This past presidential cycle, libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson suggested to BI News that he was “open” to the universal basic income. Johnson’s 2012 running mate Judge Jim Gray recently laid out a proposal for broad reform and simplification of the tax code, as well as providing a guaranteed annual stipend of $15,000. The stipend would be gradually taxed away by 50 cents for each dollar. Those making $30,000 and above would not receive the stipend.
Gray said that his policy would effectively address poverty and is consistent with “liberty” and “compassion.” At the same time, it would remove the poverty traps that people in poverty face.
“Unlike today’s welfare and social security systems, this system always has incentives to work and earn the extra dollar,” Gray said.
The full interview can be found below.
What inspired this idea for the monthly stipend?
I don’t recall specifically. But I have always believed that institutions should regularly be revisited with an eye toward increasing their social incentives. Our tax system is terribly complex and in many ways harmful. If it could be reformed and simplified, that would be a wonderful occasion to address all welfare issues and, along the way, address our homeless problems as well.
Where would the funding come from to pay for the $15,000 stipend?
Abolish all other welfare programs, and all the bureaucracies that go along with them. That should leave plenty of money to support this stipend.
Would there be any targeted programs that would remain, or would they be entirely replaced with the stipend system? For example, medical programs, or programs for the disabled.
The stipend would have to be weighted to address people with truly special needs. In addition, I would also employ a voucher system to facilitate people purchasing health insurance of the private market, based upon a sliding scale for need.
Can you explain the relationship between your proposal and expanding liberty?
Welfare systems are extremely intrusive, and in many ways inequitable. This system would be implemented voluntarily, which is consistent with Liberty, and would be far less judgmental and intrusive – all of which is fully consistent with Liberty.
You said we should have this safety net because “that is who we are.” What did you mean by that?
I believe we Americans are compassionate people. If given a choice to provide for those in need, Americans would choose to assist – as long as they believed this was a workable system, and everyone understood this is not an “entitlement,” but simply compassionate.
How will the private sector respond to this stipend program? What new opportunities or businesses may arise that are not possible now?
Really good questions! I believe the private sector will fully support it, for reasons provided above. And this system would also provide opportunities for people to become involved in the arts, public volunteerism and experimentation with other business opportunities, because it would provide them a back-up safety net to hedge against failure.
Do you think the $15k would encourage laziness? How would people respond to not being forced to work?
We will always have incentives to laziness. But, unlike today’s welfare and social security systems, this system always has incentives to work and earn the extra dollar. Our present systems punish working because recipients lose more money by working than they gain. And it also encourages attempts to “game the system.”
Update 3/27: Clarified the stipend will be taxed away up to $30,000.
Written by: Derek Horstmeyer
Aside from the numerous societal benefits that Universal Basic Income (UBI) offers in the future as automation disrupts the nature of employment, we in the basic income movement should not forget the benefits it also offers in the immediate term.
Economists across the board, whether they focus on labor, corporate governance or environmental issues, love to see mechanisms and incentive systems designed so they are free of distortions. Our current national system in the US of assistance for the short-term unemployed and long-term unemployed is designed with incentive misalignment over different income levels. This is particularly evident on the lower end of the income distribution.
An individual who has just lost their job or an individual who continues to suffer long-term unemployment faces a daunting decision when posed with the prospect of taking on a new job. On one hand, there are the wages associated with the new job and on the other there are is potential loss of federal and state assistance. CATO’s 1995 “The Welfare-Versus-Work Tradeoff,” estimates that a change in employment status from a part-time position (below the poverty line) to a full-time position at 18 dollars an hour might actually cost the individual a net of 5 to 10 thousand dollars a year due to a loss in state benefits.
These benefits that the individual may have to relinquish span numerous forms including cash assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), food assistance (SNAP), medical insurance (Medicaid) and housing assistance. And, one criticism of the Affordable Care Act is individuals just above the income cutoff for Medicaid are doing far worse when you consider the mandatory penalty they must pay as compared to those who are receiving Medicaid.
While the magnitude of the loss in state benefits that one suffers as their wages increase is debated, one thing that all economists agree on is that poverty traps are real. As an individual moves up the income ladder, there is a class of income where they would better off monetarily if they turn down a job (or a pay increase) because they must forfeit state benefits.
If we desire to have incentive alignment in our economic system, where every marginal amount of time worked by an individual leads to a marginal increase in total income, the poverty trap created by the welfare system is a major problem. Of course, there are a few ways to fix this issue. One is to just reduce the number of benefits that people receive on the lower end of the income distribution. This does not sound appealing seeing as the number of vulnerable people in the US may continue to increase as the nature of employment changes over time. The second way to handle this issue is to extend the ‘phase-out’ ranges, so people don’t lose as many benefits as they earn more income. This is more appealing, but only puts a band-aid on the issue and still allows for income ranges where incentive misalignment persists.
The third and final option is UBI. The beauty of universal basic income, paired with a negative income tax, is that these decisions to forgo work or a raise because of a loss in state benefits, are non-existent. In a UBI system, incentives are always aligned for the individual to accept a raise or to work an additional hour because it will always put more money in their pocket.
As work becomes more automated, it is important to highlight the wonders that UBI may serve us in the future. However, one should also not forget what UBI affords us today in terms of a system of welfare and assistance that is free of incentive misalignment.
About the author: Derek Horstmeyer is a professor at George Mason University School of Business, specializing in corporate finance. His research, which has garnered several awards, focuses on boards, governance and hedge fund activism. He has presented at conferences across the country as well as internationally, and is consistently rated a top professor by his undergraduate, MBA and EMBA students who have honored him with teaching awards.
Derek has a BS in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Chicago, an MS in Financial Mathematics from Stanford University and a PhD in Finance from the USC Marshall School of Business.