The Dreamer’s Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

There’s been a big push lately to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Seattle was the first to do it, and other places, like New York and Los Angeles, are pushing to up the minimum wage to the same level. But there’s a lot of push back, because doing so puts the onus on the business. They have to eat the costs and pass them on to their customers. And it still doesn’t mean that someone who wants a job can get it. The conventional wisdom says that there will be less jobs with these higher minimum wages. Of course, thanks to the value of those extra dollars to the people who have the least, there might be a boost to the local economy as they spend their new dollars.

But there’s another option. Guaranteed basic income (GBI) would pay everyone a minimum amount yearly. Yes, everyone. You can sit on your ass and get the money. No means tests, no hassles over whether you are on drugs, just a check. It would also eliminate all other social support programs, like welfare, food stamps, and social security. And, of course, it would eliminate the minimum wage. The simplicity of it appeals to both liberals and conservatives.

But the best reason to implement GBI is that it gives labor the power back. Your survival is no longer dependent on your employer. You have the money to provide for your basic needs, any work you do pays for your extra ambitions. Right now, we’ve got a ton of people working multiple, low-paying jobs just to provide for their family. McDonald’s hands out tips on how their employees can survive on minimum wage, including how they can get food stamps.

Now imagine if those people did not have to work those jobs in order to make ends meet. A lot of people would be happy just getting the basics and would drop out of the labor force. These jobs would have to pay some amount that makes that job worth it to an individual. Would pay rise? Maybe. Employers would definitely have to do more in order to attract workers. You wouldn’t see 11,000 people apply for 400 Walmart positions, though.

The other thing it would do is make up for a lot of the productivity gains from the past 40 or so years that workers haven’t seen. A lot of that has come from automation and computer technology. The employee is still doing the same job, albeit with a computer or with the help of robotics. Why pay them more? And computerization and automation is only going to increase. When we are replaced by robots, we’ll need to feed ourselves somehow.

The current government fix for poverty and financial stress is a combination of welfare programs and tax breaks. Welfare programs are often labyrithine and frustrating, especially if you work another job and have to schedule time in their offices around you work. Tax breaks help only those with enough income to afford a tax specialist. Neither of these have been very effective. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

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Why Do Those Bums Get Free Homes?

Last time, we talked about the problem of situational homelessness. Chronic homelessness is a different story, and the financial cost of the folks who live on the streets for years at a time is staggering. According the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, each person living on the streets costs taxpayers about $40,000 per year. Outliers, like the famed Million-Dollar Murray, can cost way more, depending on the hospitalizations, jailings, emergency shelter, and and emergency services that this person encounters, it could be lots more.

It turns out that ending chronic homelessness has a pretty surprising fix: give them free homes. It’s cost effective and manages to get help people who are pretty broken overall.

But that’s not what this post is about. This is about the knee jerk reaction people have when they hear about this plan.

If you look at the published articles about the program, they are all pretty glowing. Even conservatives like it. But ask people on the streets and you’ll get some heavy push back. When I first heard about it, I mentioned it to the person I was dating at the time, and they said it was disgusting. She couldn’t even believe that I could find this idea the least bit interesting. Not even worth talking about why she found it offensive.

The thing is, she had experienced a bout of situational homelessness herself and was at that time building a small business. So the idea that you would give away homes to drug addicts and losers for doing absolutely nothing is absolutely offensive to someone who built themselves up from nothing.

She’s not alone. Check the comments section at any article about this or this Imgur post and you’ll see the rage over someone putting something over on them. Here’s a quick sample:

  • “Did that include the long term effect of motivating people ‘above the cutoff line’ to quit and be homeless to get a free house?” -Imgur user twozerooz.
  • “Well the nonprofiteers (sic) and their friends and families are certainly getting rich. The developers too. The drunken drug addicted trash that get the fancy housing. Well they are still drunk and addicted. They do ruin neighborhoods though. The one thing they seem to do well.” – User David Brown at the American Conservative.
  • “That’s basically the central premise of homelessness. It’s a lifelong game of moral chicken that the craven vagabonds are willing to wage until their last dying breath. Utah lost the game of chicken to what is essentially a class of extortionists. Or are they blackmailers? One or the other. I say hook up stationary bikes to generators and make these moral racketeers contribute to the greening of America, 50 hours a week minimum, in order to keep a roof over their heads.” -User Jack Wheeler at the Washington Post.

For people who disagree with outright giving people homes, it’s not because the program doesn’t work; it’s because the homeless are con artists and “trash,” people looking just to get money for nothing. It’s tax money, so that’s our money! Don’t just give it to them! Wait until they are arrested or hospitalized for something, and then spend the money.

It’s true that a lot of chronically homeless people use and abuse drugs and alcohol. It might even be the number one reason people become homeless. But it’s also something people do to cope with living on the streets. America has little compassion for addicts and fewer options for treatment. In fact, some people go to jail in order to get clean.

But the kicker, the real crazy talk here is that this is some sort of shell game to the homeless. That this is a scam they are running in order to get free stuff. And that some people will decide they want to opt out of the working world and get that sweet homeless ride. This is insane. Living on the streets is incredibly dangerous. Exposure, assault, and theft are all ready threats, not to mention the long term changes to your self-image the constant insults and uncertainty cause.

It boils down to class anxiety. The American Dream says that everyone should have a shot at working hard and bettering themselves. People who get something for nothing – welfare, unemployment, housing first – are getting a leg up on the rest of us busting our humps like honest folks. And these honest folks see themselves working harder and harder just to make ends meet.

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Briefly Homeless When Crisis Hits

In 2014, 15% of the 600,000 people homeless at any given time were considered chronically homeless; that is, someone who has spent over a year homeless or has had four episodes of homelessness within the past three years and has a disability. That means the majority of people who spend time in shelters or living on the streets are there for a short time – the situationally homeless.

These people are living on the edge of survival and it only takes a little nudge – a job lost, medical bills, car breaking down – to put somebody into the danger zone. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that between 2.5 and 3.5 million people will be homeless within a single year. One percent of America. Celebrities like Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Lopez have opened up about their time without shelter in order to shed some light on the issue.

Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert experienced situational homelessness.

And the issue is that people living on the streets aren’t just junkies and drunks; it’s families. It’s kids from abusive homes. It’s blue collar folks who got a pink slip while their job went overseas. Like a lot of poverty issues, homelessness isn’t a matter of personal failing; it’s a matter of Americans running a tightrope act on a razor-thin wire. And there’s no net to catch them.

One of the big reasons that this happens is the cost of housing itself. This fun little map shows how much per hour a person would have to make in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates. There’s no state in the country that you can work 40 hours a week at minimum wage and not have it take more than a third (the amount that the study’s authors consider a reasonable percentage) of your income. Families are either working more or spending a greater percentage of their income (or cramming into a one bedroom). Or both. That’s a lot of time gone to live paycheck to paycheck.

The number of hours at minimum wage you need to work per state to make rent.

The number of hours at minimum wage you need to work per state to make rent.

With employment becoming more unstable as nearly everything becomes part of the gig economy, more people will soon get to live on this margin. We’ll be underbidding each other on who gets to assemble Ikea furniture so we make rent. Because if we don’t, we’re looking for space in a shelter. Minimum wage hikes are fought against tooth and nail because economists can’t seem to agree on whether they’ll help or hurt. But ask anyone trying to make rent on a minimum wage job. You can’t have just one.

Situational homelessness is a hard problem to tackle, maybe even harder to solve than chronic homelessness. With the chronically homeless, states like Utah have found success in simply giving them homes. But if you slip into brief homelessness whenever crisis hits, what’s the solution? You can’t give everyone homes; many families would be too proud to accept it. But making sure that someone who works gets paid enough to stay off the streets would be a start.

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The American Dream, Ford Style

Remember that obnoxious Cadillac ad that debuted during the Olympics? The one where an actor smugly proclaimed that we work ourselves to death in order to buy high end stuff, like, I don’t know, this here Cadillac? Well, Ford just volleyed that sucker back like a rocket.

In their ad, they mimicked the structure, pacing, and shot composition of the Cadillac ad. Instead of using an actor playing a privileged guy who chooses to work and keep up with the Joneses, Ford uses a real person, Pasho Murray, to play the lead. Murray founded Detroit Dirt, which creates compost using waste materials and sells it to people who want to create organic gardens in the Detroit area.

She opens in front of a heap of composting dirt and asks, “Why do I work so hard? For this? For dirt?” This time, it’s personal. And over the course of the ad, she lays out why she works hard. Whereas the Caddy ad told us we work so hard for money and stuff, Murray says that she works hard to help entrepreneurs create locally grown organic food. To make the world a better place.

ford_ad_1

To be fair, we are talking about two mega-corporations throwing jabs at each other. But it is interesting in how they do it using the framework of the American Dream. In the Cadillac ad, the American Dream is shallow, money-driven, and exclusionary. It’s the strong individual rising above the pack to reap personal rewards. In Ford’s ad, the American Dream is about building a better world. It’s a self-motivated individual working within a community to further an aim that benefits everyone. This American Dream is social, result-driven, and inclusionary.

Really, it’s no surprise to see this from Ford, though it is a surprise to see it from a modern day Ford. Henry Ford, founder of the company, used the assembly line and higher wages for his workers to create cars that his workers could buy. This was Fordism, way to lower the cost using mass production techniques while also paying workers a living wage. In doing so, they made the automobile something for regular joes, not just for the super-rich.

Their ideologies come directly from the markets that they target. While the Cadillac ad targets the super-rich, the Ford ad pitches a plug-in hybrid car that most middle class families can consider. The Cadillac 2014 ELR is about $75k and the Ford C-Max Energi is about $30k. This is the difference between the two brands – one pitches individual luxury and the other pitches working together to better the world. It’s capitalism with social responsibility. The rich that can buy the Cadillac only care about themselves, while the Ford market cares about everyone’s fortunes. That’s what these two ads are saying.

ford_ad_3

The American Dream is about work and sacrifice so that you can improve your place in the world. The genius of the Ford ad is that it broadens this idea to apply to the world around you. You work hard and try to make the work better, as Murray says in the ad. Your place in the world will be better if the world becomes better. As Murray concludes, “That’s the upside of giving a damn.”

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Slouching Towards Oligarchy

Over on the NYT opinion page, Paul Krugman has breakdown of how the US government increasingly favors wealth – specifically inherited wealth – more than earned income. The whole column is great, you should read it and despair. Contrary to the line about hard-working Americans, here’s how the current crop of super-rich came about:

“…six of the 10 wealthiest Americans are already heirs rather than self-made entrepreneurs, and the children of today’s economic elite start from a position of immense privilege. As Mr. Piketty notes, ‘the risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.'”

Most of the rest of the folks on there that earned their billions got it from hedge funds or software, both of which are big on using other people’s money to get rich. That is, the hedge fund manager invests and takes a cut, while the software entrepreneur takes venture capital funding to explode an idea across the world. Not that these jobs don’t take hard work, but let’s be fair, these guys aren’t making their money on wages.

Government tax policies have been encouraging this preservation of wealth since the tax cuts George W. Bush enacted early in his tenure:

“…the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated.”

The estate tax was created to make the tax code fairer, to redistribute the tax burden so that it didn’t just fall on working stiffs and commerce, but on passive wealth, too. It’s had a redistributive aspect, sure, and helps to prevent any sort of oligarchy taking root from generations of accumulated wealth. And it helps prevent increased inequality, which has a lot of damaging effects on society.

The dividends rule is important, too. You get dividends on stock that you hold personally. Your 401k gets dividends on the assets that it holds, but you get taxed on the 401k as whole, not for the individual pieces in it. And who holds those stock? The wealthiest 10%. They own more than 80% of all stock:

Wealth_distribution_by_type_other

Drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2012)

And the current crop of Republicans wants to make things worse. Republican darling and professional haircut Paul Ryan would eliminate all taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains, and estates. As Krugman states, “Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all.”

If we give a damn about work and the people that perform it – and we should, because chances are, that’s us – then this path Ryan and the Republicans want to set us on should terrify us all. As more money concentrates in the hands of a shrinking few, more political power concentrates there, too. In the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, the supreme court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited money in support of political campaigns. And rich individuals could set up a corporation through which they could funnel money to anyone. Because campaigns are so expensive, politicians will then favor those donors who give the most money. Money is power.

Is there a way to put the breaks on this? Sure, but it requires organized effort, it requires fighting people who can muster more resources, and it requires elected officials balancing their attentions. Will this reverse how things have been going? The current political winds have been shifting favorably, but public opinion is fickle and money is patient.

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The Future of the Forty Hour Week

Over at the NY Times Room for Debate feature, they’ve got a discussion about the 40-hour work week that’s worth giving a damn about. Five of the six writers there have something worthwhile to say, while the sixth is clearly insane. It touches on a lot of things we love.

Lynn Parramore of Alternet talks about the founding fathers dreaming of a time where leisure would define our hours more than work:

“Americans once talked about building a society where we could be free from constant work. John Adams wrote that he would know we had achieved a secure state if his grandchildren were free to study poetry and music. Thomas Jefferson agreed, including the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. America’s founders envisioned a land where we could enjoy the free time to pursue our intellectual, spiritual and communal interests. This essential liberty would make us more engaged and tolerant citizens.”

Despite steady productivity gains since WWII, the full-time work week hasn’t changed to reflect those gains. For salaried white-collar workers, it’s getting worse. Fernando Lozano, a Pomona College economist, talks about how educated workers in higher paying jobs are the most likely to work more than 50 hours a week. But if you are poor:

“In contrast, low-wage workers are less likely today than 30 years ago to work more than 50 hours a week, perhaps because they do not have the option to choose their work schedules. These are the same workers who have had the greatest decrease in wages during the same time period.”

Jefferson R. Cowie, a professor of labor history at Cornell University echoes this:

“‘Is it time to rethink the 40 hour week?’ Yes, it’s time to think about bringing it back.”

The well-off are overworked because they work salary or for themselves, while the poor work hourly rates. Hello, inequality gap.

Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation in London argues that a shorter work week would make us more competitive, not less:

“Some say it can’t be done because wages are too low. So let’s raise wages. No one should have to work long hours just to get by. Some say it’s uncompetitive. But there’s no match between average working hours and the strength of a country’s economy. The Netherlands and Germany have a shorter workweek than the United States and Britain. But the Dutch and German economies are stronger, not weaker. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce.”

Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO at HubSpot, values output more than time spent and argues that top talent does, too:

“Every employee has 24 hours in a day and chooses to spend some of those hours with you. Exceptional employees count their successes in code shipped, projects completed, people inspired and impact, not the minutes they’ve spent at their desks. Companies should hire and manage accordingly. Don’t watch the clock; watch your business. Your employees, customers and investors will thank you for it.”

So, really, it’s a lot of people looking at the 40 hour work week and saying maybe it doesn’t apply anymore, maybe we should revalue leisure time because it makes people more productive, happier, more engaged citizens. There’s a lot of ideas here that mesh with each other and sound pretty reasonable, right? Hold on, I did say there was one insane person. Amity Shlaes, board chair of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and Forbes columnist:

“Americans would willingly work longer hours, earn more and be more productive if their marginal tax rates were lowered.”

Yeah, that’s what’s keeping everybody from working more. The increased tax rate in the next tax bracket. Look, not everybody works an hourly wage. And those that do, dollars to donuts, do not get to choose how many hours they work. Your manager at Denny’s or Walmart or whatever sets your schedule so that you get less than the minimum needed for health coverage. If you need more money and more hours, you get a second job.

And tax rates! Who the hell considers tax rates when they are trying to make rent? The folks that have a burr up their backside about tax rates are already doing pretty well. No way are they going to work harder on their book or company or law-talking gig so that it pushes them up from $200k to $250k, right? That’s the reason nobody makes more than $250k a year, right?

The reason nobody really wants to cut the standard work week down is because of the prevailing protestant work ethic that considers work itself to be a virtue and leisure to be sin. It would also require companies to share their productivity gains with workers and raise hourly salaries.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work more, whether you are hourly or salaried. The problem is that the current culture demands that everyone work more. The 40-hour work week is a mere memory for a lot of people. For salaried folks, it would be a nice scaling back from the amount of time they currently put in. For hourly earners, 40 hours is the ideal amount to work and still earn a living, whether than means they want more hours at their part-time gig or less hours at their multiple jobs. Labor movements fought for this very right. It’d be nice if we got that right back.

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The American Dream, Cadillac Style

Cadillac put out an ad that debuted during the Sochi Olympics that’s not only selling their $75,000 car, it’s also selling the American Dream. Not the American Dream where you and I hope to pay off our bills, send kids to college, and retire without starving to death. The upper end American Dream, the one where you work harder and harder for luxury goods, for pool cleaning bills, for your hot, patronizing wife.

It opens with the actor, Neal McDonough, back to the camera, facing his pool, as if he is smack in the middle of an existential crisis. He looks at the camera, which has snuck up on his and surprised him. “Why do we work so hard? For all this stuff?” Right off the bat, two assumptions. That we naturally work hard — that isn’t even a question worth asking, apparently— and that by working hard, we are rewarded with adequate compensation.

By we, of course, he means college-educated people in lucrative careers. He does not mean people working 70 plus hours on minimum wage just to afford rent. The people he’s talking about work hard by choice. He’s talking about people who are already successful and work harder for some reason. That reason can’t be all this stuff, can it?

map_minimumwage1

The number of hours required to make rent by state.

Then he talks about how people in other countries dare to stop off at the cafe after work and take a whole month off for vacation. As if working were more important than enjoying a life. People value experiences more than stuff. Vacation is good for employee health, though you’ll be lucky to get two weeks. Nobody regrets working too little while on their deathbed.

And then there comes the sell on the American Dream. He tells us why we work so hard, not what we are working for, mind you, but why we love to work for its own sake. “Because we’re crazy driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.” And later, “You work hard, you create your own luck, you’ve got to believe anything is possible.” This isn’t pitching the car; this is pitching that the American Dream still rewards hard work, that it’s something worth believing in.

You have to work hard and believe, you guys. Things aren’t going great and you are working all the time? You have no faith, infidel. Clearly, any deviation here is a sign of weakness. This is an echo of free-market dogma: the poor are poor because of their own fault.

stop being poor

Todd Wilemon on the Daily Show handing out free advice.

And that “create your own luck” line? Coming from a guy playing the game of life on the lowest difficulty setting, straight white male, is a bit of a bridge too far. We don’t play in a level playing field, so extolling someone to create their own luck when they are down is an extra kick.

The Cadillac advertising director, Craig Bierley, responded to a lot of the criticisms, but his response here was even more wrong-headed. “You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in possibilities. It’s really about optimism.” Optimism, when wielded without a reason to be optimistic, can be harmful to your mental state.

The ad closes with McDonough getting into his sweet ride and saying with a wink, “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.” Guess what, everybody! It is for the stuff. We work hard, don’t take off August, and the benefit of that lifestyle is stuff.

So, let’s review: We work crazy-driven hard (which we will regret on our deathbeds) and take less time for vacations (which, if we get them, are good for our health) because we believe in success (at least in straight while male success) so that we can buy luxury goods like this car (which won’t make you happy).

Europe sounds pretty great right now.

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What is the American Dream?

The American Dream has always been how America pitched capitalism to the masses, that you could work hard and get ahead based on how much you were willing to work. It grows out of one of the big three rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness. With enough work and perseverance, sacrifice and ingenuity, an American can achieve their dreams.

For most people, the American Dream is the same thing as a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. You hope for financial security for you and your family, jobs that value your contribution both personally and financially, and a space that you can call your own. Basically, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs type stuff.  If life is hard, the American Dream says that there is a way to make it less hard.

The United States has worked to make the pathway to the American Dream easier for those who want it. Over the last half of the 19th century, individual states began requiring children go to one of the many schools that independently sprung up since the country’s founding. To help people struggling or otherwise disadvantaged, the US created social safety nets, from workers comp in 1908, social security in 1935, Medicare in 1966, and the ACA more recently. Women and minorities have increasingly been given voting and other public rights, so that they too have access to the American Dream.

In the period between World War II and the gas crisis in the 1970s, this was something you could actually pull off without a college degree, thanks to a strong manufacturing base built up during the war years and strong unions. You could graduate high school, get a factory job, move up through the ranks, and buy a little suburban house somewhere.

The American Reality

Now, it’s a hustle. As George Carlin said, “They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” It’s the why Americans, in general, identify with the rich and not the poor. The American Dream claims the rich got where they are through hard work and good planning. Hell, maybe even a bit of luck.

If you’re poor, it’s because you are too lazy. If you weren’t lazy, of course you’d get yourself out of your situation. Because that’s how America works, you work hard, you prosper. Someday, all of us temporarily embarrassed millionaires will get back to our rightful place through sweat equity.

But here’s the heart of the scam: providing labor doesn’t often get you rich. Capital investment gets you rich. Entrepreneurship gets you rich. Working two minimum wage jobs so you can afford community college in the hope to get something that pays better than ten bucks an hour? That gets someone else rich. Same as the unpaid internship you took after going into debt to get your degree. The difference is that one of these requires some privilege to get, but neither has the benefits.


Politicians love to name check the middle class, almost as much as they love shout outs to small businesses. But that’s lip service. The folks who get real political love are big business and investors. The US spends more on corporate welfare than they do on social welfare. They favor capital. Capital’s important, sure, without it, there’d be no one to pay labor costs. But labor is treated as just a cost that must be minimized in an investment instead of what it really is, the basis of any value generated. Nobody gets rich from working hard for someone else. You get rich from owning the fruits of your own labor.

Then the question is why don’t the people who do the work own the fruits of that work? Well, that would be communism. Or a corporation where everyone gets paid in stock. Either way, stop trying to take my BMW.

My Bootstraps are Broken

Since the 1970s, moving up in status has gotten harder. The old pathways no longer have the benefits that they used to. You could argue that increased access to social services and student loans and easy credit has devalued them. You’d be wrong. It’s that the things that once helped people are fail them or, in some cases, make things worse.

Being poor is expensive and makes it hard to get ahead. Because public primary schools are funded by local taxes, schools in poor areas receive less funding. Social services have been cut thanks to fraud scares – some of which was based on real horror stories. Manufacturing peaked in the late 70s at about 19 million jobs, but about 5 million of those jobs have gone overseas in search of countries with softer labor laws. Unions have been gutted, thanks to organized crime and corporate friendly officials.

If you come from the middle class, the American Dream isn’t much closer. College tuition is skyrocketing, outpacing inflation and GDP growth, while college loans become a burden graduates bear most of their lives. Professional jobs increasingly rely on an unpaid army of interns, desperate unemployed degree-holders trying to beef up their resumes. The prices of homes grow and collapse as homes become risky assets, inflated by frenzied investment to the edge of what people can afford, only to collapse and leave the amount owed more than the value of the home.

If you are at a job, you are already on the losing end of things. If you work hard at this job, if you improve this business and help them succeed, you create value for your employer. The extra money the business gets goes to the owner of the company, generally, unless they are so sweet and generous that they kickback bonuses based on performances.

Fixing the Dream

All this is a shame. Because the idea of the American Dream has as its heart a meritocratic, democratic ideal that’s actually pretty admirable. The idea has worked, but in perception and not reality. A 2005 New York Times poll found that 92% of the respondents considered themselves middle class. Everyone, or almost everyone, believes in saving for the future and working hard for that future.


Anybody who works hard and works for a theoretical future should reap the value that they create. You bust ass, you get paid. But that’s not how things work today. Investment, in either corporations or politicians, gets you paid. Who you know trumps what you can do. The American Dream drove young men to seek their own fortunes outside of their family trades. But you can’t make your own fortune without a strong base of support, whether by building up a network, or better yet, being born into it.

Right now, we don’t have answers. All we have are questions.

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