing new cash. For every dollar spent, there must be a dollar taxed first, which would offset inflationary pressures.
As Karl Widerquist noted, basic income is no different than other welfare programs in terms of increasing demand for goods. Denmark has one of the most generous welfare states in the world, but they also consistently experience a low and stable inflation rate below two percent.
In the United States, food assistance, which can be freely spent like cash on most food items, has not produced inflation in food prices. On the contrary, research from the London School of Economics shows in states with higher take-up of food stamp assistance, prices have dropped and there is greater product variety relative to those areas with lower food assistance take-up. This is because suppliers respond to increased demand with more competition entering the market.
Thus, the guaranteed demand from basic income could generate higher levels of competition that brings down costs for low-income people.
In Alaska, which has a small Universal Basic Income funded by oil revenues, inflation has been lower than the U.S. average since the program started. Other research in Mexico demonstrates that directly giving cash does not produce inflation.
Since the United States is a globalized market, any short term demand spike creates an economic profit that is resolved by increased production, bringing the price down in the long-run.
In fact, the United States is experiencing unusually low levels of inflation. Contributing factors could include the Amazon.com effect, automation, immigration, and global trade. Basic income would not change these underlying factors keeping a hold on inflation.
The main area where there could be meaningful inflation in the medium term is the cost of rent because there is a fixed supply of land.
Basic income could empower more people to move and find other options. Renters would have a better bargaining position with their landlord if they had a guaranteed dividend than if they are desperately clinging to their job.
In the long-run, greater purchasing power from low-income people should induce more homebuilding and open up a greater share of unoccupied housing. That said, the high cost of rent exists now in many areas and should be addressed as a separate policy issue.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any inflation from UBI could completely wipe out the improved purchasing power from the dividend, let alone make people worse off.
UBI would cause laziness
The problem of laziness is one of the most thoroughly debunked misconceptions about UBI. Among those who closely study cash transfers, many no longer consider labor participation an interesting research question because the results consistently show no effect. Those who have read the relevant research and are still convinced that basic income causes laziness will likely never be persuaded otherwise.
As I reported in 2016, “The Overseas Development Institute just released the largest meta-analysis of cash transfer programs ever, spanning 15 years of data and 165 studies. The main takeaway is that studies show a consistent reduction in poverty measures. Perhaps an even more important conclusion is that most evidence showed an increase in work participation after receiving the basic income.”
Many specific examples from across the developmental spectrum corroborate the conclusion that basic income would not meaningfully reduce work. In Finland’s basic income experiment, there was no negative effect on work. Iran’s generous basic income did not reduce overall work but did cause some young people to substitute their time for more schooling. In Alaska, their partial basic income did not reduce overall work. On the contrary, Alaska’s basic income increased part-time work due to the increased demand generated by a basic income.
With a permanent basic income, there is reason to believe that a healthier and more productive labor market will emerge. For example, the Finland experiment showed basic income recipients were happier and more trusting overall. Many polls indicate that individuals would use the basic income to gain additional skills, spend time with family, volunteer, and engage in freelancing.
If the poor are no longer clinging to a job for survival, they can more freely find a job where they can be the most productive. They will also have more bargaining power to demand better working environments.
Most importantly, basic income would allow greater time and mental energy to be focused on the most important job in society: caregiving. Volunteering and caregiving provide enormous economic and societal benefits that are not recorded in GDP because they are typically unpaid.
Basic income gives people the right to say no to exploitation. But the most revolutionary aspect of UBI is that it finally gives everyone the opportunity to yes to their passions.
By JOHN MCCONE
Basic income has many advantages over means-tested benefits: no processing times (with funding gaps where people can be left homeless); no restrictions on freedom; less disincentive to work; and a higher credit value to raise loans at lower interest compared to means-tested benefits. Overall the reliability, unconditionality and lack of bureaucracy makes basic income the dream benefit to receive.
But while basic income may be the dream benefit for recipients, it is a budgetary nightmare for those funding it. Whichever way you run the numbers, a given tax revenue distributed evenly throughout society will provide the most needy with less than if they were the sole recipients. This typically causes enthusiasm for basic income to wane as policy makers consider the practicalities of budgeting for it.
Is there any way for society to reap the benefits of a universal basic income while reducing its cost? What if basic income was restricted to those who live in the countryside (who don’t regularly commute to the city)? Most developed countries today are highly urbanised with 70% or more of their populations living in cities (82.6% in the U.K. in 2015). A rural basic income would cost the taxpayer 3 to 5 times less than a universal basic income and leave room in the budget for means-tested benefits to the needy.
While a basic income limited to rural inhabitants would not be universally distributed, it would be universally available. Anyone could move to the countryside and automatically receive it. This would close any gaps in the benefits system and ensure that those who were truly desperate but did not qualify – or understand how to apply – for means-tested benefits could always move to the countryside and immediately receive a rural basic income. The countryside is very different from the city due to different ways of life. People in the city are more likely to go to the gym, whereas, those in the countryside are more like to go shooting or become a collector. You could learn more about shooting, accessories (red dot sight) and insurance at Sniper Country in case you wanted to give it ago!
In addition to reducing the budget, distributing a basic income to rural locations, where land rents are minimized, maximizes its impact. All a person really needs is food, shelter and water. Low rents make shelter less expensive as well as providing land where people can cheaply grow food. We often overlook the amount of extra time that otherwise unemployed people have compared to salaried workers which, given the right tools and resources, they can apply to provide for themselves. Thus, a basic income does not necessarily have to be large enough to enable people to purchase their material needs from retailers (e.g. groceries, restaurants); it must only be sufficient to give people access to the capital they need (e.g. fertilizer, greenhouses, farm tools) to apply their own labour to produce what they need for themselves. So low land rents have a huge impact on the cost of self-provision.
Given two choices people usually choose the more preferable option. If the goods that can be procured with a given amount of effort from a lifestyle in the countryside are greater than the goods that an identical effort in the city can procure, then people will tend to move to the countryside. It is perfectly possible that the quality of life that working in nature, with low rent payments and a solid basic income of £5,000 (front-loaded with a low interest loan to buy, say, a log cabin) in the countryside might be better than a precarious salary of £20,000 and a 2 hour daily commute in a high rent area of the city. If this is the case, all those with lower salaries than £20,000 will leave for the countryside creating labour scarcity and increasing the salary of unskilled labour to £20,000. Thus, a relatively modest basic income in an area where money is scarce and the cost of living low could exert a highly leveraged effect on salaries in areas where the cost of living is high and money is plentiful.
Beyond raising wages, giving everyone the option to provide for themselves in nature, as opposed to working for somebody else, will strengthen the negotiating position of employees across the board. Managers will have to struggle to retain their workers, this struggle will produce more satisfying jobs and a more fulfilling work environment. A scarcity of labour will also mean that jobs in the city will be easily available to anyone who wants to take them. Furthermore, even a small number of people heading for the countryside will leave a surplus of un-rented accommodation. This in turn will make rents more affordable.
From this we can see that, not only is a rural basic income an affordable way to conveniently pay benefits to those who choose to move to the countryside, but it will also indirectly increase wages, employment and job satisfaction in the city along with lowering rents. A rural basic income could thus affordably improve the lives of everyone.
Author of The Countryside Living Allowance (Link: https://www.blurb.co.uk/b/8487802-the-countryside-living-allowance)
In the May 23, 2017 edition of Basic Income News, Karl Widerquist laments the tendency of some basic income commentators to overstate the cost of a basic income. The typical methodology used to generate these overestimates is as follows:
- Obtain the population of the jurisdiction which will implement a basic income
- Obtain the amount of the basic income provided to each person in that jurisdiction
- Multiply the number in “a” by the number in “b”
- The product referred to in “c” is the cost of a basic income
As Widerquist points out, the reason this is an overestimate is that it fails to consider the fact that even though everyone would receive the amount referred to in “b” above, not everyone would be net beneficiaries of this amount.
Suppose the amount referred to in “b” were $10,000, meaning that under a basic income scheme, everyone would receive $10,000 per year. But in every basic income proposal I’ve seen, although the basic income wouldn’t officially be taxed, all other income would be. This means that at some income level, there would be those who’d owe at least $10,000 in their annual tax bill. Since the amount they’d owe in taxes would be at least as large as the $10,000 basic income, they would no longer be net beneficiaries. Their basic income would, in effect, have been taxed back from them. Under a basic income scheme, there would also be those who’d be net beneficiaries of a basic income but not of the full $10,000 amount. All of this might be easier to see if we did a bit of math.
Again, assume that our basic income comes out to $10,000 per year per person. Suppose all other income is taxed at a marginal rate of 25%. The use of one rate is to keep things relatively simple. Here is the key equation for the basic income system being described in this paragraph:
Net Income = $10,000 + (1 – .25) * Other Income
Now let’s play with this equation a bit. Suppose someone had no other income. We’d then end up multiplying $0 by (1 – .25) which would give us $0. And $0 + $10,000 would mean this person would end up with a net income of $10,000. That is, they’d be a net recipient of the full basic income benefit level.
Now consider someone with other income of $30,000. Multiplying $30,000 by (1 – .25), we end up with $22,500. Once we add this to the $10,000 basic income, they’d end up with a net income of $32,500. Let’s look more closely at what’s happened here. The person made $30,000 in other income. If they didn’t have to pay taxes, we’d have (1 – 0), which is just 1, instead of (1 – .25). So they’d keep all $30,000 plus the $10,000 basic income for a net income of $40,000.
Looked at this way, we see that the tax on other income is effectively a tax on the basic income as well. That is, the fact that the person with $30,000 in other income only ends up with a net income $32,500 instead of $40,000 means that $7,500 of their basic income has been taxed back to the government.
Next, let’s take a look at what happens to someone with other income of $40,000.
We’d have to multiply (1 – .25) times $40,000, ending up with $30,000. And $30,000 + $10,000 is a net income of $40,000. If this person paid no taxes on other income, we’d add their $40,000 in other income to the $10,000 basic income for a net income of $50,000. With taxation, their actual net income is $10,000 less than $50,000. That is, we’ve taxed back all $10,000 of their basic income. So this person would no longer be a net recipient of the basic income.
Finally, suppose someone had other income of $100,000. We’d end up multiplying (1 – .25) by $100,000, which comes out to $75,000. Since $75,000 plus $10,000 is $85,000, this person’s net income would be $85,000. Now if they didn’t have to pay taxes, they end up with a net income of $100,000 plus $10,000 or $110,000. But with taxes, their income is only $85,000. We see that not only has their $10,000 basic income been taxed away, so they’re no longer a net recipient of a basic income, but they’re paying enough in taxes to help finance someone else’s basic income, someone with much lower other income than they have.
If we think carefully about these examples, we see what’s wrong with some cost estimates of a basic income: they assume the tax rate in the equation above is 0%. But as I said above, every basic income proposal I’ve seen, assumes that all other income would be taxed at some positive marginal tax rate. This means, of course, that our net income equation will include a term where some positive marginal tax rate will be subtracted from 1. We used a 25% rate for illustration, but really any positive rate will do. This is because any positive marginal tax rate on other income, although not officially a tax on the basic income, is effectively a tax on basic income. And this means some people won’t be net recipients of the benefit. Understanding this point is key to arriving at better estimates of the cost of a basic income guarantee.