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Beware of the Universal Basic Income

by John Spritzler

October 6, 2016

The American ruling class is promoting its newest Big Idea: the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea is that everybody gets a substantial monthly check from the federal government with no strings attached and no obligation to work or show that one cannot work or show need. This new idea isn't yet ready to be in the Democratic Party platform, but the rulers are using many of their pundits and opinion-shapers to prepare the American population to accept--even eagerly demand!--the UBI. Here are some of the UBI boosters:

Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, a book that asserts that black people are on average less intelligent than whites, writes----in the Wall Street Journal, no less--that "A Guaranteed Income for Every American: Replacing the welfare state with an annual grant is the best way to cope with a radically changing U.S. jobs market—and to revitalize America’s civic culture." Murray also advocates UBI in his 2006 book, In Our Hands.

Forbes Magazine (which calls itslef "The Capitalist Tool") published an article titled "Universal Basic Income Is Not Crazy."

The Economist magazine caters to wealthy people: "A yearlong subscription is generally at least $100, versus $39 for Newsweek and $20 for Time." In its long article promoting the reasonableness of UBI it cocludes with these words:

"The welfare system grew up to service a model of industrial modernity. It is failing the poorest in society and may be at risk from technological upheaval. It may yet need a radical redesign."

The New York Times, in its article published shortly before the recent vote in Switzerland on a referendum to enact UBI, reported favorably about the UBI concept and concluded with:

"Absurd as a minimum income might seem to bootstrapping Americans, one already exists in a way — McDonald’s knows it. If our economy is no longer able to improve the lives of the working poor and low-income families, why not tweak our policies to do what we’re already doing, but better — more harmoniously? It’s hardly uplifting news, but minimum incomes just might be stimmig for the United States too."

Readers of this article were informed that the word "stimmig" "means something like 'coherent and harmonious,' with a dash of 'beauty' thrown in."

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union (and not particularly loved by working people, apparently, as seen here and here), was invited to write his Opinion piece for the New York Times promoting UBI. He concludes with, "A universal basic income can help Americans and America prepare for the future."

The Washington Post ran an article introducing the UBI idea and, while not saying that it was necessarily a good idea, gave this "lots of respectable people have advocated it" kind of endorsement:

'The idea sounds radical today, but is by no means new — and it has been embraced by some on the right as well as the left. Libertarian economist F.A. Hayek advocated “a certain minimum income for everyone … a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself,” and the economist Milton Friedman favored a version called the “negative income tax.” In 1969, President Richard Nixon attempted to pass a proposal called “the family assistance plan,” which would replace complicated welfare programs with direct cash payments. Although the plan failed in the Senate, it resurfaced in 1972 when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern proposed the “demogrant” — a $1,000 check given to every citizen. More recently, the political scientist Charles Murray has advocated for a guaranteed income of $10,000 per person, coupled with a repeal of all other welfare transfer systems, including Social Security, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid."'

Actually, UBI has been advocated by far more intellectuals and political figures than cited by the Washington Post. Here is a very long list of famous advocates of UBI.

Robert Reich* is promoting UBI, and likewise the Green Party (II D e in its platform).

The entire world's ruling elite is considering UBI at its pow wow, a.k.a. the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

“Machines, the argument goes, can take the jobs, but should not take the incomes: the job uncertainty that engulfs large swaths of society should be matched by a welfare policy that protects the masses, not only ‘the poor’,” said World Bank senior economist Ugo Gentilini.


What's Going On?

Clearly this phenomenon of both right wing and left wing pundits agreeing on the merits of UBI should raise some eyebrows, no? We've got libertarian Charles Murray (who believes government should be "reduced to the barest essentials"), in favor of a $10,000 yearly grant from the federal government to each American. That comes to about $3 Trillion per year, which is nearly as much as the total 2015 U.S. federal government budget of $3.8 Trillion. Obviously taxes would have to be increased. But how much of an increase would depend on whether the $10,000 is in addition to, or a substitute for, existing social safety-net payments that poor people and needy children presently receive. The right wing UBI is a substitute for present social safety net benefits.

As this Quartz article points out, "Murray’s basic income looks a lot like a $10,000 Trojan horse. He explicitly rejects any additional government support for families with children, and would refuse any further public aid to those who fall in need after exhausting their income grant. Those with such misfortune, Murray says, must depend on charity."

The right-wing version of UBI thus amounts to taking the money that now is being given to only the poor people and children who need it the most, and distributing it equally to everybody from the richest to the poorest. The poorest people who need help the most could end up poorer after UBI than before!

Giving everybody the same amount of money obviously does not reduce the gap between the poor and the rich. A progressive income tax to pay for the UBI would, on the other hand, reduce the gap; but the UBI idea, itself, is not about how to tax people, and there's no way to say what kind of tax would pay for it. The right wing people prefer a "flat tax," which is not at all progressive.

The pundits on the left (who are as tied to Big Money as those on the right, by the way) focus on UBI without worrying about the aspects of UBI that make it attractive to people on the right such as Murray. Instead of saying, "Beware of the Trojan Horse," they say, "My, how pretty that horse is. We'll have robots* doing all the work and everybody will be free to live life as they wish."

Equality Versus a Freeloaders' Paradise

Most people want our society to be based on economic equality and not the disgusting inequality that now prevails. From this perspective, UBI seems to many people to be a good idea. They argue that UBI is good because it will make our society more equal by giving people who currently do unpaid work--such as those taking care of children at home--an income, and also because it will give people who are paid less than they deserve (such as those getting the minimum wage) a boost to their income.

But look carefully at these arguments in favor of UBI. They are based on the idea that people who work should be fairly paid for that work. These arguments are not based on the idea that freeloaders--people who can work but who refuse to--should be paid.

The moral basis for paying a reasonable amount of money (or otherwise ensuring a reasonable standard of living) to people who currently work reasonably but are not paid at all, or are not paid a reasonable amount, is this principle: "From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to reasonable need or desire" (the "From each..." principle, for short.) This moral principle is very widely supported.

In contrast, the ruling upper class--the plutocrats with personal fortunes measured in billions of dollars and with control of national economies measured in trillions of dollars--HATE the principle of "From each ..." because if it were enforced it would mean there would no longer be a ruling upper class of plutocrats; it would mean that nobody could have more than he or she reasonably needs or desires and even then only if he or she contributes (works!) according to reasonable ability; it would mean that the standard of living of the billionaires who own Walmart and the standard of living of the people who are now working for minimum wage at Walmart would be the same--the horror, the horror!

Most people disapprove of freeloading--i.e., of taking wealth produced by others in society without doing anything to help produce that social wealth despite being perfectly capable of doing so and being neither a child nor a person older than the retirement age. Aristocrats in the age of feudalism were a class that refused to do useful work and considered it shameful to do such work. Freeloaders today may or may not be wealthy. Alice Walton with her $33 billion fortune is a freeloader--she does no useful work unless you count collecting art. Billionaires such as Bill Gates mainly "work" at figuring out how to make money flow into their own pockets instead of the pockets of those who do the actual useful work, and no matter how much actual useful work they may do it does not entitle them to their billions of dollars of wealth in excess of "reasonable need or desire."

Some freeloaders are not wealthy and just game the welfare or Social Security system by pretending to be unable to work so as to collect disability checks. All of these people have the same contempt for doing useful work as the aristocrats of old--"I'm too special to do useful work; that's for regular people, not me."

The principle of UBI is that people are obliged to pay freeloaders. Individuals in a UBI society are thus taxed to pay for freeloaders whether they wish to pay the tax or not--it's an obligation, not a choice. The "U" in UBI sometimes means "Universal" but also is often interpreted as "Unconditional." Paying somebody unconditionally means paying them even if they are a freeloader. When society is based on the principle of an obligation to pay freeloaders, then that society is a freeloader's paradise.**

Since most people disapprove of freeloading, when the pro-freeloader aspect of UBI is brought to their attention they have second thoughts about it. This is why the Swiss, in the recent referendum on UBI, voted against UBI 77% to 23%. The opposition pointed out that if UBI passed, then Switzerland would become a magnet for all the freeloaders in Europe.

Why Big Money Likes People Such as Robert Reich Promoting UBI

The Left/liberal pundits who advocate UBI are attaching the morally wrong idea that society should be a freeloader's paradise to the morally right idea that people who work reasonably according to ability should enjoy a reasonable standard of living (to each according to reasonable need or desire). How come these pundits don't just advocate the morally right idea based on "From each..."? The reason is that if they advocated "From each..." then they would be advocating for an egalitarian revolution that removed the rich from power and made society one in which there are no rich and no poor. That's what the "From each..." principle means. "From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to reasonable need or desire" means that the billionaires would have to work the same as everybody else and would no longer have their multiple mansions and Lear Jets and hundred-million-dollar yachts and personal trainers and "retinues" and the power (from money) to hire tens of thousands of people to do their bidding. (No, the rich don't "create jobs", as discussed here.) "From each, ..." is what most people today actually want, even though there are no mass media (or even alternative media) talking heads advocating it (because they're all controlled by Big Money.)

By attaching the morally wrong freeloaders' paradise idea to the only Big Idea in public discourse for making society more equal (UBI), the Left/liberal pundits stigmatize the very idea of making society more equal and thereby weaken any potential movement for making it really equal. (This is why these pundits stay in the good graces of Big Money.)

One of the main forms of divide-and-rule employed by the American ruling class is to make people with decent-paying jobs think that they're being unfairly taxed to make life cushy for freeloaders who can but simply refuse to work and just "game" the welfare system. Racist images of "welfare queens" give this divide-and-rule extra power. Liberals tend to respond to this by refusing to agree that freeloaders don't have a right to anything; the liberals just keep silent on this issue. Instead the libeals adamantly deny that any poor people on welfare are welfare cheats. No doubt the ruling class exaggerates the number of welfare cheats and wrongly makes it seem they are mainly black or Hispanic. But the fact remains that people's objection to freeloading is perfectly valid even if their perception of how many freeloaders there are is wrong and their attention is diverted from the worst freeloaders--the billionaires.

When liberal activists get on the UBI bandwagon, they are thus perceived by many Americans as insisting that freeloaders (welfare cheats) have a right to freeload and should get a nice check in the mail every month paid for by taxing the people who actually work. Being for equality is then perceived by many as being "anti-middle class." This is exactly how the ruling class wants it to be perceived.

Robots and UBI

From the very beginning of capitalism, capitalists have been using automation to replace workers whenever that was technologically possible and could reduce the cost of production--as it often could, and can today. Automation has resulted in changing the kind of work people do--the ancestors of a video game designer or graphic artist might very well have been occupied in plowing a field, a kind of work that is done almost entirely by machine today.

There are two ways to envision a world where robots do all the work that people would rather not do and which robots can do. The good version of this world is one in which the remaining work (not done by robots) is shared among everybody according to the principle of "From each ..." What is the remaining work? The remaining work is what only people can do to make this a better world for each other--the kind of work that will be considered as important in this future world as video game designing and graphic artistry are considered today despite the fact that in the past nobody thought such work was important (or even imaginable). In this good version, people are expected to help make it a better world; freeloading is condemned. As a result, it is a very good world.

The bad version--the one that UBI is all about in the minds of the plutocrats at Davos--is one in which a plutocracy owns the world, uses robots as much as possible, pays ordinary people as little as possible to do what the robots cannot do in the service of the plutocracy, and doles out just barely enough money (UBI) to the remaining people to control them with a) the threat of reducing their dole if they mis-behave and b) the argument that they are just freeloaders who should be grateful to have even the meager dole they get. "That's the ticket!" say the plutocrats meeting at Davos and paying the salaries of the left and right wing pundits writing in support of UBI.

Beware of UBI !

To read about building an egalitarian revolutionary movement for "From each..." go to www.PDRBoston.org .


* Robert Reich's pitch for UBI focuses on the notion that robots (he calls them "i-everything" devices) will before too long do pretty much all of the work that humans now do, and so there won't be jobs for most people. Solution? Pay people for doing absolutely nothing.

But no matter how many jobs are done by robots, people will still be doing things for each other; unless, that is, we envision a nightmarish society in which nobody does anything for anybody else and we are all isolated individuals in a purely technological environment devoid of any enjoyable or beneficial (not to say necessary) human interactions.

If it's not a nightmarish society, then it will be based on relationships of mutual aid, of people (not robots) helping each other and caring for each other and doing things for each other in a million different ways, some of which we probably cannot even imagine today (could people in the Stone Age imagine a nurse or a therapist or an orchestra conductor or a video game creator?) In such a society the moral principle that applies is "From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to reasonable need or desire" as discussed later in this article.

If robots in the future do more work than they do today, then the amount of work and the kind of work that will be considered reasonable for a person to do will be different and possibly less of such work will be considered sufficient to be reasonable; also the amount of products and services that will be considered reasonable for a person to take will probably be more than today. But it will still be considered morally wrong for a person who can contribute in some way, and who is not a child or a person older than the retirement age, to refuse to do anything useful for anybody and still expect to fully enjoy the products and services made possible by the efforts of others.

If, on the other hand, the moral principle of the future society with robots everywhere is the principle that UBI is based on, "You aren't expected to do anything to help or benefit anybody, and you'll still get to have everything you need of what other people make possible," then it will indeed end up being a nightmare society.

** There is a big difference between saying that society is obligated to pay freeloaders versus saying that there are other reasons why it might be a good idea to pay (or provide services to) some freeloaders in certain circumstances. For example, we may not want freeloaders to be dying on the streets and prefer they be given what they need to live, or we may think that in some circumstances it is more trouble than it is worth to investigate who is and who is not a freeloader before providing a service. Some people may, as individuals, want to voluntarily give charity (from the wealth to which they, personally, are entitled) to certain freeloaders of their choice, without believing that everybody is obliged to give to all freeloaders. This is discussed in the context of health care here.



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