Would Universal Basic Income help or hurt?

US cash A lot of people are expected to lose their jobs to automation and artificial intelligence. One solution that’s been proposed is Universal Basic Income. It’s an idea already being tested in the city of Stockton.

I found this comment on Amazon about this book which is relevant to the experiment in Stockton. For more background you could check out this report.

Tyler Morgan

3.0 out of 5 stars

A wishy-washy book that struggles from a lack of focus

October 6, 2018

Format: Hardcover

Verified Purchase

I certainly enjoyed reading the book, and I definitely recommend that anyone interested in a UBI check it out. However, I found myself frequently shaking my head in disagreement with the author while reading the book, even though I am optimistic about the possibilities of a UBI in the U.S.

The biggest criticism I have is that Lowrey does not seriously tackle the nuts and bolts of how a UBI could be implemented in the U.S, especially with regard to paying for it. In fairness, she does provide several policy ideas later in the book, but she drastically diminishes the difficulties each would have to overcome to win support in the U.S. A UBI in the U.S. would be extremely expensive, likely costing at a minimum $2 trillion per year above current expenditures, and possibly much higher with a less optimistic estimate. Yet after acknowledging the high costs, Lowrey makes the following claim: “A $1,000-a-month UBI is possible, and if correctly designed it would not help the poor at the expense of the middle class, raise taxes obscenely, or fail to end poverty.” However, this sentence contradicts her discussion in the same chapter about the costs of a UBI, where she points out how taxing the wealthiest individuals at 100% of their income still would not come close to paying for a UBI. She proposes other various taxes, such as a carbon tax or a tax on financial transactions, and these taxes may indeed be viable proposals to help finance a UBI. But the fact remains that a UBI would be a huge increase in costs for the U.S., and ultimately it would likely require a huge increase in taxes on the rich and also an increase in taxes for segments of the middle class as well. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Yet, as a Hail Mary, the author suggests that if all else fails, the U.S. government could just print more money, because what could possibly go wrong? She states: “…dollars are not something that the United States government can run out of.” This is where I really, really found it difficult to take Lowrey seriously. Surely she knows better than this. The U.S. government cannot just print $2 trillion or more a year without any adverse consequences. Again, TINSTAAFL.

Second, Lowrey never really resolves the issue of who should receive the UBI, and whether it should replace other social programs to reduce costs. Should it be given to everyone, only the poor, only women, everyone excluding the upper class, or who? And should the UBI replace existing social programs like social security, medicare, food stamps, etc.? In fairness, the author tries to explore a lot of these possibilities, but she seems to punt on the intellectual demanding task of actually arguing for one or the other. Much like her discussion of how to pay for a UBI, the author chooses to let someone else figure out answers to these questions, and I found myself with a big pile of unanswered questions.

Third, the author is extremely optimistic about how poor people will spend their UBI. She should have devoted much more time to at least exploring the possibility that a large chunk of individuals would waste the money. For instance, if we get rid of Section 8 housing, what do we do when a single mother receiving a UBI blows it all on something frivolous and can’t pay the rent, thus forcing her children to be homeless? Although I do agree with the author that poverty is often the result of uncontrollable factors, I also believe that sometimes it is indeed the product of laziness and poor choices, and a UBI will not fix this. Any serious discussion of a UBI cannot just gloss over these potential negatives while assuming that all people will make wise choices if you just give them a bunch of money. This is unrealistic.

Lastly, the book often struggles from a lack of focus, as the author quickly discusses the implementation of UBI-type programs in a variety of places, without much analysis or concrete conclusions from the anecdotes. There is little discussion of the stark differences in complexity of instituting a UBI in a place like Kenya as opposed to instituting a UBI in the USA. The author also spends too much time giving us social justice history lessons and lectures, which often seem irrelevant to the topic at hand. At times, the fiercely liberal slant of the author becomes obvious, such as when she states that “…[lower-income families pay] Uncle Sam a disproportionate burden of cigarette taxes and buying up most of the lottery tickets.” The irony of the neediest among us throwing their money away on lottery tickets is lost on the author, given her rosy portrait of how lower-income individuals would spend their UBI payments.

On a positive note, the book was very enjoyable to read, as it allowed me to further develop my own (unanswered) questions regarding the implementation of a UBI. In spite of the above criticisms, the author should get credit for writing such a thought-provoking book on such a relevant topic. I still find myself optimistic about the possibility of a UBI in the U.S., and Lowrey has further piqued my interest in the topic. I look forward to reading much more on UBI and hopefully finding answers to the serious questions posed above.

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