Strategic Pitfalls in Basic Income Advocacy

Telsa's manufacturing facility

Telsa's manufacturing facility. Photo by Jurvetson (flickr).

A recent piece made the point that a basic income could be good policy under certain conditions. To summarize, basic income advocacy today is usually predicated on the idea that automation and robots are taking our jobs now, and that the trend will lead to mass unemployment sooner or later. But the data show that robots and technology are not taking our jobs, and that technological advances usually increase employment. In short, the article concluded, even though fears of robots are unfounded, a government-managed universal basic income would be good if combined with other progressive polices.

In addition to the points raised in article, there are strategic considerations that those supporting a basic income should take into account.

First, it’s clear that the robots-are-taking-our-jobs narrative should be discarded; there is very little evidence that this phenomenon is happening. But it’s instructive to examine why this argument has currency among politicians and elites, and how it is being used against those seeking a fairer world. The robots argument predicts that many workers become irrelevant and lose their jobs due to technology. This plays into the anxieties of the working class, many of whom are at the whim of their employers and things like unfair trade agreements. For employers, robots are a more politically defensible reason for reducing labor costs than, for example, outsourcing or eliminating retirement benefits.

It’s noteworthy that many of the same people and publications that promote the robots argument promote the idea that there are too few people or workers to sustain society, and that many industries face labor shortages (robots are sometimes prescribed as the solution, too). These arguments are diametrically opposed to one other: one says that there are too many people and the other says that there are too few. Like the robots argument, fake labor shortages (like in construction and restaurants, and of STEM workers) give power to employers to, for example, shift costs to the government or exploit foreign workers.

In sum, when basic income advocates use these incorrect narratives, it moves the balance of power toward employers now, and excuses the inequity and inequality that society faces today as inevitable rather than as a product of deliberate policy decisions. Elites might not mind that shift or that revision of history (in fact, this is the desired outcome), but basic income advocates should.

Second, many advocates of a basic income envision dismantling or replacing our other social programs, like Social Security and SNAP (food stamps), perpetuating myths that they discourage working. This is to win the support of conservatives and libertarians, who are attracted by the simplicity of a basic income and the prospect of getting rid of social programs they are ideologically opposed to. That’s a mistake, and it means the government would give up valuable policy tools and aims. Programs like SNAP are helpful because they respond to business cycles, increasing their rolls in a recession. A basic income, as usually described, cannot. There are also good reasons for having social programs that target specific people. As a recent analysis shows, the cost of necessities like diapers can eat up a substantial part of a family’s income, perhaps even with a basic income. It’s reasonable to have programs that pay for necessities like diapers or food, or that people with these needs receive additional assistance.

It’s also true that programs that pay benefits to everyone, like Social Security, often enjoy popular support, but they are far from insulated from attack. Social Security was cut in the past by repeatedly raising the retirement age, which disproportionately hurts black Americans, a group that has, on average, lower life expectancy. Cutting Social Security benefits remains a priority for elites, and proposals to do so are entertained by both the Democratic and Republican establishments. It’s a similar story for Medicare. It’s very possible that a basic income would be attacked in similar ways, probably on the amount of benefits it provides or on its cost-of-living adjustment. If it were the primary or only social program, those cuts would be devastating. Basic income advocates should keep the political sustainability of the policy in mind, and think about how it could complement other social programs.

Lastly, even if there were a basic income, there would still be a need for pointed measures to address inequality and inequity. An example: a basic income would provide much-needed security to someone who wanted to create art for a living, an endeavor that usually pays little. But, for someone who finds it difficult to break into a line-of-work they are passionate about, a basic income would not provide that person with any tools to do so, or the right environment. Put differently, a basic income will give people the security to opt-out of the workforce in many ways, but alone it doesn’t do enough to help disadvantaged people opt-in. It’s important to address these inequities in addition to having programs that provide basic economic security. Thus, basic income advocates should support economic justice generally and pro-worker policies that matter today, like opposing austerity, trade agreements that protect high-income workers and corporations, or the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates.

None of these points disqualify a basic income as potential policy. But advocates should think carefully about how they push for one and why they push for one, and progressives and leftists should be cautious in their support.

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