It is Time to Talk About Basic Income, Again

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income

~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)

47%. By some predictions, 47% of the jobs currently available in the United States will be lost to automation and other factors in fewer than fifteen years. These estimations are respected predictions, made by economists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other employment market watchers. Other prognostications set the number at greater than 50%. By 2030, perhaps half the jobs currently available in the United States will disappear.

According to a recent study from Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, nearly 87% of manufacturing job eliminations across the United States are due to gains in productivity, including more efficient supply chains, increased capital investment, and technological displacement. These changes are creating some new jobs, but not nearly enough to replace the jobs lost in the process.

And the trend is for more automation and more job displacement in more areas, including the service and care sectors of the economy, areas previously thought much less vulnerable to robotics, big data, and algorithms. The first successful cochlear implant by a robot and human team is breaking news in the medical profession, and few doubt the machines will be taking the lead in many more such procedures.

Essentially, any repetitive task can be taken over by automation. Any job that requires repetition is vulnerable.

Presently, Seattle has an unemployment rate of about 3%. Overall, King County’s rate is approximately 3.3%. Automation does not seem to be affecting us as negatively as it already has elsewhere. Our primary concerns seem to be transportation, houselessness, education, and incarceration. Yet, we have to ask ourselves how long we can stay ahead of the international shift toward technological job loss. How long can the area resist this global trend, especially considering our extraordinary population influx and technologically driven local economy?

Right now, you can read about several ideas to offset the effects of automation and lowered productivity costs on unemployment and job loss: banning/refusing automation, robot taxes, retraining and re-education, public works (government job guarantees), and reductions in working hours/job share schemes. These may all work in the short term, but if the predictions are correct, by 2030, they will not be sufficient to address the ever increasing world poverty at a time when resource scarcity is a thing of the past.

What seems to be the most radical and potentially effective suggestion on the horizon again, is the discussion of Basic Income—a guaranteed monthly payment of 70-150% of the existing poverty line (currently $12,060 annually), adjusted regionally against the cost of living, per adult. (Many Basic Income plans vary in the details, but all are based in this simple starting point of direct income maintenance to provide an economic “floor” for each person in the society.)

Many public voices have been raising the issue of Basic Income over the past few years—especially, Guy Standing and Rutger Bregman in Europe; Andy Stern and Allan Sheahen in the United States; and several international technology entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk and Bill Gates. They do not all agree, but they are involved in the conversation.

Basic Income is not a new idea but has been around for at least since the founding of the United States of America. It has been lauded and loathed by Republicans and Democrats; Conservatives and Progressives; Liberals, Radicals, and Libertarians. The federal government almost instituted a national Basic Income forty-five years ago. In the 1970s, Republican President Richard Nixon and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives proposed a national Family Assistance Plan grounded in a Guaranteed Annual Income. The bill was defeated by the Democrat-controlled Senate, which argued the plan did not include a large enough stipend to address significant impoverishment. (By the time they tried to revamp the bill, support and political will had withered.)

Furthermore, Basic Income is certainly not new to the Pacific Northwest. Between 1968 and 1980, the United States government conducted four “negative income tax,” “cash transfer,” or “income maintenance” experiments: in New Jersey/Pennsylvania, Iowa and North Carolina, Seattle and Denver, and Gary, Indiana. In Seattle, from 1970 until 1976 (or some until 1980), 4800 black, white, and Latino families with at least one dependent and incomes below $11,000 for single parents and $13,000 for two-parent families received monthly payments between 126% and 148% of the current poverty line. Many writers have argued about the successes and failures of these experiments.

In a survey of the studies conducted the throughout the 1970s published in The Journal of Socio-Economics, Karl Widerquist cautions that what we learned from these experiments is “tentative and limited.” They can tell us some things about the possible effects of Basic Income on recipients, but they can neither prove nor disprove the overall arguments of Basic Income supporters or detractors. “It is better to understand that the … experiments were able to shed a small amount of light” on some Basic Income issues, writes Widerquist. “They were able to indicate only that a basic income guarantee is financially feasible at a cost of certain side effects that people with differing political beliefs may take to be desirable or disastrous.” Basic Income is feasible and, by definition, can eliminate poverty. What else it can do, we have yet to discover.

Following Widerquist, here I am writing neither simply to endorse nor refute Basic Income. Rather, I am writing to encourage a new conversation about an old idea. I am writing to suggest that it is time—now, before the turn comes and the jobless rate begins to increase, adding to our houselessness, healthcare, access, and transportation problems—to talk about Basic Income again. It is time for us to raise questions and talk seriously about raising the economic floor and guaranteeing the minimum income of everyone, regardless of formal employment status.

In his analysis, Widerquist explains why Basic Income conversations and Basic Income experiments cannot address every variable that in play. He does list the issues we might be able to explore through the lens of Basic Income. These issues include health, homeownership, marriage and divorce rates, birth-weight, school performance, and other indicators of well-being. As well, he explains, such exercises may be able to suggest effects on work effort and work incentive or disincentive; however, these suggestions must remain inconclusive because of the significant number of variables involved in such suggestions.

What I am proposing is that we should push our elected officials and candidates to educate themselves on Basic Income and address questions we have regarding the policy proposal. We should ask every one of them where they stand and why. We should push ourselves to read, listen to, and join in conversations regarding Basic Income. There has been a good deal of information available for some time now. And, we should consider the specific variables in play in the Pacific North West that might make a Seattle Basic Income or King County Basic Income serve the area best. How could basic income address transportation, houselessness, healthcare, incarceration, and disability here?

Whether or not Basic Income will best address the changes on the horizon, now is the time to start asking the questions.

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an editor-at-large with the South Seattle Emerald, the founder and chief editor of Screen Bodies and the editor of two books: Comedy Begins with Our Simplest Gestures and Transnational Chinese Cinema (with Mary Mazzilli and Hee Wai Siam). He is also an instructor at Bellevue College and the administrator of the blog where he writes about film, disability, and political culture. Follow Brian Bergen-Aurand on Google+ and on Twitter @bbergenaurand.

Featured Image courtesy of Basic Income Earth Network



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