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.
The crux of opposition to taxless spending (that is, money spent by a government that has not been raised through taxation) is inflation caused by creating additional money.
In The Affordability of Basic Income, a paper written by Geoff Crocker, it states that a government can create additional money without increasing inflation as long as the money supply does not exceed the productive capacity of the economy: and recent quantitative easing in both the US and Europe has given empirical backing to that claim. However, increasing the money supply beyond that point will inevitably create additional inflation.
It would be unfortunate if we never tested the boundaries of our productive capacity. Capacity utilization in the United States averaged 80.32 percent from 1967 until 2017, according to Trading Economics magazine. So far in 2017 the utilization is less than 78%. That means approximately 20% of the productive capacity in the US is an unused resource. Most nations in the world are in a similar utilization bracket, according to Trading Economics magazine.
The GDP of the US in 2016 was $18.5 trillion dollars according to Trading Economics. 20% of that is $3.7 trillion dollars. This is the amount of taxless money that could be added to the economy in the US each year, without causing inflation, in theory. Adding too much too quickly could cause inflation though, because the logistics of using 100 percent capacity takes time to implement.
The key would be to start with a small annual amount, then increase it slowly, if inflation did not occur. If the economy received a slow steady influx of taxless money from the government, the slow steady increase in demand should lead first to a slow steady use of full production, and then to a slow steady increase of production capability, as industry invests in increased production to match increased demand. This would be a platform for continued growth and utilization of taxless government spending, without causing inflation.
The government could introduce taxless spending through any number of programs, and Basic Income could be one of them. It could also lead to lower spending on federal interest payments if it were used to balance the budget, instead of increasing the national debt to do so. Many other programs could benefit as well, such as healthcare, infrastructure repair, education, etc.
Government would still collect taxes, and would still be able to use them to encourage or discourage activities as deemed necessary.
It is also a technology that would require no expensive change to the infrastructure. All major technological advancements in the past that could affect the economy by 20 percent required major investments in time, resources, and investments. The steam engine, railroads, cars, cell phones, and the Internet all took 20 to 30 years, billions of dollars, and countless man-hours to implement. Taxless government spending requires only the change of policy. No new airports, factories or cell towers, just a change in policy.
Taxless spending could provide a form of basic income funding that could be utilized in many nations around the world, without creating a burden on taxpayers, if implemented properly. It would filter into the economy and every person on the planet could benefit from it, not just the well to do. We all deserve to benefit from such a simple solution to an age-old problem, poverty.
Michael Keith has been in the construction industry for 30 years, spent 15 in the Carpenters Union building offices, skyscrapers, and condominiums. Keith had a California Contractors license, and built many custom homes there. He presently remodels Braum’s Ice Cream Store and Restaurants in 5 different states in the US.
Reviewed by Malcolm Torry and Tyler Prochazka
Ellen Brown. Credit to: Signs Of The Times
Writing for Common Dreams, Ellen Brown makes a case for how Universal Basic Income can be achieved without increasing Taxes or Inflation. At first glance, most will consider this not to be possible, but Ellen argues that through quantitative easing, in which money flows directly into the real economy instead of being put into banks, the opposite may turn out to be true. In line with her reasoning, the author quotes Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz:
“When the government spends more and invests in the economy, that money circulates, and recirculates again and again. So not only does it create jobs once: the investment creates jobs multiple times.”
As a consequence of this economic growth, tax and fiscal revenues increase while demands for unemployment benefits and social programs to help the poor, which are paid by the government, go down. All this strengthens a country’s fiscal position. On the other hand, one might assert that getting “new money” into the economy, supply would grow too large and consumer prices shoot up irreversibly, leaving the central bank unable to retrieve its investment. At this point Ellen quotes Prof. Stiglitz again, who states that money issued by the government, through UBI, simply returns to it in fiscal revenues.
Ellen further elaborates this in the light of the “velocity of money”, the number of times a dollar is traded in a year, which in a good economy is around seven, which means that on each dollar, taxes will be paid seven times, as it changes hands. $1,00 traded seven times on a 26 percent tax results in $1,82 back to the government, more than it initially put out. Also, it is generally taught in economics class that, from the formula “MV = Py”, when velocity of money (V) and the quantity of goods sold (y) are constant, adding money (M) will drive prices up (P). What is not taught, as Prof. John Harvey, quoted by Ellen, pinpoints, is that V and y are not constant, meaning that demand and supply rise together, leaving prices unchanged.
Applying this logic, Ellen sets forth that new demand must precede new supply, that is, employers will add the workers needed to create more supply, once they know there is demand for their goods and services. This has implications for unemployment, for example, which is at 9,4 percent in the US as of January 2017, a condition which at the rise of many innovations may get worse.
Nevertheless, a concern with hyperinflation is thrown around in opposition to this form of injecting money into the economy, to which Ellen Brown quotes Prof. Michael Hudson, who states that most cases of hyperinflation in history stemmed from foreign debt services collapsing the exchange rate, not domestic spending, calling upon the example of post World War II Germany.
In short, UBI can create more demand and drive new productivity by paying a dividend for living in the 21st century, when automation frees us time to engage in more meaningful pursuits.
More information at:
Ellen Brown, “How to fund a Universal Basic Income without increasing taxes or inflation”, Common Dreams, 4th October 2017
I recently led a roundtable discussion on basic income at National Chengchi University (NCCU), which was attended by students from various countries. The participants vigorously debated whether a basic income would result in inflation, with some parties worrying that the greater spending power will push up the demand for goods and, in turn, prices. The increased prices could possibly erode much of the spending power from a basic income.
To confirm whether these worries were justified, I reached out to three experts on basic income (BI), co-editors of the Ethics and Economics of a Basic Income Guarantee, to see what the research says about basic income and inflation.
It turns out: it depends.
Overall, the scholars agreed that there could be some areas where prices are pushed up, but that it would depend on how the BI is implemented.
Knowledge about the topic is limited since none of the BI research has looked at inflation, nor have the experiments been long enough to get a true idea of the BI’s effect on prices.
Dr. Steven Pressmen, former professor of Economics and Finance at Monmouth University, said this means economists “therefore must fall back on theory to answer the question about the inflationary consequences of a BIG (basic income guarantee).”
Dr. Michael Lewis, associate professor at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, added that “multiple variables affect inflation”: if government spending is reduced in some area after a basic income is introduced, there would be a simultaneous push-and-pull effect on inflation.
Pressman also said that the outcome of a basic income on inflation will be based on “the overall condition of the economy and how a BIG is financed.”
According to Pressman, there are several potential scenarios that could play out.
If the economy is near full employment, then a BI would likely “push up prices rather than employment.” Also, since much of the gains in income from a BI would go to people in poverty and “people with low income tend to spend any extra income that they get,” then total spending will increase along with inflation.
On the supply side, Pressman said there are two important factors: taxation and labor.
If a basic income is financed by sales tax or value added tax (VAT), then this will increase prices and inflation. Second, if BI gives employees more leverage to increase wages, firms may “try to pass along these costs to consumers in the form of higher prices,” Pressman said.
On the other hand, Pressman said that financing a BI is paid for by reducing other government spending means “there should be little or no inflationary impact of a BIG.”
Dr. Karl Widerquist, co-chair of BIEN and associate professor at Georgetown University SFS-Qatar, said that Denmark’s economy demonstrates that spending on welfare such as basic income should not lead to inflation “taking away all those workers’ gains.”
“There is nothing special about Basic Income spending. It is not any more likely to cause inflation than any other spending,” Widerquist said. “It is not any more difficult to use taxes and borrowing to counteract inflationary pressure caused by Basic Income spending than it is to counteract inflationary pressure caused by military spending or any other kind of spending.”
Regardless, some inflation may not be such a bad thing for the economy, according to Pressman. He pointed to the Japanese deflationary spiral in the 1990s as to why some inflation may help an economy.
For policymakers considering a basic income, it may be useful to think about adjusting the BI benefit depending on economic conditions.
“It also may (make) sense to think about a variable BIG — one that increases as unemployment rises and falls as the economy gets closer and closer to full employment. This too will reduce the inflationary impact of any BIG program,” Pressman said.
Although more research needs to be done, it appears a basic income is unlikely to contribute to inflation in a substantial way because there are so many factors that influence prices.
“Policy matters, and sensible fiscal and monetary policies can ensure that more egalitarian social policies are consistent with low inflation,” Widerquist said.