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Universal Basic Income

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Over the last couple of years, the left has tried to deal with the denigration of the poor and the long-term jobs problem by pushing for a universal basic income. Several days ago, the Washington Post had a couple of editorials about it. Matt Zwolinski argues that it’s a good idea because of how the current welfare system both stigmatizing recipients and is inefficient. Matt Bruenig thinks that’s a bad argument because the current system doesn’t have to stigmatize the poor and that there are easier ways to fix that problem. There are some conservative arguments in that WaPo thing against the UBI, but they are so terrible that they aren’t worth discussing.

My own feelings on UBI is skepticism because it runs counter to the American psyche going back to the American Revolution of the white male freeholding republic where one rises or falls based upon their own personal value, however construed at the time. I would go so far as to argue that this ideology is a big part of the reason why the Founding Fathers’ attempt to create a patrician republic based upon the deference of the poor collapsed so quickly. And it certainly hasn’t faded. Combined with racial ideology that makes a large number of the recipients of welfare people of color, and there’s the root of your stigma.

But I don’t see UBI solving that problem to begin with. Don’t get me wrong–I think UBI is a good idea, better than the minimum wage. But I think it runs so counter to American mythology that it’s unlikely to ever gain policy steam outside of leftist intellectual and labor circles. I think federal jobs programs combined with aggressive minimum wage hikes have a more reasonable chance of succeeding because they revolve around work. Americans are probably never going to support widespread economic programs that are not based around labor. So to me, jobs programs are a less efficient and probably less effective path than UBI, but a more realistic one.

That said, I think this is a very positive conversation and if a major newspaper is even mentioning it, not to mention holding a roundtable, then progress is happening.

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