Basically Not Income
The Swiss are voting on whether they want a universal basic income ("UBI") and reactions in the United States abound on whether it would be something we want to try. In the New Yorker, Matt Gimein had this to say:
The Swiss, citizens of the world’s fifth-richest country, are going to vote Saturday on whether they are wealthy enough to subsidize their neighbors’ leisure with a guaranteed salary. They are debating whether they should work less. On the other hand, in the United States, the world’s tenth-richest country, the election-year discussion of the economy is almost entirely about how the country can create enough work to go around.
Would it help us cope with being replaced by robots? The Economist says it is a solution to a problem that has yet to materialize:
Worries that technological advance would mean the end of employment have, thus far, always proved misguided; as jobs on the farm were destroyed, work in the factory was created. Today’s angst over robots and artificial intelligence may well turn out to be another in a long line of such scares. A much-quoted study suggesting that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades looks too gloomy, for example (see article). Machines may one day be a match for many workers at most tasks. But that is not a reason to rush to adopt a basic income immediately...
A universal basic income might just make sense in a world of technological upheaval. But before governments begin planning for a world without work, they should strive to make today’s system function better.
And now we return to the debate over whether it would help end U.S. poverty. The New York Times' Eduardo Porter says no it would not help:
A universal basic income has many undesirable features, starting with its non-negligible disincentive to work. Almost a quarter of American households make less than $25,000. It would be hardly surprising if a $10,000 check each for mom and dad sapped their desire to work.
A universal income divorces assistance from need. Aid is fixed, regardless of whatever else is going on. If our experience with block grants serves as precedent, it is most likely to become less generous over time.
To libertarians this will sound more like a feature than a flaw, but replacing everything in the safety net with a check would limit the scope of government assistance in damaging ways.
Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias argues that Porter's contentions are off:
Having read Porter, I remain unconvinced. His argument turns out to be something more like "a universal basic income would be expensive" or "a universal basic income is an example of a poorly targeted public policy." The former is clearly true, and the latter is at least something clearly worth talking about. But Porter's own numbers make it very clear that a UBI would eliminate poverty in the United States and would do so at a price that, though high, is within the realm of possibility.
You might be interested in Vox's video on the history of UBI and how many folks on both the right and left have supported it over the years.
Let have a cartoon from Boston.com:
This Guardian article looks at the work of photographer Matt Black, who took an 18,000 mile U.S. road trip to see how hard it would be to photograph poverty (it isn't):
“So it seemed somehow symbolic to begin there and travel east, but what has surprised me is the similarities I have encountered as I travelled from one community to another. All these diverse communities are connected, not least in their powerlessness. In the mainstream media, poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that it goes unreported because it does not fit the way America sees itself.”
As if to bear this out, Black tells me that the route he took was mapped out in advance using geotagged photographs found online alongside census information to identify the poorest areas. In each instance, the communities he visited were never more than a two-hour drive apart. “I was able to drive from California to the east coast and back without ever leaving these poor areas.”
Speaking of the welfare state, over at Slate Jordan Weissmann takes another look at how 90's welfare reform is failing poor people:
Despite being home to one of the nation’s most crushing child poverty rates, the state has all but stopped giving cash assistance to its needy. During 2014, for every 100 poor families with children in Arizona, just 8 families received aid. And even that tiny fraction is likely to shrink. Last year, while trying to chip away at a $1 billion budget deficit, lawmakers lowered the maximum amount of time Arizonans could receive welfare payments before being kicked off the rolls permanently—it’s now just 12 months...
The death of welfare in Arizona isn’t an exception; the program has shriveled just as badly in many other states, especially across the Deep South and West. Even in most of the states that are more generous than Arizona about giving benefits to the poor, welfare has still dwindled during the postrecession era. That’s because its funding was never designed to grow along with inflation—or with the U.S. population. For all intents and purposes, welfare is becoming a zombie system rather than the bridge from poverty to work that its reformers envisioned.
As the number of baby boomers entering retirement continues to rise, the number of jobs the economy needs to create to keep pace with population growth has fallen sharply. A reasonable estimate is that the economy needs to produce somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 jobs per month to keep the unemployment rate stable. (The Council of Economic Advisers estimates 77,000.) Even after today’s report, it seems likely the underlying pace of growth remains above this.
That is, the economy is still growing faster than its long-run potential rate of growth, and the recovery is continuing.
Apparently part of the weak jobs numbers are due to the Verizon strike, which has now concluded in a new contract reports Bloomberg View. In Wired, Klint Finley argues the strike shows the internet still needs people:
It’s easy to think of the Internet as consisting mostly of fiber optic pipes buried deep underground and anonymous data centers full of computer servers and networking gear. But despite advances in automation and artificial intelligence, all of this infrastructure takes real human workers to build and maintain. As Verizon has learned, those workers are still hard to replace.
Uber offers up a new twist on the company store; check out this piece by Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle:
If you've got a license and are willing to drive, Uber will hook you up with a new car, no matter how bad your credit. To make sure you make your payments, though, Uber will automatically deduct them weekly from what you earn as a driver. If you don't drive enough, or you fail to make your lease payment, Xchange has folks to take the car back.
As for the terms, well, here's what Mark Williams, a lecturer at Boston University's business school told Bloomberg News: "The terms, the way they're proposed, are predatory and are very much driven toward profiting off drivers."
Check out this cartoon:
So Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post argues new rules from the Obama administration on overtime pay will hurt those who work at think tanks and magazines, which often rely on youthful willingness to work themselves to death for peanuts:
Throughout the think tanks and policy shops that litter Washington, there exists a veritable army of research assistants scurrying around performing a hundred thankless tasks, from organizing panels to managing schedules to processing reimbursements to proof-reading working papers to making sure the questioner at a panel aired by C-SPAN knows how to operate the microphone. They are uber-competent and adroit at managing the fragile egos of their bosses and bosses’ bosses. I know many outstanding experts in international relations who got their start by working as assistants at the Council on Foreign Relations or RAND or AEI. And I guarantee you that most of them worked more than 40 hours a week...
My fear, however, is that some think tanks might respond to this rule by hiring fewer paid assistants and offering more unpaid internships instead. A few talented research assistants might thrive under these new rules, but the real winners would be those undergraduates, postgraduates and graduate students who can afford such unpaid internships as a way to get their foot into the door of the Ideas Industry.
In the New York Times, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin says we ought to work harder to help former inmates thrive and offers five solutions ranging from education and employment assistance to housing assistance:
For our economy to succeed, we need to equip every American to be effective in the national work force. But the more than 600,000 people who leave prison every year are not getting the support they need. That fails them and fails the economy for all of us...Solving this problem begins with people outside prison recognizing the humanity of people inside prison. As one man incarcerated at San Quentin said to me: “Nobody is just the crime they committed. We are all much more than the worst thing we have done.”
People in prison are part of America, as are those who have been released. They are part of our society. And we have a powerful stake in their success.
The Atlantic Philanthropies announced it will dedicate $200mm to creating a community of leaders focused on improving equity through collaboration, reports Inside Philanthropy's David Callahan, who expressed some caveats about the efficacy:
There are a few reasons why something like this could be a bust, starting with a flaw of many fellowship programs: They don’t create much change. Rather, people enjoy a swell gig for a year or two, and then resume their normal lives—without getting stitched into something with continuing impact. Fellowship programs based at big universities can be especially weak, since it’s easy for outsiders to feel disconnected in such places. Atlantic Fellows will be housed at [London School of Economics]’s Inequalities Institute, but if you’re familiar with campus institutes, you know that they can feel like ghost towns, as busy academics float in and out, hyper-focused on their own research, while visiting fellows wait around for the next seminar that’s supposed to create community...
Also in the NYT, a look at a San Francisco school that partnered with a nonprofit and the David Lynch Foundation to create a meditation program aimed at lowering the achievement gap:
A major factor preventing underserved children from learning is the stress they encounter on a daily basis – from factors like poverty, deprivation, lack of steady parental input, physical danger and constant fear. Research shows that chronic stress can impair healthy brain development and the ability to learn, and that Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reducing technique that involves thinking of a mantra, can reduce stress and its manifestations – for example, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Mr. Dierke wondered whether meditation might reduce students’ stress levels and help them learn.
Peter Thiel is making waves with his unconventional philanthropy reports Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times:
Mr. Thiel openly supports a wide array of eccentric philanthropic and social efforts aimed at radically altering life as we know it. His Thiel fellowship gives high school and college-age students money to drop out of school and start companies. He has donated to organizations that seek to extend the human life span, such as the Methuselah Foundation. And he co-founded the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create cities that float at sea, beyond the reach of governments and their laws...
He said that he hired a legal team several years ago to look for cases that he could help financially support. “Without going into all the details, we would get in touch with the plaintiffs who otherwise would have accepted a pittance for a settlement, and they were obviously quite happy to have this sort of support,” he said. “In a way very similar to how a plaintiff’s lawyer on contingency would do it.” Mr. Thiel declined to disclose what other cases he had supported but there are at least two current cases against Gawker.
In Fusion, Felix Salmon argues this may be a dangerous new precedent where billionaires bankroll lawsuits even where they are not named and harm press freedoms.